When illness rumbles through Lowood, crippling and killing many of Jane's classmates, Jane narrates the experience with a tone that almost resembles nostalgia. After merely noting the suffering of the sick, she describes her plague-granted freedoms with near-fondness, speaking wistfully of being allowed to roam the woods, eating extra food, and so forth:
Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of the eighty girls lay ill at one time... Many, already smitten, went home only to die: some died at the school, and were buried quietly and quickly; the nature of the malady forbidding delay.
But I, and the rest who continued well, enjoyed fully the beauties of the scene and season: they let us ramble in the wood, like gipsies, from morning till night; we did what we liked, were where we liked: we lived better too. Mr Brocklehurst and his family never came near Lowood now: household matters were not scrutinized into; the cross housekeeper was gone, driven away by the fear of infection; her successor, who had been matron at the Lowton Dispensary, unused to the ways of her new abode, provided with comparative liberality. Besides, there were fewer to feed: the sick could eat little; our breakfast-basins were better filled: when there was no time to prepare a regular dinner, which often happened, she would give us a large piece of cold pie, or a thick slice of bread and cheese, and this we carried away with us to the wood, where we each chose the spot we liked best, and dined sumptuously. [Chapter IX, p. 94]
Removed from context — the understanding that this paragraph seeks to emulate the perspective of a child — the narrative feels disturbingly callous: Jane practically enumerates the benefits of having her classmate population culled down to a happier size, and for these one or two paragraphs her tone seems surprisingly and unapologetically selfish, a voice stolen from the sphere of Atlas Shrugged, Objectivism, and crotchety old folk: "besides, there were fewer mouths to feed"!
This coldness, of course, though potentially shocking at first glance, has less to do with Ayn Rand than with basic childish egoism; at this point in the story, after all, Jane is still only ten years old and very much sans grasp-on-life-and-death. A few paragraphs later, though, an unexpected change occurs, and for barely-mentioned reasons Jane is suddenly flooded with a full understanding of mortality:
And then my mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell: and for the first time it recoiled, baffled; and for the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood — the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth: and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, and plunging amid that chaos. While pondering this new idea, I heard the front door open; Mr Bates came out, and with him was a nurse. After she had seen him mount his horse and depart, she was about to close the door, but I ran up to her.
The phrase uttered in my hearing yesterday, would have only conveyed the notion that she was about to be removed to Northumberland, to her own home. I should not have suspected that it meant she was dying; but I knew instantly now: it opened clear on my comprehension that Helen Burns was numbering her last days in this world, and that she was going to be taken to the region of spirits, if such region there were. I experienced a shock of horror, then a strong thrill of grief, then a desire — a necessity to see her; and I asked in what room she lay. [Chapter IX, pp. 94-95)
Can Jane's initial casualness towards the disease be wholly accepted as the product of childhood innocence, or does it taint her character in some subtle way?
Brontë takes steps to explain Jane's abrupt leap in maturity by drawing on her attachment to the dying Helen, but does the switch truly seem realistic (or — the better term, perhaps — adequately provoked)?
Why does Brontë have Jane's thoughts ramble through a flurry of images and metaphors when the switch occurs? How might the scene have worked differently had Brontë chosen to have Jane's ďadult' voice simply explain the reasons behind her childhood realization of mortality, calmly and without frenzy?
Before going to Lowood, Jane has the following conversation with Mr. Brocklehurst:
'And what is hell? Can you tell me that?' 'A pit full of fire.'
'And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?'
'What must you do to avoid it?'
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: 'I must keep in good health, and not die.' [Chapter IV, p. 36]
When considered in combination with Jane's pre-revelation attitude towards death and with the line "she was going to be taken to the region of spirits, if such region there were," does this exchange paint a confusing picture of Jane's religious beliefs, or do her views seem consistent throughout her childhood? Does Brontë convincingly narrate from the perspective of a child when discussing Heaven and Hell in the early chapters of Jane Eyre?
Last modified 29 January 2009