Discuss the treatment of childhood in the novel Jane Eyre.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century there was both a philosophical and psychological debate about how the mind was formed and stocked with ideas.  While some viewed a child's mind as a blank page, Mr. Brocklehurst of Bronte's Jane Eyre held the Calvinistic view that children were born with original sin upon them, so their souls must be cleansed by means of stern measures so that they may be fit for salvation.  In short, he held children as unregenerate beings.  The Romantics, however, held that children were naturally good and it was society that corrupted them later.  They believed in the "natural child" and felt that children should not be hurried into adulthood.

This Romantic view coincides with that of the Victorian Charlotte Bronte, who possessed an awareness of the vulnerability of the child at the mercy of a Mrs. Reed, who finds them tiresome.  She was also very aware of such institutions as Lowood School which summarily categorized children and forced them into more adult-like situations for which they were unprepared.  For instance, the hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst, who professes that girl's bodies should be starved in order to save their souls when he merely enjoys being cruel, punishes Jane for breaking her slate, saying that the Evil One has already found a servant in her.  He tells the other girls that Jane is a castaway and must be shunned; she is

not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien. 

After he maligns Jane further to her uncomprehension, Brocklehurst calls her "a liar."  He explains that he has learned this from her "benefactress" who sent her to Lowood.  With this castigation of Jane, he instructs that she be made to stand on a stool and no one speak to her for an half an hour.  In this passage, Charlotte Bronte placed much value upon the perception of children, and strives for as much verisimilitude in describing Jane's experience through her eyes.

It is a veritable invective against the views of those like Brocklehurst that Bronte presents in her characterization of the long-suffering Helen, the true Christian who instructs Jane to

"read and observe what Christ says, how He acts--make his word your rule, and his conduct your example."

"What does He say? [Jane asks]

"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you; do good to those that hate you and despitefully use you."

Poor Helen is a true Christian, but in the environment of the stringent and hypocritical Calvinist, Mr. Brocklehurst, she, like Christ, becomes a sacrificial victim to the thinking of such cruel men.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the novel, Jane climbs into bed to warm the freezing Helen, who dies in the night of tuberculosis.  Poor little Helen is modeled after Bronte's sister, Maria, who died of tuberculosis in 1825.

The disturbing treatment of children is part of Charlotte Bronte's theme of the importance of the individual; a worth that should be recognized.



Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I like this question.  Virtually none of the children in this story are well adjusted or happy. 

Jane is orphaned and left to the merciless treatment first of her cousins, then of the orphanage.  While she had a few good moments in her young life, hers could not be called a happy or even normal childhood.  Through no real fault of her own and through circumstances generally beyond her control, she lived a rather difficult life.  (Jane herself would probably philosophize that these very hardships actually shaped her into the woman she became and she is therefore thankful for them; however, that doesn't mean it should not have been better for her.)

The Reed children, though they appeared to have everything as children, were terrors of the worst kind.  They were cruel to Jane (particularly John) and those mean-spirited traits followed them through their adult lives. 

The other girls at the ophanage are, to various degrees, unhappy with their circumstances--they are, after all, in an orphanage for a reason.

Even Adele, Mr. Rochester's ward, has the benefits of wealth around her but is not in an ideal situation.  Her mother has died, she is living as a ward to a benefactor who is rarely home, and the kind of woman he would have married (if he hadn't met Jane) would have shipped her off to boarding school.

Clearly, whether in deprivation or in wealth, the children in this novel are seen as nuisances to be "dealt with"  and their childhoods as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.  The Victorian era was a difficult one for children, and Charlotte Bronte herself had a rather complex and difficult childhood. 

It's obvious that Bronte thought childhood was a hard thing, something which must be endured.  However, since at least a few of the children in this work did grow up to be well adjusted, a bad childhood did not have to carry over into adulthood.  At some point we all have choices--John Reed chose a life of dissolution while Jane chose a life of moral integrity and service.