Debates to Spread Like Wildfire
One of the greatest debates to spread like wildfire amongst humans is the consideration of what exactly comprises morality and moral behavior. The line demarcating right and wrong is not always clear for every individual as it can become blurred with emotion and outside forces. Often “outside forces refer to other individuals presenting their thoughts and feelings on the situation. While people may try to convince others that morality is a set of standards that are universal, morality is often unique to each individual as every person has a different set of societal, personal, and cultural influences that impact their life. In Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, Jane is presented with various external factors in her life that shape her morality and ethics.
Charlotte Bronte showcases Jane and her values by adding in contrast through other characters in the book. One of Jane’s most significant influences as a young child is Helen Burns, her first friend she makes after attending Lowood. After Jane spouts the distress her aunt causes her in a most bitter and savage way, Helen then responds with, “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 (55). Helen is the epitome of calm and encourages Jane to follow suit. Jane becomes inspired by Helen Burns’ way of approaching life’s problems. Helen sees the good in others and does not hold a grudge against those who do her wrong. However, Jane is still struggling to change her morality as she tells Helen, ” I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: If others don’t love me, I would rather die than live (65). Even though Helen preaches self-acceptance, Jane at this point in her life is not fully cognizant of how someone can live with themselves knowing they are disliked by other individuals. Jane believes morals are not worth having if following them means she will be alone and friendless. This particular belief will be refuted later in the story when she is obligated to make a difficult decision.
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Helen remains one of Jane’s major influences in her journey to finding coherent morality as Jane matures into a young woman. After Lowood, Jane accepts a job as a governess and meets her employer, Rochester. Rochester quickly becomes an important element in Jane’s life as she develops feelings for her superior. Despite her feelings for Rochester, Jane never neglects her job as governess, “I like to serve you, sir, and to obey you in all that is right (195). Jane harbors a strong moral obligation to earn her keep due to her aunt’s constant torment and ridicule. When Jane was young she would receive many reminders from her aunt of her worthless nature and the burden of providing her with hospitality due to the fact that Jane did nothing to deserve it (14). The cruel treatment Jane faces during her childhood is branded onto Jane’s frontal lobe where her decision making occurs. Jane’s need to work and make a living for herself as a governess is an imperative moral that she has adopted from a young age.
Not only is Jane’s morality evident through her job as a governess, but also through her role as Rochester’s fiance, “Oh, sir! — never mind jewels! I don’t like to hear them spoken of. Jewels for Jane Eyre sounds unnatural and strange: I would rather not have them (232). When Jane tells Rochester how she is uncomfortable being adorned by frivolous accessories her integrity and sincere nature are highlighted. Jane believes who she is and how she looks should be enough for Rochester and has no desire to invite inauthenticity into her marriage. Jane is anything but ingenuine and along with honest work she offers an honest appearance that accurately reflects her secure code of ethics. After Jane discovers Rochester is already married and wishes to leave him, Rochester suggests she only had interest in him for his rank and wealth and nothing more (272). Jane, appalled, retorts back, “I do love you more than ever: but I must not show or indulge the feeling: and this is the last time I must express it (272). Explaining to Rochester how she must break off their romance required tremendous strength, strength that is reminiscent of Jane’s childhood friend Helen, whose memory Jane undoubtedly draws strength from. While love is often known to influence people to make poor decisions, Jane’s morals hold up to the test. Her morality is stronger than her romantic feelings and Rochester’s character casts light onto her rectitude, illuminating its force.
The force of her virtue is further empowered when Jane conveys a powerful revelation she has about the key to righteousness: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself (284). After trying to convince Jane that staying with Rochester will not have consequences because she has no family nearby she could offend, his efforts ricochet off of Jane and are lost in her profound realization. Since she was a young age, Jane has believed that she would not be successful in maintaining a grasp on her morals if solitude was a guaranteed result. However, Rochester has entered her life and directly impacted those beliefs. Jane is now able to comprehend just how important respecting herself is and among difficult situations she must cling to her principles above anything else. When she is alone and friendless, Jane will not hold any regret knowing she made the right decision because she still bears the weight of sound integrity.
