Jane Eyre

by: Charlotte Brontë

Helen Burns

The punishment seemed to me in a high degree ignominious, especially for so great a girl—she looked thirteen or upward…to my surprise, she neither wept nor blushed. Composed, though grave, she stood, the central mark of all eyes…her sight seems turned in, gone down into her heart. She is looking at what she can remember, I believe; not at what is really present. I wonder what sort of girl she is—whether good or naughty.”

Jane shares one of her first observations of Helen Burns soon after Jane arrives at Lowood school. As Jane observes Helen enduring public punishment, Jane describes Helen’s composure during the embarrassing and harsh incident. Jane notices how Helen seems to be focused on something more positive to help her through the experience. Immediately impressed with Helen’s strength, Jane’s curiosity about her character signals the reader that Helen will be important to the story.

“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened by faults in this world; but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies...I hold another creed, which no one ever taught me, and which I seldom mention, but in which I delight, and to which I cling; for it extends hope to all; it makes Eternity a rest—a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss.”

Helen Burns is responding to Jane’s story about Mrs. Reed’s mistreatment and cruelty. While Jane expects otherwise, Helen speaks of forgiveness and letting go of anger in order to be free of negativity. In these lines, Helen shares her unique and strong faith with Jane, explaining how she views God as forgiving and only believes in a welcoming Heaven. Helen’s perspective on forgiveness shapes how Jane responds to future events.

What my sensations were, no language can describe; but just as they all rose, stifling my breath and constricting my throat, a girl came up and passed me; in passing, she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them!...It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit. I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool.

Jane is describing how Helen Burns helped her when Jane was punished and humiliated by Mr. Brocklehurst at Lowood. Helen takes a risk and reaches out to Jane with a friendly glance during Jane’s humiliation, giving Jane strength and hope in that difficult moment. Jane even describes Helen as a martyr or hero whose one glance had great effect. Helen’s presence in this moment functions like a light in a storm.

While sobbing out this wish in broken accents, some one approached; I started up—again Helen Burns was near me…She sat down on the ground near me, embraced her knees with her arms, and rested her head upon them; in that attitude she remained silent as an Indian.

Jane describes how Helen Burns supports her once again with a simple act of friendship. After a day of suffering and embarrassment, Helen sits with Jane as a show of support, letting Jane cry and recover. Helen is clearly a good friend and caring person, allowing Jane to discuss the events and reassuring her that things will be okay. Helen’s patient and compassionate example continues to shape Jane as she matures.

“Hush, Jane! you think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement; the Sovereign hand that created your frame, and put life into it, has provided you with other resources…Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits;…those spirits watch us, for they are commissioned to guard us…and God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward”.

Helen is speaking to Jane in response to Jane’s declaration that she needs others to love her and would sacrifice anything for that love. Helen pleads with Jane to look to God’s love not just human love. Again, Helen shares her strong faith, encouraging Jane to have faith and look to God for answers. Helen’s advice echoes in many of the choices Jane makes as an adult.

Helen had calmed me; but in the tranquility she imparted there was an alloy of inexpressible sadness. I felt the impression of woe as she spoke, but I could not tell whence it came; and when, having done speaking, she breathed a little fast and coughed a short cough, I momentarily forgot my own sorrows to yield to a vague concern for her.

Jane recalls a time Helen comforted her after Jane was punished at Lowood. Jane detects what she believes is a sense of sadness in Helen’s voice as she speaks, unaware that Helen’s “woe” is actually an early symptom of an illness that will prove terminal. Despite feeling seriously ill, Helen gives of herself to help Jane, demonstrating her selfless character.

The refreshing meal, the brilliant fire, the presence and kindness of her beloved instructress, or perhaps more than all these, something in her own unique mind, had roused her powers within her. They woke, they kindled; first, they glowed in the bright tint of her cheek, which till this hour I had never seen but pale and bloodless; then they shone in the liquid lustre of her eyes, which had suddenly acquired a beauty more singular than that of Miss Temple’s—a beauty neither of fine color, nor long eyelash, nor penciled brow, but of meaning, of movement, of radiance…Such was the characteristic of Helen’s discourse on that, to me, memorable evening; her spirit seemed hastening to live within a very brief span as much as many live during a protracted existence.

Jane is reflecting on her experience with Helen during the glorious night they spent with Miss Temple at Lowood school. Jane recalls Helen beaming with a unique power, a radiant strength, and a true grace. The warmth and light imagery in this description only further extends this portrayal of Helen as angelic or celestial. In this moment, Jane sees the best of Helen and recognizes her unique being.

“I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead you must be sure and not grieve; there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual; my mind is at rest…By dying young I shall escape great sufferings…I believe; I have faith; I am going to God.”

Wanting to comfort Helen in her time of illness, Jane crawls into bed with her. While together, Helen speaks to Jane, revealing her feelings towards her own death. Even while facing death, Helen reveals her strong faith and maturity. Helen tells Jane that she is happy and her mind is at rest. By dying young, Helen believes she is not suffering, she is avoiding disappointment and regret.

I learned that Miss Temple, on returning to her own room at dawn, had found me laid in the little crib; my face against Helen Burns’ shoulder, my arms round her neck. I was asleep, and Helen was—dead. Her grave is in Brocklebridge church-yard; for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a gray marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name and the word “Resurgam.”

Jane’s final description of her time with Helen exemplifies their strong friendship, which closely resembles a sisterhood. In this account, Jane reveals that Helen was not alone as she died. Jane comforted Helen in her passing just as Helen comforted Jane during her times of pain and suffering. Even in death, Helen leaves a positive impression on Jane, proven by a replaced grave stone carrying Helen’s name and the expression, “I will rise again.” Through Jane, Helen’s spirit will “rise again.”