Social & Physical Imprisonment in "Jane Eyre" & "Wide Sargasso Sea" by Lauren Fenner

Social & Physical Imprisonment in Jane Eyre & Wide Sargasso Sea

by Lauren Fenner, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania

Abstract: Through her novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë uses the characters Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason to shine a light on the hardships of Victorian women and challenge gender inequality. The companion novel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys does the same by giving a backstory to Bertha (Antoinette) Mason, a character Brontë gave very little page space. In addition, Rhys examines how women’s status was affected by race. Together these two novels present a better understanding of Bertha Mason. At first glance Jane Eyre and Bertha (Antoinette) Mason are completely different conveying separate pathways for Victorian women. However, upon further examination they are two sides of the same coin trying to survive in a patriarchal society. These two women must confront similar forms of confinement such as social, economic, and physical. Bertha’s story in both novels demonstrates that hurried marriages meant to secure women’s futures often lead to unhappy or even dangerous situations for women. Social and economic factors restricted the status of Victorian women whereas physical confinement was used to control women who did not conform to the behavioral rules. The century separating Brontë and Rhys produces the very different tellings of the mad woman in the attic, Bertha Mason.


The demonic savage laughter that haunts Thornfield Hall belongs to Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic who, for most of Jane Eyre, remains faceless and nameless. Who this woman is and how she became this way are questions that have plagued interested Charlotte Brontë readers since Jane Eyre’s publication in 1847. Through Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys, a twentieth century Dominican-born writer, provides the long-awaited answers to these critical questions. In her re-telling, Rhys introduces us to the real Bertha whose given name is Antoinette Mason. We also meet her new English husband--never named but obviously meant to be Rochester. In Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, we see the consequences of marriage for Antoinette who is entrapped by society’s strict social norms and her greedy husband’s flawed expectations. Bertha Mason, though, is not the only woman confined by social norms and marriage. Jane Eyre is also entrapped by her social status and gender. Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason at first seem like polar opposites; however, after further analysis of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, it becomes evident that these two women are doing what they can to survive in a patriarchal society where they face entrapment from both their marriages and larger society.

According to Anna Klambaur, a literary editor and scholar, the nineteenth century was, in many ways, the century of the madwoman. Elaine Showalter states that “by the middle of the nineteenth century, records showed that women had become the majority of patients in public lunatic asylums” (qtd. In Klambaur 9). Historically, physicians have linked madness to the female anatomy in the form of hysteria (Klambauer 9). This link led to the connection between madness, female sexuality, and emotional excess viewed as undesirable by the strict Victorian sexual norms (Klambauer 10). This connection can be seen in both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea when examining the stories of Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason. This connection between madness and emotional excess can be seen when, as a child, Jane is locked in the red room for being too passionate. During this century of the madwoman, many sane women were wrongfully confined and labelled mad because their husbands were unhappy with their wives or wanted their wives’ money (Klambauer 10). This concept is also seen in Bertha’s unfortunate story. We can see that men declared their wives mad as a means to control completely sane, but inconvenient, women (Klambauer 11).

Jane in Jane Eyre

From a young age, Jane Eyre saw the confinements placed upon women due to their gender and socioeconomic class. She was a very observant child and these inequalities-- personified in the differing treatment of young Jane from her cousin John Reed--can be seen in the scene where John flaunts his socioeconomic superiority, taunts Jane, and then violently assaults her. In the end, Jane is punished for defending herself rather than John who started this brutal assault (Brontë 13-14). This shows the double standard for men and women in Victorian times. It is unacceptable for a young girl to show action and resistance, but it is acceptable for a young boy to show brutality and violence. Jane is described as “a picture of passion” suggesting that passion is improper for a young woman and women in general. Jane, restricted by these social norms, should not fight back against the master of the house who in this patriarchal society has all the power. Not only is Jane trapped by her low status as a female and financial dependence, but she is also physically confined by being locked in the red room under the direction of Mrs. Reed (Brontë 14). Jane, like “a mad cat,” violently resists being locked away in the red room until Bessie threatens to tie her down (Brontë 15). During Jane’s punishment of isolation in the red room, we see what solitary confinement can do to a young child. She describes her mental and physical state as, “My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings: something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down; I uttered a wild, involuntary cry; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort” (Brontë 21). Jane is seriously mentally and physically affected by being confined for just one night. We could imagine what a prolonged stay in solitary confinement would do to a woman. However, thanks to Brontë we do not have to imagine; we can also read Bertha’s experience. Being locked in the red room will not be the last punishment Mrs. Reed inflicts on Jane for not adhering to proper Victorian social norms.

