Lurid is not allowed to utter “one syllable,”

Lurid Hieroglyphics: Finding Significance in Bertha’s Relationship with the
Language of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
By: Andrea Gonsalves
January 20th, 2018


Determining the
significance of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, particularly her relation to the novel’s infamous
heroine, has been a task that has cultivated the interest of literary critics
for years. Consistently throughout the novel, Jane
and Bertha are maligned through language that dehumanizes them, which ultimately
suggests they are intrinsically connected. Rather than being cast in binary
opposition to Jane, Bertha should be read as representation of the danger Jane
faces in losing her voice within the strong patriarchal structures of Victorian
society. By establishing clear parallels between Bertha and Jane through plot
development, characterization, diction and rhetoric, Brontë suggests that
Bertha represents the ultimate consequences women face in entering into
patriarchal institutions, such as marriage. Specifically, through paralleling
the language that characters use to oppress the two women, and the way the
women react to that language, Brontë suggests that the
self-conception and autonomy of the connected women are threatened by the
patriarchal structures which use language to oppresses them. As such, by
recognizing the parallel experiences of Jane and Bertha, Bertha’s actions can
be read as extension of Janes own anger with dominant power structures, and as
a model for resisting patriarchal pressures to conform.

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Brontë’s Jane Eyre addresses questions over the
impact language has on maintaining patriarchal structures and the necessity of
controlling language to resist those structures. Jane’s ability to control her
language, and make herself heard is central to her sense of self. After Jane’s
“audacious declarations” to Mrs. Reed, she is not allowed to utter “one
syllable,” demonstrating that Jane is most threatened when she is faced with
occupying a place of silence (Brontë 29). For Jane, silence imposed
by patriarchal structures threatens her integrity of self. Comparatively,
Bertha is never given a space to be heard in the novel, which signals her
oppression. As such, Bertha models the threat that the complete loss of voice
(signaled by the resignation to patriarchal norms) poses in a Victorian
patriarchal society.

The character of Bertha personifies the risk Jane
would take in forfeiting her voice to the dominant patriarchal institutions of
Victorian society, such as marriage. 
Throughout Jane Eyre, Bertha
is continuously concealed and denied by the patriarchal society in which she
operates in. Rochester, along with other
powerful figures in the novel, consistently try to erase Bertha’s existence
from the official narrative through their use of diction. For example, in
reaction to Bertha’s violent attack of her brother, Rochester exclaims “be silent, Richard, and never mind her
gibberish: don’t repeat it.”, effectively removing Bertha from the privilege of
language and communication Moreover, he encourages Mason to “think of her as
dead and buried—or rather, you need not think of her at all” (Brontë 274). Rochester’s rhetoric denies Bertha her own
existence. Moreover, Rochester carefully employs specific diction that
relegates Bertha to sub-human status When Rochester attempts to justify his attempt to
find companionship with “something at least human”, Rochester uses his
patriarchal authority to sever Bertha from humankind (Brontë 378). Bertha’s image is constructed for her
through a dichotomy between animalistic and sub-human terms: She is “wolfish”,
a “wild beast” in conjunction with being a “fiend”, a “fearful hag”, a
“monster”, a “goblin”, and a “hideous demon” (Brontë 390, 391 398, 400, 406). By divesting Bertha from
humanity through marginalizing labels, Rochester, and the other inhabitants of
Thornfield, attempt to free themselves of responsibility to her in order to
justify their oppression of her.

