Among the common magical beliefs that swirl through childhood is the notion that those we love die peacefully in their sleep. Children cling to the perfectly painless death theory as part of their narrative of a just world. The child imagines the loved person in pajamas, brushing teeth, slipping out of worn pink pom-pom slippers, and pushing back the sheets and blanket to lie down for a perfectly ordinary night’s sleep. Soon she is off in dreamland, unaware of gentle Death delicately floating into the chamber and carrying her away. The departed felt no pain. She simply ceased.
The adults in children’s lives abet this fantasy, and why shouldn’t we? There is time enough for them to discover that the world and their youthful imaginings of it don’t always line up. And until then, fiction can keep disappointing reality even further at bay.
Consider the case of “Jane Eyre,” a novel that otherwise tunnels unflinchingly into dark spaces but in which Charlotte Brontë, in writing the deathbed scene of Jane’s beloved friend Helen Burns, indulges the “died peacefully in her sleep” fallacy full on.
Lowood, the dreadful school Jane attends, is ravaged by typhus — 45 of the school’s 80 girls fall ill. Jane, by good fortune, is spared. So is Helen Burns. Smart, kind, and slow to anger, Helen embodies the 19th-century good-girl ideal, which also means that she’s the irresistible candidate for sacrifice for a novelist committed to the dark turn. Rather than hurling typhus at her, Brontë fells Helen with consumption, a rather romantic-sounding disease that, in Brontë’s telling, affords the victim the honor of wasting beautifully away, a fitting death for the angelic friend of a Victorian heroine.
Today we know consumption as tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs that gradually suffocates its victim to death. Not so romantic.
But there in the death chamber of poor Helen Burns, where Jane Eyre has managed a secret nighttime visit, it is not Jane who comforts her friend but Helen who does the consoling. Just hours from her last, Helen assures Jane that God is real, that Heaven exists, that death is painless, and that the two friends will meet again in Paradise. She continues:
I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead, you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual: my mind is at rest. I leave no one to regret me much: I have only a father; and he is lately married, and will not miss me. By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.
A lovely speech, comforting both to Jane and the reader. Unfortunately, it’s pure BS.
As her last breaths are being squeezed out of her, Helen manages a moving soliloquy. It’s the death fantasy compounded by the myth of the heroic end. Not only does Helen slip gently away to her death, she uses her waning hours to reassure the living.
I’ve never visited the deathbed of a tubercular person, but last November, I sat at my mother’s deathbed, which was really a rotation of surfaces where she sought but never found comfort: a couch, then a chair, then a bed, then the chair again, then the couch. Afflicted with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — COPD — she died in agony, unable to recline fully, the pressure on her lungs easing only when she sat up. We opened windows, letting in the late fall air, removed clothing, and blew fans on her face to create the illusion of breath.
Unlike eloquent Helen Burns, my mother uttered just one word in the last hours of her life. It wasn’t “love” or “God” or “Paradise” but “no.” Muffled but unmistakable, the word came as a gasped objection as the nurse, my sisters, my father, and I tried to move her from chair to bed. “No,” she said. Had she wished to say more? I doubt it. Words are a luxury to those in the throes of dying.
A few weeks earlier, when my mother still had enough breath to speak, she’d told me: “I thought death would be more gentle.”
So what was Charlotte Brontë thinking? By the time she wrote “Jane Eyre,” at age 30, she knew death. At five she lost her mother, and at nine she lost two sisters to tuberculosis at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, upon which Lowood is based. Is Helen Burns’s deathbed scene a fantasy for Charlotte, a dream of what she wishes her sisters’ deathbeds had been? Is Helen’s death a gift to all of us from Charlotte Brontë, granting us an image of a good death? Or is it a gift to herself, a delusion she created to ease her fears about her sisters’ deaths and her anxiety about her own inevitable one?
Recently, I watched my cat Jayna’s use of her legs abruptly abandon her, likely the result of a stroke. It was not a death by suffocation, but it was a death. My children, ages 10 and 7, somehow did not see her suffering the way I saw it. They insisted that the vet could fix her. Jayna was dead before morning, and the children concocted a story of her peaceful death: She died in her sleep, a gentle death, one without suffering. A Helen Burns death. I lay by Jayna on the floor throughout all of her last night. I was there. I know that’s not what happened, but I said nothing.
Tara Bandman is a freelance writer, high school English teacher, and contributor to The Manhattan Rare Book Company.