Gothic Element, Plot Device or More? Comparison between the portrayal of Heathcliff and Bertha Mason

Term Paper, 2018

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Heathcliff
2.1 Heathcliff’s origin
2.2 Heathcliff as a terrorist at Wuthering Heights
2.3 The Brontë’s view of Heathcliff

3. Bertha Mason
3.1 The Mad Woman in the Attic – Bertha as Jane’s Dark Double?
3.2 Bertha in Wide Sargasso Sea

4. Comparison between Heathcliff and Bertha
4.1 The Other and Gothic

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The Bronte sisters Emily and Charlotte both brought to live a character that is of strange origin for their time. Both sisters published their novels in 1847. Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre and with it created the character of Bertha Mason and Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights in which she gave life to the character of Heathcliff. With Heathcliff it is completely unknown where he is from and his origin can only be assumed, whereas Bertha is known to be a Creole white woman from Jamaica. Yet not much is known about either one’s backgrounds and how they came to be in the state they were when they are first introduced to the reader. Both characters are used as a Gothic element through ought each novel and both are portrayed in an almost none-human or even demonic way.

In this research paper I want to take a closer look at the similarities and differences between Heathcliff and Bertha. While doing so I also want to find out if their respective creators portrayed them just as a Gothic element, a stereotype, plot device or similar things or if their portrayal has a different kind of thought behind it. While reading Jane Eyre and letters Charlotte Bronte send regarding Wuthering Heights I noticed an almost extreme opinion Charlotte seems to have about people of colour. My interest for this topic comes from the fact that there is a lot of research about the Otherness of both characters but rarely are they compared with each other. Oftentimes Charlotte and her opinions about her sisters novel Wuthering Heights are quoted in research but rarely does anyone comment on her extreme view on Heathcliff. Her critique of Wuthering Heights is mostly only analysed in regard to her sister. So, with this paper I also want to take a closer look at the things Charlotte Bronte had to say about Heathcliff and about how she herself portrayed the Other in her novel, Jane Eyre.

I will also take a quick look at Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea in order to be able to differentiate the way Charlotte, who had lived her whole life in England, and Jean Rhys, who had been living on a Caribbean island (see: Rhys, p. 3), similar to Bertha, portray the same character. This could show whether or not Charlotte had, as I presume, a more racist view on the post-colonial regions and people than her sister Emily.

2. Heathcliff

2.1 Heathcliff’s origin

In 1769 Heathcliff is found in Liverpool by Mr Earnshaw and brought to Wuthering Heights. The year and place in which Heathcliff was found are significant, as Susan Meyer points out, because Liverpool used to be the England’s largest slave-trading port during that time (p. 481). This information is not given in the novel itself but, with the description of Heathcliff given in the novel, one might assume that he might have been a slave that Mr Earnshaw saved from slavery.

Right from the beginning Heathcliff is not welcomed by various members of the Earnshaw family and their staff. While his step-brother Hindley’s hatred is blatant racism, the housekeeper Nelly’s dislike is based on fear, yet both do not have a real reason to dislike Heathcliff other than his skin colour (see: Khair, p. 66). During the course of the novel Hindley turns Heathcliff into his enemy and seals his own fate by treating Heathcliff like a monster.

