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“They are not fit to associate with me,” says young Jane Eyre of her rude, spoiled cousins who consider themselves above her.(29) In this simple quote lies all the facets of the young Jane: she is angry, passionate, and subtly – but positively – self-assured. It would be simple for Charlotte Bronte to continue the story of Jane in this fashion, casting her as a perpetually bitter and proud heroine who is rendered incapable of growth by her traumatic childhood, but Bronte refuses to cast her heroine as a flat character. Throughout the novel, Jane grows, matures, and learns to forgive, but she never loses her courage and acute sense of self. Her growth is primarily shown in her visit to the Reed home as an adult, and in her ability to develop intimate relationships with people, while her retention of self is demonstrated in her determination to follow her convictions with both Rochester and St. John.
Jane’s visit to the Reed home at nineteen is a remarkable demonstration of her growth. The last time that we see her in direct contact with her aunt and cousins, she has an outburst of passion: “I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you, but I declare that I do not love you: I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world except John Reed” (38). In her brief but charged speech, Jane reveals all of her suppressed anger at years of ill treatment. She carries her disdain for the Reed family until she meets Helen Burns at Lowood. When Jane divulges her tale of woe to Helen, she expects affirmation of her right to be angry. Instead, she receives a much more constructive response:
She has been unkind to you, no doubt…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. (61)
Although Jane does not fully convey to the reader the effects of this advice, it can be assumed that she takes it to heart and allows it to soften and transform her; when she begins her friendship with Helen, her references to the Reeds’ cruelty become fewer, and far less emphatic. When Helen dies, Jane seems to take part of Helen’s forgiving spirit into her – not enough to eliminate her assertiveness, but enough to make her less grudging. Thus, when our heroine returns to Gateshead, she has risen above her passions and the wrongs done her, and can state simply and freely to her dying aunt, “I am passionate, but not vindictive…I should have been glad to love you if you would have let me” (242). Even though her aunt has said nothing kind to her, has admitted to keeping Jane’s only other relation a secret from her, and has even described her petty reasons for her years of harshness, Jane has become mature enough to forgive her and to not let herself be negatively impacted by the event. After her aunt passes away, she stays to help her cousins pack their things and leave Gateshead, and even withholds what she truly thinks of them in order to avoid conflict. Had Bronte been a less skilled writer, she would have had Jane refuse the invitation to see her aunt out of spite and resentment, or she may have had her come and say cruel things to her “family”. The fact that Jane is able to stop dwelling on the past and offer help to the Reeds shows both the character’s personal growth, and Bronte’s talent as a novelist.
Another facet of Jane’s character that demonstrates her development is her ability to cultivate intimate relationships with people. Although her young life is mostly made up of pain and abuse, she never restricts herself or makes any effort to be cold and unaffectionate. Although she has a good amount of self-control, she still allows herself to love other people, wanting nothing but for them to love her back. Again, this could have been another instance where Bronte could have made Jane flat and predictable. As a consequence of her childhood at Gateshead, where her only friend was Bessie, and her adolescence at Lowood, where the love was available in rations smaller than the bread, Jane could have guarded her feelings so closely that she might have shut herself off completely and refused to have more than a working relationship with others. However, she allows herself to become attached to Thornfield and to Adele, and she is passionate towards Edward when he finally reveals his love. Even after the ill-fated wedding, she is still able to form new relationships with the Rivers. Hostility and distrust would have left her a classic, disgruntled young woman, but her maturity and aptitude for personal growth make her a character that is open and good-hearted despite her history.
Notwithstanding her ability for love and forgiveness, Jane never loses the strong sense of self that she first exhibited in her battles with Aunt Reed. Since everyone at Gateshead makes a point on a daily basis to convince Jane that she is useless and evil, Mr. Brocklehurst tries to convince everyone that she is a liar, and the Lowood atmosphere is not particularly conductive to self-esteem, it would not have been surprising to find the 19-year-old Jane in a state of uncertainty, self-loathing, and depression. But such things do not plague Jane Eyre for more than an instant. While she has a tendency to be very self-critical, insisting on drawing an ugly portrait of herself and a beautiful one of her “rival” (which ties in with the larger scheme of her assurance that Rochester doesn’t love her), this could really be seen more as realism than as self-hatred. Her strong sense of self is most evident in her difficult situations with the two men who want to marry her. The assertiveness grants the character verisimilitude, as it would be impossible for Jane to change completely from a fiery girl to a passive, meek woman with no trace of her earlier bravery. When Edward Rochester’s existing marriage is revealed to her at the altar, Edward does not want Jane to leave him. He is sure that despite their unmarried state, she will agree to continue their relationship and to travel to France with him. Considering the highly passionate state of their relationship and the fervid love that Jane has for Edward, it takes a remarkable amount of self-assurance and self-respect to tell Edward that she loves him, but that it would be immoral to stay – and to leave Thornfield at night, without so much as a look at her beloved. After this, we once again see her sense of self and her full understanding of what she wants and who she loves when St. John Rivers proposes to her. Again, due to her constant search for love and the tendency of many to try and convince her that she is unlovable, she could have weakened and accepted the proposal in fear of never receiving another one again. But she is stronger and truer to her heart: “As his wife – at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked – forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital – this would be unendurable” (410). She knows that a marriage to St. John would require her to compromise herself and to forsake the only man she truly loves, and she is strong enough to keep her resolve and to not marry the somber clergyman. Both of these instances prove that despite everything Jane has been through, she knows herself and trusts that knowledge above anything that anyone else may say or do.
There are many opportunity to make Jane Eyre a “textbook case” angry teenager, unable to rise above all the abuse she has suffered. Such a static characterization would have made Charlotte Bronte a limited writer, and “Jane Eyre” a forgettable work, but Bronte’s skill for dynamic character development makes the novel stand out. We see Jane as an adult with the capability to forgive her dying aunt despite the information that is revealed to her, and who has the ability to develop intimate relationships and trust people despite what has been done to her. At the same time, she does not soften to the point where she loses self-confidence and self-understanding, and she does not stay in what she considers to be immoral or restrictive situations. This growth and self-retention make Jane Eyre a believable and relatable character, Jane Eyre a memorable book, and Charlotte Bronte a great author.
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