Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Greater Wealth

Charlotte Bronte's 19th century character Jane Eyre, an orphan who is dependent on a cruel aunt to care for her, is dismissed from the aunt's home and sent to Lowood institution. In her most formative years Jane understands rejection and poverty. She has very little, if anything of her own.

Her life of dependence continues, on her master, on the kind family who saves her life after she flees the horror of Thornfield. Oh my...but the best is yet to come, because it is, an English novel by a Bronte sister!

In a not-too-surprising plot twist, Jane inherits an astronomical amount of money (for the time and her simple needs). Given her background of lack, the reader is surprised (at first) when she gives away or shares 3/4 of it with her new-found cousins.

Upon learning of her inheritance, she is astounded, and then she thinks of the money as a benefit to others. "Those who had saved my life, whom, til this hour, I had loved barrenly, I could now benefit. They were under a yoke-I could free them: they were under a yoke-I could free them."

She shares her generosity with her cousin and he argues against the logic she uses to sacrifice part of the money.

"With me, it is fully as much a matter of feeling as of conscience: I must indulge my feeling; I so seldom have had an opportunity of doing so. Were you to argue, object, and annoy me for a year, I could not forgo the delicious pleasure of which I have caught a glimpse--that of repaying, in part, a mighty obligation, and winning to myself life-long friends."

Her cousin, St. John replies, "You think so now because you do not know what it is to possess, nor consequently to enjoy wealth: you cannot form a notion of the importance twenty thousand pounds would give you; of the place it would enable you to take in society; of the prospects it would open to you: you cannot--"

"And you cannot at all imagine the craving I have for fraternal and sisterly love. I never had a home, I never had brothers or sisters, I must and will have them now..."

When I read this, I remember a story of my sister-in-law. While supporting her family through her husband's schooling, she understood poverty well.

She had befriended a neighbor and when the neighbor had to return to his own country, he left her the contents of his apartment. It wasn't much and its worth was only second hand: a set of dishes, a vacuum, and other home goods. My sister-in-law told me how she was carefully giving each item away to a person in need.

With my understanding of her living conditions, I wondered why she didn't have a big garage sale. She could easily have made a few hundred dollars which would have served her family well--it could have paid the rent.

She had a different purpose. Like Jane, she was already living poor and she saw a greater wealth--the pleasure of being able to give. The rare chance to be generous when she usually had nothing to give.