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Pursuit and Punishment of Happiness in Jane Eyre

Info: 2233 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 10th May 2021 in English Literature

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According to various commentators, Jane draws on her moral compass when choosing between a variety of conventional literary themes- reason, passion, and either marriage without love (entrapment) or love without marriage (longing, want, etc.). Such an analysis, however, judges the actions of the adult Jane without considering the dramatic effects of her childhood, like her time at Gateshead and Lowood.  When viewed using our knowledge of modern child psychology, Jane's childhood (ten years at Gateshead without love or parental figures, and eight years at Lowood School with extreme physical austerity and discomfort) would completely remove her from all societal and human norms. The Jane Eyre who emerges from the lifetime of suffering is an odd mixture of pride and insecurity, two traits which would seem to be mutually exclusive. She has a tenacious pessimism concerning her wellbeing in the future, and it is this mentality against which she struggles with throughout the book.

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It is hard to imagine anyone educated enough to understand the English language who would consider Jane’s first ten years as even remotely healthy, mentally speaking. Orphaned at the age of one, Jane was given up to her resentful Aunt Reed, whose husband (Jane's mother's brother) also dies within the year. Jane's life to age ten is one of isolation, violence, and punishment by the various members of the Reed family. Though we as readers do not meet Jane until she is ten, we can deduct from Mrs. Reed's deathbed statements that Jane's situation has been unfortunate, to say the least, since infancy, "I hated it the first time I set my eyes on it, a sickly, whining, pining thing", (Bronte 272) as well as her declaration that her children could never bear to be friendly to Jane. The older Jane, looking back, makes a characteristically self-deprecating excuse for the Reeds' behavior, claiming, "I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child- though equally dependent and friendless- Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently" (Bronte 18).

To describe a typical afternoon of Jane Eyre as a child, you would only need two words: isolation and depression. Bullied by her siblings, punished by her “mother”, and banished to the Red Room, a room of complete emptiness, save for what Jane believes to be the ghost of her dead uncle in response to merely defending herself. Speaking medically, the implications of the Red Room run perhaps even deeper than expected, as Jane's emotional reaction provides a clean-cut example of depression. She clearly demonstrates five of the eight identifiable symptoms of adult or child depression defined by the American Psychiatric Association. (DSM-5) First, “markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation made by others)”, displayed when she is unable to retain interest in Gullivers Travels, her favorite book . Second, “significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (eg, a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month) or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day”, displayed by her lost appetite after the experience. Third, “insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day”, displayed quite simply by her insomnia. Fourth, “feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt”, displayed when she says, “all thought I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so” (Bronte 20). Finally, the linchpin, suicidal thoughts or ideations, displayed when she considers starving herself to death. Among medical professionals, it is agreed that most childhood disorders can be traced to a damaged relationship with a parental figure or a traumatic experience. Mrs. Reed is clearly not an adequate mother figure, and the Red Room must be described as traumatic, if nothing else.

Only hope (commonly known as the most dangerous emotion in both literature and reality) enables human beings to endure adverse conditions like the ones Jane endures at Gateshead, and it is the hope of leaving the Reeds that revives Jane's spirits after her traumatic experience in the Red Room. This initial experience with hope, however, proves to be a negative one; the young Jane is beginning to learn the futility of optimism. The change that removes her from Gateshead is a move to Lowood School, however it is merely a trade of apathy and punishment to physical hardship. At a critical stage in her physical development as a human being, Jane is subjected to severe cold and near starvation, conditions that claim the lives of many of her classmates. Her bad luck with adult figures also remains constant, as she is almost immediately singled out in front the entire school by Mr. Brocklehurst, the school's headmaster. Brocklehurst christens Jane a deceitful, lying child and warns her classmates to shun her. Lowood school can be seen as Brocklehurst's project for infusing orphan girls with his fire-and-brimstone religion, which he then uses to instill fear and guilt about happiness on earth into the young, impressionable girls.

Jane also meets Helen Burns at Lowood, a character whose acceptance of fate may initially seem like a healthy contrast to Jane’s lack of self-confidence. But while Helen's impenetrable stoicism later helps Jane accept the hardships that come her way, it does little to prepare her for more than just surviving. Helen lives only for the cleansing of death and the reunion it will bring with her savior. Her reliance on "an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits" (Bronte 83) displays an extreme faith in religion that serves as her as a defense against the pain she has faced, at Lowood and presumably before she attended. To Jane, Helen's death symbolizes the continued futility of happiness, as Helen, the first person her age who has potentially been a friend, and who has what Jane deems to be a mature mindset, is gone. Jane wants to be happy and feel at home, as any child does, however Helen’s death provides another affirmation that such want is futile.

Although Jane does finally find friendship and affirmation at Lowood, in the form of Miss Temple, it isn’t enough to counteract the effects of her unfortunate childhood, as well as the continued punishment of Ms. Scatcherd and Mr. Brocklehurst. The Jane of Lowood is the product of a complete lack of a parental figure and a safe, nurturing environment, two critical factors for a child to grow. Modern child psychology reinforces this theory. A loving family atmosphere and home environment are today widely held to be the most important factors in the healthy mental development of the growing child (Gadsden). Parental figures who deprive their children of warmth or affection can cause their child to become withdrawn and depressed, and, most notably, devoid of any happiness or security (not unlike Jane herself). 

