February 17, 1999
The Personification of Oppression Through a Doppelgänger Double
At first glance and under insufficient scrutiny, the persona of Jane Eyre reflects a slightly expanded Cinderella character. But Jane Eyre’s personality and life delve much deeper than a superfluous “rags to riches” story. Her identity is as complex as literature can convey and her characteristics are manifested through several subtle parallels. These parallels relate to objects and nature, but mostly to one particular individual in the novel. A seemingly exact opposite of the persona’s placid character, the maniacal Bertha Mason actually personifies an inner part of Jane, the part of her personality that longs to live free but goes crazy under the oppression of society, and especially that of Mr. Rochester. Jane’s doppelgänger, or counterpart, truly doubles Miss Eyre’s suffocated life.
Throughout her young life, Jane Eyre lives under some form of tyranny. Whether she passes her days as an abused and unwanted ward, a maltreated pupil, or a subdued schoolteacher or governess, she never feels truly free. Although she outwardly accepts her lot in life, she often wonders to herself why she must endure her pain and why the people in her life always oppress her. When locked in the red room, she asks herself why she is “always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, forever condemned” (Brontë 46), and consequently answers herself that her treatment is unjust. This sudden realization “instigated some strange expedient to achieve escape from insupportable oppression” (47). Unfortunately, Jane can not escape oppression, but only alter its form by moving from place to place, always suffocated by the society surrounding her.
Bertha Mason’s life epitomizes oppression. Locked away in a hidden room of Thornfield’s third story, her only freedom comes when her keeper falls into a drunken sleep and she can sneak around the house and create havoc. Bertha is locked as tightly in her secluded room as Jane is locked into her subordinate life, and even in the literal prison of the red room.
Society perceives these two characters, and in fact the characters perceive themselves, in a similar way. Both are unwanted and unnoticed, and certainly neither fits into her environment. Jane notices: “I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children, or her chosen vassalage” (47). She feels the same way in the company of the guests of Thornfield Hall, who Jane views as too far above her both in elegance and in caste to notice a plain orphan girl: “everyone downstairs was too much engaged to think of us” (197). Likewise, Bertha has nothing in common with the people around her, and all who know of her regard her as a “madwoman” (328), a “mysterious lunatic kept under watch and ward” (320). Mr. Rochester wants nothing to do with Bertha, who he claims he “was cheated into espousing” (320). Clearly, both of these female characters feel very unwanted at some point in their lives, if not throughout.
Brontë uses very similar images and language to portray Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason. She frequently refers to both as animals, especially dogs. While Jane’s subdued character likens herself to a “masterless and stray dog” (363), others refer to her as a “bad animal” (41) or “mad cat” (44). Bertha, the personification of Jane’s extreme side, receives the descriptions of wild and vicious animals: “a dog quarreling” (238) or a “clothed hyena” (320). Upon seeing Bertha, Jane relates: “What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it groveled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal” (321). Of course, it is her own dark side that Jane recoils from while giving this description. The language usage for Bertha and Jane also includes many evil, superstitious nouns. Jane frequently equates Bertha’s laugh to a goblin’s, and Rochester at one point calls Jane a witch and a sorceress (180). Jane herself even acknowledges the shame in her perceived image: “All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so” (48). The similar word choice for these characters comes across too clearly to ignore.
Bertha’s proximity and position relative to Jane suggest that the characters are one and the same. Every time Jane encounters Bertha or hears her maniacal laughter, she is alone and deep in thought. The noises often come from the third floor, symbolic of Jane’s own thoughts and mad desire for freedom, and always from a nearby place. “I thought at first the goblin-laughter stood at my bedside: or rather crouched by my pillow” (179). Jane fears this nearness. She fears the “murderess hardly separated from [her] by a single door” (239). That thin, single door creates a physical barrier between the two persons, but also forms the only thing keeping Jane from her extreme and oppressed side. The close proximity also accounts for the fact that often only Jane can hear Bertha. “The sounds … had probably been heard only by me; for they had proceeded from the room above mine” (236). Bertha’s constant closeness to Jane shows that the two are really one, and Bertha’s position directly above Jane indicates that Bertha dwells “upstairs” in Jane’s mind and thoughts.
Brontë carries out the doppelgänger effect through one of the most popular methods: a mirror. Mirrors play a significant part throughout the entire work and always reveal to Jane a visage of herself that she does not recognize. This first happens in the red room when Jane catches a glance of herself in the mirror, and unknowingly catches a glimpse of her hidden side:
Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me with a white face and arms specking the gloom. . . had the effect of a real spirit. (46)
The next encounter with a mirror proves the most significant. In this instance, Jane looks into the mirror to see Bertha glaring back, donning a white robe and veil. Although literally seeing Bertha’s reflection in the mirror, Jane is really looking at her own doppelgënger double. This event bears even more importance after the next incident with a mirror on Jane’s planned wedding day. She wears her bridal attire and prepares to retreat downstairs when: “‘Stop!’ [Sophie] cried in French. ‘Look at yourself in the mirror: you have not taken one peep.’ So I turned at the door: I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger” (315). This “robed and veiled … stranger” is unmistakably the image of Bertha, greatly similar to the one already seen in the dead of two nights prior.
Bertha’s many strange actions reflect Jane’s succession through her stages of feeling oppressed, and eventually to her gain of freedom. Jane’s marriage to Rochester, at least in the original state of matters, would secure her forever to a life of bondage. Although the two characters love each other, there would always exist a great discrepancy between their stations in life. Rochester would always play the master, leaving Jane to play the slave. Consequently, as Jane grows nearer this slavery, the more extreme and violent her counterpart’s actions become. The encounters with Bertha progress from strange laughter to a small fire to an animalistic attack, and finally to the climax in Jane’s bedroom when the doubles finally meet face-to-face.
The face-to-face encounter between Jane and Bertha occurs two nights before Jane’s bridal day, when tensions peak and she stands on the verge of her ultimate imprisonment in an unequal marriage. The veil which Rochester splurged on, an elegant piece for a plain woman, represents his hold on Jane that the wedding vows will make permanent. Bertha, in her bride-like attire, rips this very symbol into two, symbolizing Jane’s refusal to live imprisoned for the remainder of her life. This climax in Jane’s personified oppression finally leads to a self-realization of her darker side as Jane glances into the candle-lit face of Bertha, and vice versa. “Just at my bedside the figure stopped: the fiery eyes glared upon me: she thrust up her candle close to my face, and extinguished it under my eyes. I was aware her lurid visage flamed over mine, and I lost consciousness” (311). Finally, Jane perceives the invisible bars that Rochester uses to constrain her and sees the part of herself that she needs to set free. Once she achieves this freedom, by fleeing Thornfield and returning at an equal plane with her beloved Rochester, the oppressed maniac inside of her dies, “dead as the stones on which her brains and blood were scattered” (453).
Charlotte Brontë successfully expresses Jane’s uneasiness of mind and her hidden craziness due to oppression through Bertha, the lunatic upstairs. The doubles share a somewhat similar lot in life and represent each other’s progression towards freedom. Brontë gives insight into this doppelgänger effect by her use of language, mirrors, and physical closeness. Clearly, Bertha is a vehicle with which Jane’s inner conflicts are brought to life, but a larger question remains: whether Jane is that same sort of vehicle for Charlotte Brontë herself.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.