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Sophie helps Jane dress for the wedding, and Rochester and Jane walk to the church. Jane notes a pair of strangers reading the headstones in the churchyard cemetery. When Jane and Rochester enter the church, the two strangers are also present. When the priest asks if anyone objects to the ceremony, one of the strangers answers: “The marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment.” Rochester attempts to proceed with the ceremony, but the stranger explains that Rochester is already married—his wife is a Creole woman whom Rochester wed fifteen years earlier in Jamaica. The speaker explains that he is a solicitor from London, and he introduces himself as Mr. Briggs. He produces a signed letter from Richard Mason affirming that Rochester is married to Mason’s sister, Bertha. Mr. Mason himself then steps forward to corroborate the story. After a moment of inarticulate fury, Rochester admits that his wife is alive and that in marrying Jane he would have been knowingly taking a second wife. No one in the community knows of his wife because she is mad, and Rochester keeps her locked away under the care of Grace Poole. But, he promises them all, Jane is completely ignorant of Bertha’s existence. He orders the crowd to come to Thornfield to see her, so that they may understand what impelled him to his present course of action.
At Thornfield, the group climbs to the third story. Rochester points out the room where Bertha bit and stabbed her brother, and then he lifts a tapestry to uncover a second door. Inside the hidden room is Bertha Mason, under the care of Grace Poole. Jane writes:
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.
Bertha attempts to strangle Rochester, who reminds his audience, “this is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know.” Jane leaves the room with Mason and Briggs, who tells her that he learned of her intent to marry Jane via a letter from Jane’s uncle, John Eyre, to Mason. It turns out that the two men are acquaintances, and Mason had stopped in Madeira on his way back to Jamaica when John received Jane’s letter. Approaching death, John asked Mason to hurry to England to save his niece. After the wedding crowd disperses, Jane locks herself in her room and plunges into an inexpressible grief. She thinks about the almost calm manner in which the morning’s events unfolded and how it seems disproportionate to the immense effect those events will have on her life. She prays to God to be with her.
The incident of the “madwoman in the attic” is probably the most famous in Jane Eyre, and it has given rise to innumerable interpretations and symbolic readings. For example, Bertha Mason could represent the horror of Victorian marriage. Rochester claims to have imprisoned her because she is mad, but it is easy to imagine an opposite relation of cause and effect, in which years of enforced imprisonment and isolation have made her violently insane or, at least, increased her insanity. Thus, the madwoman in the attic could represent the confining and repressive aspects of Victorian wifehood, suggesting that the lack of autonomy and freedom in marriage suffocates women, threatening their mental and emotional health. Bertha’s tearing of Jane’s wedding veil could be seen as symbolizing her revolt against the institution of marriage.
Another interpretation is that Rochester’s marriage to Bertha represents the British Empire’s cultural and economic exploitation of its colonial subjects. Briggs’s letter states that Bertha’s mother is a “Creole,” which could mean either that she is a person of European descent born in the colonies or that she is of black or mixed descent. In either case, Bertha might have evoked British anxieties about having to deal with the other cultures under Britain’s dominion, and Bertha’s imprisonment might signify Britain’s attempt to control and contain the influence of these subject cultures by metaphorically “locking them in the attic.”
Still another interpretation of Bertha is that she is a double for Jane herself, the embodiment of Jane’s repressed fear and anger, both in regard to her specific situation and in regard to oppression. For although Jane declares her love for Rochester, her dreams and apprehensions suggest that she also secretly fears being married to him, perhaps even that she secretly wants to rage against the imprisonment that marriage could become for her. Although Jane does not manifest this fear or rage, Bertha does. Thus, Bertha tears the bridal veil, and it is Bertha’s existence that stops the wedding from going forth.