Mrs. Reed, Jane’s aunt, wanting no longer to be burdened with Jane as her dependent ships Jane off to Lowood--a charity school. She is well aware of the conditions of a school like Lowood and how Jane will be deprived of comforts such as adequate clothing and food. Sending Jane to this charity school can be seen as another punishment for Jane. At this school it is hoped that the rebellious, unladylike, and unchristian character will be starved and frozen out of Jane. Because Jane’s personality and situation do not fit the social norms of how an obedient and respectful young girl should act, Jane is punished and taught a lesson on where her perpetrator’s believe her proper place in society is. Similar to the institutionalization of unwanted women in mental asylums, shipping young girls off to boarding schools like asylums was just another way to “get rid” of inconvenient girls.

Throughout the novel, Jane is aware of the gender inequalities entrapping her and other women. Ever since childhood Jane was not content with the conditions of women. Jane defies the Victorian social norms for women with her thoughts and words. Jane not only has such an awareness of her own situation but also Mrs. Fairfax and Adèle of differing classes and ages. While examining the conditions of women at Thornfield Hall, Jane thinks, “it is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex” (Brontë 130). Jane sees how Victorian society is a disservice to its women by confining them to tasks that are below their abilities. In believing that women are equal to men, Jane sees the potential of women and how societal norms trap them in this inferior position. When Jane says, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will” (Brontë 293), she is revolutionary in saying that she does not need a man telling her what to do. Jane is a woman with her own mind, and she knows it. Jane is very modern in her thinking and goes against the Victorian belief that women from all classes must be subservient to their father or husbands (Ayyildiz 147).

Jane further defies societal norms by not “giving into marriage” and quietly submitting to her role as the perfect Victorian angel of the house. Jane expresses this herself when in response to Rochester calling her an angel she says, “I am not an angel and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself” (Brontë 300). Jane does not need to be Rochester’s angel. She is capable of being her own person. Jane is unable of simply becoming the subservient wife who can “bear being dressed like a doll by Mr. Rochester” (Brontë 309). The normal Victorian marriage is not what Jane wants. She wants to be with Rochester but on her own terms. She wants her independence not slavery.

Again, during Jane’s stay at Moor House, she goes against Victorian social norms by refusing marriage altogether. When discussing Jane’s future Jane tells St. John “Nonsense, again! Marry! I don’t want to marry and never shall marry . . . I will not be regarded in the light of mere money speculation” (Brontë 447). Jane not only goes against the grain by proudly rejecting the possibility of ever marrying but also shows a great awareness and understanding regarding Victorian marriage practices. She is an intelligent woman and knows that because she is now an heiress, gold digging men will want to trap her in a loveless marriage. Jane knows that a loveless marriage with St. John would eat her from the inside out (Brontë 470). A marriage to St. John would be a life sentence of internal confined never being able to be her true self. Jane’s description of what a marriage to St. John would do to her is probably what marriage did to many Victorian women who were forced into ill-suited matches.

Bertha in Jane Eyre

Brontë gave very little page space to Bertha Mason but in the few pages she appears it is clear Bertha is confined on all sides by societal norms, marriage, and supposed madness. According to Rochester, Bertha is “intemperate and unchaste” (Brontë 353). Thus, in the eyes of Victorian society and Rochester Bertha fails to meet the expectations of a prim and proper English woman. Rochester describes Bertha not just as creole but also as a “party girl” who enjoyed dancing, flirting and attracting the attentions of all men (Brontë 352). Bertha does not look, act, or talk like a proper Victorian lady. Rochester said that “no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she” (Brontë 355). Like Jane she is not submissive and does not fit the perfect model of an English angel of the house. Interestingly, Jane’s language was also discussed in Brontë’s novel when Jane rejects St. John’s proposal. Both Bertha and Jane used improper language for Victorian women while talking back to men attempting to cage them in.

It is clear that the only reason Rochester married Bertha was for her money. Like most Victorian marriages, this was just a financial transaction. Rochester’s father decided that Rochester “must be provided for by a wealthy marriage” (Brontë 352). From Rochester’s account it is obvious that he blames his father for “selling his soul” for thirty thousand pounds. Unfortunately, Rochester did not get the woman he expected to get for the money. Mr. Mason, Bertha’s stepfather, basically advertised her for this marriage. Rochester was told of Bertha’s beauty, but he did not get a perfect English flower. Instead, he got a lively woman who enjoyed dancing which, in Rochester’s eyes, was unacceptable. Rochester portrays himself as a victim tied to a violent, mad, animalistic woman but as we look closer into Bertha’s story, we see who the true victim is.

