Bertha Mason is Sacred

Betrayal can teach us what is worth our trust and love.

Vanessa Zoltan

Illustration of Bertha Mason

Bertha Mason in the foreground, an illustration by F. H. Townsend, Jane Eyre, second edition, 1847.

See also the Harvard Gazette's The Sacred in Harry Potter.

About two years ago, I started reading Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s nineteenth-century romance novel, as if it was sacred. For me, that meant acting as if it could teach me and that if I kept working with it, it would keep teaching me more and more. We all need something that we treat with optimism and that we are in a continual, reciprocal relationship with. We need something we are trying to learn from, rather than learn about. When I treat art as if it is sacred, I get better at treating the people around me as if they are sacred. I was raised an atheistic Jew. All four of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. For them, God died in Auschwitz right next to their parents. Being an atheist is important to me. I have a stake in all that being an atheist implies; I do not believe in redemptive suffering or divine intervention. But just because I do not believe in anything supernatural does not mean that I do not believe that there are things in this world worthy of a critical yet sincere reverence.

I wanted to practice treating something worthy as sacred and see what it brought me. So I began reading Jane Eyre every day. I would finish it and start again, paying close attention to certain passages.1 For more than a year I carried the paperback edition—in which Jane’s head appears in a black, elegant outline—everywhere I went, along with my keys, wallet, and cell phone. I had chosen Jane Eyre over other favorite books because I loved it and my mother had loved it before me, as had generations of readers before her. It felt like a safe book to love and to center my life around, unlike the Bible, with its millennia of baggage. I knew the book was brilliant. For all these reasons, I read Jane with faith and rigor.

I even started a “Jane Eyre as a sacred text” reading group at the Humanist Hub, a secular gathering space in Harvard Square. Our reading group met every week for four months in early 2015. In the novel, there are three characters of note: Jane Eyre, the plain, good, young governess; Edward Rochester, the rich, moody love interest; and Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife, who is “mad.” Jane does not know about Bertha for most of the novel while she falls in love with, and almost marries, Rochester. When our group got together, we would pore over a single passage from Jane Eyre for an hour at a time. We read Jane’s declaration, “I can live alone. . . . I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld,” and wondered if Jane meant it. We wondered, read, and contemplated. We sat in community.

Our meetings ended on an especially lovely April evening in Harvard Yard, where I live as a freshman proctor. I met the three women who were able to attend the last session on the steps of the Memorial Church, the imposing early twentieth-century house of worship at the center of campus. It was one of the first warm days after the hardest Boston winter on record: more than one hundred inches of snow. I was sitting on the church steps, which had been not only invisible, but unimaginable, two months before. We made the short walk together from the Memorial Church to my apartment.

After settling in, we passed around cupcakes and tea supplies. We watched ridiculous scenes from the 1943 movie version of the novel, in which Orson Welles, as the brooding Rochester, shakes the woman who plays Jane and moodily stares off into the distance. We laughed and debated our last Jane Eyre debates. These three strangers had come to mean a lot to me. They had validated my intuition that Jane was worth spending considerable time with, voting with their bodies, week after week, through snowstorm after snowstorm. They kept me in practice with Jane—after a year, this was getting hard to do alone. While the T was shut down and Harvard classes were cancelled, we contemplated Jane’s character, life, and decisions together. This was a hearty, dedicated, beautiful little reading group.

Now we were sitting in my dorm room, and one thing still seemed to be on all of our minds: the violent death of Bertha, the famous “madwoman in the attic.” Why does poor Bertha, who has been locked in a tower for more than ten years, jump to her death after setting Thornfield Hall on fire? In comparison with Jane’s cruel Aunt Reed, who gets pages and pages of a pre-Dickensian death scene, all that Bertha gets is “dead as the stone on which her brains and blood were scattered.” Listening to the conversation, it occurred to me that we were all tripping over this because it is a moment when a great injustice is being done. For a novel so obsessed with respect, where is the respect for Bertha? I had asked everyone to treat the novel as sacred. We had met week after week in order to love it, and we are all predisposed to find good in the things we love. But in our group’s last moment together, we were coming up against our faith in the novel as a force for good. We were being confronted with a real victim.

I had led my reading group through a book that seems to argue that brown people be sacrificed so that white Christians can live in the light.

The more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that Bertha’s madness was not inevitable. A native of the West Indies, Bertha married Rochester when he was sent to the Caribbean to fatten up his family’s English estate. While he was there, he “was physically influenced by the atmosphere,” lusting after the sultry Bertha. His antipathy for his wife came when he met her mother: he had thought her dead, but “the honeymoon over, [he] learned [his] mistake; [his mother-in-law] was only mad.” Rochester describes Bertha as cruel, promiscuous, and prone to drink: he says that she soon exhibits signs of her mother’s instability. Returning to his estate in England, he locks his increasingly restive wife in the attic, appointing a servant to give her food and keep her existence a secret. I began to realize that Bertha was a “passing” person of color, who is violently killed trying to escape her husband. This novel—that I had been praying with for a year and a half, that I had carried on my back for miles and miles, that I had publicly preached on—is partially a racist argument for global imperialism, slavery, and patriarchy.