Bertha’s experience of being silenced, censored,
and denied through language mirrors the threat of patriarchal power which Jane
experiences. The inhabitants of Gateshead use language to both distance
themselves from Jane, and to distance Jane from humanity, in order to justify
their abuse and neglect of the child. While at Gateshead, Jane is defined by
her social superiors in animistic and non-human terms. She is referred to as a
“rat”, “bad animal”, a “fury”, a “mad cat”, and an “underhand little thing” (Brontë 4,5, 6,). Rather than recognizing Jane’s words and actions as
belonging to a victim confronting her abuser, the inhabitants of Gateshead,
family and servants alike, use language to imply that her actions were
malicious and sub-human. Additionally, Jane begins to internalize the language
that the Reeds use to subordinate and marginalize her. During her sublime
experience in the red-room, Jane misrecognizes herself in the mirror as “one of the tiny
phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented,” (Brontë 11). She identifies herself through the language that the
inhabitants of Gateshead have used to define her. Thus the threat that language imposes on female autonomy is
established early in the novel.

 Similar to
Reed’s treatment of Jane, and his own treatment of Bertha, Rochester uses
language, while not maliciously, to define Jane out of humanity. For example,
when Rochester repeatedly refers to Jane as an “elf”, “imp”, and “fairy”, he
relegates Jane to sub-human status (Brontë 334, 297, 317). Moreover, when Rochester re-names Jane
the “‘young Mrs. Rochester—Fairfax Rochester’s girl-bride,'” he deprives Jane
of her identity, sense of self, her adulthood and autonomy (Brontë 335). Jane resists against
Rochester attempts to conform her to patriarchal norms when she specifically
calls out Rochester’s patriarchal authority by exclaiming “and I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer” (Brontë 336). In both his treatment of Bertha and of
Jane, Rochester is a clear threat to female autonomy. Therefore, due to
language that is used to subordinate and erase her, Bertha serves to illuminate
the threat, and the ultimate consequence, that the patriarchy, exemplified
through marriage to Rochester, imposes on Jane.

However, while Bertha’s experience exemplifies
the threat that the patriarchy imposes on Jane, Bertha’s actions also serve as
a model for alternative speech against the patriarchal institutions which
suppress her. While Bertha never speaks a line of dialogue in the novel, her
lack of speech positions her to subvert patriarchal norms through alternative
language; she delivers her beliefs, experiences and opinions through actions
and images. Specifically, Bertha uses acts of extreme violence, usually
achieved through destroying textile object, to communicate her presence and her
dissatisfaction with the patriarchal structures which deny her. For example, by
donning then tearing the wedding veil, Bertha both reveals her presence as Mrs.
Rochester, and warns Jane against marrying Rochester, wordlessly expressing the
danger that marriage poses on her autonomy. Parallel to when Jane perceives herself
in the Reed’s dehumanizing language while looking in the red-room mirror, when
Bertha burns down Thornfield, she appears to be filling out Rochester’s
narrative determination. However, she is at the same time conducing a violently
subversive act against the patriarchal power of Rochester and revealing
herself. Bertha uses to destruction of women’s work –traditional thought of as
appropriate places for female expression and communication—to rebel against the
oppressive roles she has been relegated to by the patriarchy. As such, when
Bertha stands on the battlements of Thornfield, declaring her true personhood
and position, she symbolizes the necessity that Jane must find and preserve her
own language in order to maintain her autonomy. 

In Jane Eyre, Bertha is used to symbolize
the danger that dominant patriarchal structures, such as marriage, pose to
Jane’s autonomy and sense of self. Throughout the novel, Jane and Bertha are
deprived and denied by patriarchal language; their existence is threatened by
those attached patriarchal structures: Jane’s image in the red-room mirror
reveals the influence of the Reed’s dehumanizing language, and Rochester’s
lurid descriptions of Bertha denies her the chance of being. Both Bertha’s
subjugation and her resistance to patriarchal language mirrors Jane’s own
marginalization and the necessity of finding language outside dominant
patriarchal norms in order for her to maintain her autonomy. As such, Bertha
personifies the threat language poses against Jane’s attempts to try to
preserve her agency in an oppressive society. Through paralleling Bertha’s
marginalization with Jane’s, Brontë reinforces greater themes of autonomy
and independence that prevail throughout the novel, and illuminates ways in
which social institutions such as marriage operate as systems of power within
the contemporary world that she lived in.