(Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre)
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs” (Helen Burns)
“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2)
If I had to identify three powerful spiritual lessons in Jane Eyre, I would choose The Power of Prayer (Jane is very much a praying person, and so becomes Mr. Rochester), The Power of God’s Providence (a central theme in the details of the novel), and The Healing Power of Forgiveness. Other spiritual lessons involve Jane’s heroic perseverance, her incredibly prudent advice on how to respond to strong temptations (after her failed marriage at Thornfield), and her quest for an equality of justice and a full life. But in this note I am focusing in on the transformative power of forgiveness in the life of Jane Eyre.
If we look at the life of another unloved or mistreated orphan, Heathcliff, in sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, we see in a rather dramatic way what the consequences of unforgiveness can ultimately lead to: a life focused on revenge and retribution in practically demonic proportions. In fact, Charlotte Bronte had this to say about Heathcliff: ““Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition….” That Jane Eyre’s life turned out to be dramatically more virtuous and fruitful than Heathcliff’s is due to the transformative power of forgiveness (a lesson, indeed, well worth learning!).
I don’t need to recount in detail how Jane, the orphan, was hated by her Aunt, Mrs. Reed, the person most responsible for showing love to Jane. But apparently Mrs. Reed was enraged by the fact that her now deceased husband had shown a particular fondness for Jane above and beyond his own children, a perplexity Mrs. Reed even had difficulty disengaging herself from on her deathbed (when Jane had come to extend forgiveness to her). But at least Mrs. Reed showed evidence of a conscience by letting Jane know how she had once deceived Jane out of receiving an inheritance. It is interesting to note that in Wuthering Heights Hindley was jealous of his father’s affection for Heathcliff, and this situation spurred Hindley’s hatred of and mistreatment of Heathcliff, so there are parallel themes in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but with different results (when Jane finally returns to Gateshead it is with forgiveness in her heart, but when Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after his mysterious absence his heart is filled with malice).
So now we come to the crux of the story regarding the power of forgiveness. Jane’s cruel Aunt, Mrs. Reed, decides to say good riddance to Jane and ships her off to that dreaded boarding school for orphans run by the infamous Mr. Brockelhurst, Lowood. But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in Jane’s heart as she travels to Lowood, perhaps she remembers that hymn sung to her by Bessie, that “God cares for the poor orphan child.” Perhaps there might be some sort of spiritual guide at Lowood who will help Jane through the difficult years ahead (many years later Mr. Rochester said this to Jane: “Eight years [at Lowood]! you must be tenacious of life.”).
Ok, so we all know that Helen Burns was Jane’s friend and classmate at Lowood; in fact, Helen was (practically speaking) Jane’s spiritual guide and virtually her Guardian Angel (Jane does indeed refer to her as an angel) at the school. Both Jane and Helen have suffered immensely due to the punishments doled out to them at Lowood, not to mention the deplorable living conditions. But under these distressing conditions Helen has maintained her tranquility of spirit and peace of heart. Helen, a remarkable girl of deep spiritual insight, will teach Jane an extremely valuable life lesson: that Jane will be happier (and lead a fuller life) forgiving those who have harmed her, all of which is consistent with the teachings of the Gospels. Here, then, with Jane speaking first, is the remarkable conversation between Helen and Jane that will have a profound impact on Jane’s life:
“But I feel this, Helen; I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.”
“Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilized nations disown it.”
“How? I don’t understand.”
“It is not violence that best overcomes hate — nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.”
“Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.”
“What does He say?”
“Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.”
“Then I should love Mrs. Reed, which I cannot do; I should bless her son John, which is impossible.”
In her turn, Helen Burns asked me to explain, and I proceeded forthwith to pour out, in my own way, the tale of my sufferings and resentments. Bitter and truculent when excited, I spoke as I felt, without reserve or softening.
Helen heard me patiently to the end: I expected she would then make a remark, but she said nothing.
