Finding Balance

In Greek philosophy, Aristotle proposes a doctrine called the “golden mean,” in which he advocates for balance between extremes.  He believes that even something virtuous can become bad when held in excess or if lacked. In Jane Eyre, we are introduced to several characters who hold extreme religious beliefs that influence their actions in ways that Jane is often skeptical of and cannot adopt for herself. Jane seeks to find just the right amount of spirituality — a spirituality that is both grounded in morality yet still allows room for autonomy.

Let’s take a look at a couple of the characters who demonstrate some extreme qualities:

Helen Burns, for one, shows extreme tolerance and patience towards her circumstances. She passively moves through life without standing up for herself while showing humility as she fervently holds on to her faith. Jane says, “I could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance; and still less could I understand or sympathize with the forbearance [Helen] expressed for her chastiser.”  At what point does humility become foolish? There needs to be a balance between humility and pride. If people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, for example, never stood up and fought for civil rights but rather endured slavery and prejudice for the sake of humility, we would not be where we are today. Just because Christian authorities deem something as right or wrong does not make their decree necessarily true. People are valuable and should not quietly endure abuse. There is a time to give in and be humble but there is also a time to speak up and fight. Jane often quietly tolerated abuse from Mrs. Reed, from her cousins, from her teachers – but whenever she had a chance to stand up for herself, she did.

St. John Rivers is another character who demonstrates extreme devotion to his religious beliefs. At the end of the novel, Jane speaks of St. John as being the living fulfillment of the Biblical scripture of the servant who remained faithful as he waited for the return of Christ. She explains that St. John “entered on the path he marked for himself; he pursues it still. A more resolute, indefatigable pioneer never wrought amidst rocks and dangers. Firm, faithful, and devoted, full of energy and zeal…” Jane cannot settle for a life with St. John because she realizes that a life with him will be a life lacking true love and passion. The Victorian Web offers an article on St. John and Christian piety.

You can view the article by clicking here: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/grier.html

The article describes how although St. John is “a virtuous man who performs works of charity, he does so with a grim sense of duty, and seems more motivated by carrying out his ideals than by genuine emotional sympathy with his beneficiaries.” There are people, much like St. John, who follow Biblical scriptures to the word and have an overwhelming sense of duty to their religious beliefs. Jane has a strong personality and cannot adopt such a mechanical way of life. She seeks to find balance between the rigid teachings of  Christianity and her independence as well as her passions. Religious beliefs can provide people with a blueprint for morality and goodness, but extreme religious practices that inhibits a person’s freedom and happiness is not truly a good thing.

Here is some information on Aristotle’s doctrine of the Golden Mean if you are interested:
http://www.anus.com/zine/articles/draugdur/golden_mean/

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4 thoughts on “Finding Balance

  1. swu7

    I think that you make a great connection. When I read your first sentence, I actually didn’t think about the novel at all regarding the “golden mean”, but of our phrenology readings. In George Combe’s excerpt (The Constitution of Man), Combe states that all human faculties are good, except when used in excess, especially the lower faculties. He states that a “mean” in the use of faculties is right way to go, even for the higher faculties, such as Veneration. His brother, Andrew Combes, also takes this view in his excerpt. He says that the mind has to always be exercised, but it can’t be too neglected or too strongly excited. I think that characters who demonstrate extreme qualities, like St. John and Helen, focus too much on specific qualities or faculties and lose sight of the fact that each faculty is important. I think they’re in the novel, juxtaposed to Jane, to show her achievement of the “golden mean.”

  2. Nathan

    I wonder to what extent Jane is just slow to make decisions about big life questions. Given her propensity for trailing off with day dreams, I might argue that she is kinda spacey and her being in the middle does not represent some adherence to a philosophical position of moderation but rather an abrogation of engaging with the challenges of religious consistency and belief.

    She is a good helpmate for St. John because she is good at working, but she is not like him in the ability to express her beliefs in the same way. Specifically given her prior trauma with religious figures when she was introduced to Brocklehurst, I would feel confident that religion is not a simple experience. I do agree with the other comments and think this general mediocrity/middleness is a symptom of her detachtedness.

  3. Ali Troiano

    I agree that there are extreme characters in Jane Eyre. I really like the point made in the article from the Victorian Web that St.John “argues for curbing one’s romantic, but often egotistical emotions and behavior in order to become a virtuous Christian — but he goes much farther than Jane is capable of doing, completely eschewing both feeling and emotional attachments in favor of a pure and unswerving commitment to his ideals.” This highlight the extremism in St.John that you point out.

    In the article, Grier also states, “but his behavior toward those around him leaves both Jane and the reader slightly uneasy, as it indicates a lack of two of the traits that Jane and Brontë admire most — love and compassion.” This is an interesting point because, as you mention, St.John and Helen seem, in many ways, parallel characters. However, I think Helen is portrayed as encompassing this “love and compassion.”

  4. mlfiloramo

    Very interesting observation!

    I definitely agree with you, Jane certainly does strike a balance, religiously, among some of the characters she interacts with. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, St. John–they all seem to represent different religious extremes. Well, pious ones at that.

    While Jane represents a balance between these characters religiously, do you think she also does in some other way? After reading more about Aristotle’s Golden Mean, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which Jane balances herself between the other characters in terms of personality, romantic interest, etc. For example, Rochester professes his love and adoration for Jane at different points throughout the book; although Jane doesn’t settle for him any time immediately, she is reserved, somewhat coy, but not always entirely rejecting of him, either. She sort of finds a middle-of-the-road with him for the bulk of the novel.

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