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Free Barron's Booknotes-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte-Free Online Book Notes
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When Jane Eyre was first published, the obvious resemblance of the character of Mr. Brocklehurst to the real Rev. Carus Wilson, whose school Charlotte and her sisters attended, created a sensation. Many of Mr. Wilson's friends and former pupils rushed to his defense, accusing Charlotte Bronte of exaggerating the hardships at the school and unfairly accusing Mr. Wilson of hypocrisy (particularly since, unlike the character of Brocklehurst, Mr. Wilson did not have a wife and daughters who lived in luxury).

Whether or not Charlotte Bronte was fair to Mr. Wilson,- it would be hard to argue that Mr. Brocklehurst is a well-rounded creation. However, it is interesting to know that Bronte was being entirely realistic in the scene where Mr. Brocklehurst threatens ten-year-old Jane with hellfire for her childish misbehavior. In real life, the Reverend Mr. Wilson not only forbade his pupils to read novels, he expected them to read stories he wrote himself about the horrible things that happen to little boys and girls who disobey. In one typical story, a little boy violates the Sabbath by going ice skating on Sunday. What happens? He promptly falls through a patch of thin ice, drowns, and goes to hell. And in a true account of an eleven-year-old who died while a student at his school, Mr. Wilson wrote that his reaction was one of rejoicing that God had taken one of the best-behaved children in school-"the one for whose salvation we have the best hope"- since her death may "be the means of rousing many of her schoolfellows to seek the Lord while he may still be found."


Unlike Mr. Brocklehurst, who is a "a harsh man; at once pompous and meddling"- the very picture of a religious hypocrite-Helen Burns is meant to be sympathetic. Not everyone finds her so. For every reader who admires Helen's saintliness and weeps at her death, there will be another who decides that Helen is too good to be true.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the episodes involving Helen are sentimental and unconvincing, you should remember that in those days the death of children was a fairly common fact of life. People in general were much more aware of the possibility that they might die at any time. Not everyone was as gloomy as Mr. Brocklehurst, by any means, but both adults and children talked openly and often about death to a degree we might find almost morbid. We know that Charlotte Bronte had a real-life model for Helen in her own sister Maria, who fell ill at Cowan Bridge school and died a few days after being sent home. And, ironically, at the very time that Charlotte Bronte was writing about Jane Eyre's failure to see the seriousness of Helen's consumption, she was ignoring the early symptoms of the disease in herself, her brother, and her two sisters.

Even knowing this, maybe you still find yourself wondering whether any real child ever talked the way Helen Burns does in the story. The way Helen is described, she is by no means without faults: she has dirty fingernails, breaks the school rules by reading novels in secret, and so on. Yet you may feel, as some readers do, that in the conversations between Jane and Helen about religion, the author has lost touch with her characters and is setting up an artificial debate between two different philosophical view-points.


Mr. Rochester's first wife is hardly a full-fledged character at all. We see her only as a ghostly figure, who roams the halls of Thornfield house in the middle of the night, setting fire to her husband's bed and frightening Jane. In this sense, Bertha is nothing more than an unusually realistic and effective horror story monster. Jane actually sees Bertha only twice: once when Bertha invades her bedroom in the middle of the night, and once in Chapter 27 where Bertha is described as follows: "What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal..." In support of the view that Bertha is nothing more than a device for moving the plot along, notice that even Mr. Rochester's description of her earlier life is curiously vague and unsympathetic. Also, once the time comes for Jane and Rochester to be reunited, Bertha conveniently commits suicide in the fire she starts at Thornfield Hall.

In recent years, feminist critics have become more interested in what the person Bertha Mason means in the story of Jane Eyre. In their view, Helen Burns represents the spiritual side of Jane Eyre's nature while Bertha Mason symbolizes her uncontrolled passion. Note that in Chapter I, when Jane resists John Reed's bullying, he calls her a "bad animal." And in Chapter 2, Jane is locked in the red-room bedroom because her behaviour has been so "passionate."

Bertha Mason has also fascinated modern women novelists. Jean Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea is an entire novel written about the youth and early marriage of Rochester's mad wife. Another contemporary novel, Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, while not explicitly based on Jane Eyre, concerns a modern housekeeper, romantically involved with her employer, who discovers that his mentally ill wife lives in the basement of the house. You might find it interesting to compare 20th-century views of the mad wife in these novels with the Bertha Mason we meet in Jane Eyre.


Just as Edward Rochester is the foil and object of Jane Eyre's passion, St. John (sin'jun) is the character who reflects Jane's sometimes contradictory ideas about duty and spirituality. St. John is constantly described in terms of images of coldness: He is called cold-hearted and frigid. "His reserve was again frozen over, and my frankness was congealed beneath it... he continually made little chilling differences between us..." Jane says (Chapter 34). At times St. John seems to take a perverse pleasure in torturing himself. He ignores the inner voices that tell him he's made a wrong decision in entering the ministry. Although "wildly" in love with the beautiful, rich Rosamond Oliver, he finds an excuse to reject her. He seems to relish the prospect of dying young in the tropical heat of India. On the other hand, Jane cannot help admiring St. John for his dedication. While she is planning to spend her new fortune in leisure at Moor House, St. John is preparing to renounce everything to go out into the world and do good works.

Notice that St. John is often described in a way that recalls characters we've met earlier in the story. St. John reminds Jane of a "cold, cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place." Mr. Brocklehurst is described as "a black pillar" (Chapter 4). Like Brocklehurst, St. John subscribes to a grim view of religion, which he seeks to impose on others. But is St. John also a hypocrite? Some readers say no. Unlike Brocklehurst, he is prepared to follow the same harsh rules he would prescribe for others. Others disagree. Who but a hypocrite, they say, would try to convince a woman to marry him by telling her that it is the will of God? St. John wants Jane's total devotion, but is willing to give nothing in return.

St. John is also frequently compared to Helen Burns. "Burn" is a Scottish word meaning "stream" or "brook"; St. John's last name is Rivers. According to this interpretation, Helen, a child, is able to submit to God's will directly and simply. St. John, an adult, cannot submit to God's call except through an intense struggle, which destroys a part of himself.

Some readers even see certain likenesses between St. John and Mr. Rochester. Although opposites in temperament, both men do try to trick Jane into marriage-Rochester by hiding the existence of his wife and St. John by convincing Jane that she must marry him for the sake of duty. Both are also described as frequently moody and withdrawn. Are these similarities purposeful? Probably so, although a few readers have suggested that Charlotte Bronte simply did not have a wide repertoire when it came to male characters on account of her own narrow experience with men. (Bronte was so sensitive to this particular criticism that she began her next novel, Shirley, with a scene in which all of the characters are male.)

There is no one correct judgment on St. John. If you are religious, you'll probably admire his struggle to turn himself into an instrument of God's will. If you are interested in psychology, you're probably more likely to conclude that he hasn't really conquered his earthly desires, just rechanneled them in another direction. Jane Eyre's own judgment of St. John swings dramatically from one scene to the next. In rejecting St. John's proposal of marriage she tells him angrily, "You almost hate me. If I were to marry you, you would kill me. You are killing me now." Yet not long after, in a calmer mood, she tells Diana Rivers, "He is a good and great man: but he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuing his own large views."

The final paragraphs of the novel present yet a third view of St. John, comparing him favorably to Greatheart, the Christian warrior in Pilgrim's Progress: "Firm, faithful, and devoted; full of energy and zeal, and truth, he labours for his race.... He may be stern; he may be exacting: he may be ambitious yet; but his is the sternness of
Greatheart.... His is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks for Christ when he says-'Whosoever will come after
Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.'"

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