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Thread: Mortality in Jane Eyre

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Mortality in Jane Eyre

    One aspect I found striking after reading Jane Eyre was the short life expectancy amongst the adults. This was different to Dickens' Great Expectations, in which many of the major characters survive into their sixties, eventually dying of unnatural causes. At the start of that book, all of Pip's family except his sister are dead, and Pip's sister later dies due partly to Orlick's assault on her. However, if you survived into adulthood, the chances of your reaching old age appeared quite good. In Jane Eyre that does not seem so true. There seems to have been only one character who survived into old age: Mrs Fairfax. Jane's parents and her uncle on her mother's side die while Jane is a small child. Jane's aunt, the mother or St John, Diana and Mary Rivers, has died some while before the main events of the story. St John, Diana and Mary Rivers' father has died shortly before Jane arrived at their home. Jane's other uncle, John, also dies during the course of the book. In addition, Jane's aunt Reid and her cousin George die about half way through the book. Lastly, St John Rivers is reported to be dying, presumably while in his thirties, in the last chapter of the book. This is in addition to Helen Burns and the other girls who died at Lowood School. Unlike Great Expectations, none of these people died violent deaths. They all died from illness, although George's early death was brought on by his dissolute life style, while St John's death was hastened by his missionary work in India. The only character who suffered a violent death was Bertha Rochester, who jumped off the roof of Thornfield Hall (iirc).

    Maybe this partly explains why Jane is happy to marry a man twenty years older than her. She knows her constitution is weak, while Rochester's is strong. Maybe she was not counting on lasting a long time. Jane has a dread of emigrating to India where she thinks she would quickly die. Diana Rivers tells her it is a place which kills the strong while Jane is weak and wouldn't last three months. This is another aspect I was slightly surprised about. Pip spent some time considering whether to take a commision in the army, presumably with the The East India. He didn't in the end, but did emigrate to Eygpt with Herbert and his wife, where they all seemed to thrive. Angel Clare from Tess OTOH, emigrates to Brazil for a while, catches Yellow Fever and is very ill. Angel's friend in Brazil also catches fever and sadly dies.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    confidentially pleased cacian's Avatar
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    Hi Kev67 this is actually quite an interesting point.
    I think maybe it is because killing off these characters is the easiest/quickest option for the writers because then they do not have justify why these characters were brought about and left dangling in the background.
    A bit like a tidying up of things to not have to worry about.
    The other thing about a lots of books in the same theme as Jane Eyre I find a lots of female characters much younger then their male counterparts.
    Jane Austen is one. All her female characters tend to be half the age of their Darcy's if you like.
    In fact many period or classical books tend to underage their female character in opposition to their male counterparts in the stories to emphasise innocence and naivety.
    It is maybe understood that young/youth is weak fragile and no threat whatsoever so as not to upset the balance and so the younger the better intellectually.
    It has in my opinion that sickely element of the male character being perceived as the father figure protective and at times stiffling towards a much younger female.
    It is in my opinion an indication of fear and insecurity that a same age or older women/female character is more challenging and has more intellectual power rivalry with or amongst her male counterparts.
    This is my humble opinion.

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    Last edited by cacian; 08-16-2012 at 03:57 PM.
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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Cacian, I think in the past the difference in age between the bride and her bridegroom may have been partly due to the fact that the husband had to be financially secure before he could marry. This may partly also explain the sexual double-standard: simply that men had longer to wait before their wedding night. Feel free to shoot me down if you don't agree.

    I am not sure C.B. was killing off untidy relatives just to progress her story. After all, she and all five of her siblings were dead before they turned forty.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    You would be surprised, but Jane Eyre caused quite a stir amongst certain critics because of the 20 year age difference. They found it disgusting. An 18-year old girl and a 30-year old man was still OK (as you say, Kev, a man had to be financially stable before marriage), but even a widower of 40-odd like Rochester would marry someone at least in her late 20s. After all, Darcy is only 28 when he settles on Lizzie who is round about 20.

    I agree that once you had made it past 24 or so, that you had a good chance of getting to a nice age, depending on the work you did. You see that in genealogy records. General average life expectancy rates are misleading in that they also take into account all the infants (0 years old) and small children (up to 5-10 years old) who died. In that the average goes down quite dramatically where in fact people who get past the treacherous fase lived about as long as they did in the 1950s. If you take a case of two: one woman of twenty and her infant of 0, you'd get an average life expectancy of 10... even if you added one of 60, that would give an average of only 26,6666. It's a bit misleading.

