Are Adventist Women the Madwoman in the Attic?
by Elle Berry | 7 January 2020 |
My first introduction to the literary classic Jane Eyre came via a 1996 film adaptation. My sister and I had a family friend who often invited us for Sunday matinées, and so it happened that one spring Sunday I took my first foray into the world of gothic romance. My primary recollection is that my thirteen-year-old self was initially unimpressed with the romantic byline, but nevertheless Jane was a hero.
Before I continue, I fear a plot recap is probably necessary. What follows is a massive Jane Eyre spoiler—however as it’s a 173-year-old book I consider the statute of limitations closed on such violations. Nonetheless, if for some reason you haven’t read it and don’t want the ending spoiled, now’s your chance to read it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
For everyone else? Recap:
Jane Eyre is the story of an orphan named Jane. After a childhood of neglect and abuse, Jane takes a job as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she is introduced to the mysterious Mr. Rochester (henceforth, Mr. R.) There, Jane encounters disturbing sounds in the night from a mysterious, arson-prone specter, and she also encounters Mr. R’s vapid suitress Blanche Ingram. Despite these hindrances, Jane and Mr. R develop an intriguing relationship.
As the inevitable love story progresses, Mr. R tries to use Blanche to antagonize Jane by making her jealous. (Very rude.) However, Jane bypasses his ploy and authentically confesses her affection for him, thus encouraging him to affirm his mutual affection. (Discarding Blanche as nothing more than the pawn that she was—which is possibly deserved, but also rude.) Jane and Mr. R become engaged and it’s all set to be a happily ever after, but first, a plot twist.
As the nuptials commence, they are interrupted by a strange man who has come to remind Mr. R of a pressingly inconvenient truth: the aforementioned mysterious spook is actually Mr. R’s wife. Yep, while Mr. R was busy wooing ladies, he’s actually had a wife—like, the entire time. Her name is Bertha and she’s mentally unwell, so he locked her in his attic (seriously, he’s a charmer.)
Jane is really torn at this point because she loves Mr. R but she can’t marry him because… bigamy. Mr. R tries to convince her that she can basically stay on as his mistress, but in one of the most beautiful moments in literature (past or present) we are given access to Jane’s warring internal monologue, as she commits to her resolution of integrity and self-respect.
“Conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him … ‘Think of his misery … tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?’” Still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.” [i]
Jane escapes from Thornfield in the night, making her way into a new solitary world. But don’t worry, because Jane makes a nice life for herself, meets new friends, and inherits a fortune from an unknown relation. In contrast, Mr. R is left with his arson-prone wife, Bertha, who eventually sets fire to Thornfield. And despite Mr. R having treated Bertha so inhumanely, when he realizes she is trapped on the roof of the burning building, it is he who runs into the flames to rescue her; thus his redemptive arc is completed.
Jane, feeling intuitively something has shifted, returns to Mr. R, but finds him blind from the fire, homeless, without wealth, and widowed (as he was unable to save Bertha despite his self-sacrificing attempts.) So with fortunes reversed, they do get married, and live (hopefully) happily ever after.
When I finally read the book I did come to love Mr. R despite all his flaws (I do love a redemptive arc). However, I admit it’s always been Jane, with her rock-solid integrity and enormous courage, that makes the book an evergreen favorite. However, lately I’ve returned to the book with a different interest: what about Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic? The idea of a madwoman in the attic is such a potent metaphor that it shouldn’t be surprising to learn entire books have been penned using her as a symbol of female entrapment.
While it’s implied that Bertha Mason’s mental illness is genetic[ii], it’s still tempting to think of her as a villainess (although, on close reading, I don’t feel that’s an intended takeaway). She is referenced as demonic, a goblin, a vampire, and a clothed hyena. But then again, can you blame her? Late in the book, we learn that Bertha has arrived at Thornfield by way of an arranged marriage. Despite their knowing of the familial mental disorder, her family dupes Mr. R (his words) into the marriage. It’s never love, and neither party benefits. However, to make matters worse, Mr. R responds to the situation, and her subsequent mental disorder, by locking Bertha in the attic while he solicits romance from young women whom he entertains in their house.
