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Portrayal of Helen Burns from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, a Victorian Novel. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, was published in 1847, and is a bildungsroman, following the life of the protagonist Jane. The novel has autobiographical elements, coloring some of its characters, and Helen Burns is one such portrayal. Based on Charlotte’s older sister Maria, who died of tuberculosis in 1825, Helen Burns is a minor character, whose views of religion and passive attitude offer her as a foil both to the protagonist and to the other minor characters involved. Helen Burns is a flat static but intelligent character in appalling circumstances with steadfast faith and unyielding goodness, and is not a very realistic portrayal. Helen with her kindhearted and forgiving vision of the world that is divergent from Jane’s, helps bring into perspective the character of the teachers of Lowood Institution. Her face lights up at the mention of Miss Temple, and despite enlisting her own faults of carelessness, she warns Jane against Miss Scatcherd advising her to “take care not to offend her”. (Ch.5) While Jane is passionate and rebellious; Helen exposes Miss Scatcherd’s unprovoked cruelty for the readers.
The “sound of a hollow cough”(Ch.5) precedes Helen’s introduction. This “cough” therefore was very telling to the Victorian reader, since “consumption” or tuberculosis was a common and fatal Victorian ailment. In addition to the foreshadowing of her death, we are also instantly shown in our first introduction to Helen that she has a sharp mind as she is reading Johnson’s Rasselas. Helen is the first friend of Jane and she has a sharp and keen mind, overflowing with knowledge. When the girls are given a “lesson [that] had comprised part of the reign of Charles I, and there were sundry questions about tonnage and poundage, and ship-money” (Ch.6), it is only Helen who manages to retain all the information and answer the questions. When Miss Temple has tea with Jane and Helen, Jane was amazed to hear them conversing “of things [she] had never heard of; of nations and times past; of countries far awayâ€¦so familiar with French names and French authors” (Ch.8), and amazed to see Helen reading Virgil that Jane was more in awe of her “at every sounding line” (Ch.8) Needless to say Helen is intelligent, and the response to that aptitude is extreme emotional abuse at the hands of Miss Scatcherd.
Helen is a beacon of devotion, and a reservoir of positive thinking, despite her sickness, starvation, and despite being singled out as an object for Miss Scatcherd’s cruelty and beatings. Infact she embraces these beatings like a martyr. This quality makes her unrealistic, but she is also a foil to Jane, whose viewpoint is at the other end of the spectrum from Helen’s views. While Jane proclaims that Helen maintains that if she “were in [Helen’s] place [Jane] should dislike [Miss Scatcherd];… If she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose.” (Ch.6) Helen however, believed in the “New Testament” and held the view “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.” (Ch.6) While Jane believes in fighting back “When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard” (Ch.6), Helen holds steadfastly to the belief, “the Bible bids us return good for evil” (Ch. 6). Helen is essential to the plot as she is the moral teacher for Jane. She resignedly tells her “You will change your mind I hopeâ€¦you are but a little untaught girl”. (Ch.6) Interestingly, her view on Christianity is very Victorian since missionaries were trying to convert Heathens in the colonies that England imperialized as she explains to Jane that fighting back is wrong and “Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilized nations disown it.” Helen is indispensable to the plot as a foil to Mrs. Reed, and to the hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst, whose only aim is to serve his own needs. Helen is also a foil to Eliza who is self righteous, and religious to a point of fanaticism. Helen is also what Jane must aspire to.
Helen is a loyal fiend and makes Jane’s time in Lowood Bearable. She tries to rid Jane of her misery by allowing her catharsis as she gives Jane a patient hearing about Mrs. Reed’s injustices and then tells her “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.” (Ch.6) When Jane is wrongly accused and punished, it is Helen who goes out to flash “a smile!…of true courageâ€¦the aspect of an angel”. (Ch.7) Helen also teaches her Jane realizes that she “was no Helen Burns”. (Ch.8), but aspires to be as her friend, as the years progress. It is probably Helen’s influence that Jane follows her own moral compass while dealing with Mr. Rochester and refusing to be his mistress. Jane had been admonished by her friend for thinking “too much of the love of human beings”, and for being ” too impulsive, too vehement”. (Ch.8) Helen had promised her “If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.” (Ch.8)
Helen is also essential since her death can be contrasted with Jane’s experience of being locked in Mr. Reed’s room, as she was afraid of his “ghost he died in that room and it was cruel to shut me up alone.”(Ch.3). By contrast, Jane seeks out Helen when she realizes that Helen may die, “I could not sleep till I had spoken to you.” (Ch.9) Far from Jane comforting Helen, it is Helen who comforts her and says “I have faith; I am going to God”. (Ch.9). Helen has the awareness that she is not cut out for the world and that “By dying young I shall escape great sufferings.” (Ch.9) Helen’s death is also a contrast to Mrs. Reed’s bitter death. Helen comforts Jane one last time and they hug and sleep in the same bed. This death is a sharp contrast to spending a night in Mr. Reed’s room, as Miss Temple, found the two girls “at dawnâ€¦in the little cribâ€¦[Jane] was asleep and Helen was-dead.” (Ch.9)
Helen Burns the fourteen-year-old girl is a flat character since her character can be summed up as being a martyr and yet has an unwavering stubborn faith, and being a loyal friend. She could have evolved if her role was not so short, but she was indispensible to the text as a foil to other characters and as a mentor to Jane.
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