Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – A Story of One Abused Child

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – A Story of One Abused Child

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Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – A Story of One Abused Child

According to Alexandria’s daily newspaper, The Town Talk, approximately 34,910 cases of suspected child abuse were reported in Louisiana alone last year (Crooks). Charlotte Bronte tells of one victim of child abuse in her novel Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bronte chronicles the life of Jane, a notoriously plain female in want of love. After being abused, Jane portrays many characteristics which other victims of abuse often portray. Throughout the novel, Jane is reclusive, pessimistic, and self-deprecating. Although Jane does display such traits through most of her life, she is finally able to overcome her past. By facing her abusive aunt, Jane rises above her abuse to become truly happy.

In his essay “Jane Eyre: The Quest for Optimism,” Frederick L. Ashe writes, “It is hard to imagine anyone learned enough to read Jane Eyre who would consider her first ten years emotionally healthful ones” (Ashe). Ashe, whose criticism appeared in Novels for Students, Volume 4, is correct in his opinion. Jane’s abuse first begins in her own home. Her life until age ten is filled with abuse from her cousin John Reed, the mockery of the household servants, and the physical and mental abuse of her Aunt Reed. John’s first abuse of Jane comes when he throws a heavy book at her head. Bronte writes in Jane’s voice, “I saw him lift and poise the book and stand in act to hurl it, I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm: not soon enough, however; the volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it. The cut bled, the pain was sharp” (Bronte 13). John’s physical abuse of Jane is not the only abuse she receives, though. After Jane recovers from the abuse bestowed upon her by John, Miss Abbot, a servant, says of Jane, “If she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that” (Bronte 28). Although this abuse pains Jane, it is the abuse of her Aunt Reed that hurts Jane the most. Aunt Reed’s first maltreatment of Jane is on the first page of the novel. Aunt Reed gathers her children around her for a happy family moment. Jane, however, is left alone. Jane says, “[Aunt Reed] regretted to be

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under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she could discover by her own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner, she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children” (Bronte 9). Aunt Reed later resorts to physical abuse when she shakes Jane soundly and boxes her ears. Even after such abuse, Aunt Reed feels Jane has not endured enough. She locks Jane in the red-room, a cold, silent room where the coffin of her dead uncle rests. Jane believes the room to be haunted by her uncle’s ghost. After spending time in the red-room, Jane suffers a fit and then faints. For several days after, she falls in and out of consciousness. After her time in the red-room, she no longer enjoys her normal pleasures.

Jane’s only solace at the Reed’s seems to be Bessie the nurse. After Jane is locked in the red-room, Bessie tends to Jane by offering Jane her favorite books and foods. Bessie never tries to stop the abuse of Jane, though, and often makes it worse by telling on Jane for petty mishaps. Jane tells of Bessie’s tendencies when she says, “When gentle, Bessie seemed to me the best, prettiest, kindest being in the world; and I wished most intensely that she would always be so pleasant and amiable, and never push me about or scold, or task my unreasonably as she was too often wont to do” (Bronte 31). Margaret Finnegan, a victim of her father’s abuse, wrote of her abuse in “A Hero’s Retreat.” In her essay, Finnegan spoke of her mother, a lady who acted much like Bessie does in Jane Eyre. Finnegan writes of her mother: She wanted to be Switzerland. She wanted to be neutral. But when you live on a battleground, you have to choose sides. Inaction implicitly rewards the powerful. . . Sometimes, to assert her authority, she ratted on us. She never stopped him from hitting us. I don’t think she considered it a possibility (Finnegan).

Finnegan has in her mother what Jane has in Bessie. Though Finnegan’s mother never directly abused her, she aided in the abuse by not stopping it. After being abused by the Reed’s, Jane begins to show her first characteristic signs of abuse. In his criticism of Jane Eyre, Ashe writes: Jane’s emotional reaction provides a textbook example of mental depression. Jane in this scene quite clearly demonstrates five of the eight identifiable symptoms of adult or child depression cited by the American Psychiatric Association. First, she manifests a loss of appetite in her inability to eat either the night she is locked in the red-room or the following day. Secondly, she is unable to sleep: ‘For me, the watches of that long night passed in ghastly wakefulness.’ Third, she displays a lack of interest in usual activities, as she is unable to muster enthusiasm over her favorite engraved dinner plate or over Gulliver’s Travels. Fourth, Jane experiences feelings of guilt and worthlessness: ‘All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so.’ Finally, Jane indulges in suicidal fantasy in her thoughts of forsaking food or drink (Ashe).