Over the next few days, my new understanding of the novel’s underbelly sank in. How could I have thought that Rochester had no choice but to lock Bertha up? He says otherwise. When Jane stands up for Bertha, telling Rochester, “she cannot help being mad,” she worries that he would turn on her if she also went mad. He answers:

. . . you are mistaken, and you know nothing about me, and nothing about the sort of love of which I am capable. Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me: if you flew at me as wildly as that woman did this morning, I should receive you in an embrace, at least as fond as it would be restrictive. I should not shrink from you with disgust as I did from her. . . .

It was not Bertha’s madness that Rochester despised. It was her very flesh, which he only realized he hated when he met Bertha’s mother.

I suddenly understood that I had led these wonderful women through a novel that justifies locking up a woman for ten years for the crime of being half black. I had led them through a story in which Bertha’s death enables her good, white husband to become a humbled, pious spouse to his good, white wife, our heroine. I had led the participants at my atheist community center’s first reading group through a book that seems to argue that brown people be sacrificed so that white Christians can live in the light, sure of divine rewards in the next life and of wealth in this one. It sanctions a social order in which women will go mad and have their heads bashed in, while Englishmen of wealth will have their names inscribed on buildings for posterity.

I didn’t say as much that beautiful spring night in my apartment. Because it would have been a terrible way to end the class. Because that wasn’t the experience of the novel that this group of women had. Because, although this ugliness had begun to dawn on me, I couldn’t articulate it yet; certainly not clearly enough to say aloud. Because the book is about love and dignity and faith as well. Because I believe that it is important to end journeys on a note of hope.

It is important to end journeys on a note of hope.

But during the days and weeks of contemplation after our meeting, waves of fear—almost panic—came over me. What had I put at the center of my life? What other naïve things do I go around talking about as if they are great? Even as the women spoke, without my prompting, about how much the novel had meant to them, I thought to myself: “But it’s betrayed us. And I betrayed you by leading you down this path.”

I experience moments of betrayal all the time: about my friendships, about politics, about Harvard, about the Humanist Hub. I love; I feel loved. And then I betray, and I feel betrayed.

We have all had these moments. Moments in which ugliness is suddenly revealed, knocking us over with its sheer force. We have all been betrayed.


The precondition for betrayal is trust. you cannot be betrayed by something that you did not, at one time, trust. Some betrayals are small: the friends who forget your birthday even though you always remember theirs; the bus that doesn’t stop for you on your commute. You get over those quickly. You go right back to trusting the friends (they are so busy!) and the bus system (it must have been overcrowded). But then there are big betrayals, the ones that, for a time, feel unendurable: the doctor who misdiagnoses you; the partner who cheats; the company you have given your all to that lets you go; the body that loses the baby it was supposed to grow and nourish; the body that gets pregnant even though you used birth control. The only way to avoid feeling betrayed is to avoid trusting in the first place.

Every time I go to temple I am lulled by the sounds of the prayers, until I get to a line that claims that God protects us all. Then crematoria arise before my eyes and Judaism betrays me even as it keeps and holds me. When I have been betrayed, I feel embarrassed and angry, as if I have been taken for being stupid or have actually been stupid. Worst of all, I feel as though I cannot trust myself. So I begin to panic: what else will turn out to be a lie? It feels like even gravity is up for discussion. The world suddenly appears to be in complete chaos, and any sense of control evaporates into total illusion. This moment with Jane Eyre was a betrayal, and I felt so stupid. I had put this book at the center of my life and I had talked soooooo publically about its virtues. But now I saw the novel as indefensibly racist and patriarchal. I had been betrayed by Rochester the way a child feels betrayed when she realizes that all of those animals would have sunk Noah’s ark. I had been betrayed by my choice of the novel the way I was when I realized I had gotten engaged to the wrong man.

There is a cheap way out of the pain betrayal causes. I could say: “I guess nothing can be treated as sacred; nothing bears up to scrutiny. Nothing is truly worth worshipping. I gave it my best try.” But that is cynicism, and I don’t want to get cynical. If the only way to avoid betrayal is to avoid trust, then I don’t want to be that person—the person who trusts nothing and no one. I have a vision of the type of old person I want to be, and she hasn’t become cynical at all.

Betrayals make us feel as though we cannot trust the world, as though we cannot trust ourselves.

Eventually, out of a sheer lack of options, I went back to the thing that I had trusted, Jane Eyre. My thesis was not that the novel was sacred in and of itself, but that if I treated something as sacred, it could be sacred. I thought back on one of Jane’s reflections that had been most meaningful to me. When Jane is almost seduced into staying with Rochester, even after discovering the truth about Bertha, she finds the strength to leave, saying, “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour.” I went back to the thing I had committed to—not to what I was hurt by, but to the belief that the novel would have something positive to say to me if I kept in conversation with it.