While contemporaries of the novel would have considered locking her in the attic a kindness (at the time it was common to institutionalize the mentally unwell in asylums), modern readers will rightly find this “kinder than the alternative” defense a poor one for Mr. Rochester. Perhaps he was doing the best he could for a man of his time, but it’s still awful. And besides, if there is anything I know, it’s this; if you want to make someone crazy and angry? Marry them, lock them in your attic, and then carry on courting suitors in your drawing room. Bertha is rightfully angry and (mental illness aside) she’s rightfully mad.
The great irony is, while she’s initially a hindrance to the love story, Bertha eventually turns out to be a liberator. In setting fire to Thornfield she finds perhaps the only way to liberate herself from her attic prison, but also (though perhaps unintentionally) she liberates Mr. R from himself. As he risks his life to save hers, he is given a chance to bury his own inner demons, his past regrets, and transcend into the man we were all hoping he could be.
What’s interesting to me is despite being 173 years old, the book accurately portrays three familiar female archetypes. First, there’s Blanche. She’s wealthy and beautiful, and admittedly a privileged snob—but also, she’s a woman in a system using the only power she has. Of the three women, she’s the only one playing by the rules. And when you consider what the rules are, she is indeed a pitiable character.
Then there is Jane. We watch with bated breath as she struggles through the novel on a determined course toward freedom and emancipation, in a world where both her class and gender are pushing back against a woman being free.
And lastly, there’s Bertha. Trapped in an arranged marriage, extracted from her homeland, she eventually becomes mentally unwell, and ultimately finds herself locked in the attic with a philandering husband who fails to love her. Bertha looms in contrast to Jane, and like a dim reflection of Blanche. Bertha is a woman who, not unlike Blanche, initially complies to the social norms—and yet eventually seeks the illusions of freedom in promiscuity and drink—which bring no real freedom at all. Thus, tragically, it’s only Jane, the woman with the least advantage, who exerts her independence and is able to live her freedom. She does so because she’s willing to respect herself and walk away for the sake of freedom, even if it means breaking her heart.
Like many women in the Adventist church right now, I find myself in a strange holding pattern. The Protestant Reformation was forged upon the concept of freedom before God as a priesthood of all believers—and yet in my way of thinking, any church that holds to a theology of male headship always assumes a loss of Protestantism for women. Men may be Protestant, but not women. And yes, it may be kinder, and gentler than some alternatives—but as previously noted, “kinder than the alternative” still falls short of the freedom to which we are called[iii].
Mr. Rochester isn’t exactly a villain, nor is the patriarchal church. In many ways both are truly lovable. Yet, I’ve found myself thinking so often of these female archetypes, and I see their relevance even now in the church. There are many (wonderful) women who have submitted to playing by the rules as established. They’ve done the best they could with the truth they understood. But understandings change. And for some of us, disregarding the plight of a woman’s calling before God is no longer a sane option, and we find ourselves teetering dangerously close to becoming arson-prone specters in the attic.
And here’s the thing— I don’t have a tidy answer, I only have questions. I remain convicted of women’s call to the priesthood of believers, as equals with men in leadership and before God. But the church has yet to honor this, and so the question remains; can you stay in a place without asserting yourself, numbing yourself with illusions of freedom, and do so without becoming the madwoman in the attic? And for the women who stay, and assert ourselves, is our only chance at freedom to (figuratively) burn the house down? (And if we did, would it be a bad thing?)
Or like Jane, do we make ourselves willing to walk, do we take our flight in the night, realizing that doing so may well break our heart? I admit, conscience and reason continue to rail as traitors against me in this matter. Who will care if I become Blanche? Who will care if I am Bertha? And the answer is, I will. I will care. And I must respect myself [iv]. But does that always mean leaving? And if it doesn’t, are we all destined to become the madwoman in the attic?
[i] Chapter 27, Jane Eyre – I have this one highlighted.
[ii] It’s been proposed that Bertha’s genetic and progressively psychiatric illness, with noted violent movements, and cognitive decline, may fit the criteria for Huntington’s Disease.
[iii] Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
[iv] Acts 24:16: “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.