Jane Eyre on Caring for the Sick

Fritz Eichenberg, a blind and maimed Rochester

Friday

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time with the elderly and the sick and it’s changing how I see the world. First there was the week I spent with my friend Rachel Kranz in a Bronx hospital (ovarian cancer, blot clots), and now my 91-year-old mother and I are visiting a 100-year-old relative in Maine who has difficulty walking. Life has both slowed down and gotten more intense as things once small suddenly loom large.

The image of Jane Eyre tending to Rochester comes to mind. When I returned to the novel’s conclusion, I discovered that Jane fits the angel on the hearth paradigm much more than I realized, as though she’s assuring the reader that she’s no longer the angry little girl or the restless governess.

I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth.  I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine.  No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.  To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.  We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.  All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.

Jane proves to be the perfect helpmate:

Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union; perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near—that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand.  Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye.  He saw nature—he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf, and of putting into words the effect of field, tree, town, river, cloud, sunbeam—of the landscape before us; of the weather round us—and impressing by sound on his ear what light could no longer stamp on his eye.  Never did I weary of reading to him; never did I weary of conducting him where he wished to go: of doing for him what he wished to be done.  And there was a pleasure in my services, most full, most exquisite, even though sad—because he claimed these services without painful shame or damping humiliation.  He loved me so truly, that he knew no reluctance in profiting by my attendance: he felt I loved him so fondly, that to yield that attendance was to indulge my sweetest wishes.

Jane and Rochester, of course, are two independent spirits, and I’m struck by how careful Jane is not to diminish him to “painful shame or damping humiliation.” I’m learning, as those experienced in the caretaking business already know, that it’s important not to regard the work as a sacrifice. Jane is well aware that seeing it as such can breed resentment and angry defensiveness, which is why she avoids the word. Here’s her interchange with Rochester right after he proposes marriage:

“Mr. Rochester, if ever I did a good deed in my life—if ever I thought a good thought—if ever I prayed a sincere and blameless prayer—if ever I wished a righteous wish,—I am rewarded now.  To be your wife is, for me, to be as happy as I can be on earth.”

“Because you delight in sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice!  What do I sacrifice?  Famine for food, expectation for content.  To be privileged to put my arms round what I value—to press my lips to what I love—to repose on what I trust: is that to make a sacrifice?  If so, then certainly I delight in sacrifice.”

“And to bear with my infirmities, Jane: to overlook my deficiencies.”

“Which are none, sir, to me.  I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.”

When one human being becomes dependent on another, his or her self-respect can be jeopardized. Caretakers need to respect both the needs of the patient and their own needs if the relationship is to remain healthy.  Jane finds a way to honor both.

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