Jane Eyre, protagonist of Charlotte Brontë’s novel bearing the same name, arrives at the Lowood Institution at the behest of her aunt, Mrs. Reed. Unable to bear the fiery and defiant personality of her niece — qualities that garner the young girl unsavory epithets like “wicked,” “deceitful,” and “underhanded little thing” — the mistress of Gateshead sends Jane away. The master of Lowood, the self-righteous clergyman Mr. Brocklehurst, endorses a strong hand and an oppressive environment as the most effective means of correcting faulty personalities; he publically accuses Jane of dishonesty, shaming her before her peers and instructors. Jane’s defining characteristic, particularly in her youth, is her inability to quietly accept what she perceives to be unwarranted public humiliation and scorn. Helen Burns, her fellow student at Lowood, represents the first individual who successfully engages Jane in a conversation regarding this characteristic, forcing her to consider and attempt to validate her reactive, sometimes violent, lashings out, and Jane tries to defend herself.

“You are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”

“You will change you mind, I hope when you grow older: as yet you are but a little untaught girl.”

“But I feel this, Helen: I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.” [119]

Jane’s theory of retributive justice pays homage to a more primitive time when the old adage “an eye for an eye” governed individuals’ treatment of one another: every action requires an action of equal, if not greater, magnitude. Helen makes clear her opinion that Jane’s logic reflects that of an immature child, insinuating that her ways will change when she matures and learns the values indoctrinated by “Christians and civilized nations.”

“Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilized nations disown it.”

“How? I don’t understand.”

“It is not violence that best overcomes hate — nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.”

“What then?”

“Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how he acts — make his word your rule, and his conduct your example.”

“What does he say?”

“Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.” [119-120]

Helen’s appeal to Jane, which boasts a direct quotation from Matthew 5:44, sounds more like a sermon than a friend’s casually dispensed advice; Helen, thus, in her actions and words, exemplifies a contemporary disciple of Christ or a type of Christ, preaching nonviolence and the power of persistent goodness in the face of evil. During Jane’s initial time at Lowood, Helen Burns epitomizes purity and goodness; she stands in stark opposition to the young, immature, and defiant Jane Eyre who cannot yet effectively control her emotions.

Questions

1. Do you believe Helen Burns exemplifies a type of Christ? Why or why not? Explain.

2. Helen attributes Jane’s rationale to the fact that she is “but a little untaught girl.” In what ways is Jane “untaught”? When, if ever, does the protagonist learn to adopt Helen’s tolerance and forbearance?

3. Preceding the passage quoted above, Helen shares with Jane her “doctrine of endurance” and policy of forbearance:

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 evilÉ Yet it would be your duty to bear it [punishment], 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. [117]

Does this passage implicitly refer to Christ’s death on the cross in the sense that he patiently, and willingly, endured a smart to atone for man’s original sin? Does Helen make this connection to imply that Jane (and the reader!) needs to be more like Christ? And how does Helen’s introduction of the concept of fate tie in with the novel as a whole?

4. In response to the passage quoted in question 3, Jane admits that she “could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance . . . Helen Burns considered things by a light invisible to [Jane’s] eyes.” What is the symbolic importance of this “light”? In what ways is Helen enlightened that Jane is not? Is Jane eventually able to see and consider things by this “light”?


Victorian Overview Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre

Last modified 13 March 2011