With Charlotte Brontë’s
father being a clergyman and a member of the Church, Charlotte Brontë, as well as her sisters have been in constant
contact with religion throughout their whole lives. Even though her father gave
Charlotte relative freedom in developing her own ideas and beliefs, religion
was an important factor in Charlotte Brontë’s
life nevertheless. Through Jane Eyre, Charlotte
Brontë expresses several issues of Victorian
Britain, such as gender equality or the class system, but religion is a
reoccurring and omnipresent subject in Jane
Eyre. Throughout the whole novel, Jane Eyre is confronted with religious
characters such as Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns and St. John Rivers. Those
characters all represent three vastly different variations of the Christian
faith in the Victorian Era. Over the course of Jane’s journey, she struggles
with her own Christian faith in God and her beliefs as well as with the approaches
to religion the characters Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns and St. John Rivers
Jane’s first encounter with one of
the strongest religious characters takes place at her aunt’s house. Jane meets
Mr. Brocklehurst, the master Lowood school, where she will be studying and
eventually become a teacher later in the novel. During her first interaction
with him, Mr. Brocklehurst promptly asks Jane “Do you read your Bible?” (Brontë 72) and other questions about Jane’s faith.
Brocklehurst immediately tells Jane that she must have “a wicked heart” (Brontë 72) since her answers are not consistent with what
he would regard as right and Christian. It is at this point that Jane is already
starting to reject Mr. Brocklehurst’s approach to religion.
Jane Eyre’s discontent and disregard
of Mr. Brocklehurst’s faith only heightens once she begins to attend Lowood
school and is confronted with his religious views once again. At Lowood Jane
Eyre takes notice that even though Mr. Brocklehurst proclaims that “Humility is
a Christian grace” (Brontë 73) he seems to
be a rather wealthy gentleman that is in no way humble or sacrificial. In fact,
Mr. Brocklehurst appears to be the opposite of these two virtues but wants the
girls at Lowood school to adhere to these two virtues. According to Mr.
Brocklehurst, the lack of proper clothing and food at Lowood school serves the
purpose of “not … accustoming them the girls at Lowood to habits of
luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying.” (Brontë 105). He scolds Miss Temple for having replaced the
burnt porridge with bread and cheese and claims that the pupils should not have
been given a replacement meal to encourage “them to evince fortitude under the
temporary privation.” (Brontë 105). He
goes on by comparing this sacrifice to the martyrs and God himself. By not
providing the girls at Lowood school with adequate amounts of food and decent
clothing Mr. Brocklehurst is able to save and make even more money from their
misfortunes. Preaching the pupils at Lowood to be humble and sacrificial and
his complete disregard of these Christian standards for himself and his family
obviously displays Mr. Brocklehurst’s hypocrisy.
Another instance of Mr.
Brocklehurst’s hypocrisy and his negligence of Christian values can be found in
the way he speaks about vanity regarding the girls at Lowood school and the
contrast his wife and daughters provide. Mr. Brocklehurst vehemently announces
that one of the girl’s hair must be cut off entirely simply because it curls
naturally. He goes on and orders the hair of all girls in the first class to be
cut since all “of the young persons before us has a string of hair twisted in
plaits which vanity itself might have woven” (Brontë 107). Shortly after this Mr. Brocklehurst’s wife and
two daughters walk into the school. His daughters are described as having
“elaborately curled” (Brontë 107) hair
coming out from under their expensive hats. Again, Mr. Brocklehurst reprimands
and punishes the girls for things he sees as being against Christian values
while he himself does not adhere to them.
Moreover, are Mr. Brocklehurst’s wife
and daughters “splendidly attired in velvet, silk and fur” (Brontë 107). This is a further example of Mr.
Brocklehurst’s religious hypocrisy. Minutes before his family entered the room,
he was talking about it being his “mission to mortify these girls the lust of
the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shame-facedness and
sobriety” (Brontë 107).
Even at her young age, Jane Eyre
notices how inappropriately hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst’s views are and
rejects his religious teachings in favour of her own views and beliefs.
At Lowood school, Jane Eyre
encounters another religious character. Helen Burns is a greatly different
depiction of the religious aspects of the Victorian Era. While Mr. Brocklehurst
embodies a form of religion that proclaims that sacrifice and humility is the
key to true faith Helen Burns is an extremely devout young person and
illustrates a “humble Christianity of total forgiveness” (Reiff 74) that
stresses acceptance and tolerance. Like Jane Eyre, Helen Burns is an orphan who
longs for a home, but other than Jane Helen believes that she will find this
home in heaven. Helen Burns’ faith in God is strong enough for her to endure
the dire living conditions she, and the other pupils, have to withstand. Helen
Burns is aware of the injustice taking place at Lowood school, but she strongly
believes that all evil actions entail “evil consequences which will extend to
all connected with you” (Brontë 96) and that
justice will be found in God’s ultimate judgement.