Jane’s depression shows even before her experience with the red-room, though. At the novel’s open, Jane hides herself behind a curtain to escape abuse. Instead of facing her own world, she reads countless books and daydreams. Jane says, “I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat…having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement” (Bronte 9-10). Finnegan tells of her own attempts to evade abuse when she writes: I hid. When I was very small, I hid under blankets, convinced that what I could not see could not see me. I also retreated into a world of imaginary friends and lands. I wrote plays and stories and pretended I was a rock star. I invented so many worlds safer than my own (Finnegan).

Both Jane and Margaret attempt to hide from their problems. Jane hides herself in the curtain, while Margaret hides under blankets. Both victims also use literature to divert their attention from the woe inflicted upon them. After her fit caused by the red-room, Jane’s Aunt Reed decides to send Jane to Lowood, a boarding school. Jane looks upon as it a rewarding opportunity, but she soon discovers that Lowood is merely another place of abuse. The abuse Jane receives at Lowood is stronger than the abuse she receives at the Reed’s home. Jane is immediately singled out by Lowood’s headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst as “worse than a heathen” and a “liar” (Bronte 69). Brocklehurst’s most hateful comment about Jane comes when says, “Who would think that the Evil One has already found a servant and agent in her? Yet such, I grieve to say, is the case” (Bronte 68). Brocklehurst warns the teachers and students to “shun [Jane’s] example, and if necessary, avoid her company” (Bronte 69).

Brocklehurst makes the comments about Jane after she has spent only one day at Lowood. He attempts to isolate Jane before she ever has a chance to make any friends. In addition to emotional and physical abuse, Jane is forced to undergo inhumane conditions which cause many of her classmates to die. Jane says: Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold. . . our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet. . . Then the scanty supply of food was distressing with the keen appetites of growing children. From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse (Bronte 62).

Frederick Ashe calls Lowood a place where “a sense of fear and guilt about happiness on earth” is instilled in Jane (Ashe). At Lowood, Jane finds her escape from abuse in the character Helen Burns. Helen’s unending faith in God and her unwillingness to succumb to pain draw Jane to her. Jane becomes so fixed on Helen’s love that she tells Helen, “To gain some real affection from you, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me” (Bronte 72). The harsh conditions of Lowood prove to be too much for Helen, though, and result in her death. Just before Helen’s death, Jane says, “She seemed dearer to me than ever; I felt as if I could not let her go” (Bronte 85). Years after Helen’s death, Jane goes to Helen’s burial sight and replaces the rotting tombstone with a new one “inscribed with her name and the word ‘Resurgam’” (Bronte 85). “Resurgam,” which is Latin for “I will rise again,” later in the novel seems to be fitted for Jane who eventually rises over her abusive past.

When Jane finally leaves Lowood, she finds herself at the estate of Mr. Rochester as a tutor for a little girl. In Terry Eagleton’s essay “Jane Eyre: A Marxist Study,” which is featured in a collection of modern critical interpretations edited by Harold Bloom, Eagleton speaks of Jane’s leaving Lowood. He writes:

It is an ambiguity illustrated in Jane’s response to leaving Lowood: she is uncertain how far severing that bond involves freedom or servitude. Leaving school means venturing into a world whose very threats seem enthralling: ‘I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils’ (Eagleton 39).

Just as Jane looked forward to going to Lowood, she now looks forward to being on her own in the world.

Upon taking the job, Jane finds herself still restricted by her past. Mr. Rochester also notices the hold Jane’s past has on her. He says to Jane, “The Lowood constraint still clings to you somewhat; controlling your features, muffling your voice, and restricting your limbs” (Bronte 142). At Rochester’s estate, Jane finds herself under Rochester’s sometimes demanding control. Jane speaks of Rochester’s faults by saying, “He was moody, too; unaccountably so: I more than once, when sent for to read to him, found him sitting in his library alone, with his head bent on his folded arms; and , when he looked up, a morose, almost a malignant scowl, blackened his features” (Bronte 150). In his criticism, Eagleton continues:

...the buoyancy of the enterprising individualist with the world at her feet is immediately deflated. Jane’s prayer for liberty, and then – rationally paring down her hubristic demands – for at least ‘change and stimulus,’ are scattered to the winds; in the end she settles glumly for ‘at least a new servitude’ (Eagleton 39).

