Jane Eyre Paper

Guy J. Heremesh
November 1996

Jane Eyre: A Plea for Help

Many people believe that eating disorders are a product of thetwentieth century, brought on by teenage girls aspiring to besupermodels like Cindy Crawford. Although such pressures areprecipitating factors to many eating disorders, doctors diagnosedpatients with anorexia as early as 1689 (Spignesi 7). One earlyexample of anorexia is present in the novel Jane Eyre. Written in the mid-nineteenth century by Charlotte Brontë,this book describes a young girl whose personality bears strikingsimilarities with that of a diagnosed anorexic. The life of themain character, Jane, has also been shown to share innumerablesimilarities with Brontë’s own life. Biographical informationfrom researchers and autobiographical information from JaneEyre (whether intentional or not) verify that Brontëhad an eating disorder.

Brontë was raised in the nineteenth century, a time in whichmany psychologists believe that eating disorders may have beenmore common than originally thought. With science and psychologystill in their infancy, the victims of these disorders were saidto suffer from either insanity, hysteria, or narcissism. Changesin the twentieth century society have led to a greater likelihoodof an eating disorder being discovered, diagnosed, and reported. In the nineteenth century, however, girls

were not subjected to regular health checks at school and tooklittle physical exercise. Girls’ bodies were hardly ever seenundressed, except perhaps by their mothers, sisters, or maidservants. In the higher socio-economic classes, women generallydressed elaborately, wearing corsets and other apparel whichconcealed and transformed their figures. (van’t Hof 28)

Young women of the nineteenth century were also kept under strictcontrol, most often leading lives organized around the preparationfor marriage. Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father, kept theBrontë household in strict order and was known to fly intoa rage when things did not turn out the way he thought they should. According to Fraser, a biographer of Charlotte Brontë, onone occasion Patrick sawed up all the chairs in his wife’s bedroomsimply “because one of her confinements went wrong”(22). Other times, he was said to have burnt the hearth rug,cut up his wife’s favorite dress, and to have burnt the children’scolored boots because he thought they would promote vanity. Atthe time, children were taught to be subservient and had few waysto cope. The Brontës might have dealt with it the way manynineteenth-century children learned to, resorting “to a nonverbalexpression of their psychic distress. Food was an obvious instrumentfor this purpose” (van’t Hof 51). Patrick Brontë’seffect on his children at first does not seem too influentialuntil one considers that he was their only parent (as their motherdied when Charlotte was five) and one of the only adults theysocialized with.

The effects of Patrick Brontë’s strictness started to surfacewhen Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte’s older sisters, both diedof consumption in 1825. This disease is marked by the progressivewasting away of the body. It is believed that the girls’ consumptionwas the result of tuberculosis, however, because of Patrick Brontë’sfrugality and the relative seclusion of the Brontë home,so that they were not seen by good doctors. Today’s medical professionalsmay have diagnosed this wasting away of the body as a psychologicaldisorder. If indeed an eating disorder was the case, then itis not surprising that Charlotte’s other siblings succumbed to”tuberculosis” as well. Her brother Branwell, who triedto escape from his life through alcohol, died in 1848, while Charlotte’sother sisters Emily and Anne died in 1849.

Death from consumption also occurs in Jane Eyre, withHelen Burns being the victim. Burns, who was supposed to be patternedafter Brontë’s sister Maria, also exhibits some of the classicsigns of an eating disorder. These typical psychological characteristicsare noted in Whitney and Rolfes’ Understanding Nutrition:”From early childhood she (the anorexic) has been a highachiever . . . anxious at social events and unable to easily establishclose relationships” (288). Other characteristics that Burnsshares with anorexics include her attempts to please and rebellingthrough non-vocal measures. Burns’ possession of these tell-talesigns strongly suggests that she might have an eating disorder.

Of all the characters in Jane Eyre, the one whose personalitymost resembles that of someone with an eating disorder is Janeherself. Jane’s symptoms start in her early childhood. Accordingto Angelyn Spignesi, author of Starving Women: Psychology ofAnorexia Nervosa, “Traditionally, the mother of the anorexichas seemed to be a bitch. . . . One thing researchers consistentlydocument: the anorexic’s mother is domineering, demanding, frustrated,and ambitious” (39). Although Jane’s mother has died, thedominant female figure in her life, Mrs. Reed, strongly mirrorsthese characteristics. As Jane’s aunt and guardian, Mrs. Reedtries to control the main aspects of her life. Control issues,such as the “red room” incident (45), are a common scenarioin the lives of most anorexics. Jane is forced into a life ofnear solitude, completely separated from the Reed family, andas Jane herself says, condemned “to take my meals alone”(59).