Looking through Rochester’s eyes Bertha is just an unchaste madwoman who needed to be locked in the attic for everyone’s safety, including her own. Rochester seems to portray himself as a man of honor who has locked Bertha in the attic for her own good and even says that he could put Bertha in a terrible asylum but did not because he could not stomach the treatment she would be subjected to in a horrid institution. However, Rochester’s actions towards his captive Bertha do not carry the same sentiment. During the scene after Jane and Rochester’s wedding has been foiled and Rochester takes everyone back to Thornfield to show them Bertha, Bertha charges at Rochester violently attacking him. Rochester wrestled her, violently pinned her arms behind her back and bound her to a chair with rope very reminiscent of when Bessie and Abbot forced Jane into the red room (Brontë 338).

Jane spent just one night in the red room in solitary confinement and suffered serious mental and physical reactions whereas Bertha spent ten years in a “goblin’s cell” (Brontë 356). It is not so shocking that Bertha would attack the man who has kept her imprisoned for ten years. It is logical that she would attack the man responsible for taking her from her home Jamaica and locking her away in a foreign country. The madwoman in the attic is the only version of Bertha we get in Jane Eyre. To get a more in depth look at the real Bertha Mason we must look at Wide Sargasso Sea to understand who Bertha was before Rochester--Antoinette Mason née Cosway.

Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea

Antoinette is creole and culturally different from Rochester thus occupying a liminal space in ways that he cannot accept. Rochester describes Antoinette as “creole of pure English descent she may be, but [she is] not English or European either” (Rhys 61). Like Antoinette’s blood, her words and actions are not up to the perfect English standards. In the beginning Rochester is physically attracted to Antoinette but, as time goes on, he begins to see Antoinette in a different light especially after Daniel, who claims to be Antoinette’s half-brother, poisons Rochester against her with slandering words. Antoinette is not the perfect pure English flower Rochester wants. At first Rochester is taken with Antoinette and enjoys the attention and sexual intercourse she gives him. However, her sexual appetite begins to be too much for Rochester, who comes from a background where a woman owning her sexuality is socially unacceptable. Rochester even begins to despise her saying, “above all I hated her, for she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it” (Rhys 156). Rochester hates Antoinette because she provokes this sexual longing, which is unacceptable for an Englishman who is supposed to be in control of his emotions and wife.

As in Jane Eyre, marriage in Wide Sargasso Sea is also portrayed as a financial transaction, which is risky for women. We get a man’s perspective on marriage from Mr. Mason, Antoinette’s stepfather when Mason explains to Antoinette, “I want you to be happy, Antoinette, secure, I’ve tried to arrange, but we’ll have time to talk about that later” (Rhys 54). In Mason’s eyes, marriage is Antoinette’s pathway to security in life but in reality, Victorian marriage could lead women into unhappy or even dangerous situations. Often, men married women just for their money, which could put women into seriously dangerous situations. The women in this novel are also aware of marriage as a financial transaction, which typically only favored the husbands.

Christophine, Antoinette’s servant and close confidant, has a unique perspective on marriage, which she feels able to express because she is an outsider not confined by English rules and restrictions. When Antoinette’s marriage is going downhill, she asks Christophine, whom she knows and trusts, for advice on what to do. Christophine knows that English marriage is a financial transaction where the man gains and the woman loses, but she does not understand why a woman would submit herself to that system. She says, “All women, all colours, nothing but fools . . . no husband, I thank my God. I keep my money. I don’t give it to no worthless man” (Rhys 99). In a way Christophine is privileged by her outsider status. She is not confined by the restrictive Victorian social norms for women. Because of her position, Christophine thinks it’s ridiculous that English law dictates that everything Antoinette owned now belongs to her husband (Rhys 100). Marriage supposedly brought women security, but it took away Antoinette’s status and independence for as soon as she was married, she no longer possessed any of her own money.

Christophine is not the only woman to realize the disservice marriage does to Antoinette; her aunt Cora also realizes the damage that can be done. Aunt Cora confronts Mr. Mason, Antoinette’s stepbrother, over his arranging of Antoinette’s marriage. Aunt Cora points out that this marriage arrangement is not set up in Antoinette’s favor. She says, “it’s shameful. You are handing over everything the child owns to a perfect stranger . . . She should be protected, legally. A settlement can be arranged and it should be arranged” (Rhys 104). In response Mason says, “Why should I insist on a lawyer’s settlement when I trust him? I would trust him with my life” and Aunt Cora rightfully answers, “You are trusting him with her life, not yours” (Rhys 104). Perhaps women understand better than men the true risk of marriage for women. Both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, showcase women who are very aware of the realities for women confined by social norms and the risk of marriage.