Eventually, Jane and Mr. Rochester grow to be fond to each other. Mr. Rochester admits to Jane that he does have feelings for her. He says, “I knew you would do me good in some way, at some time; -- I saw it in your eyes when I first beheld you: their expression and smile did not – (again he stopped) – did not (he proceeded hastily) strike delight to my very inmost heart so for nothing” (Bronte 154). Jane’s first admittance of her love of Mr. Rochester comes when Blanche Ingram, a beautiful woman, visits Rochester. Jane says to herself:

You – a favourite with Mr. Rochester? You gifted with the power of pleasing him? You of importance to him in any way? Go! Your folly sickens me. And you have derived pleasure from occasional tokens of preference – equivocal tokens, shown by a gentleman of family, and a man of the world, to a dependent and a novice. How dared you? Poor stupid dupe! (Bronte 162-63).

In this scene, Jane begins to once again show her mistrust of love. Although Rochester has shown her signs of interest, she refuses to believe such a man could love her. Ashe writes of this scene, “[Jane] refuses to succumb to her will because she cannot imagine his returning the love – she cannot allow for a happy ending. . . A more optimistic character with a more realistic self-image could not but read Rochester’s many signs of affection, and accept his inability to love the haughty Blanche” (Ashe). Jane’s harboring on her own faults stems from her loveless childhood. Ashe continues:

John Bowlby has done extensive work in the area of childhood loss of or separation from the mother, and has determined such events to have a profound effect later in life. The effects of an unsatisfactory maternal relation, such as Jane’s with her Aunt Reed, may extend to the child’s later capacity to make and sustain relationships with others. Jane’s pessimism is, moreover, a natural result of her maltreatment by the Reeds, who reinforced in her the notion of her own inadequacy and unlovability (Ashe).

Jane is not willing to admit her own positive characteristics until she is again faced with Aunt Reed. Jane meets Aunt Reed again when Aunt Reed becomes ill. Jane is summoned to the Reed’s house. After having visited with Aunt Reed for a while, Jane says:

My fingers had fastened on her hand which lay outside the sheet: had she pressed mine kindly, I should at that moment have experienced true pleasure. But unimpressionable natures are not so soon softened. . . Again she regarded me, so icily, I felt at once that her opinion of me – her feeling towards me – was unchanged, and unchangeable. . . I felt pain, and then I felt ire; and then I felt a determination to subdue her – to be her mistress in spite both of her nature and her will” (Bronte 233).

Although Jane recognizes that Aunt Reed will never have love for her, Jane avows to still display love for Aunt Reed. Later, Jane is able to really face her own negative feelings. After her Aunt Reed berates her once again, Jane says, “My disposition is not so bad as you think: I am passionate, but not vindictive. Many a time, as a little child, I should have been glad to love you if you would have let me (Bronte 242). In this statement, Jane finally admits that she is a good person. This admittance begins Jane’s ability to really live her life.

Pat Conroy writes of another victim of abuse in his novel The Prince of Tides. The abused character tells of his abuse by saying:

[My father] seemed uncomfortable with us when my mother was not orchestrating the tenor of household life. Several times during the evening, he had yelled at us when something minor and insignificant had irritated him. . . He was both brutal and ineffectual as a man who would always be a stranger in his own house. As his children, we were treated as some species of migrant worker who happened to be passing through. My father was the only person I ever knew who looked upon childhood as a dishonorable vocation one grew out of as quickly as possible. He would have been loveable for his feckleness and his blustering eccentricities if he had not been born a violent and unpredictable man. I think my father loved us, but there has never been a more awkward or deviant love. He considered a slap to the face a valentine delivered. . . He never noticed us except to scold us; he never touched us unless in anger (Conroy 182).

Like Jane, Conroy’s character is exposed to an abusive childhood. As Jane is not ready to admit her own positive traits and begin her life before confronting her aunt, Conroy’s character cannot begin his life without first facing his father. He says, “I began my life by being taken prisoner in my father’s house; I would begin my manhood by walking over him on my way out the door” (Conroy 182).

