A quick glance at British literature will show us that it is frighteningly abundant with gloomy childhoods. British child protagonists are many a time lonely, unloved orphans who are but a burden to their cruel guardians. From Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby to modern-day Roald Dahl's Matilda, British novels tend to portray childhoods which are fraught with neglect and abuse. Two of the most prominent examples are Charlotte Brontë’s renowned classic, Jane Eyre, and J.K. Rowling's beloved Harry Potter series. Jane Eyre’s childhood, not unlike Harry’s, is a positively heart-breaking narrative of loneliness and misery. And yet, it is not the mere fact of both protagonists’ sad childhoods that makes these two literary works comparison worthy. Jane Eyre's childhood's manner of misery is so startlingly similar to Harry’s that I believe this similarity is worth some looking into.
Riches to Rags
We shall begin with the beginning. What exactly was Charlotte Brontë’s famous protagonist’s situation as a child, and how did she arrive at it? Jane Eyre was orphaned early on in her infancy, and passed over to her rich uncle, Mr. Reed. The said Mr. Reed died shortly afterwards, not before extracting out of his wife a promise that she would care for little Jane as if she were one of her own. Jane’s mother, Mr. Reed’s sister, made a low marriage to a poor clergyman, and was disowned by her family. Despite this, Mr. Reed continued to be deeply fond of his sister, and was therefore happy to raise her child, much to his wife's displeasure. As Mrs. Reed put it: “I had a dislike to her mother always; for she was my husband’s only sister, and a great favorite with him: he opposed the family’s disowning her when she made her low marriage.” 1 Not in keeping with her promise, Mrs. Reed thrusts this ancient dislike upon her charge, Jane Eyre, who suffers greatly at her care. Harry Potter, another orphan from infancy passed over to the care of his aunt, suffers similar treatment, and for similar reasons. His mother, Aunt Petunia’s sister, was not disowned by her family, but definitely differed from it a great deal. Her poor clergyman was the not-so-poor wizard James Potter. It is clear to see that this rather unordinary behavior on Lily’s part was not to her sister’s liking: “I was the only one who saw her for what she was – a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!” 2 Aunt Petunia, uncannily like Mrs. Reed, was envious of Lily’s being a favorite, in this case not of her husband, but of her parents. Like Mrs. Reed, she turns this prejudice toward her nephew, another luckless charge of a reluctant guardian.
We may see from the above that both Jane and Harry are the victims of similar circumstances. The roots of their sorry states are remarkably similar. More remarkable still is the fact that throughout their childhoods, they suffer almost identical hardships; not only identical in principal, but identical to almost the last detail. Though extremely non-maternal toward her husband’s niece, Mrs. Reed is the doting mother of three other, frightfully spoiled children: John, Eliza and Georgiana. While all three are quite Dudley-esque, John Reed’s similarity to Petunia’s Dinky-Duddydums is the most striking, as we may see from Jane's account of him:
He gorged himself habitually at table, which made him bilious, and gave him a dim and bleared eye and flabby cheeks. He ought now to have been at school; but his mamma had taken him home for a month or two, ‘on account of his delicate health.’ Mr. Miles, the master, affirmed that he would do very well if he had fewer cakes and sweetmeats sent him from home; but the mother's heart turned from an opinion so harsh, and inclined rather to the more refined idea that John’s sallowness was owing to over-application and, perhaps, to pining after home.3
Petunia, who protests her son’s bad marks owe to his being “a very gifted boy whose teachers didn't understand him,” 4 tries to explain away his obesity as well, only giving in to the school nurse’s dietary instructions after her son outgrows the biggest possible school outfit.5 Both women are blinded to the damages of over-pampering and come to raise spoiled, vacant headed individuals with no sense of self-criticism.
