Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jane Eyre and Helen Burns - the impalpable principle of light and thought

Jane Eyre is split into four main sections, each one featuring a powerful man who wants to crush her. Why does every man she meets feel compelled to do this? Jane is so nice.

Each section also includes helpful female characters. The most interesting is her friend Helen Burns, who she meets at Lowood school. Helen is a sort of Christian rationalist, an enthusiast for Johnson’s improving Rasselas, the sort of child who says things like:

“We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain,--the impalpable principle of light and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature... I hold another creed: which no one ever taught me, and which I seldom mention; but in which I delight, and to which I cling: for it extends hope to all: it makes Eternity a rest--a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss.” (Ch. 6, 51)

That “no one ever taught me” is a tip-off. Helen is an exponent of natural religion, the personal combination of reason and scripture. But see the passage a little earlier, where Helen can’t answer a question in class because she is “listening to the visionary brook,” like a little Henry David Thoreau. So Helen is also restlessly imaginative. And ornery. So is Jane. Helen is in some ways a more mature version of Jane Eyre, a model for Jane’s future growth.

Poor Helen – “I heard frequently the sound of a hollow cough” (Ch. 5, 42). That’s actually our introduction to Helen – Jane doesn’t even see her for another two paragraphs. The cough comes first. Readers of Victorian novels know what that means. Poor Helen. Her death scene has true pathos. Note the passive voice in the passage about Helen’s gravestone: “for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot” (Ch. 9, 72). The tablet was, of course, placed by Jane Fairfax, in 1816 or so, soon after her return from her Continental honeymoon.

Helen only appears in the school chapters (5-9). After her death, Jane skips eight years “almost in silence.” Helen is mentioned exactly once more, at the deathbed of Mrs. Reed:

“In pondering the great mystery, I thought of Helen Burns, recalled her dying words--her faith--her doctrine of the equality of disembodied souls. I was still listening in thought to her well-remembered tones--still picturing her pale and spiritual aspect, her wasted face and sublime gaze, as she lay on her placid deathbed, and whispered her longing to be restored to her divine Father's bosom...” (Ch. 21, 208)

Jane again encounters her cousins in this section, one a shallow idiot, one about to enter a Catholic convent. Cousin Eliza is almost a photonegative of Helen Burns, isn’t she, religious to the point of fanaticism, self-controlled to the point of suppression of human feeling? Another example for Jane’s growth – how not to be.

1 comment:

  1. I remember that cough - such a telltale moment. But even with the heavy foreshadowing you are absolutely correct about Helen's death being so moving.