If you’re a fan of 19th century fiction like me, you’ve no doubt read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and seen one of the many fine film and TV adaptations. The first such version was a silent film released in 1910, with eight or nine more to follow before the classic Orson Welles – Joan Fontaine film from 1944.
Many other movie and TV adaptations have been made since then, some memorable, others not so much; but this latest version with Mia Wasikowska in the title role is a superb rendition of the classic tale. Both Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender as Rochester give stand-out performances; the direction by Cary Fukunaga is superb.
Many important themes run throughout the novel Jane Eyre, and some of them make it onto the large or small screen: atonement and forgiveness, feminism, the search for home and family. The story also includes many vivid psychological portraits, rich in insight; I could discuss any one of them, but instead, I’d like to talk about its view of mental illness. It’s a small part of the story but fascinating from a historical perspective. We live in an age where people commonly discuss the roots of emotional difficulties in childhood, and how family patterns of communication shape our psychology; it’s easy to forget that 150 years ago, people thought quite differently.
Society in Jane Eyre views mental illness as a form of both moral depravity and inherited physical corruption. Rochester’s insane wife, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, is portrayed as by nature sexually promiscuous, low-minded and of vicious temper. Due to time constraints, Rochester’s speeches in the film have been radically shortened from the novel, in which he speaks at great length about the “idiocy,” corruption and insanity that runs throughout the Mason family line. In other words, she comes from tainted stock. Her mental illness has nothing to do with what might have happened to her during childhood, or communication patterns within the family; it’s written in what would later become known as her “genes.”
While modern medical science has lately revived this idea of a genetic component to mental illness — a chemical imbalance in the brain — the early 19th century combined it with a moral perspective. Not only insanity but moral corruption runs throughout the Mason line. When Rochester talks about Bertha’s eventual breakdown, he describes it in moral terms: “I lived with her for four years. Her temper ripened, her vices sprang up, violent and unchaste.” In modern terms we might discuss the sexual promiscuity in borderline personality disorder, or extreme fluctuations in feeling states to be found in bipolar disorder, but we’d never refer to them as “vices.” In Rochester’s view, in Bronte’s view, Bertha is “just plain bad” and there’s nothing more to be said about her.
Though Fukunaga’s adaptation faithfully portrays this archaic point of view, one scene in the film nonetheless contains the seeds of a more modern understanding. After Bertha’s brother interrupts the wedding and Rochester escorts them all to the attic to meet his wife, Bertha at first responds to her husband with deep affection. Then, when she sees Jane, she becomes enraged and violently assaults him.
One can imagine that she shifts from love to hatred in a moment, unable to bear the feelings of jealousy that come up at the sight of Jane. We could view it as an example of the extreme splitting characteristic of psychotic disorders, and the inability to bear emotion that results from an extremely impoverished emotional background. From a modern perspective, we might speculate that the failure of her mother to contain and make sense of her earliest emotional experience means that Bertha never developed the ability to hold on to and understand her own feelings; instead she’s overwhelmed and swept away by each of her passions as it arises. (To learn more about this process, please see this post on the early development of mind and meaning.)
But Jane Eyre is a gothic novel from the mid-19th century, of course, and the portrait of Bertha Antoinetta Mason lacks real psychological depth. As Rochester says about her, she’s actually a sort of “demon.” While he may take pity on his wife and save her from the mad house, in the story at large, she’s more of a plot device, an impediment to the union of Jane and Rochester, than a realistic portrait of tormented psychosis. It will take another 50 years or so before Breuer and Freud published their Studies on Hysteria and we began our modern investigation into the meaning of mental illness.
Photo by Maxwell Hamilton, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.