While both Jane and Harry grow up in the shadow of much preferred (and gluttonous) peers, the unfairness of their situation is not due only to the shameless favoritism demonstrated by those in charge of them, but also in how these authoritative figures unnervingly ignore the bullying that takes place under their noses. Dudley Dursley and John Reed are not merely spoiled; they are violent and stupid – a rather dangerous combination. Dudley’s inclination towards violence is one of the first things we learn about him: “Dudley’s favorite punch-bag was Harry, though he couldn’t often catch him. Harry didn’t look it, but he was very fast.” 6 Similarly, John Reed is a merciless bully who makes Jane’s life nothing short of miserable:
He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions; the servants did not like to offend their young master by taking my part against him, and Mrs. Reed was blind and deaf on the subject: she never saw him strike or heard him abuse me, though he did both now and then in her very presence; more frequently, however, behind her back.7
In consequence of such abusive treatment, both Harry and Jane come to prefer solitude to hostile company. Indeed, this inclination toward solitude is highly encouraged in both their cases. Jane narrates: “From every enjoyment I was, of course, excluded [...] to speak truth, I had not the least wish to go into company, for in company I was very rarely noticed.” 8 After a certain event in which Jane strikes John for bullying her, Jane says that Mrs. Reed “had drawn a more marked line of separation than ever between me and her own children; appointing me a small closet to sleep in by myself, condemning me to take my meals alone.” 9 We learn of Harry’s encouraged tendency to retreat into the background as a contrast to a different, and yet nonetheless sickening approach of another relative: Aunt Marge. “Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia usually encouraged Harry to stay out of their way, which Harry was only too happy to do. Aunt Marge, on the other hand, wanted Harry under her eye at all times, so that she could boom out suggestions for his improvement.” 10 Both Jane and Harry suffer the worst kind of treatment a child could – they are completely ignored; treated as nothing more than a speck of dirt one wishes to brush away. Needless to say, Harry’s cupboard of a bedroom also bears an astonishing similarity to Jane’s “small closet.”
The said Aunt Marge’s method of torment, though horribly unique, is also mirrored in Jane Eyre. For a start, there is her rather twisted idea of wholesomeness: “Pardon me. But I do like to see a healthy-sized boy [Dudley]...This one’s [Harry] got a mean, runty look about him.” 11 Jane Eyre is described time and again as physically inferior to the Reed children, owing to her small size and paleness. Mrs. Reed describes the baby Jane Eyre as “a sickly, whining, pining thing!” 12 The considerable physical differences between skinny and pale Jane and Harry, and their more bulky peers, serve in both cases as yet another seeming proof of their inferiority. Another similarity between Aunt Marge and the Reed household is their recurring complaint of Harry's and Jane's seeming ungratefulness. Both seem to think that the mere fact these orphans grew up in their guardians’ houses and weren’t sent off somewhere is the result of almost unbearable generosity. “It’s damn good of Vernon and Petunia to keep you.” Says Aunt Marge to Harry, “You'd have gone straight to an orphanage if you'd been dumped on my doorstep.” 13 The somewhat fanatic servant of the Reeds, Abbot, tells Jane accordingly: “you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep.” 14 Last, but not least, of Aunt Marge’s notions is her concern for Harry’s education, very similar to Mrs. Reed’s concern for Jane’s. Aunt Marge worryingly advises Petunia to encourage Harry’s school masters to rigorously beat him, dissatisfied by his apparent lack of traumas.15 When the terrifying Mr. Brocklehurst comes to settle Jane’s admittance to his school, Mrs. Reed is eager to warn him: “this little girl has not quite the character and disposition I could wish: should you admit her into Lowood school, I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers keep a strict eye on her.” 16 Both Mrs. Reed and Aunt Marge fool themselves that they are being simply strict in the good sense, when in actuality they are demonizing Jane and Harry respectively in the hopes of seeming superior in comparison.
Perhaps what makes for the most striking resemblance between Jane and Harry’s hardships is their being deceived most shockingly by their so-called benefactors. Mrs. Reed, much like Vernon and Petunia, for three years conceals from Jane a letter which could have contributed greatly to her happiness, and contains some important information about her family. An uncle of Jane’s, of whom she had never known, had written to Mrs. Reed requesting to adopt her. Mrs. Reed replies with the falsehood that Jane had died of typhus, which had indeed struck her school during her residence there. She reveals the letter to Jane only on her death bed. Harry, who is lied to about his parents and denied letters which were vital to his happiness, suffers cruel deceit of a similar nature. In both cases this deceit is taken as a surprise that reemphasizes the abusers’ cruelness, and leaves their victims, as well as us readers, speechless.
