In Victorian literature, the orphan can be read as an unfamiliar and strange figure outside the dominant narrative of domesticity (Peters 18). They were often portrayed as poor children without a means of creating a successful life for themselves. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, however, is a portrayal of a female orphan who triumphs over almost every environment she enters. Therefore, Jane’s ability to overcome the hardships that she encounters is a fictional success story. By discussing Jane’s early life as an orphan at Gateshead and Lowood, and also her relationships with Helen Burns and Adele Varens, one can see how Bronte’s novel is an escape from the familiar predestined fate of at least one orphan in the novel—Jane.
Jane becomes an orphan after her father, a poor clergyman, is infected with typhus fever while visiting among the poor of a large manufacturing town. Jane’s mother becomes infected from him, and both die within a month of each other (37; ch. 3). Because Jane is still a young child when this occurs, she knows no other life but of that as an orphan. Mr. Reed, her uncle who informally adopts her, wants Jane to be brought up in a positive familial environment. After his death, however, Mrs. Reed makes certain that this is not possible. Through her character, Bronte draws on the archetypical literary figure of the wicked stepmother (Nestor 35). Although Jane now lives with the Reeds, a financially well-off family, she is still treated like a poor, working-class orphan.
While at Gateshead, Jane is constantly reminded of her lower-class, orphaned status. Jane’s position in the Reed household is inferior and intolerable. Even the Reeds’ servant, Miss Abbot, tells her,...
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...ops. Along with these experiences, she is involved in relationships with other children of orphaned status. Both Helen Burns and Adele Varens play a significant role in helping Jane become a successful governess and the eventual wife of her true love. Because of these experiences and relationships, Jane’s past as a passionate, oppressed, insignificant, orphaned child is buried by her ability to overcome it. Her ability to overcome this sentence for failure is, indeed, like a fairy-tale.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1996.
Hochman, Baruch, and Ilja Wachs. Dickens: The Orphan Condition. London: Associated UP, 1999.
Nestor, Pauline. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.
Peters, Laura. Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.
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