Often when an incomprehensible act is performed—someone pushed to his or her death in subway, a mass shooting occurs in a college, or a chemical weapon is used in an attack on children—we hear people say, "He must be crazy," yet psychotic people commit a very small percentage of violent crimes, perhaps 3 percent. Do we tend then to equate evil with madness in order perhaps to deny the violence that exists within human nature which can be provoked for social reasons? 

Madness has also been a useful tool for autocratic governments in countries like Germany during the Nazi period, South Africa under apartheid, or the Soviet Union where anyone who was considered rebellious or critical of the regime was simply isolated, locked up in solitary confinement, or worse.

Women, too, if they did not toe the line were often put away, or even lobotomized during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. We see this wonderfully portrayed in two examples in literature: "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte which is contrasted with "Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys. In Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel, with its Gothic elements (cries heard coming from the third floor in the night , mysterious fires,  and stabbings) madness is portrayed with all its grisly details in the person of Rochester's Creole wife, Bertha Mason. The tainted child of a lunatic mother, she is dangerously violent, and stabs and bites her brother Richard Mason, as well as attempts to set Mr Rochester on fire. At the end she brings the whole house of Thornfield down in a grand conflagration, jumping to her own death. 

She is hardly human, without sex or language, an it: "In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not at first sight tell." Yet, she is described as cunning, stealing the keys to wander at night through the house. Is she suffering perhaps from tertiary syphilis contracted because of her relationship with Rochester?

Writing in 1966 Jean Rhys takes up this story of "madness" from the start and on the contrary gives us the Creole wife's history (she comes from Jamaica) and her real name, Antoinette Cosway. She is sold to Mr Rochester though he is never named in the later book. She has no rights, has forfeited all her money on her marriage, and has no legal protection from her husband who betrays her. He brings her to a foreign land, England,  and locks her up alone with only Grace Poole as her drunken guardian, where she retreats from reality into dreams.

All of this naturally brings up the old argument of nature versus nurture.  How much of what we call “madness” is simply useful to us in society, a concept employed for certain aims, and how much of it is simply a sad,  genetic disposition, one which is often hereditary and handed down from generation to generation or even brought about by an illness like tertiary syphilis which has progressed and damaged the nervous system.

Sheila Kohler
Source: Sheila Kohler


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte Penguin Classics

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys Norton Paperback

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