Jane Eyre: Poverty Is No Crime

Jane Eyre on the moors

Jane Eyre on the moors

We all know that much of politics is driven by narrative, and few things depress me more than seeing those narratives driven by demeaning caricatures. I have in mind how Rep. Paul Ryan says that entitlement programs function as hammocks for the lazy poor and that free lunches jeopardize the souls of their children. And how Rand Paul claims that long-term unemployment insurance saps the initiative of job seekers. And how Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama the “food stamp president,” even though food stamps spiked only after the recession of 2007-08, set up by banking deregulation and Wall Street shenanigans.

Jane Eyre provides a narrative that comes closer to the our actual situation. I have in mind that part of the novel where Jane ends up in a remote locale without money or friends. Like most able-bodied Americans, she doesn’t like the fact that she needs handouts. She just wants enough aid to get back on her feet and start working again.

Jane is in her situation because her shock over Rochester’s duplicity has caused her to flee Thornfield. Although she has held a position of prestige in a wealthy family, Jane is prepared to take any job. Unfortunately, there’s nothing for her to do:

A pretty little house stood at the top of the lane, with a garden before it, exquisitely neat and brilliantly blooming.  I stopped at it.  What business had I to approach the white door or touch the glittering knocker?  In what way could it possibly be the interest of the inhabitants of that dwelling to serve me?  Yet I drew near and knocked.  A mild-looking, cleanly-attired young woman opened the door.  In such a voice as might be expected from a hopeless heart and fainting frame—a voice wretchedly low and faltering—I asked if a servant was wanted here?

“No,” said she; “we do not keep a servant.”

“Can you tell me where I could get employment of any kind?” I continued.  “I am a stranger, without acquaintance in this place.  I want some work: no matter what.”

But it was not her business to think for me, or to seek a place for me: besides, in her eyes, how doubtful must have appeared my character, position, tale.  She shook her head, she “was sorry she could give me no information,” and the white door closed, quite gently and civilly: but it shut me out.  If she had held it open a little longer, I believe I should have begged a piece of bread; for I was now brought low.

Millions of Americans have been in Jane’s situation in recent years and many still are. The difference is that our society at least provides them a safety net that catches them when they fall, although rightwing members of the GOP are seeking to end that. In Jane’s case, her hunger overcomes her pride and she starts begging:

At the door of a cottage I saw a little girl about to throw a mess of cold porridge into a pig trough.  “Will you give me that?” I asked.

She stared at me.  “Mother!” she exclaimed, “there is a woman wants me to give her these porridge.”

“Well lass,” replied a voice within, “give it her if she’s a beggar.  T’ pig doesn’t want it.”

The girl emptied the stiffened mould into my hand, and I devoured it ravenously.

Unable to find anything in town, she sets off across the moors and comes across a lone house. Although the housekeeper initially refuses to help her so that she almost dies, eventually St. John Rivers appears and brings her in. Later, when she is recovering, Jane scolds the housekeeper in words that I’d like rightwing Republicans to hear:

“[Y]ou wished to turn me from the door, on a night when you should not have shut out a dog.”

“Well, it was hard: but what can a body do?  I thought more o’ th’ childer nor of mysel: poor things!  They’ve like nobody to tak’ care on ’em but me.  I’m like to look sharpish.”

I maintained a grave silence for some minutes.

“You munnut think too hardly of me,” she again remarked.

“But I do think hardly of you,” I said; “and I’ll tell you why—not so much because you refused to give me shelter, or regarded me as an impostor, as because you just now made it a species of reproach that I had no ‘brass’ and no house.  Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.”

St. John understands that Jane is uncomfortable with receiving charity—as are most Americans—and just needs a helping hand. Here’s their conversation:

“You would not like to be long dependent on our hospitality—you would wish, I see, to dispense as soon as may be with my sisters’ compassion, and, above all, with my charity (I am quite sensible of the distinction drawn, nor do I resent it—it is just): you desire to be independent of us?”

“I do: I have already said so.  Show me how to work, or how to seek work: that is all I now ask; then let me go, if it be but to the meanest cottage; but till then, allow me to stay here: I dread another essay of the horrors of homeless destitution.”

Think what our politics would be like if Ryan, Rand, and their GOP buddies thought of destitute Americans as Jane Eyres rather than hammock-seeking wastrels. America would be a lot less tight-fisted and mean-spirited.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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