1. Discuss Jane as a narrator and as a character. What sort of voice does she have? How does she represent her own actions? Does she seem to be a trustworthy storyteller, or does Brontë require us to read between the lines of her narrative? In light of the fact that people who treat Jane cruelly (John Reed, Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst) all seem to come to unhappy endings, what role does Jane play as the novel’s moral center?
2. In what ways might Jane Eyre be considered a feminist novel? What points does the novel make about the treatment and position of women in Victorian society? With particular attention to the book’s treatment of marriage, is there any way in which it might be considered anti-feminist?
3. What role does Jane’s ambiguous social position play in determining the conflict of her story? What larger points, if any, does the novel make about social class? Does the book criticize or reinforce existing Victorian social prejudices? Consider the treatment of Jane as a governess, but also of the other servants in the book, along with Jane’s attitude toward her impoverished students at Morton.
4. Compare and contrast some of the characters who serve as foils throughout Jane Eyre: Blanche to Jane, St. John to Rochester, and, perhaps, Bertha to Jane. Also think about the points of comparison between the Reed and Rivers families. How do these contrasts aid the development of the book’s themes?
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Jane Eyre (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
Jane Eyre (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)
In the seventeenth and eighteenth century there was both a philosophical and psychological debate about how the mind was formed and stocked with ideas. While some viewed a child's mind as a blank page, Mr. Brocklehurst of Bronte's Jane Eyre held the Calvinistic view that children were born with original sin upon them, so their souls must be cleansed by means of stern measures so that they may be fit for salvation. In short, he held children as unregenerate beings. The Romantics, however, held that children were naturally good and it was society that corrupted them later. They believed in the "natural child" and felt that children should not be hurried into adulthood.
This Romantic view coincides with that of the Victorian Charlotte Bronte, who possessed an awareness of the vulnerability of the child at the mercy of a Mrs. Reed, who finds them tiresome. She was also very aware of such institutions as Lowood School which summarily categorized children and forced them into more adult-like situations for which they were unprepared. For instance, the hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst, who professes that girl's bodies should be starved in order to save their souls when he merely enjoys being cruel, punishes Jane for breaking her slate, saying that the Evil One has already found a servant in her. He tells the other girls that Jane is a castaway and must be shunned; she is
not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien.
After he maligns Jane further to her uncomprehension, Brocklehurst calls her "a liar." He explains that he has learned this from her "benefactress" who sent her to Lowood. With this castigation of Jane, he instructs that she be made to stand on a stool and no one speak to her for an half an hour. In this passage, Charlotte Bronte placed much value upon the perception of children, and strives for as much verisimilitude in describing Jane's experience through her eyes.
It is a veritable invective against the views of those like Brocklehurst that Bronte presents in her characterization of the long-suffering Helen, the true Christian who instructs Jane to
"read and observe what Christ says, how He acts--make his word your rule, and his conduct your example."
"What does He say? [Jane asks]
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you; do good to those that hate you and despitefully use you."
Poor Helen is a true Christian, but in the environment of the stringent and hypocritical Calvinist, Mr. Brocklehurst, she, like Christ, becomes a sacrificial victim to the thinking of such cruel men. In one of the most poignant scenes in the novel, Jane climbs into bed to warm the freezing Helen, who dies in the night of tuberculosis. Poor little Helen is modeled after Bronte's sister, Maria, who died of tuberculosis in 1825.
The disturbing treatment of children is part of Charlotte Bronte's theme of the importance of the individual; a worth that should be recognized.