Like Helen Burns, Jane exhibits classic symptoms of a personwith an eating disorder: she is meticulous, scholarly, compulsive,and a perfectionist. She also shares all of the predisposing,precipitating, and perpetuating factors common to individualswith anorexia nervosa. She is Caucasian, female, middle-class,from an industrialized nation, and reaching sexual maturity; shehas family conflicts, she has pressures to achieve, she is isolated,she fears loss of control, and she experiences several stressfulsituations (van’t Hof 17). As these situations appear throughoutthe novel, it can be presumed that they are an integral part ofJane’s character. Jane also exhibits the social development lagthat is present in many anorexics. Because the anorexic is over-involvedwith her family, she does not develop the skills necessary fordealing with people her own age and “becomes overly skilledin observing and transacting with adults” (Minuchin 60). This might partially explain why Jane falls in love with Rochester,a man old enough to be her father.

The most obvious similarity between Jane and people with eatingdisorders is that they are both obsessed with food. Throughoutthe novel, Jane continually talks about food, mainly startingwhen she enter school at Lowood. The reader rarely learns aboutwhat the girls study or what activities they do, but informationregarding what food is eaten at every meal is explained againand again (75, 76, 77, 78, etc.). Even when Jane and Helen goto meet the greatly esteemed Miss Temple (the headmistress atLowood), food is the central theme in the description of the event(104).

Jane seems to become less obsessed with food after she movesto Thornfield, where she experiences love for the first time. Rochester’s attentiveness and happiness with Jane’s personalityhelp control the problem, but it still exhibits itself. A primaryexample of this is when Jane refuses to eat her meals with Rochestereven though they are planning to be married (298).

When Jane leaves Thornfield, her eating problems reemerge. Thereader is constantly aware of how hungry Jane is, and what berriesshe finds to eat. Then Jane starts begging for food and eatingfrom pig troughs, only to end up delirious on the Rivers’ frontporch seven days after leaving Thornfield (352, 362). As a weekis not that long a period of time to survive on little or no food,Jane must have been suffering from poor nutrition before leavingThornfield. Jane is so ill after this fast that it takes herdays to be nursed back to health. During this time she is describedas emaciated by both Diana and Mary Rivers (365). For a personto become emaciated (a condition often described as when someonestands with her knees together and her thighs do not touch), itwould take much longer than seven days. Even considering thatJane had a smaller than average body frame, and probably hikedtwenty to thirty miles, it is highly unlikely that seven daysof fasting would have left her in such a poor condition.

Aside from what can be discovered in Jane Eyre and therest of Brontë’s life, the way she died is enough to suggestthat Brontë had an eating disorder. In 1855, she fell illto indigestion and had continual fainting sickness. “Butinstead of getting better in a few weeks, Charlotte got steadilyworse. She became very emaciated, her illness punctuated by continualvomiting” (Fraser 481). She died later that year.

Much of Jane Eyre was autobiographical, which suggeststhat the emergence of Jane’s symptoms also serves to show thatCharlotte Brontë herself had an eating disorder. Both Janeand Charlotte fit the classic psychological profile of a personsuffering from anorexia nervosa. Both were perfectionists, obsessedwith food, and searching for control.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. NY: Penguin,1966.

Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontës: Charlotte and Her Family. NY: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Minuchin, Salvador, et al. Psychosomatic Families: AnorexiaNervosa in Context. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1978.

Spignesi, Angelyn. Starving Women: A Psychology of AnorexiaNervosa. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1983.

Vandereycken, Walter, and Ron Van Deth. From Fasting Saintsto Anorexic Girls. NY: New York University Press, 1994.

van’t Hof, Sonja. Anorexia Nervosa: The Historical and CulturalSpecificity. Berwyn: Offsetdrukkerij Kanters B.V., 1994.

Whitney, Elanor Noss, and Sharon Rady Rolfes. UnderstandingNutrition. Minneapolis: West Publishing Co., 1993.

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