Danger out of the West: Bertha and the Caribbean in Rochester’s Revelation

“A wind fresh from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure.  I then framed and fixed a resolution.  While I walked under the dripping orange-trees of my wet garden, and amongst its drenched pomegranates and pine-apples, and while the refulgent dawn of the tropics kindled round me—I reasoned thus, Jane—and now listen; for it was true Wisdom that consoled me in that hour, and showed me the right path to follow. 

“The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty; my heart, dried up and scorched for a long time, swelled to the tone, and filled with living blood—my being longed for renewal—my soul thirsted for a pure draught.  I saw hope revive—and felt regeneration possible.  From a flowery arch at the bottom of my garden I gazed over the sea—bluer than the sky: the old world was beyond; clear prospects opened thus:— 

“‘Go,’ said Hope, ‘and live again in Europe: there it is not known what a sullied name you bear, nor what a filthy burden is bound to you.  You may take the maniac with you to England; confine her with due attendance and precautions at Thornfield: then travel yourself to what clime you will, and form what new tie you like.  That woman, who has so abused your long-suffering, so sullied your name, so outraged your honour, so blighted your youth, is not your wife, nor are you her husband.  See that she is cared for as her condition demands, and you have done all that God and humanity require of you.  Let her identity, her connection with yourself, be buried in oblivion: you are bound to impart them to no living being.  Place her in safety and comfort: shelter her degradation with secrecy, and leave her’” (Brontë 304-05).  

 

This story, told with heavy bias from Mr. Rochester as he attempts to convince Jane of the rightness, and even morality, of his imprisonment, abuse, and torture of his wife Bertha Mason is saturated with language of contrast and hierarchy. How Bertha has “so abused your [Rochester’s] long-suffering, so sullied your name, so outraged your honour, so blighted your youth” is unclear (Brontë 304-305). She seems guilty of marrying him, and of inheriting a temperament and (perhaps) a disease that runs in her family. He is equally guilty of one of these offenses, and the only others clearly committed at the time he describes are saying mean things about him. Strange crimes, if indeed they can be called crimes. Still, as in much of the novel, Bertha herself is almost entirely absent—she is “that woman” “her” or “not your wife,” but she is never referred to as either Bertha Mason or Mrs. Rochester throughout this passage. Instead, Rochester focuses on the weather, plants, and climate around him—they seems equally as guilty as Bertha, in his mind, for his suffering (and, like Bertha, they represent his willing entry into an environment he did not understand). “The storm,” he recalls, “broke, streamed, thundered, blazed” in a furious display of heavenly (or, by his token, hellish) ire. Much like the chestnut tree, Rochester risks being torn asunder as he stands facing the storm. Still, it is passing, as is his time in the Caribbean (Brontë 304). The “refulgent dawn” (Brontë 304) is softened by “a wind fresh from Europe…and the air grew pure” (Brontë 304); this “sweet wind” “whispers” to him the necessity of his escape back to Europe, across the (wide) Sargasso Sea into the waiting arms of his homeland (Brontë 304). The “thundering in glorious liberty” of the Atlantic contrasts with the storm that “thundered” only moments before (Brontë 304) and his heart “swelled…and was filled with living blood” as he finds hope for the first time since his marriage to Bertha began to degenerate (and, perhaps, long before that). It is in escaping, in a sense, the fiery moods, painful passions and heats of the Caribbean that Rochester sees a chance for a new beginning in an old world. The “orange-trees…pomegranates and pineapples” emphasize the exoticism of this fiery Hades, and he knows better than to taste the seven seeds—he wanders past them to the “flowery arch” which frames his view of the sea he longs to cross, “bluer than the sky” (Brontë 304).  

The question of what to do with Bertha lingers. He can run away from everything that he associates with her, all that she knows or loves. He can draw them both into the cold, rainy climes of Europe instead of lingering in the sunlight of the Caribbean—like Adèle, he can find security in an English garden. But he cannot in good conscience leave his wife behind. Hope, with startlingly coarse language for such an embodiment, tells Rochester that the “filthy burden,” “the maniac” can be “confine[d]” while he “travels to what clime [he] will,” ever to be punished for her marriage with the loss of freedom, friends, family and country. To stow her, as any other unfavorable possession, in an unused chamber of his attic will be “all that God and Humanity require of him” (Brontë 304). To let her rot in a cell of his own division is only fair compensation for her giving contradictory orders, and for having a mentally ill mother. Rochester finds outlet for his own anger at all that he has found in this part of the world, wife and weather, and nature reflects his rage and hope back to him.  

What Brontë suggests is a hierarchy of worlds, one in which the “new” world is actually a raging, dangerous beast kept in close contact with the supernatural and the mad, holding only suffering for Europeans who venture there unprepared—yes, a fortune could be secured, a wife found, but at no cost a reasonable man would ever pay. The “old” world is where Hope and Wisdom lie (Brontë 304-05), and it is where the hearts of sinners may be repaired. However, she makes clear, the only way to bring back anything from the far West is to bring back the devil with you, to infiltrate England with animalistic rage and terror, and any such thing must be kept under lock and key for fear of burns, blood, or the detection of bigamy. To allow the influence of the Caribbean and the New World to come to Europe is, in short, to embrace the destruction of the European stronghold, to draw a path to England for storms and lightning bolts to follow, and to purchase the death of not only the foreigner but the maiming and disruption of Europe besides: though Old England can, of course, master it and struggle on, it will be a painful and close fight, one nearly pyrrhic in its resolution. Far better, of course, never to leave at all.  

 

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2 thoughts on “Danger out of the West: Bertha and the Caribbean in Rochester’s Revelation”

  1. Julia,

    Wow, this post reads as temperamental as the language that Mr. Rochester uses to describe his past in the passage you cited, and the own stormy images that his frustration and regret and ire evoke. I liked how you submersed yourself in the passage—yes, it was long, but you really picked it apart and drew some pretty astute observations that never even crossed my mind because I’m sure I skimmed this page when I read the book, since I don’t recall most of the sentences from that section. I guess I just tune out Rochester whenever he starts ranting (which is, like, 80% of the scenes he’s in). Wow, it’s a little hard for me to admit this but I didn’t linger on the fact that Rochester imprisoned Bertha for a decade. What I mean to say is, kind of like how Jane just doesn’t seem to mention or dwell on it after finding out about Rochester’s secret, more focusing on the fact that he was married rather than holding his mentally-ill wife captive against her will, I guess it didn’t stay in mind either. But there’s no excuse for what Rochester did. He loves to warp narratives to garner sympathy for himself, and maybe his rant is a smoke screen that attempts to conceal the unforgivable: he locked his wife in an attic for a decade and kept her isolated from all of society. Even if she was crazy—and how can we be sure of that? Rochester’s not the most trustworthy person—even if she was X or Y, that’s just not ok. See? Now I’m ranting too. Rochester really got me using adverbs. Ugh. Nice work!

  2. Damn, I forgot to add this: I love the images! It’s just funny to see how bleak England is in comparison to most of the world.

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