Jane Eyre: A Heroine’s Quest for Home, Part Three

The students of Lowood School. Engraving by Fritz Eichenberg. Random House, 1943.
The students of Lowood School. Engraving by Fritz Eichenberg. Random House, 1943.

Jane’s Tests

This article continues from A Heroine’s Quest for Home, Part Two: From Thornfield Hall to Marsh-End.”
“Hopeless of the future, I wished but this—that my Maker had that night thought good to require my soul of me while I slept; and that this weary frame, absolved by death from further conflict with fate, had now but to decay quietly, and mingle in peace with the soil of this wilderness.”

In this part of my review of the novel Jane Eyre, I am looking at a particular aspect of Jane’s journey. Typical to the quest tale structure, the heroine encounters challenges that test and strengthen her character along her journey towards finding home. As Eric Solomon has pointed out, a pattern is repeated in each phase of Jane’s journey: “Jane comes into conflict with authority, defeats it by her inner strength, and departs into exile.” After leaving Gateshead, Jane faces four main tests, which originate from Mr. Brocklehurst, Mrs. Reed, Mr. Rochester, and finally St. John Rivers. Each test tends to interrupt Jane’s current life with issues from the past. In some of these challenges, she is supplied a helper. Each incident evaluates Jane’s growth and progress towards acquiring her ultimate goals: independence and home.

Jane’s first test comes after she has been at Lowood School for three weeks. The day Jane dreaded arrives: Mr. Brocklehurst comes to the school to fulfill his promise to warn her teachers about her bad, deceitful character. Jane comments, “I had been looking out daily for the ‘Coming Man,’ whose information respecting my past life and conversation was to brand me as a bad child for ever.”

Jane and Mr. Brocklehurst at Lowood School.
Jane and Mr. Brocklehurst at Lowood School.

Jane had thought that by leaving Gateshead she would be free from oppression and be able to start a new life. She says, “I had meant to be so good, and to do so much at Lowood: to make so many friends, to earn respect, and win affection. Already I had made visible progress.” When Brocklehurst condemns and humiliates Jane in front of the entire school, she fears her new life is ruined. When the students and teachers reject Brocklehurst’s statement against Jane, she learns that a person’s good character can overcome prejudice.

Helen Burns is Jane’s counselor throughout this situation and tells her that as long as she holds to what she believes is right, she will not be friendless. Jane demonstrates this truth later when she makes the decision to leave Rochester. Another important aspect of this incident is that Jane proves that she has greater inner strength than she thought. She had told Helen in an earlier conversation that she did not believe she could endure being physically punished or publicly humiliated, as Helen had. Yet when this does happen, she finds she has the ability to endure it.

Jane confronts Aunt Reed. Illustration by F.H. Townsend, 1897.

Jane faces a second opportunity to demonstrate her maturity and strength of character when she is summoned to the side of her dying Aunt Reed. After living at Thornfield for about six months, Jane is summoned by her oppressive aunt, to whom she had declared as an impulsive, injured ten-year-old, “I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up.” Unlike her earlier dread of Brocklehurst’s arrival at Lowood, Jane now feels strong and confident enough to confront her aunt: “I experienced firmer trust in myself and my own powers, and less withering dread of oppression.” Several other things about Jane are observed in this episode. Firstly, Jane shows that she harbors no bitterness against her Aunt or her cousins. The hurt she sustained as a child having healed, Jane now desires, “to forget and forgive all injuries – to be reconciled and clasp hands in amity” with her aunt. When Helen tried to teach her forgiveness, Jane expressed her philosophy that those who are treated unjustly should retaliate. However, now having learned to forgive, Jane pities rather than resents her Aunt Reed. Secondly, Jane demonstrates an emotional independence when her cousins treat her coldly. When she was younger, she had told Helen, “If others don’t love me, I would rather die than live – I cannot bear to be solitary and hated.” However, she no longer allows the behavior and thoughts of others to unsettle her. Although her cousins treat her with neglect, she is able to act graciously towards them.

“That is my wife.” Illustration by F. H. Townsend, 1897.

In the third test of Jane’s character, Rochester’s past disrupts her hopes for happiness. When Rochester reveals to Jane that he loves and wants to marry her, she looks forward to a new life and future. However, Rochester’s past comes back to haunt him when Mr. Mason announces that he already has a wife. Since she is a passionate woman in search of love, this incident puts Jane to her most difficult test. Jane realizes that she cannot trust her judgment if she is ruled by the madness of passion and forces herself to obey reason rather than submit to her feelings and desires. She feels, “While he [Rochester] spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitor against me, and charged me with a crime in resisting him.” Helen had once accused her of “think[ing] too much of the love of human beings,” but Jane now demonstrates that in spite of her feelings, she is able to heed her conscience and obey the laws of God, which do not change. Additionally, Jane now values herself and will not lower herself to a relationship in which she is not considered an equal. “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Maria Yuen summarizes, “The motivation of Jane’s action is not self-sacrifice, but rather self-protection.”  And so, Jane leaves Thornfield to preserve self.

In this situation, Jane has no human aide; she must rely on herself. Yuen reminds us in her article that Rochester’s “penetrating analysis of Jane’s character” predicted what Jane’s response would be: “I shall follow the guiding of that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience.” The moon in her dream, as described earlier, represents this inner voice. Later, while wandering alone and destitute on the moors of Whitcross, Jane seeks additional aid from nature. She believes Nature to be “benign and good” and personifies it as her loving mother, who will “lodge me without money and without price.” As a child she told Helen, “[I]f others don’t love me, I would rather die than live.” Although having now lost her opportunity for love, Jane is ready to die; but such is not the will of Providence.

Jane finds refuge at Moor House. Illustration by F. H. Townsend, 1897.

This incident, in which Jane almost dies of exposure and hunger, can be interpreted as Jane’s “belly-of-the-whale” experience, as describe by Joseph Campbell. After finding refuge in the Rivers’ house, the beginning of Chapter 29 indicates that for three days and nights, Jane lay insensible. Interestingly, this may be compared with parallel biblical accounts, as for example in Matthew 12: 40, where Christ states, “For as Jonas [or Jonah] was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  When she recovers, it is as if she is reborn into a new existence and family.

Jane considers a missionary life with St. John. Illustration by F. H. Townsend, 1897.
Jane considers a missionary life with St. John. Illustration by F. H. Townsend, 1897.

Jane’s final test comes when she is challenged to deny her passionate side. As a child at Gateshead, she was often accused of losing her temper, and after Mr. Brocklehurst’s conversation with her Aunt Reed, Jane admitted, “a passion of resentment fomented now within me.” St. John Rivers now argues that Jane’s natural gifts indicate that she is “formed for labour, not for love,” and he tries to convince her to join him as a missionary. She almost resolves herself to marrying St. John out of a sense of duty. Although Jane has learned to be guided by reason and doubts if anyone would ever want her for love, she is still a woman of passion. Her conscience will not permit her to enter into a marriage devoid of love and passion, just as it would not permit her a relationship with Rochester that lacked equality and independence. Fortunately, she does have two counselors here in St. John’s sisters, Mary and Diana, who support her decision. Once again, Jane preserves her self and her integrity.

Continued in “Part Four: A Home at Ferndean.”

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 
Solomon, Eric. “Jane Eyre: Fire and Water.” College English.
Yuen, Maria. “Two Crises of Decision in Jane Eyre.English Studies.

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