Upon her arrival at Lowood, Jane Eyre's sense of isolation follows her as she automatically separates herself from the rest of her classmates. Jane, however, does find herself drawn to one girl, Helen Burns, whom she discovers reading a book with an intriguing title. After a short discussion with Helen regarding how the authorities conduct Lowood, Jane does not further speak with Helen for a few days.
When Miss Scatcherd punishes Helen for having unclean fingernails, Jane questions why Helen did not defend herself by explaining the lack of water for washing that morning. Jane does not understand the play of power occurring before her. Helen, trained and docile, obediently withstands her unjust punishment because she respects the great authority Miss Scatcherd holds over her and all the girls at Lowood.
Later that evening, Jane and Helen discuss their beliefs about authority, punishment, and enemies:
"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 they 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 your 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."
"Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine; but Christians and civilised nations disown it."
"How? I don't understand."
"It is not violence that best overcomes hate--nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury."
"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."
"Then I should love Mrs. Reed, which I cannot do; I should bless her son John, which is impossible." [80-81]
Throughout this discussion, Brontë how much Jane and Helen have disparate views of authority and morality. Jane harbors great animosity and anger towards those who punish her. She believes that those who punish her should also be punished. In contrast, Helen believes that only heathens take that position. She argues that one should follow the passive and forgiving attitude taught in the New Testament. In this conversation, Brontë sets forth a moral dilemma: should you love your enemy or should you wish that enemy harm? Furthermore, should you respect or dismiss the power of authority?
1. What effect does Helen's calling Jane's viewpoint that of "heathens and savage tribes" have on the reader's opinion of Jane?
2. Jane seems unable to understand why an individual would endure unjust punishment without complaint. Up until the red room incident, Jane, however, did just that during her years living with the Reeds. What do you think triggered the change in Jane's attitude toward enduring authority and punishment?
3. Towards the end of the passage, the conversation appears in a question-answer format in which Helen provides answers to various inquiries Jane sets forth. Does this place Helen in an authoritative teaching role and Jane in a docile student role?
4. Do you think the narrator offers a judgment on which viewpoint is preferable, Helen's or Jane's? Is this conversation challenging constant obedience to authority or further encouraging it?
Last modified 27 January 2009