In the novel Jane Eyre, Helen Burns is one of the girls Jane meets at Lowood Orphan Asylum. She becomes Jane's only friend, and is made an example when she is insubordinate by the standards of Miss Scatcherd, the teacher in charge, who accuses Helen of being a "dirty disagreeable girl" with "slatternly," or "dirty" and "untidy," habits.
Helen's response to Miss Scatcherd's reprimand is important. Without a word, she leaves the room and returns with a bundle of twigs—the "ominous tool," which she hands over to Miss Scatcherd. Still silent, Helen prepares for what she knows is coming: a dozen hard lashings upon her neck.
We can infer by Helen's silence in getting the twigs to be beaten that this isn't the first time this has happened. She accepts the punishment quietly. In fact, Miss Scatcherd calls her a "hardened girl," because the lashings seem not to affect her at all. But it affects Jane, whose fingers "quivered" on her sewing as she watches.
The scene is important because it is demonstrating the lack of freedom Helen has, as she's forced to obey. Later, Helen admits to being careless by reading books for pleasure, instead of studying her lessons. This admission carries weight because it's showing that Helen accepts Miss Scatcherd's rule and rules. As Bronte expert, John Pfordresher, explains, in his book, The Secret History of Jane Eyre, Miss Scatcherd's punishment is meant to not only humiliate Helen, but to suppress her qualities of imagination and her independent mind (pg. 43).
Helen tells Jane that it is her duty to bear the punishment. “It is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear" (Chapter 8).
Jane’s response is one of surprise. She says, “I could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance.” Nor could she agree that Helen had the faults that provoked Miss Scatcherd. As the reader, we empathize with Helen because we know she’s not at fault.
In contrast, Jane later points out to Helen that this treatment is an "injustice," demonstrating that she’s different than Helen, and won’t give in to it. She stands by her own creed, that "no one taught me," one of hope that allows her to “live in calm and see the end."
Jane eventually faces a similar punishment when she breaks her slate on accident, as witnessed by a kind teacher, Miss Temple. But Jane is still made an example and forced to stand on a stool in front of the class, where she's humiliated and accused of being a liar by another unfair and sinister teacher, Mr. Brocklehurst.
Worse still is Helen’s fate, which is foreshadowed when she says to Jane, “Nobody can see the future.” In the end, Helen dies very abruptly as a result of consumption. As the reader, though, we know it is because of the harsh conditions of the asylum.
Though this happens in Jane's youth, the loss of Helen stays with Jane her whole life—enough that Jane later recounts all she learned from Helen when Aunt Reed is passing. She recalls Helen's doctrine of the "equality" that comes in death: no matter how we live, or what is done to us, death comes equally to all (Chapter 21).