Home > 19th Century, British Literature, Brontë Sisters, Classics, Novel > How shall we react to injustice and harassment ?

How shall we react to injustice and harassment ?

 I promised in a previous post I’d write about Jane Eyre’s important talk with Helen Burns in chapter 6. It happens just after Jane witnessed a scene where Helen is beaten by one of her professors, Miss Scatcherd. She endures the punishment without a cry and she does not resent Miss Scatcherd for it.

Jane cannot understand why Helen does not retaliate against unjust critics or at least feels like doing it. She thinks she should resist as she says :

If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way : they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should–so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”

But Helen considers that “It is not violence that best overcomes hate–nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.”

Here lays, in a few lines of a novel of the 19th century, a very important issue for individuals, minorities and nations. How should we react to injustice or harassment ? Shall we accept it or resist ? For Jane, there is no reason why she should accept injustice without trying to fight back whereas Helen would think a Christian should endure it with forbearance.

Though Helen is right in the way that hate and resentment never bring any good, Jane wonders why she should like someone who’s not good to her and especially asks the question about the resistance. Shall we resist to people who misbehave and fight back to protect ourselves and make them stop their harassment ? How do these people stop misbehaving if no one fights back ? This question has no definitive answer, of course. It depends on the situation and what one means by “fight”. Physical fight is condemnable and I really agree with Gandhi’s famous saying “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

But the resistance is something else, it can be visible as well as invisible, collective or individual. It can be violent or non-violent. It goes from one person not willing to bend under oppression to black people boycotting buses in Montgomery in 1955. It’s the debate between Martin Luther King and Malcom X.

Jane still does not understand and justifies her position by telling Helen how Mrs Reed treated her and about the resentment she feels. Helen reacts with the Christian vision of how one must like their enemies, forgive and not waste energy in hate and vengeance. She points out :

She has been unkind to you, no doubt; because you see, she dislikes your cast of character, as Miss Scatcherd does mine; but how minutely you remember all she has done and said to you! What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”

And then comes the next issue : when the damage is done, how should the person, the nation react? Shall the victim forgive their torturer? After a civil war or a collective injustice against a minority, what is the best way to go on living together as a social body ? Recent history seems to show at least three different ways :

  • France, after World War II went for hasty punishment of the most visible criminals and silence for the others.
  • Algeria, after Islamic terror decided to vote a law to forgive the criminals, to restore peace and unity of the nation.
  • South Africa chose to face the facts through the “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions”, to let the victim talk and have their country acknowledge the violence committed against them. Nelson Mandela also tried to create a united nation through the rugby team (see Clint Eastwood’s Invictus)

All these methods have pros and cons. As for me, forgiveness without forgetting seems to be the healthiest way to go on, but I guess it’s easy to say when you’re safe in your living-room. No one knows how they would react, were they obliged to choose a side or be the victim of an assault.

I have to admit I didn’t expect to find such a topic in Jane Eyre, which I imagined being a book like Pride & Prejudice. Well, I guess the classics are always full of surprises !

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