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Becoming Helen: The Journey to Compassion in 'Jane Eyre'

Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University and has a passion for literary and film analysis.

"Jane Eyre" 1921 Movie Poster; Cropped by Veronica McDonald (2018)

"Jane Eyre" 1921 Movie Poster; Cropped by Veronica McDonald (2018)

Becoming Helen: The Journey to Compassion in Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is often interpreted as a story of a “woman’s search for equality and freedom”1 within a harsh world patrolled by dominating figures. Sandra M. Gilbert, in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress,” describes Jane Eyre’s story as a “pilgrimage” in which the goal is “maturity, independence,” and “true equality” with her employer/love-interest, Edward Rochester (358). Though this interpretation carries validity within the text, it neglects important aspects of Jane’s journey that make up the foundation and undercurrent of the entire novel, specifically that of emotion. Gilbert analyzes emotion in her essay, focusing primarily on Jane’s anger, but in doing so glosses over the key character and catalyst for every subsequent event and relationship in Jane’s life: her tragic (yet formidable) schoolmate, Helen Burns. Gilbert refers to Helen as a mother figure who represents the “impossible ideal” to Jane, specifically “the ideal […] of self-renunciation, all consuming (and consumptive) spirituality” (345-346). She describes Helen as doing “no more than bear her fate” (346), as if she is a useless saint-figure to whom Jane can never aspire. I instead argue that Jane and Helen’s relationship goes much deeper than Gilbert implies. The bond between the two girls not only sets the foundation for Jane and Rochester’s relationship, but also establishes Jane’s true pilgrimage, which is an aspiration to be like Helen Burns, a journey which ultimately, and subtly, brings Jane Eyre into the realm of sensibility and sentimental fiction.

As an older friend that trumps Jane by three years, Helen Burns is often presented both as an enigma and teacher to Jane. When she first meets Helen, Jane is a somewhat immature ten-year-old interested in fairies and genii, and who could “not digest or comprehend the serious or substantial” (59). She is first attracted to Helen because she is reading, recognizing how they are alike, since “[she], too, liked reading” (59). Jane immediately asks her a long series of questions about the school and herself, and after the two girls become friends, Jane continues to be the questioner and Helen the teacher. Helen often bewilders Jane with the way in which she speaks and in the doctrines she preaches, particularly when it comes to bearing what cannot be avoided, such as being whipped or humiliated by a school teacher: “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” (67). Jane at this point still cannot understand forgiveness and the Christian notion of loving your enemy, for she still carries a strong, vindictive dislike for her aunt Mrs. Reed. This vindictive nature is something that Helen predicts will change in Jane when she “grows older” (68), foreshadowing the journey that Jane must embark on in order to mature emotionally and compassionately within her relationships. These concepts, however, are foreign to Jane at this stage in her youth, and instead, she perceives Helen as embodying a sad religiousness that roots itself in self-preservation: “Helen calmed me; but in the tranquility she imparted there was an alloy of inexpressible sadness. I felt the impression of woe as she spoke, but I could not tell whence it came” (83). Jane expresses this sentiment after Helen scolds Jane for thinking “too much of the love of human beings” (82), which Jane seems to interpret as a renunciation of relationships. Jane confuses Helen’s acceptance of her own death as a God-driven self-preservation that should be aspired to, and as she makes the deathbed promise to stay with her “dear Helen” (97), she endeavors to become like Helen without fully understanding her.

