Religious Beliefs in Jane Eyre
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Keywords: Jane Eyre, religion, Bronte, victorian
Through Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte expresses numerous issues of the Victorian Era. Class and gender inequality, race prejudices, colonialism, and religious beliefs are all but few of the problems addressed. Throughout the novel, Jane struggles with her dilemmas, namely the choice between moral duty and earthly pleasures, and the obligation to her spirit and attention to her body. Despite Jane’s simple life, Bronte often presents Jane various characters that offer contrasting religious beliefs, and in so doing, Bronte shows her disapproval of the Evangelical Movement.
Perhaps no character in the novel other than Mr. Brocklehurst best demonstrates the danger and sanctimony of this nineteenth-century church movement. Superficially, he is a devoted Christian who adopts the rhetoric of Evangelicalism by preaching puritanical morality to his students.
A brief address on those occasions would not be mistimed, wherein a judicious instructor would take the opportunity of referring to the sufferings of the primitive Christians; to the torments of martyrs; to the exhortations of our blessed Lord himself, calling upon His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; to His warnings that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; to his divine consolations, ‘if ye suffers hunger or thirst for my sake, happy are ye.’ Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”(63; ch.7)
Clearly, he is reciting an Evangelical idea—the corruption of the human body and the need of Christ to save them—that is popular during this time. Mr. Brocklehurst takes this idea to the extreme by emphasizing the enrichment of the soul by starving the body. This path of reaching salvation may be acceptable at the time. However, his method of subjecting his student to follow such principles is evidently intolerable and un-Christian-like. The cutting of Julia Severn’s naturally curly hair and the poor nutrition he provides for Lowood’s students are example of such extreme cruel methods. He furthers contradicts his beliefs by supporting his own luxuriously wealthy family at the expense of the Lowood students. By displaying Mr. Brocklehurst hypocrisy, Bronte shows her concerns for the new movement.
Not only does Bronte condemn Brocklehurst’s religious doctrine, but she also undermines Helen Burn’s absolute and self-abnegating beliefs. The Christ-like Helen adopts a forbearing mode of Christianity that is too passive for the headstrong Jane to comprehend and to accept. When Helen comforts Jane,
Hush, Jane! You think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement: the sovereign hand that created your frame, and put life into it, has provided you with other resources than your feeble self, or than creatures feeble as you. Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits; that world is round us, for it is everywhere; and those spirits watch us, for they are commissioned to guard us; and if we were dying in pain and shame, if scorn smote us on all sides and hatred crushed us, angels see our tortures, recognise our innocence . . . Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness — to glory?" (70; ch.8)
Jane feels an “inexpressible sadness” from those words. Helen consoles Jane by offering the idea that death is the ultimate “entrance to happiness.” However, Jane is more concern about the life on Earth rather than the life after. She cannot accept Helen’s submissive attitudes toward injustice and the belief that justice will be found in God’s ultimate judgment—reward the good and punish the evil. Jane is overwhelmed by Helen’s blind faith; she thirsts for love and happiness in this world rather than the eternal life that Helen seeks. Thus, at Helen’s deathbed, Jane continuously questions about Helen’s depravity and her deep affinity with God.
“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.”
“But where are you going to, Helen? Can you see? Do you know?”
“I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.”
“Where is God? What is God?”
“My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what he created. I rely implicitly on his power, and confide wholly in his goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to him, reveal him to me.”
“You are sure, then Helen, that there is such a place as heaven; and that our souls can get to it when die?” (83; ch.9)
Even with Helen’s reassurance that there is really heaven, Jane still questions her self with the thoughts: “Where is that region? Does it exist?”(83; ch.9) These questions may not affect Helen’s faith at any rate, but her death ultimately make Bronte’s point clear—one cannot relies on faith for survival but can depend on it for guidance.
Although St. John Rivers shares many Christian beliefs with Helen Burns, he presents another spectrum of the religious movement that Bronte dissuades. It is clear that St. John is a religious zealot who devotes “a large portion of his time…visiting the sick and poor among the scattered population of his parish.” (357; ch.30) However, his devotion to God does not make him a saint.
“Zealous in his ministerial labours, blameless in his life and habits, he yet did not appear to enjoy that mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every sincere Christian and practical philanthropist.” (357; ch.30)
Bronte makes this point clear when Jane observes at one of his sermons.
“Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness; stern allusions…I was sure St. John Rivers—pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was—had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding: he had no more found it, I thought, than had I…”(358; ch.30)
Bronte not only questions St. John’s saintliness but also doubts his devotion to Christianity. As a clergyman, he should enjoy his job and love his enemies, rather he “did not appear to enjoy” his works and ignores Jane, avoids her, and treats her differently after she rejected his proposal. He like Mr. Brocklehurst preaches to serve but does not always practice this himself. He believes the words that he speaks are those of Go speaking through him:
“Do you think God will be satisfied with half an oblation? Will he accept a mutilated sacrifice? It is the cause of God I advocate: it is under His standard I enlist you. I cannon accept on His behalf a divided allegiance: it must be entire.”(413; ch.34)
He believes that he knows what God thinks and wants others to do. The arrogance nature of his, together with his cold, dispassionate attitude toward serving God deviates St. John from a true Christian. Unlike Helen Burns, he is a defective mortal. By revealing St. John’s flaws, Bronte shows that doing God’s work on Earth does not mean complete Christian piety.
Jane ultimately finds a comfortable religious middle-ground that is not oppressive like Mr. Brocklehurst’s, that is not submissive like Helen Burn’s, and that is not dispassionate like St. John’s. For Jane or rather for Bronte, religion not only helps them find eternal happiness in heaven, but also help them find the essential needs of human life—love.