Jane Eyre is a novel written by Charlotte Bronte which is mostly considered as the autobiography of her own. In this novel the novelist has portrayed the life of orphan children. Among all of these, three children are most significant. Charlotte Bronte has given us a graphic account of the life of a child in the opening section of the novel. She has also portrayed another two orphan children later. In the first case, the child concerned is Jane Eyre who subsequently emerges as the heroine of the novel. And the other two children are Jane’s best friend in Lowood School named Helen Burns and a French girl by the name of Adele. Charlotte Bronte has depicted the experiences of Jane Eyre when this girl is just ten years old. Jane is being treated most callously by her aunt Mrs. Reed, and is constantly harassed and bullied by Mrs. Reed’s son John Reed.
Jane is an orphan who had been entrusted to the guardianship and the care of Mrs. Reed by her own husband in his dying moments; but Mrs. Reed has paid no heed at all to the dying wish of her husband. Jane is regarded by Mrs. Reed, by her children, and even by her servants not as a relative of the family but as a dependant. Jane is the daughter of the sister of the deceased husband of Mrs. Reed and is, therefore, certainly a relative of the family. But she is treated by the Reed family as an encumbrance and almost as an outcast. Being an orphan, Jane has nowhere else to go to, and so she continues to endure this ill- treatment by the Reed family passively.
Charlotte has portrayed Jane as a self-respecting and spirited girl. She has an inborn love of independence. She has also in her the spirit of defiance and the spirit of rebellion against injustice. She believes that her aunt should have carried out faithfully the wish which Mrs. Reed’s husband (and Jane’s maternal uncle) had expressed while dying. She says to her aunt-
“What would Uncle Reed say to you, if he were alive?”
But Mrs. Reed is behaving in a manner which is just the opposite of what her deceased husband had desired.
Jane cannot, after a time, endure the treatment which she finds to be blatantly cruel and even brutal. She feels particularly offended with Mrs. Reed when she is confined to the red-room under Mrs. Reed’s orders; and her feelings at this time have most realistically been described. At this time all John Reed’s violent tyrannies, all his sister’s proud indifference, all their mother’s aversion, all the servant’s partiality, turn up in her mind; and she asks herself why she is always suffering, always brow-beaten, always accused, and forever condemned, especially when she fulfils every duty and performs every task which is assigned to her.
Such thoughts continue to trouble Jane. She tells us that she kept experiencing a consternation of the soul, that her brain was in a state of tumult, and that all her heart was in insurrection. As a little girl she had been a discord in Gateshead-hall. She had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children or her servants. They did not love her and she did not love them. She was, in their eyes, only a “useless thing”, opposed to them in temperament. As a child she feels certain that, if Mr. Reed had been alive, he would have treated her kindly.
However, she feels considerably relieved when she is sent away from Gateshead-hall to study at Lowood School. Before being admitted to Lowood School, Jane is interrogated by Mr. Brocklehurst, the director of the school, who too is a callous man. To him, Mrs. Reed says that the teachers at Lowood School should be warned to keep on guard against this girl because she is deceitful and a liar. On this occasion again, she speaks to Mrs. Reed in a defiant manner which offends that woman very much; but Jane experiences a sense of victory over her, and inwardly describes herself as the winner of the field. In this context Jane says to her aunt-
“I am not deceitful; if I were, I should say I loved you…”
Jane never considers anybody who treats her unjustly. Even she says to her friend Helen Burns that-
“I must resist those who punish me unjustly.”
It proves her tendency to revolt against unjust and ill- treatment which she has to suffer a lot in her childhood just because of being an orphan.
Another orphan child of this novel is a girl named Helen Burns who is the best friend of Jane Eyre at Lowood School. She is a very devout and religious- minded girl, studying at Lowood School. She is more or less a lonely girl having no friends till Jane Eyre arrives as a new student at Lowood School and becomes acquainted with her.
Miss Scatcherd, one of the teachers of Lowood School, for some strange reason, develops an antipathy towards Helen Burns and humiliates her in the class-room without any convincing reason. But Helen Burns has no objection against this teacher. Rather about her teacher she says to Jane-
“She is severe; she dislikes my faults”
Helen has a stoical temper. Unfortunately she develops the disease known as consumption and, after a time, dies of it, almost in the arms of her well-wisher and friend, Jane Eyre. Helen Burns is one of the most pathetic figures in the novel, even though some critics have found fault with her excessive religiosity and excessive humility.
In the portrayal of the girl Adele, another orphan child of the novel, Charlotte Bronte has given us a contrasted picture of childhood. While Jane is treated cruelly by her aunt and her aunt’s children, Helen is treated in an ill manner in Lowood School; Adele not only receives much attention but is really pampered at Thornfield Hall. She is the illegitimate child of a French opera- dancer named Celine Varens who had, at one time, been Mr. Rochester’s mistress. However, Adele is not Mr. Rochester’s illegitimate child, but of some other lover of that opera- dancer. And yet Mr. Rochester had undertaken to rear this girl just because of his humanitarian feelings. And Mr. Rochester tries to keep Adele as happy as possible. He hires a governess (who is Jane Eyre herself) for her through his housekeeper, and he brings many presents and gifts for Adele whenever he pays a visit to Thornfield Hall.
Adele is a sprightly and garrulous girl in contrast of Jane and Helen who, as a child, had been unhappy and reticent. And now Jane, who is grown up, and who has been appointed a governess to look after Adele’s education, treats this girl with extreme affection because, having herself experienced a miserable childhood; she would like to give this girl as much affection as she can, especially when she is being paid a salary for educating her.
Thus Charlotte Bronte with her witty writing has portrayed the orphan children very vividly and significantly which grows a great sympathy in readers mind for them.