Jane Eyre in Flash Fiction Chapter 6
My First Conversation with Helen Burns
The north-east wind, which whistled through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had frozen the water in our pitchers. After an hour and a half of prayers and Bible-reading, I felt ready to perish with cold. I was grateful for today’s meagre portion of unburnt porridge, but I was still hungry.
Three months had passed; it was March. Being little accustomed to learn by heart, the morning lessons appeared to me both long and difficult and the frequent change from task to task, bewildered me.
In the afternoon, as I sat in a quiet corner of the schoolroom doing needlework, I watched Miss Scatcherd make a girl called Burns the object of her constant scolding.
‘You dirty, disagreeable girl!’ she said and inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with the bunch of twigs.
After classes, I saw the girl reading a book by the dim glare of the embers.
‘Is it still ‘Rasselas’?’ I asked.
‘Yes, and I have just finished it.’
‘What is your name besides Burns?’
‘Do you come a long way from here?’
‘I come from the borders of Scotland.’
‘Will you ever go back?’
‘I hope so; but nobody can be sure of the future.’
‘You must wish to leave Lowood?’
‘No! I was sent to Lowood to get an education.’
‘But Miss Scatcherd, is so cruel to you.’
‘She dislikes my faults.’
‘If she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose.’
‘If you did, Mr. Brocklehurst would expel you from the school. It is far better to endure patiently, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you; and besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil.’
‘But it is disgraceful to be publicly flogged.’
‘I am careless, and I forget rules. I provoke Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular.’
‘Is Miss Temple as severe to you as Miss Scatcherd?’
At the utterance of Miss Temple’s name, she smiled. ‘Miss Temple is full of goodness; she sees my errors and tells me of them gently; and, if I do anything worthy of praise, she gives it to me.’
‘If we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard, so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.’
‘You will change your mind, I hope, when you grow older.’
‘I must resist those who punish me unjustly.’
‘Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilised nations disown it.’
I could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance. ‘How?’
‘It is not violence that best overcomes hate—nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.’
‘Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.’
‘What does He say?’
‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.’
Helen listened patiently as I told her about my aunt’s cruelty. ‘Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. Revenge disgusts me. I live in calm, looking to the end.’
A monitor, a great rough girl, interrupted us, exclaiming, ‘Helen Burns, if you don’t put your drawer in order, I’ll tell Miss Scatcherd to come and look at it!’
Helen sighed and obeyed without reply as without delay.
In this chapter Jane is an angry, bitter child who hates the world and is on a crusade against injustice, but Helen, who is a few years older and has a calmer character, teaches her that it is better to adopt Christian values, not hold grudges or hate, and bear whatever life sends your way.
At this point, Jane doesn’t agree with her new friend, but as the novel progresses, she will adopt some of Helen’s ideas, for example, she will eventually forgive her aunt on her deathbed.
The chapter also brings up an interesting debate on education and the merits of strict discipline versus kindness and understanding. Miss Temple prefers a sympathetic approach, while Miss Scatcherd’s teachings force Helen to face her shortcomings by using humiliation and violence. Jane prefers the first approach and Helen the second. We will soon see, when Jane is a teacher, which one of the two prevails.
Regarding Helen’s stoic philosophy, it is influenced by the Bible and Rasselas, a philosophical novel published in 1759 by Samuel Johnson.
Rasselas is the Prince of Abyssinia, who lives a life of luxury in Happy Valley, but at 26, bored with his pleasurable but unhappy life, he decides to travel the world and discover whether it’s possible for mankind to attain happiness. He finally returns to his Happy Valley and accepts that life on earth is not meant to be happy.
Rasselas has realised that the search for happiness on Earth is futile. Everyone is unhappy regardless of their circumstances and situation. Consequently, Man should search for God by focusing on one’s immortal soul, and thereby reach eternal happiness after death.
Helen is telling Jane that happiness does not depend on external circumstances, but that it is within ourselves. The kindness or cruelty we are subject to are merely different means to the same end: self-improvement or godliness. We must try to be the best version of ourselves in whichever circumstances we live by following the dictates of Christianity; ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.’ Because heaven will recompense you after death, as she says, ‘looking to the end.’
This is a fascinating and intense chapter with a profound discussion on education, happiness, and the meaning of life, bearing in mind that Jane is ten years old, although Helen is a few years older. Jane has not yet read Rasselas, although as it seems to be a required text at Lowood and she will read it in the future. As the novel progresses, Jane will tame her rebellious nature, although she will never be as meek and submissive as Helen.
The summary is based on the free ebook by planet books which you can find here.
I’ll be posting a chapter of Jane Eyre in flash fiction every Friday. If you’re wondering why, read all about it here.
If you’d you’d like to Reread Jane Eyre with me, visit my blog every Friday for #JaneEyreFF posts.
See you next week for chapter 7!
Images from Pixabay