Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones (Brontë XXIX.395.15).
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is narrated by the titular character, whose upbringing and education afford her a place in the middle-class as a governess that would otherwise be out of her reach had she been left to the squalor of orphan life. Jane’s personality and being are defined by her education. Her experience at the Reeds’ and at Lowood Institution fortified her sense of individuality, and granted her patience and compassion for others. Even in her private thoughts, an adult Jane is slow to criticize or judge the characters she encounters.
Brontë, being an educated woman who enjoyed a special place in 19th-century London’s literary circles, is using her platform to advocate for education: if prejudices are weeds, they pervade the garden that is society and disrupt the harmony between its wildlife.
In this passage, Jane the character asserts that prejudice is borne of ignorance, and must be combated with education to achieve some kind of enlightenment. Hannah, the Rivers family’s servant, refuses to provide Jane with shelter and food when the latter arrives on their doorstep one night, hungry and unkempt and soaked from the rain. Although Jane has the manners and accent of an educated lady, Hannah distrusts her and casts her away. Jane argues that Hannah’s prejudices prevent her from helping out a stranger in need. The “weeds” harden her heart into “stone” and render her indifferent to a fellow human who is in a dire situation. While Jane makes an astute point that Hannah’s prejudices limit her ability to show compassion and mercy, she misses the point by insinuating that Hannah’s lack of education rendered her prone to bias.
The characters quickest to judge and disregard Jane throughout the novel often belong to the educated elite class. The Reed family treats her like an garbage, even though she is related to them, because she’s an orphan and the product of a unprofitable marriage; Mr. Brocklehurst is a religious hypocrite who siphons money from Lowood to support his luxurious lifestyle while making the girls live in squalor; and Rochester’s inner-circle of “friends” spend their time gossiping and insulting their social inferiors. So, contrary to Jane’s assertion, education does not enlighten the beholder with a predisposition towards charity and acceptance. If anything, the elite use their education as another quality that elevate them above the working class and the poor. Let’s not forget how Rochester, upon meeting Jane, claims or believes that his privilege—an upper-class education and the means to travel and enter different social circles—make him better than the young, humble Jane. While Rochester has these experiences under his belt, he is still an asshole.
There are plenty of educated literary characters in 19th-century novels that are quick to judge and hold immense biases. One notable example is Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), whose opening lines present a “universal truth” that sounds a lot like the passage from Brontë’s novel. Under this analysis, Brontë’s line in her seminal work becomes a diss, a calling-out: she is suggesting that the elite are as prone to prejudice—the supposed product of ignorance— as the uneducated working class; and their more fortuitous stations in life do not necessarily make them better people.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Barnes & Nobles Classic, New York, 2015.