She is constantly being scolded by
Miss Scatcherd, but not once does she seem to take offence at the punishments
she receives. Helen Burns stays calm throughout all the punishments inflicted
upon her. “Not a tear rose to Burns’ eye” (Brontë 95) when she is struck with a bunch of twigs on her
neck and afterwards, Helen Burns even tries to see things from Miss Scatcherd’s
perspective. Helen Burns takes the view that one should “bear what it is
one’s fate to be required to bear” (Brontë
97), thus agreeing that with Miss Scatcherd’s punishment was just and nothing
to be angry about. Helen’s religious faith and tolerance are unshakable. The
constant humiliation and bad treatment not only by Miss Scatcherd but also by
Mr. Brocklehurst as well as the terrible living situation at Lowood school
never succeed in wavering her religious faith.
Even the prospect of death does not
manage to shake Helen Burns’ unwavering faith in God. When Helen falls deathly
ill at Lowood school, she is not afraid of what is to come and even tries to
console Jane Eyre, who is terrified by the idea of losing her best friend at
Lowood. Helen describes death and heaven as going to her “long home – her
last home” (Brontë 126),
illustrating that the idea of dying does not scare her but makes it possible
for her to find a home. In fact, Helen
seems rather happy to be dying since “by dying young she shall escape great
sufferings” (Brontë 127). Jane Eyre,
however, is not consoled by this. Jane questions where Helen Burns is going and
asks “Where is God? What is God?” (Brontë
127). Helen cannot answer those questions but her absolute faith in God is
enough for her to be calm and collected even in the face of death. Jane Eyre is
dissatisfied with Helen’s answers since she still has strong doubts. Jane again
questions Helen about heaven and meeting Helen again, hoping for a more precise
answer that will calm her worries. Helen’s answer about a “region of happiness”
(Brontë 127) and her promise that Jane
will “be received by the same mighty, universal parent” (Brontë 127), however, leave Jane full of doubts once again.
Even though Jane has more questions to ask and is still doubtful about heaven
and God, she decides to not ask Helen any more questions. Jane Eyre is not
satisfied with the answers she has been given but chooses to not further
scrutinise Helen Burns’ unconditional faith in God.
Jane wants to have faith in her
friend and in her friend’s strong faith in God but is reluctant to believe
blind faith as it is exuded by Helen Burns. Jane Eyre does not only seek faith,
she also seeks the ability to understand what she believes in. While Helen
Burns has a considerable influence on other parts of Jane’s development, her
unquestioning faith is not what Jane is looking for.
St. John Rivers
The last religious character Jane Eyre encounters over
the course of the novel is her cousin St. John Rivers. St. John, like Mr.
Brocklehurst is also a clergyman. However, other than Mr. Brocklehurst is St.
John a good man and a good pastor. Jane respects him and his faith and does not
disregard St. John River’s religious beliefs.
St. John adheres to the Christian
virtues of the Victorian Era but abiding by those virtues seem to make him live an
unhappy life. One instance where following the Victorian Christian values causes
St. John discontent are his involuntary feelings for Rosamond Oliver. Although St.
John “flushes” and “kindles” at the sight of her, St. John would never give in
to Rosamond Oliver’s beauty and fortune. St. John curbs his feelings “as a
resolute rider would curb a rearing steed” (Brontë
430). By not giving in to his feelings for Rosamond, he is being a good
Christian, but having to constantly reign those feelings in for the sake of
Christianity results in him being discontent. Furthermore, Jane Eyre notes
that St. John is often not home because he is out visiting the sick and poor as
part of his missionary duties. Jane describes St. John as “zealous in his ministerial
labours, blameless in his life and habits” (Brontë
414) but is not convinced that he is content since he seems devoid of “that
mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every
sincere Christian and practical philanthropist” (Brontë 414). This observation made by Jane Eyre raises the question whether
St. John Rivers really is a sincere Christian.
However, even though St. John Rivers
adheres to some of the virtues of being a good Christian he seems to be lacking
the religious virtues Jane Eyre has learned from Helen Burns at Lowood school. He
lacks Helen Burns’ acceptance, tolerance, and warmth of heart. When attending
one of St. John’s sermons Jane Eyre describes it as: “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” (Brontë 415). St. John’s religious views are the polar
opposite of Helen Burns’. Helen believed that there was salvation as long as
you had faith while St. John believes in a form of religion that is punishing
for violations against it. But, other than Mr. Brocklehurst, who takes delight
in punishing others, St. John River’s first victim is himself (Edwards 116).
St. John’s religion “offers the
biggest temptation” (Reiff 75) for Jane. Even though he does not seem to find
enjoyment in his Christianity, he is helping people and offers Jane a possibility
to help as well by accompanying on his mission to India. This prospect is very
tempting to Jane Eyre, but she chooses to not accompany St. John to India since
Jane recognizes that “a life of duty without emotion is no life at all” (Reiff
75). Jane regards all the hardships, but also the pleasures which are part of
life as a gift from God while St. John does not allow himself to enjoy. It is for
this reason that Jane rejects St. John’s approach to religion.
Religion and Jane’s journey to finding and defining
her own faith in God are crucial parts of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
Even though Jane ends up rejecting the three different variations of faith in
God encountering them is what helps her find her own way of believing in God
and develop a further understanding of faith. While Jane completely refuses the
tyrannical, oppressive religious view of Mr. Brocklehurst, she seems to have
found a suitable middle ground between the models of faith provided by Helen
Burns and St. John Rivers. Jane Eyre’s faith is as kind-hearted and caring as
Helen Burns’ but not as blind and absolute and she strives to help the people
around her like St. John Rivers does not adapt his emotionless attitude towards