Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rasselas and Helen Burns

It seems to me that there would be little point in writing a general reaction to The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson like I usually do for books. It's the type of book you write papers on rather than talking about what it was like to read it (I found it depressing to read). So I'm going to do something different: I'll be talking about this book in the context of Jane Eyre.

When Jane is at Lowood School, you'll remember that the first time she spoke to her friend Helen Burns was to ask about the book Helen was reading. Jane thought that the title of Rasselas sounded interesting--she thought it sounded like fantasy and then was disappointed to find that it was nothing of the sort. Helen, when Jane asks her if the book is interesting, simply replies, "'I like it.'" Rasselas did always sound like such an exotic and unique name that I could never quite believe it belonged to a dry, philosophical book.

It does--Rasselas is much more philosophical exploration than novel. I know Samuel Johnson's name more from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford than from my own studies (I always had more of a nineteenth century focus and Johnson is eighteenth century). Rasselas is from 1759. It centers on a prince, Rasselas, who escapes out of a sheltered "perfect" valley in order to explore the world and see what it is really like with all of its hardships and to find out how true happiness can be attained. The answer: it can't but the soul is something real that will go on after the body has died.

Does that sound about right for something Helen Burns would be reading?

I've been glancing back at Helen's passages in Jane Eyre. I had always thought that Helen's gift to Jane was her faith. It is, but it's more than that--or rather, along with faith came other traits. Helen taught Jane patience (or at least, the awareness that sometimes all you have to do is wait through certain periods in your life) and long-suffering (Jane as a child, naturally, wanted to be happy, but she learns that life means more than happiness, which is in itself not the most significant thing). Helen taught Jane that you strive through life to do the best with your situation and to treat others (and view others) as best you can (even despite how they may treat you)--you don't do this because it'll make you happy and well-fed and rich. You do it because it's right and it's pleasing to God.

And then you die. Helen also took away Jane's innocence because she introduced Jane directly to death. Helen was Jane's first great loss. Her first friend and her first death. And yet Helen died telling Jane, it's alright, I'll be with God, it isn't a painful death, it's fine. That image would forever affect how Jane would see death.

This, of course, brings us back to Rasselas. Rasselas and his sister, Nekayah, talk to different people that they encounter, trying to see who is happiest and which way of living will bring about the most happiness. They're like children, like Jane, thinking that "happiness" is of the most importance. Then they realize (like in The Pursuit of Happyness) that happiness is something that people pursue in life but don't achieve because we always want what we don't have or always think that things can be better. And in realizing this, they realize all of these other things about life and how the mind works. And they, like Helen, come back to the issue of mortality.

They're in the catacombs looking at all the dead bodies and they have a whole conversation about the idea of a soul (concluding that it can't be physical because that which is physical decays, and a soul is that which does not decay). I could completely picture Helen reading all of this. At the end of the second to last chapter, Rasselas says that, "'Those that lie here stretched before us, the wise and the powerful of ancient times, warn us to remember the shortness of our present state: they were, perhaps, snatched away while they were busy, like us, in the choice of life.'" His sister replies that to her, "'the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.'" That's Helen. Her life is all unhappiness and there is nothing she can do to change that. So she's learned to turn her mind toward another focus.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by how well this book fits with Helen's character. It's not as if Charlotte would have just chosen any random book for Helen to be reading; of course she would choose one that would make sense and even add something to the story. So while Rasselas remains more of a book to read for study than for leisure, if you do find yourself reading it, considering Helen Burns will give an interesting filter for your reading.

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