It is difficult to fully trace Helen’s influence over Jane because, after Helen’s death, Jane rarely mentions her again throughout the remainder of the novel. Without mentioning her, however, Helen is frequently conjured within the text, specifically through Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester. Jane’s first encounter with Rochester, though seemingly very different, carries many similarities to her first meeting with Helen. Jane approaches Rochester when he falls off his horse because, like with Helen, she is set at ease by something familiar in him—though in this case, it is his “frown” and “roughness” (134). In this meeting and the encounters that follow, Jane is in the place of Helen, and it is Rochester who acts like the ten-year-old Jane, constantly asking Jane questions and often alluding to the magical world of fairies and genii. Unlike her relationship with Helen, where Jane was clearly the pupil and Helen the teacher, with Rochester Jane often finds herself in a role that is somewhere in between Helen and ten-year-old Jane, somewhere between maturity and naivety. Just as Helen was an enigma, so is Rochester, and there are times when Jane has difficulty understanding him: “To speak truth, sir, I don’t understand you at all; I cannot keep up the conversation, because it has got out of my depth” (161). But while she recognizes his “sphinx”-like nature, she still strives to be the Helen Burns in the relationship, teaching Rochester self-preservation and self-love: “It seems to me, that if you tried hard, you would in time find it possible to become what you yourself would approve” (161). These words of Jane to Rochester mirror Helen’s words to Jane: “If all the world hated you […] while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends” (82). The parallel between the two statements, combined with various similarities between the two sets of relationships, demonstrates the impression left by Helen while highlighting Jane’s aspiration to follow in Helen’s footsteps.

Jane’s inability to understand both Rochester and Helen, along with her growing love for Rochester, complicates her goal of becoming like Helen Burns. Aspiring to be in the role of teacher – not merely as a governess, but as a life-teacher to one similar to ten-year-old Jane – in her friendship with Rochester, Jane finds that she is unable to fulfill that role because of her inner child and her notions of self-preservation. Though she has made progressive steps in becoming like Helen, especially by finally giving Mrs. Reed forgiveness, she is hindered by her somewhat childish idolatry of Rochester (“I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol,” 316), by her naivety and lack of knowledge of the world—brought to her attention by Mrs. Fairfax when she says, “you are so young, and so little acquainted with men” (305)—and by what she believes is a quest for independence (ignited by Helen Burns). Gilbert also recognizes the notion of Jane being stuck somewhere between maturity and youth, when she writes, “[Jane] is doomed to carry her orphaned alter ego everywhere” (358). I also agree with Gilbert that Jane “has doubts about Rochester the husband even before she learns about Bertha” (356); this is something that becomes evident when Jane has trouble envisioning herself as “Jane Rochester.”

Jane’s hesitance in taking Rochester’s name seems to stem from her fear of losing the self that she has not yet fully formed. The emergence of Rochester’s secret, mad wife Bertha Mason allows Jane the opportunity for enacting the parts she has not yet fulfilled in becoming Helen Burns and becoming the life-changing teacher she wants to be for Rochester. Doing as she thinks Helen would want her to do, Jane “escapes” from Rochester, which is “necessary for her own self-preservation” (Gilbert, 363). In doing so, Jane also undergoes a type of symbolic death, and as if mimicking Helen’s death and abandonment of Jane, she painfully abandons Rochester: “I was experiencing an ordeal: a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning!” (363). This symbolic death must occur in order for Rochester to learn the same lesson Jane learned from Helen – humility. Jane even imitates Helen’s parting words to her2, by telling Rochester, “Do as I do: trust in God and yourself. Believe in heaven. Hope to meet again there” (364). Through these acts of self-preservation and abandonment, Jane feels as if she is completing her journey, being the teacher, sacrificing herself to God’s will, and leaving human relationships behind.

Though again, there is no direct mention of Helen Burns apart from various parallels, it seems that it is not until Jane forms a relationship with St John Rivers that she truly begins to understand the lessons imparted to her by Helen. Similar to her experience when Helen preaches to her about the feebleness of human relationships, Jane also feels sadness when hearing St John’s preaching; only this time she begins to understand why:

[…] instead of feeling better, calmer, more enlightened by his discourse, I experienced an inexpressible sadness: for it seemed to me […] that the eloquence to which I had been listening had sprang from a depth where lay turbid dregs of disappointment, where moved troubling impulses of insatiate yearnings and disquieting aspirations. I was sure St John Rivers – pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was – had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding […] (405)

