Bertha Mason, also known as the madwoman in the attic, is Mr. Rochester’s first wife whom he keeps locked in a room on the third floor of Thornfield Hall. She is a woman from the West Indies of mixed racial ancestry and is, according to Mr. Rochester, a lunatic. In his narrative of events, he was allured by her beauty and her family’s wealth and only discovered her true, unhinged nature after they were married. Rochester claims in Chapter 27 that he “found her nature wholly alien” in comparison to his own and that she had “a violent and unreasonable temper.” These descriptors of the early years of their relationship play into the stereotype of the “other” as someone who is exotic, mysterious, and sensual. While Rochester may have initially been intrigued by the idea of Bertha as an “other,” her foreign, or “alien,” attitude ultimately becomes a perceived threat to him. Since Bertha lacks a voice in the novel, it is impossible to know for sure if she truly has a mental illness or if Rochester’s biased version of events distort her true character.

What the reader does see firsthand, however, is Bertha’s behavior. Jane describes her in very animalistic terms upon seeing her for the first time, crawling around on all-fours before lunging at Mr. Rochester. This dehumanizing language emphasizes the fact that Bertha is locked up like an animal, conditions which seem to drive her to lash out at her captors. During Jane’s time at Thornfield, Bertha is responsible for setting Rochester’s bed on fire, sneaking into Jane’s room and tearing her wedding veil, and attacking her brother with a knife. All of these behaviors reflect her anger toward her arranged marriage and its subsequent decline. Setting fire to the bed symbolizes the intimacy she and Rochester never had, destroying the veil highlights her jealousy of Jane’s relationship with Rochester, and attacking her brother emphasizes her resentment towards him for allowing the marriage in the first place. Bertha’s final and most significant act, however, is setting fire to Thornfield Hall and jumping off the roof to her death. While this behavior can be seen as the pinnacle of her madness, it can also represent an assertion of her agency and a defiant claiming of independence, albeit at the cost of her life. Regardless of what her motivations may be, Bertha’s presence in the novel is significant for its time as she shows that women can and do have deep and visceral emotions.