Collections > UNC Chapel Hill Undergraduate Honors Theses Collection > "I Had Dreaded Worse. I Had Dreaded He Was Mad": Reading the Intersections of Mental Illness and Masculinity in Jane Eyre

Madness has long been an object of fascination in the cultural imagination, constituting the focal point of many works of literature, television, and film. One of the most famous examples of this trend is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the 1848 novel that gave us the infamous “madwoman in the attic,” Bertha Mason. As we see exemplified in Brontë’s representation of Bertha, the majority of works representing madness portray it in a negative light. “Madness” as an ideological framework is more overtly couched in cultural assumptions and deep-seated prejudices as compared to our current ideological framework in place of “mental illness,” which relies more on a neutral and clinical stance thanks to advances in neuroscience and psychology in the past century. The shift toward this ostensibly neutral and objective modern psychology has its roots in the nineteenth century, which acted as a transition into the period of advancements that took place in the twentieth century. Thus, as a mid-nineteenth century novel, Jane Eyre straddles these two ages, and arguably displays examples of both madness and mental illness. The most obvious example is Bertha Mason, whose character is entirely based on the conventions and discourses of “madness” from the preceding century. And, as much salient scholarship has indicated, these discourses of madness are inexorably entangled with those of gender, specifically those of femininity. As such, gender becomes another critical lens for the investigations I conduct in this thesis. This brings us to the other side of the coin: that of mental illness. If Bertha Mason represents madness and its intersection with gender through the entanglement of femininity with madness, then our other subject, our main subject, must be her counterpart. For this thesis, I will argue that Edward Rochester can be read as mentally ill, and thus embodies a separate set of discourses as compared to those that influence Bertha’s character. Reading Rochester as mentally ill consequently forces us to consider similar implications that we do for Bertha – that is, how does gender, specifically masculinity, figure into this reading. So, by looking at Jane Eyre through an intersectional lens that takes into account the presence of discourses on mental illness and masculinity, we open ourselves up to a reappraisal of the novel’s treatment of gender politics, for gender politics are intrinsically in play when contrasting these characters.