Critical Examination of Religion in Jane Eyre
During the Victorian Era, the status of religion was one of the most pressing social and moral issues. Though Charlotte Bronte grew up in a religious household, she, like many other authors, criticized certain aspects of religion even though, like the protagonist of her novel Jane Eyre, she principally remained a religious, spiritual person throughout her life. Throughout Jane Eyre, Bronte successfully conveys to the readers her religious beliefs, as well as criticisms of some of the injustices and frauds she perceived within the church.
In her novel, Bronte uses the subtlety of characterization to heighten and emphasize her dissatisfaction with the Church of England. One of Jane’s earliest encounters with religious hypocrites is her meeting with Mr. Brocklehurst, the wealthy and influential owner of Lowood. He insists that “humility is a Christian grace”, yet he and his family members are adorned luxuriously and fashionably, “splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs”. Upon closer inspection of this particular passage, we can see that it is precisely Bronte’s use of subtlety, the innocent yet questioning observations of Jane, that wholly bring to light Bronte’s dissatisfaction with such men. Meanwhile, Brocklehurst’s tirade upon the children further serves a critical purpose: Bronte portrays just how evil and ugly his doctrines are — used to subject, control and manipulate. Furthermore, the notions of hell and punishment, which Brocklehurst uses to intimidate Jane, show just how confusing and frustrating these two sides of religion can be: the optimistic concepts of love and forgiveness versus the notions of hell and damnation.
Although Jane’s life hitherto has not yet presented her with much love or forgiveness, it is during her time at the poverty-stricken Lowood that she initially encounters sincere examples of good, Christian values in the characters of Helen Burns and Miss Temple, the latter of whom is described as “full of goodness” by her students. In Helen, Jane discovers a side to religion she has never encountered before, one that fills her with hope and affection. Yet despite Helen’s gentle and passive doctrine of “turning the other cheek,” Jane is still unable to accept her belief entirely, insisting that she “must dislike those who whatever I [Jane] do to please them, persist in disliking me…resist those who punish me unjustly”. Jane’s may not seem very Christian-like; however, Bronte uses Jane’s beliefs to bring out her strong will and desire to follow her own belief system — to develop Jane’s willful character. It is then obvious that Helen and her doctrine serve as foils to Jane and hers, as Jane attempts to disconnect herself from the liabilities she perceives within Christianity. Once she has found herself and her confidence, she is able to grasp and accept her own beliefs, refusing to adjust herself to the rampant mentality and notions of the Church.
After maturing into a young woman and discovering herself through the many challenges placed in her path, Jane encounters St. John Rivers, who is perhaps one of the most disciplined Christians in the novel. His absolute and indisputable views on religion make him an interesting character. Jane notes that he is extremely active both in clergy and in missionary work, yet despite his tremendous efforts, he is described as a cold man, one who “has not yet found the peace of God.” Despite his vast determination in charity work, nor has he experienced that “mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every sincere Christian”. In other words, he is a man incapable of loving. Bronte uses this character to paint a much different picture of the effects that religion can have on men — Brocklehurst simply considers his duties to the Church imperative, and he rarely seems to pause and enjoy life and love. It is precisely for this reason that Jane refuses to marry him, acknowledging the fact that while St. John may be content with the reward of Heaven, she knows she is determined to find her heaven on Earth.
Finally, it is crucial to examine Jane herself, and the beliefs that she has come to accept and live by. All the characters she has met in her life have shaped her into who she is in the present, and, since this is a novel motivated by Bronte’s own psychology, we can expect Bronte to have had similar views to those of Jane. Primarily, Jane refuses to view and use religion as a means of intimidation; instead, she chooses to condemn such ideas and focus on love instead. Bronte’s clever characterization has successfully gotten her point across: through the many different characters in her novel, she is able to criticize any form of religion that does not stress forgiveness and love.
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