Jane Eyre: There’s no Pride in Being Prejudiced

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.

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Allan Farfan Canales

My three favorite R's: read, rap, and write.

3 thoughts on “Jane Eyre: There’s no Pride in Being Prejudiced”

  1. Allan, I really liked how you pointed out this quote in class and in this post. Your analysis is fascinating, and really dissects how strange Jane’s reflection that education leads to compassion is. As you point out, the elite in the novel are among the most callous toward Jane. I am curious how you interpret this quote as a call-out of Austen. While I have not read Pride and Prejudice in many years, I would like to hear more about how you think understanding this context changes the quote’s interpretation. In addition, I am interested in how Saint John complicates these reflections; he is one of the least compassionate characters in the novel, despite his religious education. Overall, I think this quote is in conflict with many of the themes in the novel, which makes its purpose and meaning convoluted.

  2. These are really interesting observations and your final point about the prejudices of both educated and uneducated individuals are very spot on in the novel! Jane is definitely guilty of prejudices herself as you mention. Another place where I see Jane prematurely judging a low class character is with the mysterious Grace Poole, who Jane assumes is the one who started the fire in Rochester’s room. Grace Poole does not have any outwardly disturbing habits and seems to function normally as a seamstress, but Jane creates a murderous narrative about her and what could by lying under her layer of normality. Jane’s speculation and perspective even makes the reader place Grace into a gothic role and results in the reader finding it hard to disassociate her from this murderous role even after the reveal of her true identity.

  3. This is such a fascinating analysis! Your points about education are especially striking, and I think there is a point to be made about the difference between academic education and real-world experience. As you say, Jane seems to assert that education makes a person less likely to judge others based on appearances, but this assertion is at odds with the academically-educated, elite characters in the text. It’s all well and good to read about various people and cultures, but until someone actually goes out in the world and puts that knowledge to practical use, they are only halfway there. Vice versa, and the point that Jane makes about Hannah, the “weeds” of prejudice are difficult (but of course not impossible) to pull out without education and learning to open one’s mind beyond immediate appearances. It is the combination of an academic education and the experience of living in the real world that allows Jane to be humble, open-minded, and non-judgmental in a way which other characters are not.

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