Some novels are seen as masterpieces today because of the groundbreaking and radical messages they contain. This is true in the case of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre due to its strong feminist message. In the novel, Bertha Mason is used as a symbol of the socially imprisoned Victorian woman.
One of the characteristics of the ideal Victorian woman that Bronte stresses throughout the novel is that of physical beauty. Bronte places several beautiful women opposite Jane, including Georgiana Reed and Blanche Ingram. Each of these women is viewed as ideal, and even Jane forces herself to accept that Blanche is more deserving of and more likely to receive Mr. Rochester's affections. She chastises herself cruelly while drawing portraits of Blanche and herself, and tells herself that she must represent faithfully each of her "defect[s]," "harsh line[s]," and "displeasing irregularit[ies]" (163). It is society's expectations of beauty that cause Jane to become unsettled and to become obsessive, working for over a week on the protrait of Blanche. Thus, to a much lesser extent, Jane's lack of physical beauty causes Jane to become mad, mirrored by Bertha Mason's madness causing her lack of physical beauty. Bertha Mason is introduced to the reader and described in the most base and plain terms in order to further emphasize her lack of beauty. Bronte draws the reader's attention to Bertha's "shaggy locks," "bloated features," "red balls [eyes]," and "grizzled hair" (297-299). However, the reader soon learns from Mr. Rochester that Bertha was once beautiful, and "in the style of Blanche Ingram" (310). One can associate Bertha's insanity with her ugliness, and there follows the logical conclusion that Bertha, like many Victorian women, including, at one point, Jane Eyre, is "imprisoned" due to her inability to be as beautiful as is expected of her.
The reader learns through the actions of Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers that an aspect of the Victorian romantic relationship was that of male dominance. Both Mr. Rochester and St. John attempt to and often succeed in controlling Jane, both physically and mentally. Rochester is said to have "seized [Jane's] arm, and grasped [her] waist... [she] felt, at that moment, powerless" (323). The dominance in Jane's romantic relationship with Mr. Rochester is made especially stark by Bronte because not only does he have control of Jane due to their romance, but also due to the simple fact that he is her employer, and therefore she is expected to be subservient to him. Thus, it is only natural for Bertha Mason, the embodiment of a Victorian woman, to be under the strictest of male control, confined to an attic until her death. It is interesting that Bronte chooses to give Bertha a female guard, Grace Poole, but in other ways it is appropriate. Grace Poole cannot keep control of Bertha, and her irresponsibility and inability to do so lead finally to her own death, the destruction of Thornfield, and the crippling of Mr. Rochester.
The area to which Bertha is confined is also representative of the life to which Victorian women were resigned. Bertha resides in the attic of Thornfield, on the third floor where Jane is told servants reside. Bertha is in this way likened to a servant, one who is lower in status and worth. The entrance to Bertha's room is through another room where Jane states there is found a "great bed" (297). This great bed is symbolic of sex and the institution of marriage, experiences which eventually lead, just as the room does, to a woman's imprisonment. Bertha's room is also described as being "a room without a window" (297). Bronte describes it as such to show that as a Victorian woman, Bertha Mason is shut off from the outside world, unable to glimpse any other opportunities. This also lends hope to the reader: it is not that there are no opportunities available for women, Bronte simply believes that society is this windowless room where women cannot see what they are capable of accomplishing.
Bertha's hatred of her imprisonment is indicative of Bronte's own feminist views. Her hatred is so strong that she goes so far as to attempt on two occasions to murder her own husband, and succeeds later in committing suicide. Bronte uses even Bertha's suicide as a device for satirical commentary: rather than let Bertha die and lose his control of her, Mr. Rochester loses his sight and hand in an attempt to keep her alive. This fruitless attempt at keeping Bertha imprisoned and its consequences for Rochester reveal Bronte's call to power for the women of her time. By killing the Victorian female stereotype, Bertha, the domineering hand and closely monitoring eye of one's husband, in this case, Rochester, can be destroyed.
Finally, Bronte hints at Bertha's status as a representation of the Victorian woman through her familiarity to Jane. The first time that Jane knowingly sees Bertha, she states, "I recognized well that purple face" (298). Why does Jane recognize and identify with a visage so alien to her own? Subconsciously, Jane experiences a sense of camaraderie and kinship with Bertha due to their shared label in the Victorian era: woman. Jane experiences this especially with Bertha because Bertha is not only a Victorian woman, but has been protrayed by Bronte as the Victorian woman.
Charlotte Bronte was a strong believer in feminism, but also a realist. She realized that the liberation of women from the shackles of society could not be accomplished within her lifetime, and acknowledged this when she published Jane Eyre with a male nom de plume so that people would read it without bias. However, as an isolated woman herself, Charlotte Bronte chose to immortalize the pain of the Victorian everywoman in one of her greatest works. Bertha Mason is not only a literary device and a plot element, but also Charlotte Bronte's gift and undying memorial to the English women who endured so much for so long.