Helen Burns

So are there any Jane Eyre fans on the blog? How do you feel about Helen Burns? She’s Jane’s friend at school. The Jesusy girl who dies of consumption.

Everybody at the book club loved her but I always hated this character. I don’t think that masochism is cute and I see no value in forgiveness that’s given from the position of weakness. If somebody is pummeling you while you are lying on the ground and you are yelping, “I forgive you! I forgive you!,” it’s pathetic because it’s not like you have an option not to in any meaningful way.

When does the spirit of Christian forgiveness become a screen for excusing your passivity and fearfulness?

14 thoughts on “Helen Burns”

  1. Hot take: Helen Burns didn’t exist at all but was an alter of Jane (who suffered from disassociative identity disorder) – Helen was a mechanism for removing herself from abuse that couldn’t be escaped.

    Adele…. didn’t exist either but was yet another alter she created to justify her presence at Thornfield Hall where she’d been taken on as a chambermaid after her inferior education at Lowood….

    The interrupted marriage was actually a rough seduction by Rochester during one of his cross-dressing parties

    Similarly Bertha was another alter who came to the fore when she felt sexual desire… (the ‘fire’ is a euphemism for the syphillis she got from Rochester which blinded him).

    I also assume that the Rivers and everything that follows is a fevered, delusion as she dies from exhaustion and hunger and exposure in the woods after being expelled from Thornfield for stealing silverware….

    It’s probably a good thing I never went in for literary criticism….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a great reading. I’m loving it.

      My whole thing is that Mrs Rochester isn’t crazy. Everything she does is reasonable and logical. I’m going to slaughter at the book club with this reading.

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  2. This was largely my issue regarding americans’ incapacity to take tragedy post you made a while ago. As far as the rather inchoate things as national character go, I doubt they can house all that much subtlety, and I prefer giddy/irate problem solving to the ability to take a punch with a smile as a central value. Sure, not having the second can mean we lose many good things we could rather keep, but we wouldn’t even have them without the first.

    And yeah, individuals can have more subtlety than that, but broad cultural expectations?

    I’m interesting in reading about what you have to say about the difference between masochism and the ability to take tragedy well.

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    1. I’m all into giddy problem-solving, and what a beautiful way to put it! Lovely.

      But there wasn’t anything of that in the article. There was moping and moaning, and a complete incapacity to distinguish between things you can change and things you can.

      This whole philosophy of “everything is broken” when you live in opulence and are truly the most fortunate bastard in existence gets my goat like nothing else. Between this extreme entitlement of a spoiled, pouty princess and Helen Burns’s belief she’s not entitled to be treated better than an insect, there’s a whole planet of more moderate options.

      You can say, for instance, “I’ve started from a big disadvantage. It happens, whatever. But now I will fight like an animal to shorten the distance between myself and those who were more fortunate.”

      If you are Helen Burns, this would sound like, “I started with a great disadvantage but that’s because I’m so bad. I don’t deserve anything good anyway, so I’ll just bear it patiently.”

      The article author would say, “It’s completely unfair I started at a disadvantage. Everything is unfair! It’s useless even to try because it’s so unfair!”

      And I’ve seen how this thwarts people’s lives. Why was I born with diabetes? Why did I grow up in a shitty family?

      And it’s smaller things, too. So many people I work with spend literally decades bemoaning that they didn’t find a job at a more prestigious school. It makes them miserable and thwarts their lives. I decided from the start that I wasn’t going to do that. I found great advantages in being at a third-rate school and I’m milking them for everything I can. So on the one hand I accepted that the job market when I graduated stank. But on the other hand, I didn’t decide that it dooms me to misery and obscurity.

      Great question. You always ask great questions. They make me think and I dig that.

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  3. You probably would guess I ‘d say this, but Helen – Bessie, Alice Fairfax, and Marie and Diana Rivers- are heroines, who save Jane. Helen is the greatest heroine in the book. Mr. Brocklehurst is Gradgrind, a pharisee, an anti-christ. Helen is his foil. She defeats and escapes him by way of simplicity and love. She’s a saint, a very great one.

    Jane herself falls short by being partially seduced by St. John, then almost completely seduced by Rochester. She returns to Rochester to save him, when he is finally and utterly broken. Jane’s is lesser grace, but profound grace, nonetheless.

