Jane Eyre and the Perils of Sacrifice
“Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. O when may it suffice?” This quotation from “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats sums up the theme of sacrifice for one main character in Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre. The title character of the novel sacrifices much, of course, but somehow Jane does not let her heart turn to stone. Jane’s foil, Mrs. Reed, is not so lucky. Some readers see her as a villain, a title she definitely deserves, but Mrs. Reed is also a tragic figure undone by willfully sacrificing everything dear to her. In the end, the stone-hearted Mrs. Reed sacrifices her happiness, her health, her family, and eventually her life.
The first casualty of Mrs. Reed’s willfulness is her happiness. At the beginning of the novel, she promises her dying husband that she will take care of Jane, a child she knows she can never love. In making this vow, Mrs. Reed condemns herself—and Jane—to discontent. Jane and Mrs. Reed clash throughout their lives together. During Jane’s childhood, Mrs. Reed spoils her own children but has only grim cruelty to offer Jane. For example, consider Jane’s punishment in the Red Room. She reflects on her own plight but also on the cruelty that her mistress suffers in return for her doting devotion to John. He “bluntly disregarded her wishes, not infrequently tore and spoiled her silk attire; and he was still ‘her only darling’. I dared commit no fault; I strove to fulfill every duty; and I was considered naughty and tiresome’” (Brontё 14). All the while that Mrs. Reed pours affection on John, she turns a stony heart on Jane. As a result, when Mrs. Reed dies, Jane feels no loss: “A strange and solemn object was that corpse to me. I gazed on it with gloom and pain; nothing soft, nothing sweet, nothing pitying, or hopeful, or subduing did it inspire; only a grating anguish for her woes—not my loss—and a sombre tearless dismay at the fearfulness of death in such a form” (Brontё 257). Mrs. Reed leads a tortured life and carries her guilt, anger, and regret to the grave. Instead of welcoming her young charge, Mrs. Reed sacrifices happiness for both of them. She remains true to the letter of her promise to her late husband but fails the spirit of the promise. Despite a full family, despite wealth, despite high status, Mrs. Reed becomes cruel and reprimanding.
Mrs. Reed’s pride prevents her from recognizing what she has become, and her negative mindset eats away at her mental and physical health. Early in the book, after Jane’s outburst, Mrs. Reed sends her to Lowood, a school for girls. Instead of bringing respite from their contentious relationship, this decision only causes Mrs. Reed's wounds to fester: “I could not forget your conduct to me, Jane—the fury with which you once turned on me; the tone in which you declared you abhorred me the worst of anybody in the world” (Brontё 256). This conflict between Jane and Mrs. Reed motivates Mrs. Reed to lie to Jane’s uncle, stating that Jane is dead. All this negativity causes Mrs. Reed to lose her mind. The stress and the guilt that plague her trigger a debilitating stroke. Afterward, Mrs. Reed does not even recognize Jane when she first sees her, and Jane is not able to visit Mrs. Reed on most days until she is in a stable place of mind. Forgiveness, that simplest of acts, is beyond Mrs. Reed. Nelson Mandela describes this tragic mindset this way: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Mrs. Reed becomes more and more incapacitated by resentment until the day she dies.
Mrs. Reed’s resentment poisons not just her but her entire family. All of Mrs. Reed’s children, upon whom she doted, end up being quite detached from her. Unable to sacrifice her pride, Mrs. Reed sacrifices her family instead. After Lowood, Jane is estranged from Mrs. Reed and never connects with her. Mrs. Reed spoils her beloved John throughout his childhood, so he never learns to take responsibility for his actions. As an adult, he lives the life of a wastrel, racking up debt after debt, which Mrs. Reed finances. When at last she refuses to continue paying off his mounting debt, he is financially ruined and commits suicide. Mrs. Reed’s doting upbringing of Georgiana and Eliza has other unintended consequences. As an adult, Georgiana just wants to be a society lady while Eliza fills her time with the Lord’s work as a nun. Neither Georgiana nor Eliza have pursued education as the unloved Jane has. Mrs.Reed’s overweening love of her own children leads to their downfall while her disdain for Jane leads to her salvation. Still, all of them abandoned Mrs. Reed, as Jane notes: “I was not present to close her eyes, nor were either of her daughters” (Brontё 257).
Bereft of happiness, health, and family, Mrs. Reed dies alone. She is unwilling to forgive Jane let alone accept her forgiveness, and her own children abandon her. When Jane and Eliza see Mrs. Reed’s corpse, Jane states that Eliza “turned and left the room, and so did I. Neither of us had dropped a tear” (Brontё 258). Mrs. Reed’s life is plagued with unhappiness because she prioritizes her willful pride over everything else. She loses so much because she cannot love Jane. She dies longing for forgiveness--the one act that could redeem her from a life poorly lived. Wealth and status cannot save Mrs. Reed or her family. Only love can do that, such a simple thing but so impossible for a heart that has turned to stone. The unloved Jane, however, finds her own way, emerging from the doom that swallows the Reeds.
Jane Eyre is a story of sacrifice, whether from the perspective of Jane, Mr. Rochester, St. John, or even Mrs. Reed. Arguably, the most tragic of these figures is Mrs. Reed. Her inability to love and care for Jane causes her to lose everything. Nobody goes through life without having to make sacrifices. However, Jane sacrifices the things that don’t matter—such as pride, hurt, and past injustices. Mrs. Reed clings to these things and, as a result, sacrifices everything else.
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