The character of Jane Eyre is a unique and fascinating literary figure. In the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, Jane is still trying to overcome her childish fears associated with Mrs. Reed’s treatment of her. Much wrong has been done in her life, and she goes into great detail describing it in trying to cope with it. But there are two occasions when she tells her story to two separate characters: Helen and Ms. Temple.
In her telling the story to Helen, Jane explains that she was “bitter and truculent when excited” and she “spoke as I felt, without resolve or softening.” Jane craves the validation: the sense that she is not alone in her pain and in her vengeance towards Mrs. Reed as she is unforgivable. But instead, Helen delivers a touching and intimate answer:
“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.”
Why would Brontë have Helen say this? In my mind, Brontë is taking the idea of forgiveness and putting it in context with both the audience and with Jane herself. Jane is looking for validation in her unforgiving nature towards Mrs. Reed from the rest of the world and is asking people whether or not she deserves it. From Helen’s viewpoint, she asks the valid question: why can just she not forgive her past and accept her life as it stands?
In retrospect, Jane actually tries to do so. When she relays the same story again to Ms. Temple later in the opening chapters, Jane gives us her insight into how she told the story this time:
“I resolved, in the depth of my heart, that I would be most moderate…my language was more subdued than it generally was…mindful of Helen’s warnings against the indulgence of resentment…thus, restrained and simplified, it sounded more credible.”
In this passage, Jane is far more accepting, far more “moderate.” She is not just lashing out as she was before with Helen. Now, she holds back her resentment, and she makes herself far more believable. This does not discredit what tragedies she has endured, but it means that the pain of enduring them is no longer her muse. In this sense, Jane is choosing, in part, to forgive.
My favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a sprawling tale that encompasses most of Steinbeck’s real life family history mixed with the fictional patriarchal history of the Trask Family. The result becomes a Cain and Abel retelling, which has one of the characters recite that story. In the middle, he pauses when he sees that the command from God to Cain changes depending on the translation. In some cases, it says, “thou shalt,” but in others it says, “thou mayest.” The latter means that humanity has the ability to forgive oneself for their sins or, in the case of Jane Eyre, forgive the sins of others. If we choose to forgive, as Helen advised, then we can finally be happy and just enjoy life as it was intended. Forgiveness breeds a special type of happiness and a relief that the sins and the choices of others are no longer bond to you. That places Jane Eyre in a far more modern context than most, and makes the audience, and Jane herself, wonder: “can I truly forgive those that have trespassed against me?”