2.2 Heathcliff as a terrorist at Wuthering Heights

Interestingly enough Edgar Linton sees Heathcliff as savage and provokes him, but Heathcliff understands that he is being mistreated (which Edgar presumably did not think Heathcliff was capable of doing) and responds with an element he seizes from the Domestic sphere (apple-sauce). Not only as a young boy but even in his later days Heathcliff uses domestic and legal ways to terrorize Hindley Earnshaw (see: Rena-Dozier, p. 771). He makes sure Hindley is in his dept so that Heathcliff can finally own Wuthering Heights. By learning of young Catherine’s interest in his own son, Linton, Heathcliff also sees another opportunity to finally seize both of the residences of the families that he feels like were tormenting him. Heathcliff, after Hindley’s death, becomes something a legal guardian to Hindley’s son, Hareton and now acts out his revenge even beyond Hindley’s death by treating Hareton almost exactly like Hindley treated Heathcliff. The behaviour Heathcliff shows is rough and unnecessary but in some way the behaviour also mirrors that of Hindley as a younger boy. By having Heathcliff mirror the behaviour of Hindley, whom the reader got to know as a superior to Heathcliff, Emily Bronte manages to show that Heathcliff might not be different from Hindley and thus not an animal or a savage as Hindley makes him out to be. Something that Emily Bronte also does by mirroring the behaviour is to show that the Domestic space is as affiliated with violence as is the Gothic space (see: Rena-Dozier, p. 772). Emily also adds a small dose of kindness into Heathcliff’s behaviour towards Hareton to show that he might be even more humane than Hindley was. As Rena-Dozier also points out, it is not only Heathcliff that could be described as savage. The inhabitants of Wuthering Heights can, according to her, be seen as brutes which react poorly to civilized, domesticated intruders such as the Linton family or later in the novel Lockwood (p. 771).

Another reason why Heathcliff causes fear in the ones surrounding him could be that his surrounding now has to face the Other in their own homes and also have to accept that their own home, the moors, cannot be domesticated. As Tabish Khair points out, the Earnshaw’s and Linton’s form their own monster in Heathcliff by depriving him of love, acceptance and language, combined with the fear of him because of his Otherness and Heathcliff’s fetishization (as Khair calls it) of power, because he does not know anything else (p. 70). Yet this is another instance that has nothing to do with his Otherness but with his treatment because he is different from the Earnshaw’s and the Linton’s. Those who treated him differently give him the tools for his brutal behaviour; he learns that terror and violence are the only things that made Hindley or the Linton’s his superior, so he uses it against them to achieve power over them.

2.3 The Brontë’s view of Heathcliff

Bernard Paris claims that through the course of the novel Emily Bronte restores Heathcliff’s humanity by making the reader remember the injustice that was done to him (pp. 241-2). In order to make the reader remember the things that were done to Heathcliff and the motivation behind his wish to act out his revenge, the reader on the one hand has Nelly who likes to recall things while telling the story of the inhabitants of the moors. The reader also is reminded of the actions that took place in Heathcliff’s youth through the repetition of said behaviour towards Hindley’s son by Heathcliff himself. Another element that makes the reader view Heathcliff as a human and not just a Gothic device is his love for Catherine and her love for him. Other characters and also the reader understand that Heathcliff is a man worthy of love and thus not the savage or the animal as Hindley or Nelly (or maybe even Charlotte Bronte) portray him.

In a letter to her publisher’s reader Charlotte calls Heathcliff a “black gipsy cub”. Even though she continues to say that had he been raised right he could have turned into a human being, the wording implies that she does not view him as a human in the first place. She also views him as a demon, again something that is not human (see: Barker 1997, p. 203). Unfortunately, it is not known what Emily herself thought of Heathcliff, because she never directly commented on him. What can be used to see her stand towards Heathcliff is the way she wrote him in Wuthering Heights. Emily gives Heathcliff the ability to speak and later on in his life achieve a small career of some sorts which show that she wrote him as a character with equal capabilities to the others who is not limited by his Otherness.

Charlottes way of describing Heathcliff, a fictional character, shows her harsh and racist view on people of colour. The picture one gets as a reader is only strengthened through her portrayal of Bertha Mason and her description of the Caribbean, where Charlotte has personally never been to.

3. Bertha Mason

Bertha Mason Rochester in Jane Eyre was the wife of Jane Eyre’s love interest Edward Rochester. Mason is never introduced by herself and only described to the reader by either Jane who sees her as a demon or animal that haunts Thornfield or by Rochester whose words are also brought to the reader via Jane. According to Rochester Bertha used to be a beautiful white Creole woman.

