Self-Righteousness vs. Religion in Jane Eyre

Amateur Reader mentioned in a comment that he had done a week of Jane Eyre himself, and after I finished up the novel last night I stopped by to read the posts. He has done everything: the books, the surprising dates of the novel (maybe—and “snaps into place” is right—the exact same place, in fact, as Wuthering Heights), even the fairies. Three things that interested me highly! But they are great posts.

What is left? Many things, surely. Religion among them—one of the greatest puzzles of the novel for me. One of the surprising things about the book is the amount of it spent not at Thornfield Hall, and nearly all the time away from Rochester is dominated by religion or religious figures.

In the preface to the second edition, Brontë (that is, Currer Bell) goes to pains to assure her readers that the novel is not antireligious. “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” So I was on the lookout for this, and certainly Jane starts out by attacking some pretty serious self-righteousness in the person of Mr. Brocklehurst.

Brocklehurst is highly religious, highly self-righteous, and pretty much evil. He fairly starves the children under his power so they may learn to mortify the flesh, and is responsible for the deaths of perhaps dozens of girls. We know this episode is autobiographical, and it’s easy to see why Brontë would want to attack such a person in her novel. But while Jane is at Brocklehurst’s school, she meets Helen Burns, a highly religious young consumptive. Amateur Reader describes Helen as adhering to natural religion, but I must disagree there. She is quite clear about her belief in the Bible and thus revealed religion; she seems to be, instead, a Christian Universalist.

Then we have Thornfield Hall, and Rochester, who does not seem a very religious man—could probably be described as irreligious considering his past and what he attempts with Jane. And the discovery scene, where all her hopes are dashed, happens inside a church, because of a religious ceremony. And Rochester fairly orders the clergyman to continue the wedding! He basically repudiates the solemnity of marriage first by trying to wed Jane, then by describing Bertha as a devil and a great burden, in front of the self-same clergyman.

Religion, of course, is what sends Jane from Thornfield in the aftermath: she is convinced she has forgotten God and idolized Rochester, leaves, and is saved by another clergyman.

So here we come to St. John, insufferable blighter. He was more despicable as a character than I even thought possible. And yet Jane is glad to have him as a cousin, and still respects him when all is said and done? How is that possible? How is he not at least as self-righteous as Brocklehurst—or is Jane the narrator simply become more forgiving in her old age? St. John fairly tells her that she must repent of not marrying him or burn in the lake of fire for eternity—is this an appropriate tone for a vicar to take? It seems an insane, self-absorbed opposite of anything Helen Burns believed, and I am sure her beliefs had an effect on Jane. Yet Jane, even after returning to Rochester, says that he lives to perform “great and exalted deeds,” that “his brain is first-rate,” he “is an accomplished and profound scholar.” At least some of this is to irritate Rochester, of course, but Jane is not lying—she does not despise St. John, she does not seem to scorn him.

St. John was so busy being mean to Jane I didn’t get to focus quite so much on his theology as I might have. And to separate it from his ambition might be difficult. But the first time Jane hears him preach, she says:

Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness: stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines—election, predestination, reprobation—were frequent; and each reference to these points sounded like a sentence pronounced for doom.

How do you get away with preaching predestination in an Anglican church? This seemed very strange to me, and if I knew more about the history of the church might have some bearing on the years in which the novel is set. He is certainly puritanical enough about work and “domestic dissipation.”

And then, of course, St. John’s calling on God to speak to Jane is what sends her back to Rochester. The supernatural world that has Jane’s and Rochester’s voices meeting in the night seems much more akin to Helen Burns’s than to St. John’s. And Rochester is praying—the idol himself has found God and truly changed his ways, now that we have beaten him up a bit. The couple certainly find bliss, but Jane is just as sure that St. John dies fulfilled and happy, and what kind of reward is that for his self-righteousness? Brocklehurst got what was coming to him; what made him so different?