Jane's decision to leave Lowood marks a key turning point in her life, as she now casts aside her childhood to venture into life as an adult. As she considers her options, it is clear to the reader the effect her childhood experiences have played in forming her mentality; the most Jane can bring herself to pray for is "a new servitude! There is something in that," she muses, "I know there is, because it does not sound too sweet; it is not like such words as Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds truly; but no more than sounds for me; and so hollow and fleeting that it is mere waste of time to listen to them" (Bronte 102). Jane contents herself with such humble ambitions because life has taught her that "it is of no use wanting anything better" (Bronte 107).

Jane's inability to accept good circumstances manifests itself strongly when she finds herself falling in love with Rochester. She refuses to “succumb” to her will because she cannot imagine any situation in which he returns her love; she cannot fathom a happy ending for herself. In her conviction that "sense would resist delirium: judgment would warn passion" (Bronte 177), Jane works to repress her own “presumptuousness” (self-confidence) by juxtaposing an idealized bust of the “ideal” Blanche Ingram with her own depreciated image of herself in an attempt to remind herself that Rochester could never love "a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain" (Bronte 187). A more level-headed, grounded character would read Rochester's many signs of affection towards Jane, as well as accept his inability to love the shallow Blanche. But Jane vehemently refuses any insight that favors herself, and as a result she suffers greatly before Rochester's proposal.

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The proposal again piques Jane's mistrust towards fortuitous situations. After her expected self-deprecating response, "I was silent: I thought he mocked me" (Bronte 293) she is shocked. After quashing their potential future together mentally for so long, when he proposed she couldn’t help but be shocked. Her response upon hearing the name "Jane Rochester" is consistent with her refusal to accept joy: "The feeling, the announcement sent through me, was something stronger than was consistent with joy? something that smote and stunned: it was, I think, almost fear" (Bronte 298). It is the depressed pessimist, the product of Gateshead, where attention from others came hand-in-hand with criticism, and of Lowood, where life was taught to be a struggle and where Jane's first friend, first light of hope, died only months after they met, who passionately proclaims to Rochester that there is no feasible reality in which she could ever be happy, which means they could never be married, and even if they were, they would divorce soon after.

Jane's refusal to be treated well and given gifts during her stay at Thornfield isn’t a manifestation of her pride, but rather a belief that she does not deserve to be treated well. Her astonishment is increased by both Bertha Rochester's mysterious pre-wedding behavior and by her own ominous dreams. As she awaits Rochester's return on the night before the wedding, she muses, "I feared my hopes were too bright to be realized; and I had enjoyed so much bliss lately that I imagined my fortune had passed its meridian, and must now decline" (Bronte 320). Jane still sees her happiness as a mere fluke. In this instance this does prove to be the case, and when Rochester's first marriage and his technically unfaithful intent are exposed, Jane is unsurprised. She instantly uses it as another reason to blame herself, and instantly forgives Rochester. "Real affection, it seemed, he could not have for me; it had only been fitful passion, that was balked; he would want me no more. I should fear even to cross his path now: my view must be hateful to him. Oh, how blind had been my eyes! How weak my conduct" (Bronte 341). Her pithy declaration as she leaves Rochester, "we are born to strive and endure" (Bronte 342), sums up the philosophy that Gateshead and Lowood have instilled inside her. Jane's every adult decision has been formulated by the belief that the happiest alternative is always the least realistic for her.

Jane's departure from Thornfield marks a new leaf in her mental development. She displays a sustaining pride during her lonesome wanderings on the way to Moor House, and even allows herself to believe that she doesn’t deserve the horrible fate of wandering penniless and friendless through the countryside. When she meets them, Diana and Mary Rivers are finally people whose company she can enjoy. When she receives her large familial inheritance, she views it as something that will have only positive effects. It is during this year that Jane begins to psychologically outgrow the effects of her childhood; to realize that life can be at least pleasant, even for her. But she still has one obstacle to overcome.

Though Jane learns that life can be bearable at Moor House, she also realizes that she cannot be happy unless she spends her life with Rochester. St. John Rivers' pragmatic proposal to marry Jane and take her along for missionary work in India awakens a struggle between her natural depression and pessimism and her deep-rooted desire for Rochester and happiness in England. Jane never believes that she would be happy in India, but her guilty sense of religious duty coupled with her doubts about happiness in England come close to making her accept Rivers' proposal. Towards the novel's end Jane's inner battle crescendos in intensity, climaxing in her discernment of Rochester's mystical voice in the night. This voice represents a triumph of Jane's true desires. She truly wants to be with Rochester, and she truly believes that she can be happy married to him. The voice she hears convinces Jane to reject Rivers, as well as her intense depression and pessimism, and to trust that she can be happy in life. Her childhood has been overcome, and she can finally be truly happy. 

Works Cited

  • Brontë Charlotte. Jane Eyre.Penguin Classics.Penguin, 2011.
  • DSM-5 Classification. American Psychiatric Association, 2016.
  • Gadsden, Vivian L., et al. Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8. The National Academies Press, 2016.

 

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