What I eventually realized was that I had been placing my faith in the wrong thing. I had been trying to learn from Jane when, really, I should have been learning from Bertha, that madwoman in the attic whose brains get bashed in on the stone walk. Even though she is the book’s major plot twist, there are only three paragraphs in the entire novel in which Bertha is on the page and actively in the scene. She is described as having a purple face and bloated features. She does not just have hair; she has “shaggy locks.” She is violent and is constantly trying to attack whoever is in the room with her: “she almost throttled [Rochester,] athletic as he was.” After Jane Eyre the novel betrayed me, I can say more assuredly than ever that I love Bertha with a complete commitment.

Like Bertha, I have a history of mixed ethnicity and familial mental illness. I also have long, shaggy locks and eyes that have red in them from melanin. As I grappled with the ways I felt betrayed by the novel, Bertha entered my imagination entirely. In a ministry course, I preached a sermon in which I spoke of almost nothing but Bertha. Since my betrayal by Jane Eyre, I see Bertha everywhere. I imagine sitting outside the Memorial Church with Bertha. She would be sitting on the curb with her dark skin and red eyes, wearing her dirty, long white nightgown. I would sit there too, just a few feet away from her, because she’s dangerous, but also because she does not like it when I get too close. We sit next to each other on the curb in companionable silence.

We sit outside the church because there is nowhere else to get our answers about why there is so much suffering, even though we feel as though the church should be burned to the ground because it does not offer satisfying answers. Instead of going in, we both look at the ground. If you walked by, you wouldn’t know we were listening intently to what was going on inside. You would think that we were only accidentally hearing some of the things being preached. Bertha is outside that church because there is no concept of God that is complete enough to include her in it. And I sit out there because there is no concept of God that is complete enough to include her in it. For me, she symbolizes everyone and everything that is not accounted for in the church. Bertha is sacred to me.


I understand why most people identify with jane and not with Bertha. I did. And I forgive myself for falling into that trap. After all, she ends up happily married and independently wealthy, living in a romantic, rustic house with everyone she loves visiting constantly. She gets all this through trying to be a good person. And it’s not that she is a glorious, unattainable heroine. The whole shtick about Jane is that she is “poor, obscure, plain, and little.” So we mere mortals are invited to see ourselves in her.

After my betrayal, when I went back to the thing that I trusted, I realized that Bertha is my most important gift. If I love Bertha instead of Jane, the year that I spent treating the novel as sacred will not have been in vain; it will have led me to a symbol of social justice. Loving her is fulfilling and is my way of reclaiming the book. Unlike Jane’s glorified ending, Bertha jumps to her death after burning Rochester’s estate down with her. The house that she burns down, in which she has been kept prisoner, was built on slave money—and she brings the whole thing crumbling down! I don’t believe in martyrdom, but insofar as it is a metaphor to explore, an act of rebellion rather than one of submission, I am totally into that. I now see Bertha’s face, a face that I have made myself love, in the faces of those it is difficult to care for—the students who complain about their golden handcuffs; the brusque Hub member who accidentally spits on me while reprimanding me about my last sermon; my unpleasant aunt—everyone whom I struggle to love in my day-to-day life. Bertha haunts me into being a person who treats others as more sacred.

I am not saying that every betrayal has a silver lining. My betrayal left me with an imprisoned madwoman as my doppelgänger instead of a wealthy woman in love. I bear the scars of my betrayal. I am humbler now about my love of Jane. But, without the betrayal, I never would have seen the beauty of the madwoman in the attic. It wasn’t the thing that I believed in that betrayed me. It was that I had lost sight of what I believed in. I never set out to believe that Jane Eyre was perfect. I sought to believe that if I treated the novel as sacred, it would give me blessings. And that was always true.

Betrayals make us feel as though we cannot trust the world, as though we cannot trust ourselves. But if you go through that terrifying feeling of “nothing can be trusted,” you might get somewhere better. When I am lost I find the best views. Go back. Go back and wonder about what it was that you really trusted. Did you trust that your partner would never mess up, or did you trust that loyalty is possible? Go back. Don’t go back to dwell in the betrayal; don’t go back to trust the person who cheated on you. Go back to what it was that you believed in. Don’t go back to the time before your body betrayed you, but to the trust that there are ways in which your body still serves you. Don’t go back to the bad doctor, but to the belief that trusting doctors who are good at their jobs can be useful. Don’t go to the trauma, but to what it was that made you believe.

Because you trusted it for a reason. When you go back to the thing you trusted in the first place, you are re-teaching yourself to trust your own judgment, and you are forgiving yourself. You are going back to hope.

And for those times when you can’t get back to hope quite yet—when you’re not ready to jump back to trust, when rebellion and anger are more important—then there is room on the curb with me and Bertha.

Notes:

  1. Working in an independent study with Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, she and I defined treating something as sacred as having four components. First, the text has to be duly complicated—so complicated that it can withstand infinite readings. Second, one must approach the text with the faith that the more time one spends with it, the more blessings it will give. Third, one must treat the text with rigor, with contemplation, meditation, writing, and prayer. And fourth, the text has to be contemplated in community.

Vanessa Zoltan is assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University. She received a master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2015. She is currently running a group on reading the Harry Potter series as a sacred text and is co-host of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” This essay is adapted from a paper she wrote for Amy Hollywood’s “Secular Death” class and a version was delivered as a talk at the Humanist Hub in October 2015.

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