Rising From the Ashes
Harsh as their childhoods were, both of our protagonists find salvation in the form of education. Winds of change provide them with an opportunity to escape their unhappy homes and start anew. At approximately the same age, they are sent off to school, where they are recognized and valued for the first time in their lives. In fact, the very manner in which this opportunity comes along their way is very similar. In both cases, salvation comes in the form of a kind outsider. In Harry’s case, it is Hagrid who comes along and reveals the possibility of going to Hogwarts. In Jane’s, it is Mr. Lloyd, a doctor who comes to examine her. After Jane expresses her misery to Mr. Lloyd, he wisely concludes she is in need of a change of scene, and recommends she be sent off to school.17
When Harry arrives at school, he feels immediately at home, befriends his peers, and eagerly studies magic. For Jane it is not so. She arrives at Mr. Brocklehurst’s shameful institution of abuse and deprivation, and experiences hunger, cold, and a loss of a close friend to typhus – all in one year. Despite this, Lowood, which improves considerably later on due to public intervention, does come to be Jane’s home, and where she develops into a young, skillful, confident woman. One of the main reasons for Jane's flourishing in Lowood is Miss Temple, the superintendent; an impressive, kind individual who bears some resemblance to our beloved Dumbledore. Miss Temple, who was the first person in Jane's life, besides her friend Helen, to have faith in her integrity and to respect her as an equal, influenced Jane immensely, and had become something of a mentor to her. Jane says of her: “to her instruction I owed the best part of my acquirements; her friendship and society had been my continual solace: she had stood me in the stead of mother, governess, and, latterly, companion.” 18 Thanks to Miss Temple’s support, Jane becomes a top student, and even moves on to become a teacher for two years.
For both Jane and Harry going away to school provides an opportunity for growth and fulfillment. School is where they receive education which proves crucial to their independence, and where they discover their purpose in life. Notably, for both protagonists who find true parental love in the form of a wise and loving mentor, the departure of this mentor serves as a milestone in their way to achieve this sense of purpose. When Dumbledore dies, Harry feels for the first time the full weight of his mission on his shoulders, and realizes that he must venture on his journey alone. For Jane, separating with Miss Temple, who leaves the school to matrimony, provokes her independence, and encourages her to set out into the world:
My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.19
Jane and Harry find fulfillment and recognition at school, despite their miserable childhoods, and emerge as independent individuals at the end of a prosperous period of growth and mentoring. This rising from the ashes, so to speak, is central to their maturing process, and serves as a springboard to their significant journeys, which are both journeys of love.
Love Shall Prevail
What I believe makes the similarity between Jane and Harry significant and meaningful, as well as just plain intriguing, is their overcoming their childhoods’ hardships, and at that becoming exceptionally loving and open-hearted individuals. “Human beings must love something,” 20 says Jane Eyre, explaining her remarkable attachment to a doll as a child. And yet, despite their prosperous schooling period, it does seem almost miraculous how both these children keep bitterness at bay, and mature into such peace-seeking adults. Astonishingly, both also come out significantly less damaged than the overly pampered children they grew up with. Jane Eyre and Harry Potter are both powerful stories of the triumph of love, forgiveness and hope. It is this overall similarity between them, which echoes throughout both literary works, that I wish to explore in this final section of my essay.
Jane and Harry seem to have a core of love and hope which refuses to die out in face of their hardships, and seems to feed on the fact that both were loved truly in the unremembered days of their infancy. Jane and Harry arrived at their guardians’ doorsteps thanks to the intervention of someone who was genuinely interested in their well-being, and this fact sparks within them the strength to keep going, enabling them not to lose faith. Furthermore, this seemingly forgotten intervention of long ago is translated into a guilty conscience for their wrong-doers, and consequently grants them a solitary advantage over them. This advantage gives them the courage to show defiance for the first time.
