What would be some strong theses for Jane Eyre, and the character of Helen Burns?
Helen is a great character. Any thesis you would make about her would necessarily have to place her in the context of a larger reading of the novel. This isn’t as hard as it might sound – here are six possible ways to go (there are many others):
- Jane Eyre as Bildungsroman (or novel of education): in this context, you could argue that Helen is Jane’s most influential teacher; the lessons Helen teaches about forbearance, humility, and forgiveness allow Jane to form a relationship with Rochester and ultimately become his wife.
- Jane Eyre as religious novel: Helen is a kind of spiritual antithesis to Mr Brocklehurst. Her ability to endure constant humiliation is an expression of true Christian piety, one that also stands in contrast to the overbearing religion of St John. As such, Helen comes to represent an alternate, essentially feminist, kind of faith.
- Jane Eyre as feminist novel: Helen can be seen to represent a person of very great gifts of imagination and intellect that the male-dominated institution she is part of tries at every opportunity to stamp out. Her ability to resist this humiliation, to find solace in reading and the imagination, and to bring together like-minded friends (Jane and Miss Temple), is an attempt to define a uniquely feminist response to patriarchal power, one we see Jane adopt for her own uses later in the book.
- Jane Eyre and “queer” reading: Helen is Jane’s first lover, if not in a physical sense, then in an emotional sense. Their “sisterhood,” and Helen’s “doctrine” of the “equality of souls,” forms a baseline for Jane’s later relationships with Rochester and St John.
- Jane Eyre and civil disobedience: Helen “Burns” with a passion to assert her individuality. Her humility and acquiescence in the face of unjust treatment is a kind of non-violent civil disobedience and a silent indictment of the hypocrisy of Lowood and Mr Brocklehurst.
- Helen as angel: Helen can be discussed within the context of Bronte’s larger ideas of “heaven” and “hell” as represented in the book; Helen and Jane’s tea with Miss Temple can be cast as a representation of heaven, while St John’s attempt to persuade Jane to become his wife is akin to being tempted by the devil.
Of course, any paper developed out of one of these theses would need to examine the text closely, and use textual evidence to support the reading.