After withdrawing from the company of Rochester, Jane travels to a new town and meets new faces. Finding herself in the midst of unfortunate circumstances, Jane appears on a doorstep looking for a place to stay. She is invited in and later on it is revealed to her that the servant who let her in originally thought Jane a cheat and a beggar. Jane, shocked, replies back:
“But I do think hardly of you and I’ll tell you why — not so much because you refused to give me shelter, or regarded me as an imposter, as because you just now made it a species of reproach that I had ‘no brass,’ and no house. Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime. (306)
Jane’s moral compass appears to be highly influenced by those from her childhood. Not often do fortunate individuals have sympathy–much less respect–for the poverty-stricken. Jane, however, expresses having a very high opinion of them. Conclusions can be drawn from Jane’s childhood explaining her respect, specifically Helen Burns (Jane’s best friend at Lowood) and Miss Temple (the teacher in charge of Lowood Institute). Jane always admired their strength and compassion for others and promised herself she would work towards changing her attitude towards the world (68). Evident in her reply to the servant, Jane holds those less fortunate on the same level with those who have wealth, showcasing her exemplary virtue.
Jane again demonstrates the idea of wealth not being the most important thing in the world when she decides to split her significant inheritance four ways: “It would please and benefit me to have five thousand pounds; it would torment and oppress me to have twenty thousand pounds; which, moreover, could never be mine in justice, though it might in law (345). Jane’s sizeable inheritance truly reveals just how moral and just her conscience really is. Dividing one’s own newfound wealth among four people is unheard of and quite preposterous. Jane does, although, without going into specifics, explain how twenty thousand pounds would “torment and oppress” her. Perhaps twenty thousand pounds would cease all motivation for her to work, thus leaving her with no sense of purpose in the world. Jane is an honest, hard-working individual, who cannot in good conscience accept a tremendous amount of income, having done nothing to earn it. Feeling like a fraud for accepting the whole amount, Jane would be grappling with her morals she has worked so hard to keep. She does, however, keep a small sum of the inheritance to respect her uncle’s wishes.
While the thought of accepting twenty thousand pounds is undesirable, Jane struggles with thoughts that are even more daunting. After St. John proposes to Jane and she realizes his desire to marry her is not out of love, she ponders her feelings on the subject: “Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent?
Can I bear the conscience that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous, I will never undergo it (361). Jane is faced with an internal battle fought by her dividing morals. Between her strong Christian morals persuading her to marry St. John to maintain her strong faith and her morals of self-worth reminding her she deserves to marry out of love, Jane finds herself in a stressful situation. After days of St. John’s persistent marriage proposals, Jane’s beliefs about a genuine and true marriage do not align with St. John’s. If she were to become his wife, their marriage would be more of a business deal rather than an actual intimate relationship, and to Jane, that is unjust. She is not willing to abandon her beliefs in the name of faith. With coming to the conclusion of what constructs a genuine marriage, Jane is reminded of Rochester and plans a visit to Thornfield to make amends. Soon after discovering Rochester is blind and a widower, Jane is given another opportunity to marry Rochester. Jane gladly agrees, and Rochester protests that she would be making a sacrifice in having to bear with his deformities, to which Jane replies: “which are none, sir, to me. I love you better now, when I can be really useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector (396). In the beginning of the novel Jane was uncomfortable with how unbalanced she and Rochester were in power and wealth. With Jane’s newfound wealth she is no longer his inferior, and morals are not compromised. Jane will no longer be Rochester’s mistress but his partner, in sickness and in health. Certain of Rochester’s love and respect, Jane knows her morality guided her towards the right path in pursuit of a life full of integrity and virtue.
Jane Eyre is a case study that can inform readers of what a life navigating morals looks like. Through contrasting characters and influential environments, Jane Eyre’s morality and ethics are molded in ways that positively impact her life and relationships. Events in people’s lives often clarify morals that were possibly vague before. Morality is a force that is curated differently for each individual. However, morality is an ever-changing force that can grow, evolve, and strengthen in conviction through life, with each new experience. Morals offer guidance in making impossibly difficult decisions and lay down a foundation for how to go forth into the world. In a complex and unfathomable universe, morality is a device that one clings onto when trying not to drown in life’s many oceans of conflicts.