Bronte’s Jane Eyre: The Figure of Bertha Mason

Lesson rationale

This activity will encourage students to explore the character of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s first wife, through the lens of medical history. They will compare Charlotte Brontë’s presentation of the character with the perspectives offered by contemporary medical textbooks and reports; considering the extent to which Rochester’s treatment of Bertha reflects 19th-century developments in the treatment of the mentally ill. Students will go on to explore connections between Rochester’s treatment of Bertha and the story of Bluebeard.

Key questions in this lesson:

  • How does Brontë depict Bertha Mason?
  • In what ways does Brontë’s presentation of Bertha reflect 19th-century thinking on the causes, symptoms and treatment of mental illness?
  • How is our interpretation of Mr Rochester influenced by the insights we gain from learning about 19th-century attitudes to mental illness?
  • What does a reading of the Bluebeard story contribute to our interpretation of Mr Rochester?