The background to Bertha’s madness in Jane Eyre is explained in Wide Sargasso Sea. We see again that declaring women mad was a means to get rid of inconvenient or unsavory women, control them, and/or take their money. When confronting Rochester at the end of the novel as he makes arrangements to take Antionette away from all that she has ever known. Christophine, Antoinette’s servant and close confidant, gives us a good view on this saying, “it is in your mind to pretend she is mad. I know it. The doctors say what you tell them to say. . .You do that for money? But you wicked like Satan self” (Rhys 145). Again, it may be Christophine’s outsider position that allows her to confront Rochester with the ugly truth when other women confined by strict social norms may not have been able to show Christophine’s “unladylike” resolve. Rochester does not deny Christophine’s accusations. He knows that she is speaking the truth. Rochester may think that Antoinette’s behavior is unusual, but he knows she is not actually mad and he does not deny these accusations. He feels that Antoinette’s behavior is improper, but he knows she is not actually mad; he wants to have Antoinette declared mad because he selfishly and evilly wants to punish Antoinette, perhaps even crush “the sun” out of her, because he is afraid of her sexuality and jealous of Antoinette’s past love revealed by Daniel. Antoinette no longer loves Rochester or behaves like a proper wife and Rochester is vengeful and fixated on destroying her. Rochester is just another man using madness as a means to get rid of his inconvenient wife.


Both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea deal with the theme of women’s confinement. Due to restrictive Victorian rules, social class determined the course of a woman’s life (Voicu 56). Victorian society did not given women much agency, thus their options were limited. Isabelle Nicole Voicu expertly states, “marriage could represent both an escape and a trap, because women married for social order to have a secure life, and yet they lost their independence once they married” (Voicu 65). We see how marriage was thought to be a pathway to security for women in Wide Sargasso Sea through Mr. Mason’s eyes. This loss of independence after marriage can also be seen in both Jane and Antoinette (Bertha).

In both novels all the women are aware of the cruel reality for Victorian women. Jane knows how marriage will affect her and is willing to stand up and fight for want she truly wants. She is not capable of submitting to Victorian standards and marrying St. John, where she will be suffocated by a loveless marriage. Antoinette’s money and freedom are stolen when she marries Rochester. Both Christophine and Aunt Cora are painfully aware of this dangerous situation for Antoinette. These novels also examine how madness affects women in the nineteenth century. The century separating Brontë and Rhys affects how these two female authors treat Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, the madwoman in the attic. Rhys, by giving Bertha Mason her background, makes her a more sympathetic character and empowers us to see Rochester in a truer light. In Jane Eyre, one may think Rochester is doing his best for Bertha, but in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester is revealed to be without a doubt the true villain who either drove Antoinette into insanity or falsely labelled her to take her money and physically entrapped Antoinette in the attic for ten years to punish her.

At first glance Jane Eyre and Bertha (Antoinette) Mason are completely different characters conveying alternate pathways for Victorian women. However, upon further examination these two women are two sides of the same coin trying to survive in a patriarchal society where Jane and Antoinette must confront similar forms of social, economic, and even physical confinement. Social and economic factors restricted the status of all Victorian women whereas physical confinement was used to control certain women who did not conform to the behavioral rules set by society and their controlling husbands.

Works Cited

Ayyildiz, Nilay Erdem. “From The Bottom To The Top: Class And Gender Struggle In Brontë’s Jane Eyre.” Selcuk University Social Sciences Institute Journal, no. 37, Jan. 2017, p. 146. EBSCOhost, &site=eds-live&scope=site.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Penguin Classics. 2006.

Klambauer, Anna. “Chapter 1: Subversive Madness: Madwomen, Doubles, and Mad Resistance in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.” At the Interface / Probing the Boundaries, vol. 111, Oct. 2018, pp. 9–26. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1163/9789004382381_003.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. W.W. Norton & Company. 2016.

Voicu, Isabelle Nicole. “The Condition of Women in Emma and Jane Eyre.” East-West Cultural Passage, vol. 18, no. 1/2, Dec. 2018, pp. 56–72. EBSCOhost, -live&scope=site.

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