And I have left out what is, for me, maybe the most interesting religious figure of the novel. Even for the brief time that Jane is away from Thornfield on her aunt’s illness and death, she is living under, in some measure, quite a religious eye: that of Eliza Reed. Eliza may keep to herself and remain unemotional, but she is hardly as mean as St. John. Her devotion is much quieter and possibly more rational. But when she decides to leave for her nunnery, Jane is civil but cool toward her. Why does Eliza get such harsh judgment from Jane? Is it because she does not love her family? Because certainly St. John does not really love his family either, only himself. And I have not mentioned either that Brontë was the daughter of a clergyman herself: what bearing does that have on all this? Many more questions than answers from my end.

7 comments to Self-Righteousness vs. Religion in Jane Eyre

  • This is some good stuff. At the heart of the book are, I think, two questions: Why does every man Jane meets want to crush her? And why is St. John the only one who almost succeeds? Your discussion of religion has got to be part of the answer.

    Thanks for the correction. You’re entirely right. The worst part is that I have been corrected on this exact point before, in other contexts. Maybe it will stick this time.

    I can’t say I agree with your characterization of Jane’s (adult Jane’s, not young Jane’s) attitude toward St. John, but you put it in a way that I can certainly see. So I’ll have to rethink a little. I do think some of Jane-the-narrator’s writing about St. John is highly ironic, expecially in the last chapter.

  • I like your “every man Jane meets wants to crush her”—question: do you think this is as true of Rochester as of other men? He needles her, but does he want to crush her in the same way as John Reed, Brocklehurst, St. John? He would not love her without her “passions,” as she puts it, which is exactly what the others try to crush.

    Even if narrator-Jane’s writing about St. John is ironic, it is a far cry from young Jane who is willing to go so far as to scream at him that she scorns him and really, considering the circumstances, be quite rude and direct about why he’s such a jerk. Narrator-Jane does not go nearly so far.

    But yes, why is St. John the one who almost succeeds? I have to say that at the times Jane was near giving in to him, I couldn’t figure that out. He comes scarily close to winning, I think.

  • Wonderful questions and thoughts in your post. I have read Jane Eyre only twice and certainly did not pay enough attention to religion – that was clearly a mistake. I look forward to re-reading the book sometime early next year and will come back to this post.

  • Your question: no, Rochester is not the same as the others. He’s playful, for one thing. That’s why their love affair actually works out. But note that before it really can happen, Rochester himself has to be literally crushed.

    The key scenes here, I think, are Jane’s bizarre “training” of Rochester after their engagement. She really has his number.

  • If you think about it, St. John Rivers spends most of the novel as a mighty odd sort of Christian: he preaches Calvinist doctrines in church (which links him to Brocklehurst), but tells Jane that “I am not a pagan, but a Christian philosopher–a follower of the sect of Jesus.” For all that St. John asserts that he’s a faithful believer in “the Gospel,” the formulation “follower of the sect of Jesus” has some pretty radical implications: it turns Christianity into just one sect among many, it suggests that he regards Jesus as primarily human instead of as the incarnate God, and it turns Christian faith into something closer to the Lyceum or the Academy. He follows Jesus like a “pagan” might follow Aristotle or Plato. And he sees religion as all about “pruning and training nature”–religion starts with his innate qualities and builds from there; it doesn’t work against his nature. For a lot of Bronte’s Christian contemporaries, Protestant or otherwise, that’s a massive deal-breaker right there. Like Rochester and Brocklehurst, St. John uses religion as a means of furthering the goals of the fallen self (think about Rochester using Jane as a means of atonement, for example, or asserting that he knows God will agree with his actions); Jane’s faith, by contrast, tells her that she must give up Rochester and take a hike.

    When I teach the novel and deal with those exasperating final paragraphs, I point the students to Jane’s account of St. John’s life as a missionary, complete with his quotation from Revelation and her allusions to the Pilgrim’s Progress (interestingly enough, he’s not Christian–he’s Greatheart), which indicate that he has reconceptualized his relationship to Jesus along more orthodox lines. (This is Marianne Thormahlen’s conclusion as well in The Brontes and Religion [218-19].)

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