Study Guide

Jane Eyre Morality and Ethics

By Charlotte Brontë

Morality and Ethics

Volume 1, Chapter 6
Jane Eyre

"If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should—so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again. […] 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." (1.6.50, 52)

Here Jane is responding to Helen Burns, who argues that you should "return good for evil," "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies," and all that sort of good Christian forgiveness stuff.

Jane (remember she’s only ten at this point) can’t quite agree with this; she doesn’t see any reason to "bless them that curse you," because then they’ll get away with it! Jane’s childhood ideas of justice are strict and exact—more like the Old Testament "eye for an eye" laws of retaliation than Helen’s New Testament charity. It’ll be interesting to see whether Jane’s ideas change over time and, if so, exactly how.

Volume 1, Chapter 8
Helen Burns

"If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends."

"No: 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—I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen." (1.8.11-12)

Jane’s convinced that she wouldn’t be able to stick to her moral guns (so to speak) if doing so meant that she was alone and friendless. Wouldn’t it be so weird if that was exactly what she had to learn to do by the end of the novel?

Volume 1, Chapter 14
Mr. Edward Rochester

"Nature meant me to be, on the whole, a good man, Miss Eyre: one of the better end; and you see I am not so. […] Then take my word for it,—I am not a villain: you are not to suppose that—not to attribute to me any such bad eminence; but, owing, I verily believe, rather to circumstances than to my natural bent, I am a trite common-place sinner, hackneyed in all the poor petty dissipations with which the rich and worthless try to put on life." (1.14.61)

Before Jane even really knows Rochester, he’s claiming he’s really not that bad a guy. We think the gentleman doth protest too much.

"Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre: remorse is the poison of life."

"Repentance is said to be its cure, sir."

"It is not its cure. Reformation may be its cure; and I could reform—I have strength yet for that—if—but where is the use of thinking of it, hampered, burdened, cursed as I am? Besides, since happiness is irrevocably denied me, I have a right to get pleasure out of life: and I will get it, cost what it may." (1.14.63-65)

The difference between "repentance" and "reform" is important here. Jane thinks it’s enough to repent —to feel bad for what you’ve done. Rochester thinks that’s not enough and that you actually need to reform—to actively change your ways. We’ll be watching through the rest of the novel to figure out which of them the text supports.

"You seem to doubt me; I don’t doubt myself: I know what my aim is, what my motives are; and at this moment I pass a law, unalterable as that of the Medes and Persians, that both are right."

"They cannot be, sir, if they require a new statute to legalize them."

"They are, Miss Eyre, though they absolutely require a new statute: unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules."

"That sounds a dangerous maxim, sir; because one can see at once that it is liable to abuse." (1.14.83-86)

The rules say Rochester is doing something wrong, so he’s out to change the rules. We don’t know what the thing is that he wants to get away with, but we’re suspicious already.

Volume 2, Chapter 5
Mr. Edward Rochester

"I see genuine contentment in your gait and mien, your eye and face, when you are helping me and pleasing me—working for me, and with me, in, as you characteristically say, 'all that is right:' for if I bid you do what you thought wrong, there would be no light-footed running, no neat-handed alacrity, no lively glance and animated complexion. My friend would then turn to me, quiet and pale, and would say, 'No, sir; that is impossible: I cannot do it, because it is wrong;' and would become immutable as a fixed star. Well, you too have power over me, and may injure me: yet I dare not show you where I am vulnerable, lest, faithful and friendly as you are, you should transfix me at once." (2.5.140)

Later in the novel, Rochester’s going to do his best to convince Jane to do something that she thinks is wrong, but notice that at this much earlier stage he already knows she’s not the kind of person who can be convinced of something she disagrees with. Also, this passage suggests that, even though Jane kind of gets a kick out of being Rochester’s servant, she won’t obey just any order.

"[S]uppose you were no longer a girl well reared and disciplined, but a wild boy indulged from childhood upwards; imagine yourself in a remote foreign land; conceive that you there commit a capital error, no matter of what nature or from what motives, but one whose consequences must follow you through life and taint all your existence. Mind, I don’t say a crime; I am not speaking of shedding of blood or any other guilty act, which might make the perpetrator amenable to the law: my word is error. The results of what you have done become in time to you utterly insupportable; you take measures to obtain relief: unusual measures, but neither unlawful nor culpable. Still you are miserable; for hope has quitted you on the very confines of life: your sun at noon darkens in an eclipse, which you feel will not leave it till the time of setting. Bitter and base associations have become the sole food of your memory: you wander here and there, seeking rest in exile: happiness in pleasure—I mean in heartless, sensual pleasure—such as dulls intellect and blights feeling. Heart-weary and soul-withered, you come home after years of voluntary banishment: you make a new acquaintance—how or where no matter: you find in this stranger much of the good and bright qualities which you have sought for twenty years, and never before encountered; and they are all fresh, healthy, without soil and without taint. Such society revives, regenerates: you feel better days come back—higher wishes, purer feelings; you desire to recommence your life, and to spend what remains to you of days in a way more worthy of an immortal being. To attain this end, are you justified in overleaping an obstacle of custom—a mere conventional impediment which neither your conscience sanctifies nor your judgment approves?" (2.5.148)

No matter how long and sad the story is, we can tell that Rochester’s trying to trick us into saying "yes," and so can Jane. When we find out that what he’s calling a "mere conventional impediment" is the law against bigamy, well, the trick’s just a lot more obvious then. Still, his story does inspire a lot of sympathy.

Volume 3, Chapter 1

The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot. (3.1.122)

When Rochester tries to claim that Jane can reject conventional morality because she doesn’t have any family around to be offended by her decision, she realizes how much more important it is to do the right thing when you are alone in the world.

Mr. Edward Rochester

"Now for the hitch in Jane’s character," he said at last, speaking more calmly than from his look I had expected him to speak. "The reel of silk has run smoothly enough so far; but I always knew there would come a knot and a puzzle: here it is. Now for vexation, and exasperation, and endless trouble! By God! I long to exert a fraction of Samson’s strength, and break the entanglement like tow!" (3.1.38)

Rochester sure gets compared to Samson a lot—you’ll really have to check out that reference in the "Allusions" section. And, as usual, Rochester is shuffling around names and labels for things in order to try to change our attitudes toward them—that "hitch in Jane’s character" is actually her morality.

Jane Eyre

Some time in the afternoon I raised my head, and looking round and seeing the western sun gilding the sign of its decline on the wall, I asked, "What am I to do?"

But the answer my mind gave—"Leave Thornfield at once"—was so prompt, so dread, that I stopped my ears. I said I could not bear such words now. "That I am not Edward Rochester’s bride is the least part of my woe," I alleged: "that I have wakened out of most glorious dreams, and found them all void and vain, is a horror I could bear and master; but that I must leave him decidedly, instantly, entirely, is intolerable. I cannot do it."

But, then, a voice within me averred that I could do it and foretold that I should do it. I wrestled with my own resolution: I wanted to be weak that I might avoid the awful passage of further suffering I saw laid out for me; and Conscience, turned tyrant, held Passion by the throat, told her tauntingly, she had yet but dipped her dainty foot in the slough, and swore that with that arm of iron he would thrust her down to unsounded depths of agony. (3.1.1-5)

Jane’s moment of great ethical crisis turns (in her mind, at least) into an allegorical scene in which Conscience and Passion start brawling, and Conscience is the bully. It’s interesting that Jane knows immediately and certainly what is morally right in this situation—what’s difficult isn’t to know what she has to do, but to make herself do it.