    I’ve been thinking about this theme all morning, it’s funny you bring it up. The Beatitudes are the cosmic law. The last will be first, the first will be last. Our common superficial worldly calculus based in power, money, beauty, intelligence, violence, is utterly false. None of these things really matter. All that really matters is humility, faith, hope.. And love. And what is love? To die unto yourself for your friends, your beloved.. Which is to include your enemies, those who hate and seek to destroy you.

    I know I’m tiresome repeatedly preaching like this in such a thudding manner. I try to crack jokes about it, to make it more palatable. It’s difficult to accept, but we all know in our hearts that it is true. Don’t deny it.

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    1. Kindness is in my mind one of the highest inflections and expressions of love. Helen was extremely kind. That’s why I love her.

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    2. This is the part of Christianity I always struggle with. I understand and welcome meekness in the face of God’s will. But I also believe in passionate intensity to stand up for what’s right in the face of earthly unfairness. I don’t see Jesus as meek. He threw the traders out of the house of worship instead of meekly accepting them as part of God’s design.

      This turned out to be a great thread.

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      1. The word meek is problematic. We understand it to mean essentially weak, submissive, deferential.

        It, ontologically, means exactly the opposite.

        What it actually means is massive love and potency under complete control. It means virtue and compassion constraining power.

        Christ is meek. He is King of Kings. Lord of Lords. Almighty God, the Anointed, the Christ, the Messiah. His power is absolute, inescapable and undeniable.

        He rules over and will smash the power of hell, in due proper time. The only reason hell and evil “exist” (evil is nothingness, the negation of good) is because we must be free in order to love. Love is free and cannot be coerced. Thus, evil “exists” to prove our freedom, our love.

        Christ didn’t submit to evil, to nothingness, by accepting the unjust judgement and condemnation of Caiaphas and Pilate.

        The Temple priesthood offered him up for sacrifice (as the Lamb of God, taken in the place of Issac, for it is better that one man should die than the whole people should perish) then the Roman Empire smashed him upon the Cross.

        But that’s no way to destroy God. That’s not how you eradicate love. Silly faithless absurd hypocrites.

        Allow me to put a sharp point on my point here: Death is not real. Love and mercy and justice are.

        Do you understand? Do you see, Clarissa? They can’t annihilate us. Not if we refuse to annihilate ourselves by way of selfishness..

        Selfishness is rejecting the Cross. Don’t be afraid of suffering and death, they are unreal.. Think of how all your past suffering is gone, now. Neither suffering or death are eternally real.

        Joy destroys them both. All it takes is an act of love. Don’t be a silly limp idiotic wimp who despairs. Have hope. Ask and pray for it, you will receive joy, then suffering and death will mean nothing.

        God’s power is expressed in gentleness and mercy.. Until it is not. Until his patience is tried beyond mercy.

        Then the fire will come. Then everyone righteous, merciful and repentant will rejoice.

        Imagine Hitler in his bunker. Then laugh. He deserves what he has coming to him.

        God gave Moses the rainbow sign, no more water, but fire next time.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Because hatred always causes the fire to burn. Love is fire, undying flame. It courses through everything, and is inescapable. We are either consumed and liberated or else forever tormented and seared by it.

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  4. I never had a problem with Helen particularly, but found that I hate that particular cliche of Victorian-and-adjacent literature. It crops up everywhere! Helen is practically interchangeable with Beth from Little Women, Bessy from North and South, and others (Rab’s a male version in the more modern kids’ book Johnny Tremain)… so much that after a while, when you get to “that character” in an unfamiliar novel, it’s like “Well crap, how long is it going to take that one to die?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. They always die. :-))

      I hate Little Women. Maybe because it’s children’s book and I read it in my thirties but I detest it.

      For a children’s character who is resilient in adversity I like Sara Crew of Frances Burnett’s Little Princess.

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      1. Oh, yeah, we read Little Princess to the kids, and we all very much enjoyed it! Sara is a great character.

        The weird thing about all those other stories is, as much as it’s a horrible cliche and I hate it, I went to high school with one of those girls. She wasn’t flaky and sentimental like our Victorian-novel consumptives, but she was the best person. Smart, kind, never talked bad about people, devout churchgoer, one of the very few people who was always nice to me, respected by everyone, and never part of the usual cliques. I did not make any of that up after the fact. It is absolutely true.

        It wasn’t the Victorian era, so she didn’t die of consumption. She skidded off a mountain road in the rain one night, the year after we graduated, and wrapped her car around a utility pole. Her fellow summer-camp counselors all traveled to our backwater town from several states away, to be pallbearers.

        It’s a thing.

        But she existed for her own reasons, not just to be a cheap disposable plot point for the rest of us.

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