For Jane, it is Mr. Reed’s violated dying wish that she be taken care of as a daughter by Mrs. Reed, that helps her realize that she was wronged, and maintain faith in herself. Jane’s mother’s love for her extends to Mr. Reed, her brother, and thus leaves a mark upon her that helps her through her hard times. And yet, there is need for a reminder of Mr. Reed’s dying wish – for it is unspoken of by Mrs. Reed, who, most understandably, prefers to keep it out of her mind. The reminder that keeps Jane from forgetting that there is an unkept promise haunting her benefactress’s conscience is the “red-room” – the room of Mr. Reed’s death bed; a room all furnished in red, seldom entered and commonly avoided in the Reed household. Jane is locked in the red-room for a whole night at one time, as a punishment for striking John Reed. Before long, the room’s ghostly aura of violated dying wishes causes her to lose her mind to superstition. Although this is by all means a frightening and unpleasant experience for her, it gives her the courage to bluntly ask Mrs. Reed: “What would Mr. Reed say to you, if he were alive?” Indeed, Mrs. Reed doesn’t remain indifferent to Jane’s question: “her usually cold composed grey eye became troubled with a look of fear.” 21 Jane comes to realize that the love of greater people left its mark on her, and in that sense at least, she is more privileged than her seemingly well-off guardian.
Just like Jane, Harry also finds strength in the knowledge that he was truly loved by his parents. His outburst of temper in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – when he blows up his aunt in response to demeaning comments about his parents – is similar to Jane’s sudden outrageous rebelliousness driven by the Reeds’ disrespect to those who loved her. There is also an ominous reminder of Petunia’s unkept promise that resembles Mr. Reed's red room: Dumbledore's red howler, which rang with the message “remember my last.” 22 Petunia also does not remain indifferent – she pales at the solemn message, and doesn’t dare throw Harry out of the house. Harry also comes to realize that someone by far greater and worthier than the Dursleys is by his side, and that his harsh, quirky, unpredictable, and yet friend-filled life is preferable to the Dursleys’ emotionless and money-driven ones.
Charlotte Brontë, in her preface to Jane Eyre, goes against those “in whose eyes whatever is unusual is wrong.” 23 She creates a caricature of this kind of intolerance in the form of a materialistic, shallow, aristocratic family: doting mother Mrs. Reed; violent, gluttonous John; compulsive money-maker Eliza; and lazy, astonishingly vain Georgiana. Unlucky Jane is hated by this bunch because she is “passionate and rude,” 24 or rather, because she is an extraordinary girl with a sharp mind and a brave heart. And yet, Jane Eyre turns out decidedly better off than the rich family with whom she was raised. John Reed ends up dying of his own misconduct; Eliza becomes an unhappy fanatic; and vain Georgiana becomes painfully dependent. Jane, on the other hand, finds true love, which the Reeds, despite their riches, never had. Moreover, she is able to forgive Mrs. Reed later on, from the position of a much more privileged adult. She finds the moral maturity to tell a dying Mrs. Reed, nearly nine years after parting with her, “Love me, then, or hate me, as you will, you have my full and free forgiveness: ask now for God's; and be at peace.” 25
So what of Harry? Will he also have the courage to follow love throughout? Will he be able to forgive? Jane Eyre's path to love and forgiveness was by no means an easy one. After parting from her true love because of a painful revelation, it takes being on the verge of a loveless marriage with a cold, hard-hearted man to bring her back to her true love, Mr. Rochester. Therefore, I think there is reason to believe that Harry, who now faces alone a journey which we have every reason to believe will be a hard one, will overcome his own internal obstacles on his way towards love and forgiveness – but it will not be done easily.
1. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 203.
2. Rowling, Philosopher's Stone, 44.
3. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 7.
4. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 26.
5. Ibid., 27.
6. Rowling, Philosopher's Stone, 20.
7. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 7–8.
8. Ibid., 23.
9. Ibid., 22.
10. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 25.
11. Ibid., 27.
12. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 203.
13. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 23.
14. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 9.
15. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 24.
16. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 28.
17. Ibid., 21.
18. Ibid., 73.
19. Ibid., 74.
20. Ibid., 24.
21. Ibid., 23
22. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 41.
23. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1.
24. Ibid., 10.
25. Ibid., 210–11.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New-York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.