3.1 The Mad Woman in the Attic – Bertha as Jane’s Dark Double?

In 1979 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar took a psychoanalytical view on Jane Eyre and built the idea that Bertha is in fact a mirror to Jane in some sort. To be exact, they call Bertha Jane’s “her own secret self” (p. 348). Bertha enacts the things Jane cannot. While Bertha gives into her madness, 10-year old Jane resist falling into madness by behaving in the red room (see: Bronte, 2006, p. 7). Elizabeth J. Donaldson mentions that Bertha can be seen as a symbol for women’s rebellion but simultaneously warns that Bertha’s madness only offers the illusion of power (pp. 100-1). Looking at Charlotte Bronte and the century she lived in this could be one of the most accurate ways to look at the character of Bertha. Bertha is more rebellious than Jane and has lived outside of England. By having Bertha go mad, also by letting her die through her own actions and by making out Jane as the hero and in the end as the “Angel of the House”, it could seem like Charlotte did in fact do what Donaldson suggests, namely show the dangerous side of being a rebellious woman. Dr Sally Minogue however states that she believes that seeing Bertha as “Jane’s ‘true’ self” on the one hand reduces the struggle and hardship Jane went through during the course of the novel and on the other hand supresses Bertha’s story and is thus not a feminist way of looking at Jane Eyre (in Bronte, 2006, p. XIX).

H. Adlai Murdoch interestingly points out that Charlotte Bronte is not the only writer to use a Creole counterpart to the metropolitan protagonist. Murdoch mentions George Sand’s Indiana. In both novels the Creole counterpart forces the metropolitan protagonist to face the outcome of colonialism. According to Murdoch both scenes in which the confrontation between the Metropolitan and Creole take place allow readers “to question colonial binaries through their links to identity, alterity and knowledge.” (p.2). In Jane Eyre the identity of Bertha is finally revealed shortly before Jane and Rochester were to be married. The repression and hiding of Bertha and her identity only support the binary between Rochester as Berthas husband and thus her master, at least according to that time and Bertha as Rochester’s property. Murdoch also points out that “the mirror stage acts as [...] a moment of crisis that also doubles as the source of secondary identifications.” (p.2). And in fact, the crisis and the split between Jane and Rochester is caused by Jane learning the truth about Bertha and questioning her relationship to Rochester and questioning herself.

Valerie Beattie argues that even though Bertha is oftentimes described as powerless and locked in the attic, she appears more often outside of the attic and she alone is the reason for Rochester and Thornfield’s downfall. Beattie claims that by overlapping madness and power Charlotte Bronte undermines the disciplinary force of confinement (p. 2). Jane endured her time in the red room and sat through but luckily did not have to endure it as much as Bertha had to, whose whole identity was stolen. By locking her away and not treating her like a human being Rochester stole Berthas dignity and showed that the method of confinement only lead to a further development of Bertha’s madness. Similar to Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff, Bertha became the mad savage through the way she was treated by Rochester, who does not see the blame in himself, but rather blames Berthas family and claims that madness used to run through her family.

Interestingly enough Bertha is at the beginning of her journey a white Creole woman and becomes “darker” in England. Sue Thomas points out that Charlotte Bronte might have written Bertha as a far deeper metaphor than she is usually perceived as. Oftentimes Bertha is seen as, as above mentioned, a foil to Jane or as a Gothic device in the novel. But Thomas suggests that, by creating Bertha, Charlotte “links the degenerate moral and intellectual character of the white Creole with the cruelties of the slave-labour system in Jamaica [...]” (p. 1). This viewpoint however can also be seen as a bit far-fetched considering that Charlotte does not let Bertha speak for herself and everything the reader gets to know about Bertha comes out of the mouth of Edward Rochester.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Gothic Element, Plot Device or More? Comparison between the portrayal of Heathcliff and Bertha Mason
University of Würzburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Emily Bronte, Bronte sisters, heathcliff, bertha mason, jean rhys, wide sargasso sea, gothic novel, comparison, Wuthering heights
Quote paper
Selin Izgi (Author), 2018, Gothic Element, Plot Device or More? Comparison between the portrayal of Heathcliff and Bertha Mason, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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