    One reason for the amount of deaths from disease in Brontë's novels might be because Charlotte had her siblings die of these and she probably saw a lot of people dying where she lived. She lived in a notorious poor area where people were packed together in small spaces (mining villages, you see) and where diseases could easily swipe through a population. In London too, but maybe Dickens himself did not have any real personal experiences in this. He's rather the debtors' prison guy.

    But I think around the 1830s top age must have been about 60 to 65 as there were no adequate remidies for anything apart from waiting until it was over. Blisters, blood-letting, purging and cupping were about the only things used... Oh, and not to forget leeches. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that people started to use targeted medicine (light stuff mind, from plants and things) to cure diseases or ease symptoms. So it's not exactly surprising that people died early from things like flu, colds, pneumonia etc. They were not even able to tackle fever properly.

    Missionaries and their families often died early because, as the Indians in America, they were killed off by diseases their immune systems were not equipped against. And there was not a vast array of doctors to help them fight them because they were there alone (even if such doctors could have made a difference). Then you've got the heat, the stink (believed to spread disease) and strange animals that can poison you. Oh, not to forget the treacherous journey there. I'm not sure how people perceived Egypt, apparently different to the more humid places like India, but I suppose the northern part of Egypt is pretty similar to the Mediterranean. No problam there then.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    What would the Victorians have made of Joe's wedding to Biddy in Great Expectations? There was clearly a twenty year age gap in that marriage, although Biddy was a few years older than Jane. Biddy would have been about twenty-three.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    Cacian, I think in the past the difference in age between the bride and her bridegroom may have been partly due to the fact that the husband had to be financially secure before he could marry. This may partly also explain the sexual double-standard: simply that men had longer to wait before their wedding night. Feel free to shoot me down if you don't agree.

    I am not sure C.B. was killing off untidy relatives just to progress her story. After all, she and all five of her siblings were dead before they turned forty.
    Actually, I'll shoot myself down. I read here that the average age of brides was two years younger than their husbands. During the 1700s, the average age for me to marry was twenty-eight, twenty-six for women. By 1870, the average age for a man to marry was twenty-four for working men, but thirty for professional men.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    All are at the crossroads qimissung's Avatar
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    I hadn't really thought about mortality in Jane Eyre, but reading through your list it is somewhat obvious that a large number of her characters bite the dust. I suspect that it is as Kiki says, that that's what she was familiar with. Her family was poor, their lives were difficult, they were unhealthy and somewhat frail people, they lived in places where the mortality rate was high.

    On the other hand the people who die are not main characters nor are they necessarily germane to the story by the time they die. Still, something in me thinks that that was just kind of her world view.

    As to Rochester. Bronte's main character is not at all like anything seen in literature until that time. A small, pale, quiet woman, who, though from a good family, is alone in the world and with no real means of her own! Small wonder then, that the literary mind of the author created an equally unusual love interest for her spirited main character to spar with, match wits with, and ultimately fall in love with.
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    Registered User mona amon's Avatar
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    On the other hand the people who die are not main characters nor are they necessarily germane to the story by the time they die.
    Exactly! As Cacian says, you can't have a lot of unnecessary characters "dangling in the background". They'll clutter up the story. Only these superfluous relatives are killed off, it seems to me.

    Jane Eyre was written before the deaths of Charlotte's siblings, but even in her later novels Shirley and Villette, there isn't such an obsession with death. She seems much more concerned with the fate of single women.
    Last edited by mona amon; 08-17-2012 at 07:46 AM.
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    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    I don't know about Shirley and Vilette, I am ashamed to say. I have Shirley on my shelf to read, but I haven't started it yet.

    I don't know how Bontë makes stories normally (judging from all her work), but in JE she definitely did not start off with a set amount of characters, like Emily. She never returns to the people at Lowood, though, but she does to Jane's cousins at Gateshead. She pratically had to because who doesn't care about her cousins so much to at least know what happened to them? The fact that her aunt dies is only natural as she is old.

    When it comes to her (half) cousins Rivers, imagine how strange it would have been for a reader to have old Mr Rivers alive while his niece is there. What had to happen in order to avoid a 'what were my mother and father like' conversation? He had to die. If that conversation didn't happen, we would all find that weird (which is natural). Both characters would be considered cold-hearted and unemotional.
    As Charlotte and Jane themselves, the daugthers Diana and Mary are forced to earn their own money by being governesses because their family is reasonably poor, but then there should be a reason for them to come home. Their father's death! As Jane was allowed some leave when her aunt was dying.

    Inevitably you're going to have some problems if you have a loose set of characters that crop up when they are needed and are not permanently there. You can either marry them off (in a woman's case), send them far far away or kill them, which is the easiest (best concluded before the character is introduced so as to avoid long protracted scenes).
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'âme ne se vide à ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scène VII)

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