Although Jane has begun the process of truly being happy, she still succumbs partially to her own pessimism. Jane and Rochester plan a wedding, but Jane fears it is too good to be true. She says, “I feared my hopes were too bright to be realized; and had enjoyed so much bliss lately that I imagined my fortune had passed its meridian, and must now decline” (Bronte 277). When a problem arises in their marriage, Jane does not stay with Rochester to face it. Instead, she leaves his estate to find a new life. After much wandering, Jane finds a life at Moor House. Though Jane finds happiness at Moor House, she still wishes to succumb to her love of Mr. Rochester. When a marriage proposal and a move to India are presented to Jane, she finds herself finally willing to admit her love for Rochester. In a risky decision, Jane decides to find Rochester and marry him. Before Jane commits to finding Rochester, Jane believes she hears his voice in the night, beckoning her. She tells of the voice by saying, “I had heard it – where, or whence, for ever impossibly to know! And it was the voice of a human being – a known, loved, well-remembered voice – that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe wildly, eerily, urgently” (Bronte 422). Upon hearing Rochester’s voice, Jane decides she must find him. She says to the voice, “I am coming! Wait for me! Oh, I will come!” (Bronte 422). Ashe says of Jane’s decision to go to Rochester, “She truly wants to be with Rochester, and she truly believes that ‘the best things the world has’ are the ‘domestic endearments and household joys’ that she might enjoy as Mrs. Rochester. The voice she hears convinces Jane to reject a pessimistic sacrifice of future happiness, and to gamble on recovering Rochester and bliss. The voice represents the defeat of the pessimist in Jane Eyre” (Ashe).

Jane does find Rochester. In him, she finally is able to find the happiness she has sought her entire life. At the novel’s end, Jane is able to tell truthfully of her happiness. She says, “I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine” (Bronte 454). Acclaimed novelist Joyce Carol Oates says of Jane’s happy marriage to Rochester, “What greater triumph for the orphan, the governess, the small, plain, and ‘Quaker-like’ virgin?” (Oates).

Jane’s final happiness can not be viewed as simply another happy ending. Jane’s journey to be able to rise above the abuse dealt to her accounts for the novel’s greatness. Ashe says of Jane’s plight:

To see the adult Jane as the crippled but determined product of an unhealthy childhood is to re-establish the novel as the very plausible portrait of a full human life. Jane’s happy ending must not be viewed merely as a proper or improper choice between right and wrong, but as the resolution of an intense psychological drama, wherein the degree of free will needed to make such a happy choice is finally attained (Ashe).

Child abuse is hardly considered extraordinary. The number of annual reported cases seems almost innumberable. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte tells of Jane's story of abuse. Jane undergoes abuse not only in her own home but also at boarding school. Jane's abusive past manifests itself in her pessimism about love. Jane's negative outlook is normal, though, for a person who has been abused. Other victims of abuse write about feelings similar to Jane's. While Jane's early life is filled with the thought that true love does not exist for her, Jane's later life is filled with true happiness gained from true love.

Works Cited

Ashe, Frederick. “Jane Eyre: The Quest for Optimism.” Literature Resource Center. 30 April 2001 .

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Signet Classic, 1847.

Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides. New York: Bantam, 1986.

Crooks, Sarah. “29 La. children’s lives wiped out by CHILD ABUSE.” The Town Talk. 29 April 2001: A1.

Eagleton, Terry. “Jane Eyre: A Marxist Study.” Modern Critical Interpretations Jane Eyre. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 29-45.

Finnegan, Margaret. “A Hero’s Retreat.” 30 April 2001 .

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Jane Eyre: An Introduction.” 28 April 2001 .


Ashe, Frederick. “Jane Eyre: The Quest for Optimism.” Literature Resource Center. 30

April 2001 .

Bentley, Phyllis. The Bronte Sisters. Great Britain: Longman Group, 1950. Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “Jane Eyre in Search of Her Story.” Modern Critical Interpretations The Brontes. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 155-68.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Signet Classic, 1847.

Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides. New York: Bantam, 1986.

Crooks, Sarah. “29 La. children’s lives wiped out by CHILD ABUSE.” The Town Talk. 29 April 2001: A1.

Eagleton, Terry. “Jane Eyre: A Marxist Study.” Modern Critical Interpretations Jane Eyre. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 29-45.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. “Artistic Truth in the Novels of Charlotte Bronte.” Modern Critical Interpretations The Brontes. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 13-35.

Finnegan, Margaret. “A Hero’s Retreat.” 30 April 2001 .

Moglen, Helene. “The End of Jane Eyre and the Creation of a Feminist Myth.” Modern Critical Interpretations Jane Eyre. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 47-61.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Jane Eyre: An Introduction.” 28 April 2001 .
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