Jane Eyre’s Moral Compass

As I discussed in last week’s post, Jane Eyre’s character is largely a reflection of the life of the book’s author, Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte’s mother died when she was very young and her father, a pastor, sent her to live and attend school in an institution for the poor children of clergymen.  Jane Eyre’s parents died when she was an infant, and on his deathbed, her father asked his sister to raise his child. Aunt Reed agreed to accept Jane into her house but did not treat her as an equal to her own three children. Instead, their relationship more closely resembled how Cinderella’s wicked step-mother doted on her own daughters and abused her step-daughter. The Reeds had strong economic resources and a higher social ranking than most mid-nineteenth-century English families. However, their position was considerably lower than the standards of the highest members of society. There was very little social mobility during this period in England and people were expected to act according to their economic and social position. As an adopted orphan, Jane’s standing was considered so low that it was almost outside of the social system. This was a particular problem for many orphans during this time as there were so many early deaths of parents and children. We might think of other challenged nineteenth-century orphans in literature, such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Trist. Aunt Reed and her children do not regard Jane as having much value and were prone to either disregard or abuse her. Even the servants in the Reed household are not sure how to relate to her. A common thread, noticed in the earliest chapters of this novel, is that everyone thought they needed to tell Jane how to act. Most of the advice that she received attempted to guide her to accept her fate as an underprivileged household resident. This advice emphasized that she was expected to always remain subjected to being in the service of the upper class and should be grateful that they gave her the privilege to live in their midst. But Jane shows us, as soon as we first are introduced to her, that she does not need, and is not willing to accept everyone’s advice. In the way that she speaks and acts, it shows that she has her own moral compass and can negotiate her own way through her life.

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The story starts when Jane Eyre is ten years old. She likes to read books about natural science and literary fiction. The other children in the Reed household, though older that Jane, are not interested in reading books or improving themselves culturally. Bessie, the young servant who is Jane’s best ally in the household, corrects ten-year-old Jane for not minding her manners around Aunt Reed: “Jane…there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.” Without comment, Jane retreats to the library, hiding behind a curtain, and reads a book about the birds of the North Pole. That book gives readers an early indication that she would like to escape the scene and fly away to a far-away place. She also mentioned that she enjoyed reading Gulliver’s Travel by Jonathan Swift. She closely associated with Gulliver, who was a stranger in a strange land and was besieged by its hostile residents. Reed’s son, John, who is about four years older than Jane comes looking for her. He resents that she is hiding in the room and that she spoke disrespectfully to his mother. He has come looking for her to exact revenge for acting rudely and above her station. He demands that she come out from her hiding place and report to her master:

“Habitually obedient to John, I came up to his chair: he spent some three minutes in thrusting out his tongue at me as far as he could without damaging the roots: I knew he would soon strike, and while dreading the blow, I mused on the disgusting and ugly appearance of him who would presently deal it.”

He reminds her, that as an orphan, she is and not an entitled member of the house, and thus, has no right to read a book from his library. The right to read books, develop artistic and literary pursuits, and to be treated as an equal to men, were principles that Jane stood her ground on throughout the novel. However, such an idea was considered inappropriate and even threatening to most men of that period. Suddenly, and without warning, John throws a hard-cover book at Jane, whose face immediately becomes sullied with blood. John demands that Jane should submit herself to his position as the master of the house and to treat him with deference; however, Jane refuses to accept her role as a subservient member of the house. She defiantly roars back that she considers her position in the house as a slave under the rule of a wicked slave driver. This is the first time in the novel that Jane resists, stands up for her rights, and expresses her beliefs.

The aunt, who always defends the side of her bad-tempered son, locks Jane overnight in a red room as a punishment for standing up to her and to John. By labeling Jane as a mad girl, we see one of the earliest literary examples of a female who is locked up for is trying to express her cultural accomplishments and claim her equality as a human being. The mad female, locked in a room, also becomes an important theme later in the novel. Miss Abbott, another household servant, says that Jane “is like a mad cat.” In her state of imprisonment, she advises Jane that, “You ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you: if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poorhouse.” She reminds Jane that she is not on an equal level with Mrs. Reed or with Master John. Furthermore, she warns, “They have a great deal of money, and you will have none: it is your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them.” She then tries to scare Jane by suggesting, “If you don’t repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney and fetch you away.” Even though Jane enjoys reading fairy tales, she realizes that Miss Abbot is only delivering a frivolous threat. As the story progresses, Jane learns to stand her own ground in the family. She acts like a demon possessed by verbally lashing out against Aunt Reed for treating her so cruelly and punches John in the nose when he tries to come after her again. When he cries to his mother, she tells him and her other children, to completely ignore that ungrateful child.

For a number of weeks, Jane is left alone, isolated in the house from Aunt Reed and her children. The aunt has decided that Jane is a threat to her stability and to her family and must leave. She sends for the Reverend Brocklehurst, the overseer of a home school for poor orphans. The purpose of his visit is to determine whether Jane might be a good subject for Lowood Institution. With Jane present, Aunt Reed informs him that Jane is an insolent girl and a liar for saying that she has been mistreated. It is later explained in the story, that society women, like Mrs. Reed, keep the school running with their charitable donations. Consequently, Brocklehurst accepts Reed’s side of the argument without allowing Jane to defend her point of view. But Jane does not cower under his scare tactics. In the ensuing dialogue, she demonstrates that, even with a ten-year-old mind, she could match wits and words with even the most pious man that her Aunt could evoke:

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.”

And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there forever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die.”

With such a defiant, though creative response, Brocklehurst, must have been thoroughly convinced that Mrs. Reed was right to call Jane a disrespectful and incorrigible child.

He remarks, “I hope that that you repent of ever having been the occasion of discomfort to your excellent benefactress.”  Jane’s disdainful look demonstrates that she takes objection to his conclusion.  Then Jane explains to the Reverend, which parts of the Bible she agrees with, and which she questions. The shocked Reverend responds vehemently and gives Jane the following advice:

“That proves you have a wicked heart, and you must pray to God to change it: to give you a new and clean one: to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Not intimated, by this condescending suggestion, Jane remarks, “I was about to propound a question, touching the manner in which that operation of changing my heart was to be performed, when Mrs. Reed interposed, telling me to sit down.”

Even though young Jane Eyre did not know exactly which direction she was headed, her moral compass was sensitive enough to discount inappropriate advice and ultimately steer her toward her True North.

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at ellisonms2@vcu.edu

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

Murray at the Poe Museum

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