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Jane's first day at Lowood School confirms her worst expectations. All of the girl students, who range in age from nine to twenty years old, have to wear ugly brown dresses covered by pinafores. In the morning they wash in basins of ice cold water. All day long they're marched from place to place, moving from meals to prayers to classes to the sound of clanging bells and the voices of teachers commanding, "Silence!" The food is terrible. For supper on Jane's first night, the girls have only a thin oat cake with water to drink. At breakfast the next morning, the porridge is so badly burned that Jane, although terribly hungry, cannot bring herself to eat.
Miss Temple, who runs the school for Mr. Brocklehurst, isn't a bad person-in fact, she does what she can. When noon comes, for example, Miss Temple tries to make up for the awful breakfast by ordering a special treat of bread and cheese for the girls. However, she doesn't have either the authority or the courage to force Mr. Brocklehurst to hire a better cook. How you judge Miss Temple will depend on whether or not you think it is right for a person to work within a bad system in the hope of mitigating its evils. Is Miss Temple helping the girls at Lowood by making their lives a little easier than they might otherwise be? Or does Miss Temple only make matters worse by staying at her job and keeping Mr. Brocklehurst's system running smoothly?
There's room for more than one verdict on Miss Temple's character. But what about the kind of "charity" practiced at Lowood school? Mr. Brocklehurst doesn't believe in coddling the poor. In his opinion, the sooner the girls learn to put up with hardship, the more self-reliant they will be in later life. Today we still hear this point of view (maybe not quite as extreme) every time the subject of poverty comes up: Giving the poor too much only makes them dependent on handouts. There's no doubt what Charlotte Bronte thought about this attitude. She stacks the deck against Mr. Brocklehurst by making him as nasty and hypocritical as possible.
We know what kind of charity the author is against. But what kind is she for? Is she arguing in favor of social equality? Or is she only condemning Mr. Brocklehurst's self-righteous attitude?
There are always a few readers who suspect the author herself of being a bit hypocritical about poverty. We're supposed to feel very sorry for the "nice girls" at Lowood. But what about poor people who don't happen to come from "nice" middle-class families? Later in the book (Chapter 31) we'll see that Jane herself is a little snobbish about her lower-class pupils. You'll have to decide for yourself whether the attitude toward charity in Jane Eyre is always consistent.