In Jane Eyre, what is Helen Burns' religious attitude like?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

From the beginning of Jane Eyre's relationship with Helen Burns, Jane is struck by Helen's seeming detachment from her immediate circumstances. This detachment is associated with her particular mode of religiosity, which stresses patient endurance of worldly suffering in the service of a focus upon heaven and the example...

View
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

From the beginning of Jane Eyre's relationship with Helen Burns, Jane is struck by Helen's seeming detachment from her immediate circumstances. This detachment is associated with her particular mode of religiosity, which stresses patient endurance of worldly suffering in the service of a focus upon heaven and the example of Jesus Christ. Early in her career at Lowood School, Jane encounters Helen standing apart from the other girls for the purpose of undergoing punishment. In this context, she reflects of Helen as follows:

She looks as if she were thinking of something beyond her punishment—beyond her situation: of something not round her nor before her. I have heard of day-dreams—is she in a day-dream now? Her eyes are fixed on the floor, but I am sure they do not see it—her sight seems turned in, gone down into her heart:

The language in the preceding passage shifts from describing Helen's detached perspective in terms of some place "beyond" her immediate surroundings to describing her perspective with reference to her absorption in her own heart. For Helen Burns, the view beyond is the view within.

Helen's theology emphasizes the value of private suffering over and against the value of seeking revenge against those who caused the suffering. Notably, she employs a scriptural justification for this philosophy, in which not doing harm to those who have harmed you in return is treated as being tantamount to doing good for them.

"It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, 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.”

The extent to which Helen's religiosity has been shaped by her reading of the bible is repeatedly emphasized. Helen tells Jane, “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.”

Charlotte Bronte's mingled critique of and appreciation for the mode of Christian endurance exemplified by Helen Burns is apparent throughout her depiction of this character.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Helen Burns is an extremely devout young person. She takes all the hardships and ill-treatment she receives at Lowood very calmly, and she never wavers in her religious faith. In effect, she plays the role of a martyr, presenting a meek and gentle face to the world and refusing to condemn those who mete out punishment to her. Indeed, she appears quite passive, but her spirit, evidently, is never crushed; her faith always sustains her, to the point of death, as is clear from her final conversation with Jane:

I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to him without any misgivings. God is my father; God is my friend: I love him; I believe he loves me. (chapter 9)

Helen, then, seems quite assured that God is looking out for her and will take care of her after death, too. God, to her, is both 'father' and 'friend'. Because she has such faith in God she endures all her troubles without complaint.

Helen exemplifies the passive, suffering side of religion: the kind of person who accepts all manner of hardships on earth as they believe that there is a better life to come in heaven. Her religious faith and gentle tolerance are unshakeable. Indeed, it might be said that she appears almost impossibly good, but such sweet, suffering devout characters - particularly girls - were certainly not uncommon in Victorian literature as a whole.

Helen's virtuous humility and gentleness form quite a striking contrast with Jane's passionate, rebellious spirit, but Jane admires her, even if she cannot quite understand where she is coming from. She leaves a lasting impression on the heroine of the novel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team