Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Jane Eyre's Helen Burns: "[My Thoughts] Continually Rove Away"

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Jane Eyre's Helen Burns: "[My Thoughts] Continually Rove Away"

Article excerpt


Although critical analysis of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre has confronted the novel's representations of disability, much of that analysis tends to focus on the symbolic meanings of those disabilities, rather than examining disability as disability. (As Lennard Davis puts it, "even the best of [the dominant theoretical] readings [of Jane Eyre] simply metaphorize disability" [x].) The two most visible examples of disability in Jane Eyre are, of course, Bertha Mason Rochester's "madness" (in the most influential readings of the novel, framed as the horrific consequence of patriarchal oppression, colonialist/racist oppression, or various forms of abuse) and Edward Rochester's climactic loss of hand and vision (often figured as a symbolic castration). Yet, as the contributors to The Madwoman and the Blindman have shown, Jane Eyre contains multiple examples of disability and illness that merit further analysis.

Among the other potential examples of disability proposed by Julia Miele Rodas, Elizabeth J. Donaldson, and David Bolt in their introduction to The Madwoman and the Blindman are Jane's "collection of cousins who have singular psychic and social identities" (Eliza Reed, John Reed, and St. John Rivers); the disabled members of Bertha Mason Rochester's family; and Helen Burns, whose "life and philosophy [...] is thoroughly informed by her chronic degenerative illness" (2). Yet, despite the excellent work that Bolt, Rodas, and Donaldson have done in creating this volume, Helen remains curiously overlooked. Even the quote above continues a scholarly tradition that reduces Helen to her tubercular final days, ignoring the possible implications of the academic and social difficulties that inform her martyr-like personal philosophy.

In general, scholarly discussion of Helen has tended to follow the pattern set by Jane's narration, which positions the doomed Helen as a kind of patron saint or guardian angel. Readings of Helen thus largely focus on her spiritual influence on Jane, and while Helen's spirituality is very much connected to her physical illness, it is also decidedly linked to the suffering she endures at the hands of some of her teachers. In her patient response to physical and mental suffering, Helen's character is most obviously a "saintly invalid," a stock character in nineteenth-century fiction whose stoic response to his or her disability or illness serves as an example of ideal Christian patience to those around them. Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta notes that "these characters' narrative function is to die, thus saving others and equipping them with virtues for the living of life" (147), and cites Beth March and Little Eva as similar examples.

I suggest, however, that Helen Burns also shows symptoms consistent with a neurodevelopmental disability that would have been largely unrecognized in the nineteenth century. Helen's struggles at Lowood Academy bear striking similarities to problems that today are recognized as symptomatic of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. The traits for which Helen1 is regularly punished by Miss Scatcherd, and which Helen has internalized as "wickedness," including untidiness, forgetfulness, and an inability to pay attention during lessons, seem to correspond with the diagnostic criteria for the inattentive presentation of ADHD. Furthermore, when we consider the ways Helen's behavior and her treatment by those around her intersects with nineteenth-century ideologies of femininity, we can clearly see ways her putative disability is cast as a disability in large part because Helen fails, much like Bertha Mason before her, to conform to the expectations of her gender. Finally, considering Helen's experiences with those of present-day women and girls living with ADHD, a pattern emerges that highlights both a persistent misunderstanding of ADHD itself and the way gender norms continue to affect the way women and girls experience ADHD.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Jane Eyre's Helen Burns

Of course, applying modern medical diagnoses to historical or fictional figures is a risky proposition at best. …

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