Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jane Eyre Is No Orphan

Jane Eyre is an orphan. Both her parents are dead; this's the exact definition of an orphan. Although Jane survives innumerable traumas and horrific treatment, she grows up to be authentic, passionate, and, perhaps most impressively, kind. One might take this to mean that one can "overcome" childhood abuse. Taking it a step further, one could look at an impressive adult who had a hard childhood and conclude that a bad childhood cannot "ruin" anyone, that even abused children  have no "excuse" for having problems that continue throughout their lives. Sometimes, popular culture seems to believe that people who have survived a difficult childhood should not only be offered no special sympathy, but should be held to an even higher standard than the rest of us. Forgive all the insufferable quotes (they're kind of like air quotes, but in print form), but I can't let any of those words stand on their own.

Yes, one could conclude the fictional account of Jane Eyre's life is a manifesto advocating a bootstrap mentality. This would be convenient. If a person can pull herself up by the bootstraps if only she's strong and moral enough, we're relieved of our collective responsibility. Unfortunately, we can't be, and we aren't. Aside from  the fact that Jane Eyre, like pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, is fiction, Charlotte Bronte makes one thing clear. Jane is never, for one minute, alone in the world. Jane grows up to be a fine young woman in spite of all she suffers, and because all the abuse, indifference, neglect and unavoidable traumas are offset by kindness and compassion. Not enough kindness and compassion - no child should endure what Jane does. But she's not a street urchin. She doesn't live in a workhouse. She receives compassion and humanity. This child is not the product of indifference.

Jane is born to parents who love her. After they die, she's sent to live with her Uncle Reed and his wife. When the book opens, all we see is that Jane is is a vulnerable child, alone in a hostile world. Uncle Reed is dead. Resentful Mrs. Reed allows and encourages her children to be physically and emotionally abusive to Jane. Even some of the servants, apparently put off by Jane's inability to maintain a sunny disposition while suffering such harsh treatment, are cruel to her.

After being injured, sick, and harshly (and unjustly) punished, Jane awakens to Bessie, a sympathetic maid, and a kind doctor. Bessie cares a great deal about Jane. We know this because, as an adult, Jane encounters her, and Bessie is not only excited to see her, but invested in Jane's success. This happens repeatedly. There are times, early in the book, when it's implied Jane has no one, that the small kindnesses occasionally afforded to her are anomalies. They are not. Bronte goes back and explains we had it wrong. Jane isn't merely the recipient of random acts of impersonal kindness. Although she does occasionally meet nice people in passing, there's always someone to be good to her because they care about her, specifically.

For example, it seems safe to conclude Mrs. Reed, a nasty piece of work, would have mistreated Jane regardless. But the book doesn't let it rest there. Upon Mrs. Reed's death, we learn her anger at Jane was due in part to how much Mr. Reed adored her, even seeming to prioritize her above his own three children. Even as an orphaned infant, there was at least one person to whom Jane was a bundle of joy, not a burden.

After shouldering the blame for a physical altercation with a cousin twice her age and size, Jane is sent to a nightmarish Victorian boarding school. The conditions are appalling. The children are abused and starved. Disease is rampant. On top of all this, soon after Jane arrives, she is singled out for special persecution by Mr. Brocklehurst, who runs the school. He makes good on his promise to Mrs. Reed to "warn" everyone in the school that Jane is a liar and a scoundrel. Jane is humiliated, and convinced this will doom her to the life of a pariah.

Jane's newfound friend Helen comforts her, explaining that Mr. Brocklehurst is loathed by students and teachers alike. She tells Jane that if anything, Mr. Brocklehurst's cruelty will only help her social standing. But Helen, wise beyond her years though she may be, is just a kid. Her attempts to soothe Jane are admirable, but insufficient. Adult help is needed.

Helen takes an unconvinced Jane to visit Miss Temple, the superintendent. Miss Temple listens to Jane's side of the story. Perhaps sensing a casual show of support won't do enough to counter the damage done to Jane's psyche, she is initially sympathetic, but noncommittal. She goes to the effort of writing away for a formal confirmation of Jane's good character, and, when she receives it, offers Jane a formal public pardon.

The school is still terrible. But when the people who oversee Mr. Brocklehurst visit, they are horrified. Brocklehurst is fired, and conditions improve exponentially. Jane never returns "home" to Mrs. Reed's house, but instead spends the rest of her childhood at school. When she leaves at 18, she has become widely respected and valued. She closer to a cherished family member than a popular student. Like Bessie, they're invested in her living a good life. It's clear her absence will have an impact on the community. Jane will be missed.

As an adult, Jane is honest, intelligent, cultured, and the very model of integrity. Why? It's a combination of nature and nurture. Without the nurture part, nature didn't stand a chance. She draws, speaks French and plays the piano well because she's intelligent and talented. But she can do these things at all only because she was taught how. She keeps her job because she's pleasant and works hard, but she got it in the first place because she had help finding and securing it. Most importantly, though she may be an instinctively compassionate person, she extends compassion because she had it extended to her.

Children need adults to love, encourage and support them. After that, people respond to adversity in an infinite variety of ways for an infinite variety of reasons. There is no question that some people seem to emerge from misfortune with more strength, honesty and competence than others. But if a child doesn't have someone - preferably multiple someones - to extend a hand and keep it extended, she will not thrive.

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