Helen’s Influence on Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre, the central character of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, is a complex character that relies on resilience to survive the harsh world she lives in, surrounded by characters that show her cruelty and neglect. Helen, however, is shown to be a much more passive character, showing no resistance to her poor treatment, even up until her death at the age of nine.
Something interesting about Jane’s friendship with Helen is that after she died, Jane did not absorb her message for living—that this world is not so important, instead it is God and the afterlife that we should be concerned about. Helen is likely the first childhood friend Jane ever had, and tragically died in her arms while they were both children. One would think that this ending to their young friendship would cause Jane to latch onto her deceased friend’s core beliefs, being such a young and isolated child. Soon before her death Jane notes “she seemed dearer to me than ever; I felt as if I could not let her go” (74). However, a few paragraphs later, Jane skips over the eight years following Helen’s death, since she believes “I am only bound to invoke memory where I know her responses will possess some degree of interest, therefore I now pass a space of eight years almost in silence” (75).
After Helen dies, her central role in Jane’s life unsurprisingly diminishes. But she is also not made to be a martyr figure in Jane’s eyes, which I found to be surprising. I would think a girl who loses her first friend at a young age would in a sense “carry her with her” for a long time thereafter. Jane claimed she felt she could not let Helen go, but does she follow through on this? Does she keep Helen with her and internalize what she tried to teach Jane?
While I realize Helen failed to successfully inflict her religious beliefs onto Jane, as she never shows having a belief system as absolute and unshakeable as Helen, I think a part of her “died” along with Helen. Before meeting Helen, Jane is seen as a spunky, resilient child that refuses to put up with the poor treatment by others that she is subjected to. And while Helen is the calming force to Jane in a lot of instances, cooling Jane’s fire, she still maintains her world view of feistiness and resistance to the less-than-ideal parts of the world.
To a large extent, her resistance and sense of independence dies, or is at least largely weakened by, the death of Helen. Furthermore, some passivity is gained in its place. When she is informed that John has died and Mrs. Reed is requesting her to come to her on her deathbed, she responds immediately, “… I shall be ready: it seems to me that I ought to go” (210). It would horrify the younger form of Jane to know that she would one day reenter the house she loathed so much, especially to see Mrs. Reed, her abuser. Once she is reunited with Mrs. Reed, she tells Jane, “The fever broke out there, and many of the pupils died. She, however, did not die: but I said she did—I wish she had died!” (219). Jane’s response to this is merely to comment on that strange wish and ask why she hated her so much, not to resist the cruelty of this belief like she would have years before.
Does Jane’s reply not seem like something the passive Helen would say and not the stubborn Jane we are introduced to in the beginning of the book? Her neglect to once again stand up the people she always loathed demonstrates that despite Helen’s brief time with her, she had largely influenced Jane after all. Whether or not this developed passivity is a good thing is debatable, but she accepts hatred given to her without batting an eye, just as Helen always did.
Gerver, Jane E., and Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.