“Well,” I asked impatiently, “is not Mrs. Reed a hard-hearted, bad woman?”
“She has been unkind to you, no doubt; because you see, she dislikes your cast of character, as Miss Scatcherd does mine; but how minutely you remember all she has done and said to you! What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill-usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain, — the impalpable principle of light and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man — perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph! Surely it will never, on the contrary, be suffered to degenerate from man to fiend? (Chapter 9)
Helen ultimately dies of tuberculosis at the Lowood school (with Jane holding her in her last moments of life), and the deep, lifelong spiritual impression Helen made on Jane is seen by the fact that fifteen years later Jane returned to Lowood to mark Helen’s grave with the word Resurgam. Resurgam is a Latin word meaning, I will rise again!
The eventual healing and purification of Jane’s harmful memories of her past (thanks, no doubt to Helen Burns) is seen in the progression of the novel by the advice she gives to Mr. Rochester (at Thornfield) who is lamenting the mental burden of his past mistakes and even sinful choices. As if anticipating the advent of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Jane gives this cogent advice to Mr. Rochester:
“Only one thing I know: you said you were not as good as you should like to be, and that you regretted your own imperfection; — one thing I can comprehend: you intimated that to have a sullied memory was a perpetual bane. It seems to me, that if you tried hard, you would in time find it possible to become what you yourself would approve; and that if from this day you began with resolution to correct your thoughts and actions, you would in a few years have laid up a new and stainless store of recollections, to which you might revert with pleasure.”
Indeed, Jane’s extraordinary growth in the virtue of forgiveness is seen by her visit to her dying Aunt, Mrs. Reed, in Chapter 21. There, after learning that her Aunt had maliciously prevented Jane from being adopted by her wealthy Uncle John by informing him that Jane had died at Lowood, Jane nevertheless offers her Aunt “her full and free forgiveness,” telling her Aunt to “think no more of it.” Although her Aunt nevertheless died with a hardened heart Jane Eyre had done everything possible to bring light to Mrs. Reed’s deathbed (Jane urging her to seek God’s forgiveness and “be at peace”). And then, of course, when Jane had to flee Thornfield due to her failed marriage to Mr. Rochester (after learning he was already married), she says just before her departure, “Reader!-I forgave him at the moment, and on the spot,” when he asked her, “Will you ever forgive me?”
Ultimately, Mr. Rochester undergoes his own transformation and conversion after the devastating fire at Thornfield, a conversion not unrelated to his prayer and penitence (“I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance, the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were but very sincere”). In reality, Mr. Rochester underwent the most painful of purifications, losing everything, as his entire life is essentially purged in the devastating fire at Thornfield, wiped out so to speak, burned up. He emerges from this holocaust as a new man, humbled, repentant, blinded and maimed. And yet in God’s Providence, which is an underlying theme in Jane Eyre, he and Jane will be reunited, and will experience true happiness, true communion of souls. And near the very end of the novel, having married Jane, the narrator attests to Mr. Rochester’s profound gratitude for God’s merciful love and forgiveness:
“When his first born was put into his arms, [Mr. Rochester] could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes….On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy” (Chapter 37).
READER! ARE YOU HOLDING ON TO UNFORGIVENESS?
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind! Life is too short to be nursing animosity and registering wrongs. Holding on to bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness only impedes your own spiritual growth and personal happiness. It keeps you locked, so to speak, in a cage of animosity. I do not say that forgiveness is easy, in fact it can be very, very difficult to forgive, but “I can do all things in Jesus Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). God will give you the grace to forgive as you call upon His help in prayer. And then, like Jane Eyre, you will be freed from harmful past memories and experiences, thus living a happier and more fulfilling life. Amen!
Image: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre, by George Richmond, as it appears at Wikipedia. The date is 1850. According to Wikipedia this work is in the Public Domain for the U.S.A., but may not be for other countries. See the Wikipedia article on Charlotte Bronte incorporated herein by reference.
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