Colonialist Attitudes in “Jane Eyre”

In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason serves as an unintentional antagonist since she is the major hindrance to Jane and Rochester’s marriage. Bertha’s mental illness and power are implied to be a result of her upbringing in the West Indies, reflected in the colonialist descriptions of this landscape.

In chapter 24, Rochester’s description of his marriage to Bertha demonstrates how the text characterizes Bertha and the West Indies as a source of moral corruption and entrapment. Rochester states, “it was a fiery West Indian night; one of the description that frequently precede the hurricanes of those climates…the air was like sulfur streams— I could find no refreshment anywhere” (Bronte 433). This description of a “fiery,” sulfuric environment convey images of a toxic, overpowering atmosphere. The eminent hurricane expresses the ‘instability’ of the West Indies. Rochester cannot find “refreshment,” and therefore escape from this uncomfortable, foreign setting. The environment of the West Indies is comparable to a hellish landscape, reflected in Bertha’s moral and mental degradation.

The hellish description of the West Indies is mirrored in Bertha’s actions. Rochester recalls that Bertha “threw her last bloody glance over a world quivering with the ferment of tempest… my ears were filled with the curses the maniac still shrieked out; wherein she momentarily mingled my name with such a tone of demon-hate…no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she” (Bronte 434). The violent landscape described as a “ferment of tempest” is reflected in Bertha’s loss of mental control, leading to disturbed behavior. She is dehumanized as a “maniac” and “demon” with “bloody eyes,” creating an image of a monster rather than a woman. Bertha is also compared to a “harlot,” or prostitute, which reinforces her sinful nature connected to her sexuality. Therefore, Bertha is both mentally ill and uncontrollably immoral, which is implied to be a product of her surroundings.

These images of an unmanageable, hellish landscape combined with Bertha’s ‘insanity’ portray the West Indies as a site of  moral degradation. Rochester, since he is a foreigner, is able to ‘escape,’ yet is still tempted to succumb to sin through suicide. However, he is also permanently trapped by his experiences there through his marriage to Bertha. The portrayal of the West Indies as an overpowering force simultaneously removes Rochester’s blame for his situation and reinforces colonialist attitudes of  “civilizing” other cultures.

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