Literature is said to be the written reflection of the society, culture and its issues based on a particular time.
Jane Eyre was a novel written by Charlotte Bronte about a heroine finding her way and place in the society. It challenges the cultural and religious norm of that time. Also, it tackles gender and social class issues and places the main characters in the position to examine their moral and spiritual sensitivities. The element of suspense in the novel was the existence of a ‘lunatic’ first wife who was described as, “what it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it groveled, 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 mane, hid its head and face.”
Bertha Mason, the first wife, of Mr. Rochester was of Creole descent and has a family history of madness. Due to the insanity and the animalistic behavior of his wife, Mr. Rochester opted to imprison his wife in the attic under the care of a nurse. In the Victorian era, locking away or domesticated attention of mentally ill individuals are considered less harsh then taking them in the asylums. The ‘madness of Bertha’ has influenced society’s perception and awareness of mental illness.
Due to the popularity of Jane Eyre, some experts and academics even studied and compared the condition of Bertha Mason to an individual diagnosed with Huntington ’s disease (HD). “Simply put, HD is caused when one gene (or allele) of a usually healthy gene pair we all carry is abnormally elongated. This HD gene mutation is dominant, so that anyone who carries it will develop HD,” wrote Jenni Ogden, PhD. Huntington ’s disease also called as Huntington’s chorea is a hereditary disorder which leads to the death of brain cells.
Early symptoms show subtle problems with mood and mental ability. Next, overall lack of coordination and unsteady gait is observed. As the disease develops, jerky and uncoordinated body movements become noticeable. Physical ability slowly worsens until coordinated movements become difficult and the person is unable to talk. Mental abilities are also affected which causes cognitive and psychiatric disorders. Similar to Huntington’s tenets, Bertha Mason depicted a disorder with a strong family history which is suggestive of an autosomal dominant inherited condition with adult onset and culminating in suicide.
Many criticize Bronte on her depiction of Bertha’s Creole heritage and her complexion along with her madness as evidence to be identified as savage but at the same time also seen as a doppelganger for Jane. The doppelganger takes on the novel may not be too far-fetched since Jane Eyre is even imprisoned by the red room as a child and abstract sense of confinement as a woman of low social class. During those times, women suffer too many restraints and rules. “Even if they belonged to higher social classes, most women throughout history have been enslaved by men. Until recent times, women throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia were unable to have any influence over the politics, religion or culture,” wrote Steve Taylor, PhD.
Thankfully, the rigid social level, the limitations of women and stigma of mental illness are improving and far better as compared before; however, the issues remain and despite countless efforts from advocacy groups and healthcare sector. Feminists groups, female initiative campaigns, call for gender equality and reports of sexual assaults stay as problems that are yet to eliminate. After all, the feelings of entrapment of Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason might still be the same confines we face today.
With the present situation, a lot has changed since research, science and digital technology have intertwined and allowed the discovery of treatments and innovations on how to treat and handle mental illness. “Going back to a bit of history, World War II put a big spotlight on mental health as the war had serious mental health impacts on soldiers (war impacts EVERYONE and it has a trickle down effect through the generations),” wrote Kimberly Key, PhD. “Slowly, a shift in perceptions occurred where people could safely seek treatment for adjustment, transitions, and relational issues without feeling stigmatized.”
There has been a lot of promising changes, however, we still need more human involvement and understanding in relation to our attitude and behavior with persons suffering from mental illness.