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Free Barron's Booknotes-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte-Free Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER 21

Jane tells us as this chapter begins, that she believes in "presentiments," "sympathies," and "signs"- that is, premonitions, mental telepathy, and omens. It isn't too surprising when, after Jane dreams of a baby-an omen of family trouble-Bessie Leaven's husband shows up at Thornfield with the news that John Reed has committed suicide. Mrs. Reed has suffered a stroke and is demanding to see Jane. In spite of her vow never to visit Mrs. Reed again, Jane asks for a week's leave in order to answer the dying woman's request.

Jane receives a chilly welcome from Mrs. Reed's two daughters. Eliza is pale and thin, and wears a "nun-like" crucifix around her neck. Georgiana is plump and overdressed, and she inspects Jane's dull brown traveling dress with a disapproving sneer. Jane has heard earlier from Bessie that Georgiana was about to elope with an army officer when Eliza spoiled the plan by warning Mrs. Reed. It soon becomes clear to her that the girls not only hate each other, they hate their mother too, and are waiting impatiently for the old woman to die.

It would be natural to suppose that Mrs. Reed has sent for Jane because she is sorry for the way she treated her in the past and wants to ask for forgiveness. Nothing of the kind! Even when she's delirious, the very name "Jane Eyre" sets Mrs. Reed raving about how much she hates the girl. The only reason she has asked for Jane, Mrs. Reed finally reveals is that she's afraid to die without confessing another wrong she did Jane just three years ago; Mr. John Eyre, Jane's uncle, sent Mrs. Reed a letter saying he wanted to adopt Jane, bring her to Madeira, and make her his heir. The thought of the niece she hated having such good luck was too much for Mrs. Reed, so she told him that Jane died during the typhus epidemic at Lowood School. In the end, of course Jane does forgive the dying Mrs. Reed.


NOTE:

Reading this scene you may find yourself thinking back to Jane's days at Lowood, when Helen Burns kept advising her to learn to forgive her enemies. Helen's philosophy seemed impossibly idealistic to Jane, at the time. Now that she is older, however, she finds it easier to understand Mrs. Reed's faults. She no longer has power over Jane's life; she is a troubled old woman, and Jane cannot bring herself to hold a grudge.

Jane stays on at Gateshead for a whole month, helping Georgiana and Eliza to plan for their futures after their mother's death. Georgiana and Eliza are almost caricatures; their useless lives illustrate the fates of so many single women in Victorian society. Georgiana thinks of nothing but parties; lazy and bored by day, she spends most of her time lolling on the sofa. Eliza, who is about to convert to the Roman Catholic church, is busy every minute with her religious observances, yet we can't help feeling that Eliza's religion is just something she throws herself into because it fills up an otherwise empty existence.

NOTE:

You will have to decide for yourself whether the portrait of the Reed sisters is a fair one. Notice that Jane Eyre, through her interest in painting and drawing, is able to fill usefully the empty hours that weigh so heavily on the two sisters. So perhaps Charlotte Bronte is trying to make a point here about the need for women to have useful and creative work. On the other hand, you'll find that this author rarely has a good word to say about young women from the upper classes of society. Do you think this is of prejudice, or is it her realistic outlook on such women's way of life?

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