For the last forty years, Jane Eyre criticism has understandably focused on Bertha Mason Rochester as a marginalized, abused, and silenced mixed-race woman. Although Jane's childhood friend Helen Burns is a very different and much less controversial character, she and Bertha suffer similar deaths from the culpable neglect of their guardians. Both women serve as the impetus of a bystander's dilemma: the perennial question of whether a person is obligated to protect another's life or dignity at the risk of his or her own. Because contemporary law imposed no duty to rescue upon bystanders, this paper uses the commentary of Victorian legal theorist John Austin to create a standard against which to judge the ethical merit of the choices made by bystanders throughout the novel. Maria Temple, superintendent of Lowood, is a bystander to the fatal abuse heaped upon her students; she has the power to expose the school's brutal conditions, but chooses to remain silent so that she can keep her job and her limited power. Her choice, while practical, makes her complicit in Helen's death. When Jane becomes bystander to Bertha's dangerously negligent captivity, she chooses to flee Thornfield rather than intervene. Though many critics have decried her selfishness, Jane makes a practical and ethical choice because she has so little chance of helping Bertha and so much to lose in the attempt. Just as Miss Temple is able to protect Jane because of her self-serving decisions, Jane in turn is able to protect Adèle. Yet all these successes are predicated upon earlier neglect of persons unable to protect themselves, as Helen and Bertha remind us. There is no comfortable solution to the bystander's dilemma.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Hadden, Rose Evelle, ""I wondered at her silence": Jane Eyre's Wrestle with the Bystander's Dilemma" (2017). Theses and Dissertations. 7215.
Jane Eyre, law and literature, Lowood, duty to rescue, bystander's dilemma