Jane Eyre is a novel about conformity; a novel about, yes, rebelling against one's given circumstances, but, more importantly, about learning to follow the protocols of society. At the beginning of the book, Jane is a young girl struggling to survive the seemingly harsh rule of her adoptive family. She repeatedly acts on her passions and speaks honestly. When Mr. Brocklehurst asks Jane if she likes the Psalms, she replies with a curt no, an answer that is met with disapproval and shock from Mr. Brocklehurst. Similarly, Jane fails to control the emotions whirling within her when she lashes out at Mrs. Reed.

Once at the Lowood School, which is portrayed as the embodiment of rules, procedures, and strict protocal, Jane's rebellious nature is highlighted again by her interactions with the character of Helen Burns. Helen is an impressive student, quick-witted, insightful, a joy for all to converse with. Yet, the instructors at Lowood single her out for strict and severe punishment whenever she fails to follow the rules. Jane observes one such event;

When I returned to my seat, that lady was just delivering an order [to Helen], of which I did not catch the import; but Burns immediately left the class, and, going into the small inner room where the books were kept, returned in half a minute, carrying in her hand a bungle of twigs tied together at one end. This ominous tool she presented to Miss Scatcherd with a respectful curtsey; then she quietly, and without being told, unloosed her pinafore, and the teacher instantly and sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with the bunch of twigs. Not a tear rose to Burns's eyes [115]

Later, Jane confronts Helen about the incident, assuming she "must wish to leave Lowood," but Helen's answer surprises her:

"No: why should I? I was sent to Lowood to get an education; and it would be of no use going away until I have attained that object."

"But that teacher, Miss Scatcherd, is so cruel to you?"

"Cruel? Not at all! She is severe: she dislikes my faults."

"And if I were in your place I should dislike her: I should resist her; if she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose."

"Probably you would do nothing of the sort: but if you did, Mr. Brocklehurst would expel you from the school; that would be a great grief to your relations. It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you — and besides, the bible bids us return good for evil."

"But then it seems disgraceful to be flogged, and to be sent to stand in the middle of a room full of people; and you are such a great girl: I am far younger than you and I could not bear it."

"Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear."

I heard her with wonder: I could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance; and still less could I understand or sympathise with the forbearance she expressed for her chastiser. Still I felt that Helen Burns considered things by a light invisible to my eyes. I suspected she might be right and I wrong. [117]

There is a sharp contrast between the two characters of Jane and Helen, one exemplifying passionate imprudence and the other an embodiment of self-restraint. But, again, Jane Eyre is a novel about conformity and throughout the story Jane learns to control the passion and emotion that leads her often to act out of turn.

Questions

Literature often focuses on protagonists who disobey society and its rules. These characters are often viewed by modern readers as heroes for the very fact that they do not conform and instead follow their own hearts. Would a Victorian audience view a nonconformist protagonist in the same way? Or would they view them with disapproval, scorn?

If Helen Burns is such an important character in the early part of the novel, such a complement to Jane, why does Brontë have her fall ill and die?

Why do you think Helen is singled out for punishment so often? Is she just neglectful of certain rules or is there something more going on?


Victorian Overview Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre

Last modified 30 January 2009