Religion in Jane Eyre

I did what human beings do instinctively when they are driven to utter extremity — looked for aid to one higher than man: the words "God help me!" burst involuntarily from my lips. [Chapter XXVII]

Charlotte Brontë's views on religion are laid out plainly in Jane Eyre. As much as she despised its use as a pedestal for the powerful and a bludgeon against the weak, she depicted it as a source of strength and comfort for anyone who sought God sincerely, though she also included a character for whom faith was too all-consuming.

A tormented childhood. Early in the book, when Jane is a child, God and religion are used to frighten and subjugate her. It is a wonder she maintains any faith at all.

Religion and callousness intersect in the monstrous form of Reverend Brocklehurst. When he visits the Reeds' house [Chapter IV], he believes the worst about Jane and seeks to intimidate it out of her:

Little girl, here is a book entitled the 'Child's Guide,' read it with prayer, especially that part containing 'An account of the awfully sudden death of Martha G---, a naughty child addicted to falsehood and deceit.'

Brocklehurst claims to focus on the eternal rather than the here and now. This is certainly a handy way to justify his miserly administration of Lowood, as in the "burnt porridge" scene from Chapter VII:

"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!"

His introduction of Jane to her fellow students, from the same chapter, is worth quoting to give a sense of how cruel a religion's spokesman can be (both toward its subjects and toward those of other faiths:

"My dear children," pursued the black marble clergyman, with pathos, "this is a sad, a melancholy occasion; for it becomes my duty to warn you, that this girl, who might be one of God's own lambs, is a little castaway: not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien. You must be on your guard against her; you must shun her example; if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse. Teachers, you must watch her: keep your eyes on her movements, weigh well her words, scrutinise her actions, punish her body to save her soul: if, indeed, such salvation be possible, for (my tongue falters while I tell it) this girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut — this girl is — a liar!"

True faith revealed. Up to (and somewhat beyond) this point, the reader would be forgiven for feeling that Bronte viewed religion with disdain. Yet, as the book proceeds, Jane reveals herself as a devout spiritual being, with full faith in God despite the failings of some of His supposed representatives. It is, in fact, a measure of her obsession with Rochester that she sometimes places him above God [Chapter XXIV]:

My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol.

When their wedding is called off, however, and Jane can no longer depend on Rochester to ease her troubles, she realizes that only God can help her. But she hasn't the strength to appeal to Him [Chapter XXVI]:

One idea only still throbbed life-like within me — a remembrance of God: it begot an unuttered prayer: these words went wandering up and down in my rayless mind, as something that should be whispered, but no energy was found to express them —

"Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help."

It was near: and as I had lifted no petition to Heaven to avert it — as I had neither joined my hands, nor bent my knees, nor moved my lips — it came: in full heavy swing the torrent poured over me.

Later in that chapter, she urges Rochester to stop pursuing her and to turn to God:

"What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion and for some hope?"

"Do as I do: trust in God and yourself. Believe in heaven. Hope to meet again there."

After she leaves Thornfield in the following chapter, Jane expresses both comfort in God's care of Rochester and the wish that, in her forlorn state, she had died during her lonely night in the moors:

Mr. Rochester was safe; he was God's, and by God would he be guarded. ... Hopeless of the future, I wished but this — that my Maker had that night thought good to require my soul of me while I slept; and that this weary frame, absolved by death from further conflict with fate, had now but to decay quietly, and mingle in peace with the soil of this wilderness.

That wish hearkens back to events in Chapter IX, when the dying Helen Burns tried to inspire Jane to have faith and to believe they would be reunited in heaven:

"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 we die?"

"I am sure there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to Him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend: I love Him; I believe He loves me."

"And shall I see you again, Helen, when I die?"

"You will come to the same region of happiness: be received by the same mighty, universal Parent, no doubt, dear Jane."

St. John's spirit. Reverend Brocklehurst's meannness is offset by the utter selfless devotion of the book's other main minister, St. John Rivers. (Incidentally, his name is pronounced "Sinjin" rather than "Saint John".) This young pastor has chosen to follow God's plan for his life — or at least, what he perceives that plan to be — no matter the cost.

In fact, his and Jane's views of God intersect at their first meeting, as she lies destitute at his doorstep [Chapter XXVIII]:

"I can but die," I said, "and I believe in God. Let me try to wait His will in silence." ...

"All men must die," said a voice quite close at hand; "but all are not condemned to meet a lingering and premature doom, such as yours would be if you perished here of want."

Despite St. John's piety, though, God does not easily reward him, as Jane perceives [Chapter XXX]:

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 with my concealed and racking regrets for my broken idol and lost elysium ....

In the next chapter, St. John tells Jane how he had realized God planned for him to be not a minister, but rather a missionary:

"God had an errand for me; to bear which afar, to deliver it well, skill and strength, courage and eloquence, the best qualifications of soldier, statesman, and orator, were all needed: for these all centre in the good missionary."

Then, in Chapter XXXIV, he informs Jane that God has a similar plan for her:

"God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love."

While he intends no harm to Jane, St. John thus insults her to her core. She has deep faith in both God and the power of love, and she cannot agree with the way St. John separates the two when he suggests they marry in order to work together as missionaries [ibid]:

"Oh! I will give my heart to God," I said. "You do not want it."

Jane (and thus probably Bronte) feels love is meant to be used in the present. While St. John is willing to give his life to serve the Almighty, Jane has different ideas for her own fate [Chapter XXXV]:

"God did not give me my life to throw away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide."

Still, one shouldn't overlook Jane's sense of duty, whether toward her earlier master or her eternal Master [ibid]:

"I could decide if I were but certain," I answered: "were I but convinced that it is God's will I should marry you, I could vow to marry you here and now — come afterwards what would!"

At that moment, though, she receives a different sign from (or through) God:

... I heard a voice somewhere cry —

"Jane! Jane! Jane!" — nothing more.

"O God! what is it?" I gasped.

And so, believing that God has intervened, Jane leaves St. John and goes to find Rochester.

Final views on faith. In the concluding scenes, God's power and will are featured again. When Rochester finally understands that Jane has returned to him to stay, he — an acknowledged sinner who has often invoked God's name as a mere figure of speech ("God wot," "God knows," "Great God!"] — shows himself to be, in his own way, a grateful believer [Chapter XXXVII]:

"Jane! you think me, I daresay, an irreligious dog: but my heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth just now. He sees not as man sees, but far clearer: judges not as man judges, but far more wisely. ... I asked of God, at once in anguish and humility, if I had not been long enough desolate, afflicted, tormented; and might not soon taste bliss and peace once more. ... Now, I thank God!"

That would be a convenient wrapup for the religious aspects of Jane Eyre. But Bronte, ever exploring the complexities of her characters' relationships to God, gives the religiously fixated St. John the final word (in fact, the final words of the entire book [Chapter XXXVIII]):

I know that a stranger's hand will write to me next, to say that the good and faithful servant has been called at length into the joy of his Lord. And why weep for this? No fear of death will darken St. John's last hour: his mind will be unclouded, his heart will be undaunted, his hope will be sure, his faith steadfast. His own words are a pledge of this —

"My Master," he says, "has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly, — 'Surely I come quickly!' and hourly I more eagerly respond, — 'Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!'"