It is at this point that Jane realizes that it was not purely Helen’s endurance of hardships, self-preservation, and religious devotion that inspired and motivated Jane. Alone, these qualities become empty and carry sadness. Through her relationship with St John, Jane gradually discovers the differences between him and Helen, though at first glance they both appear to be saint-like role models. When Jane realizes that, though St John wishes to marry her, he “will never love me; but he shall approve me” (466), she appears to recognize that the primary difference between St John and Helen is emotion, specifically emotion associated with compassion, love, and friendship. Helen never seeks the approval of anyone at Lowood School, whether it is from the stern Miss Scatcherd or the sweet Miss Temple, though she often displays actions of compassion, love, and friendship to Jane, particularly in moments when she feels most isolated, alone, and wretched. To seek St John’s approval would be un-Helen-like, and would cause Jane to stray from the path she aspired to follow. St John’s denial of emotion, particularly that of love, seems to reawaken Jane and causes her to reanalyze her relationship with Rochester—not as a scorned lover, or as an absent teacher, but as a friend. Though she believed she had completed her journey to become like Helen, she realizes that she had forgotten the most important elements of compassion and friendship.

Jane’s return to Rochester is reminiscent of Helen’s return to Jane with coffee and bread after Mr. Brocklehurst demanded that the entire school shun her. Similarly, Jane brings Rochester a glass of water after he is shunned from society, and labeled as a liar just as ten-year-old Jane was by Mr. Brocklehurst, and she comforts him in the same way that Helen comforted her: “You are no ruin, sir […] Plants will grow about your roots, whether you ask them or not” (512)3. Jane’s return to Rochester is the last act needed in completing her journey. When Jane sets out to find what has become of Rochester, she does so out of compassion and friendship. Since she doesn’t know that Bertha is dead until after she arrives at Thornfield, it is clear that she expects nothing out of her return except to achieve the last element needed to become like Helen Burns. It is only in her return to Rochester that she completes her journey, and therefore it is no surprise that happiness and a sense of fulfillment soon follows.

Jane discovers by the end of the novel that self-fulfillment cannot be achieved without compassion, making Jane Eyre an understated sentimental novel. Looking at the theories of sensibility and the roles of sentimental novels in the 18th century preceding, Jane Eyre seems to suggest the moral goodness instilled by sensibility. Though not as prevalent as in novels such as Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling, Jane Eyre still follows Adam Smith’s belief that “moral judgments” should be “based on a sympathetic response to the sight of suffering or distress” and Anthony Ashley Cooper’s Locke-ian notion of “emotion as a path to knowledge” (Scott, 1039). These notions, however, are discreet in Jane Eyre, and only discernible while focusing on Jane’s journey, analyzing what she has learned, and recognizing the role of compassion and friendship throughout the story. The novel doesn’t end with Helen Burns, but we are left with her shadow in the form of St John. His final words at the close of the story evoke Helen’s, but again they lack compassion, friendship, and love. Though both die at peace, it is clear that death (and heaven) is St John’s goal from the very beginning. Despite her acceptance of God, Helen’s very last words are “don’t leave me, Jane; I like to have you near me,” inscribing the message that Jane is to learn by the end of her journey, that friendship and compassion are vital elements in leading one to contentment and Godly peace in life.

1 Quoted from the back cover of Jane Eyre (Penguin Classics, 2006).

2 On page 97.

3 Helen originally tells Jane that “not one in the school either despises or dislikes you” (82) when Jane is afraid the whole school thinks she is a liar.

By F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920; Cropped by Veronica McDonald (2018)

By F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920; Cropped by Veronica McDonald (2018)

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Classics, 2006.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress." The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. By Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. 336-71.

Scott, Alison. “Sensibility.” Romantic Encyclopedia. 1039.

© 2018 Veronica McDonald


Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on June 18, 2018:

I could tell you enjoyed reviewing the book, Veronica, hang in there and keep writing.

Veronica McDonald (author) from Alabama on June 16, 2018:

Thank you! And thank you for taking the time to read it. I'm glad it made you want to read the novel again.

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on June 15, 2018:

Very nice analysis, Veronica. I look forward to reading the novel again. You gave a thorough summary of the major characters and their relationship value in Jane's life.