Why is Helen Burns such an important character in the early part of Jane Eyre?
It is important to remember that this excellent novel is an example of a bildungsroman: a novel of education, where the central character develops and matures and is shaped by the experiences they undergo and the people that they meet. This becomes vital when we think of the impact of Helen Burns on the young Jane Eyre. Helen is a character who symbolically represents one side of Jane's personality: the desire to be passive, to remain emotionally unengaged and to withdraw from the world. Note how Helen herself expresses her creed:
I hold another creed; which no one ever taught me, and which I seldom mention; but in which I delight, and ot which I cling: for it extends hope to all: it makes Eternity a rest--a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss.
Helen's understanding of life is all about submission, as she does to the somewhat unjust punishments inflicted upon her by Miss Scatcherd, among others. Note how difficult Jane finds this to understand and to cope with. She rages against injustice, as she did against her aunt, and is baffled by Helen's ability to take unjust punishment with such perfect equanimity. And yet in the novel Helen represents one side of Jane's personality, with Mrs. Rochester representing the other. Both sides represent an excess of these beliefs: Mrs. Rochester's character is one that has surrendered itself to the emotions, whereas Helen's character is one that never allows itself to feel emotions at all. The rest of the novel charts Jane's struggle to achieve a happy medium between these two extremes.