In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s best known literary work, Jane lives a life of isolation—even before the COVID-19 era. Physically, Jane is secluded from the world around her: she is mistreated by her aunt and retreats into complex books instead of playing and laughing with her cousins. She believes negative thoughts about her personhood, thoughts spurred by the inferiority she feels compared to her aunt’s children. Her defiance is quickly trampled in one defining moment when her aunt locks her, alone, in the “haunted room” of the house.
However, Jane Eyre reflects more than just the suffering that physical isolation causes. Emotionally, the consequences of isolation are far more deadly. Even as Jane moves on from her abusive home, her school life is marred by her inability to fit in. The contrasting images painted within Brontë’s work of Jane refraining from childhood play to adolescent enjoyment stems from Jane’s early isolation from community. As Jane moves on to working as a governess, the reader glimpses at the development of Jane as one who has embraced isolation in her work and love life as a coping mechanism. Jane’s very nature is changed—all stemming from isolation.
Living in the age of COVID-19, many may be able to relate to the isolation that Jane experiences as their own. Whichever name one calls it—quarantine, isolation, cautionary hold—or whether it is necessarily imposed, all are separation from people, and thus from community.
That is where Christian colleges waltz in, twirling us students away with the reminders that God created humans for community; that community fosters self-sacrificing love; that community’s love during times of crises creates stronger bonds. Yet those reminders are not sufficient to implement community—community must have actions and intentionality to survive.
Within Jane Eyre, one can see that even while she switches her community from home to boarding school to her workplace as a governess, she chooses to remain isolated. After exposure to isolation for so long, she can do nothing but embrace the deceptive idea that her isolation is fine—that it does not cause pain.
Like Jane, Christian college students must experience paradoxical isolation within community. The communal body of Christ worshipping together under one roof is now segregated to 3 sectors of students; those who can participate in corporate worship, though 10 feet apart with masks; those who must, for the sake of health and well-being, listen to chapel through the speaker’s microphones; and those who brush their teeth to the chapel message, scrambling to make it to their 11:30 classes. And chapel is just one of many examples. This isolation within community is not something that is foreign to students at Gordon College, a Christian liberal arts college located near Boston, Massachusetts. In fact, many Gordon students relate to the recurrent sense of loneliness on campus, even before COVID-19. Solitude is both a remnant of the past and a trajectory of the future.
Olivia D’Souza, history major ’21, when asked if she has ever experienced isolation within the Gordon community, replied: “Definitely—as a transfer student, I have never really felt like I’ve been part of a big, coherent “friend group.’”
Emma Carsey, ’24 and a commuter student, said: “I have missed out on dorm life because I am a commuter, yet I’ve still made many friends, including other commuters… The downside is, I have a disadvantage to gain close friendships since most are with roommates or households.”
However, both Olivia and Emma both have had positive experiences as part of the Gordon community. A strategy that Olivia has employed as a transfer student, where it can be more difficult to insert yourself in friend groups, is to make new friends within classes. “I like making friends with people in my classes because they are, in a way, “isolated” from their normal friend groups, so they are more willing to start new friendships.” Emma said that being a commuter student has actually given her an advantage in her Gordon experience “since I’ve had a car to take people places, I know the area really well, and I have a house that is open and welcoming to my friends who want to escape campus.”
Gordon students seem to have unknowingly taken a lesson from Jane Eyre: community doesn’t just happen by itself— it’s a dynamic commitment. The deep isolation that Jane Eyre embraced is being rejected by Gordon students… Why? How is it that we have not come to revel in isolation, as Jane Eyre did, from community?
Joseph Wasson, a freshman, highlighted an answer to this question when he simply said: “At Gordon, I found a much more Christ-centered community… [that] aspect of Gordon has truly changed my view of Christian community.” Sophomore Beatriz Romero Santiago, along the same thread, said: “From the minute I arrived, I have felt welcomed and I know this is where God wants me to be.”
Despite the comfort that one could feel in just embracing life by oneself, Gordon students realize that coping with loneliness is not only an incorrect method of dealing with emotional distress but also does not truly solve the heart of the issue. Jane Eyre’s stunted growth doesn’t just affect her—it affects everyone and everything around her. As Christians, we see our membership in Christ as “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5 NIV). If we all play a part in making a community, our community cannot function the way it should if one part of the body is missing.
That is not to say that intentional community-building isn’t hard—especially during the COVID-19 era. For Beatriz Romero Santiago, COVID-19 has changed the game. “I found it harder to meet new people this year, but my community has been really good because I got closer with my friends from last year… I rarely feel lonely at Gordon because of those deep friendships I have. I can always count on and trust my friends so even when I am going through a rough patch. I know they are with me.”
Kate Walker, a junior in psychology, used to get a couple of solid hours of socializing while eating meals but has since had to figure out more contributory factors of people’s comfort levels and outside weather, as well as the normal scheduling overlaps. The number one thing that she’s learned even more so this year? “Have lots of compromises.”
Jane Eyre serves as a reminder that, as Christians first, our love for our neighbors builds a foundation for our college communities that should desire to be together and actively choose each other. No matter the methods we all develop in continuing to seek togetherness, let us not forget the role that Jane Eyre illustrates how isolation hurts our growth as a community.
Deborah Cumbee is a senior double-majoring in International Affairs & Political Science at Gordon College, a Christian college based in Wenham, Massachusetts. She is an aspiring writer, being particularly moved by how literature can shed light on today’s cultural and political questions.