Religion Importance In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
Religion is an integral part of the plot that is Jane Eyre’s life. In the Victorian Era, Christianity was the primary religion. Many of the Victorian’s believed that, in order to be a good Christian, you had to be willing to self-sacrifice (Blumberg). This idea comes from Ilana Blumberg’s “Victorian Sacrifice”. Blumberg talks mainly about the female self-sacrifice found in Victorian times and how they let it rule their lives. Jane is definitely someone who takes priority in self-sacrificing. She is constantly looking for someone or somewhere to be useful. This self-sacrifice that many Christians in the Victorian Era had was seen to be a very “elusive moral ideal” (Blumberg, 33). But Jane still seems to have it even though, for the majority of her life, she struggles to find her own religious identity outside of it. There are three important religious figures that influence, either positively or negatively, Jane’s religious journey: Helen Burns, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St. John Rivers. All three of these different influences work together to help shape Jane’s own religious ideology. When Jane encounters these figures, she sees the helpfulness and faults in their own ideologies and lifestyles. She uses this understanding and comprehension to then form her own decisions about religion. Jane’s religious journey is a hard one full of belittlement, hardships, and self-sacrifice but she continues to struggle with her knowledge and faith in God until she reaches the end of her journey. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte uses the three religious figures of Helen, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St. John to show Jane’s struggle through her religious journey and the resolution that she comes to in the end. Bronte does this in order to show how, in the Victorian Era, religion was an integral part of people’s lives and how Jane learns to grow in her faith but not be controlled by it.
One religious view that Jane was exposed to early on in her life at Lowood was the view of Helen Burns. Helen Burns is Jane’s first friend at Lowood and this fact causes them to share a very intimate connection. Helen is a very positive influence for Jane on her religious journey. She also has a very clear view of her own religious ideology. In one of her conversations with Jane, Helen says, “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… God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward. Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness- to glory?” (Bronte, 69-70). This quote is important because it clearly shows Helen’s whole view of religion. Helen’s ideology is based on the salvation that comes after life. Her faith in the afterlife is something that teaches Jane the endurance that she needs to get through life. Helen tells her to give up on petty struggles that won’t mean anything when she’s before God. Because of her religious views and practices, Helen is seen as a Christ-like figure. After her death, her tombstone reads “resurgam” which is Latin for “I will rise again” (Bronte, 82). This emphasizes Helen’s importance and influence in Jane’s life.
Helen’s view of religion taught Jane to endure the hardships of life and how to overcome her struggles. In a sense, Helen also taught Jane to believe in herself and have more faith in herself. This is particularly seen when Helen says, “If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own consciousness approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends,” and Jane replies, “No; I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: if others don’t love me, I would rather die than live- I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen” (69). This interaction between Helen and Jane is important because it shows how insecure Jane is in herself and her religious path. Helen thinks that all she has to do is put faith in God and in herself and she won’t be friendless or unhappy. But Jane doesn’t have this faith yet. It’s with Helen’s first teachings that Jane learns how to have more faith and surety in herself and her religion. Helen’s teachings encourage this growth in Jane. They also encourage Jane to forgive those who mistreat her; she often refers to the Gospels for this. Because of Helen’s teachings, Jane comes to learn and understand the mercy of God and how everyone is equal when it comes to death. Helen’s view of religion is very optimistic and this optimism helps Jane. She starts to let go of the past, and look for a purpose in the future. She doesn’t completely find this purpose until the end when she marries Mr. Rochester but it starts with her self-sacrificing and finding a way to help people around her.
Another view of religion that Jane was exposed to at Lowood was that of Mr. Brocklehurst. Unlike Helen’s view of religion, Mr. Brocklehurst’s views were often associated with the bullying and cruel neglect of the girls at Lowood. Mr. Brocklehurst used his religion as an excuse for his mistreatment and neglect; he called it “charity”. His “charity” starved and killed multiple girls at Lowood. Mr. Brocklehurst didn’t want the girls at Lowood to be preoccupied with worldly possessions when they should be too busy studying and learning their religion. This is clearly seen when he says to Miss Temple, “Naturally! Yes but we are not to conform to nature: I wish these girls to be the children of Grace: and why that abundance? I have again and again intimated that I desire the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, plainly” (Bronte, 64). This quote is important because it shows the extreme lengths that Mr. Brocklehurst will go to in order to keep the girls in line. He is willing to humiliate and dehumanize the girls as long as they don’t take pride in their worldly possessions. This quote also shows the hypocrisy of Mr. Brocklehurst. He thinks that proper care and worldly possessions will “starve their immortal souls”, so he chooses to neglect them of proper meals and proper clothes (Bronte, 63). But at the same time, Mr. Brocklehurst and his family flaunt their own wealth and luxuries; he doesn’t practice what he’s preaching to the girls. He uses his religion as an instrument of power against the girls with the excuse that he’s doing it for their benefit. Mr. Brocklehurst’s view of religion is a very negative view but it helps to show Jane that Mr. Brocklehurst was wrong and that she doesn’t need to suffer in order to be a good Christian.
Unlike Helen’s view of religion, Mr. Brocklehurst’s view showed Jane that she does not have to throw away her worldly possessions or her emotions in order to have a good religious ideology. Mr. Brocklehurst’s religious ideology taught the girls at Lowood the idea of self-sacrifice to an extreme extent. He wanted the girls to give up everything that made them who they were. This is shown when he tells Miss Temple, “Madam, I have a Master to serve whose kingdom is not of this world: my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel…” (Bronte, 64). This quote is important because it shows how Mr. Brocklehurst thinks the girls should act according to his religious ideologies. These ideologies help teach Jane what not to do in her journey of finding her religious ideology. Because of Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane learns of self-sacrificing but she also learns the correct amount in order to not turn it into suffering. Mr. Brocklehurst’s ideology was a very negative view of religion but Jane learned the most out of it that she could.
The final view of religion that Jane was exposed to in her life is the view of St. John Rivers. St. John’s religious ideology is very conservative and somewhat similar to Mr. Brocklehurst’s; unlike Mr. Brocklehurst, St. John doesn’t take his ideology to the extremes. St. John’s ideology taught him to not care for worldly possessions or personal connections; he only loves his religion. St. John believes that human hearts should only serve God and not be distracted by unnecessary things. This is seen when Jane is describing St. John, “St. John was a good man; but I began to feel he had spoken truth of himself when he said he was hard and cold. The humanities and amenities of life had no attraction for him…he would never rest; nor approve of others resting round him” (Bronte, 392). This quote is important because it shows how deeply St. John’s religion affects his life. St. John relinquishes his worldly happiness in order to be completely committed to his religion; this, in turn, makes him seem cold and stern to others around him. St. John seems to have a “measured egoism” when it comes to the Christian religion and his role in it. A “measured egoism” is an “ethically responsible self-concern which might foster communal solidarity and material abundance” (Blumberg). This simply means that St. John also does a lot of self-sacrificing because it is what his ideology says is right. He gives up everything that is earthly in order to follow his religious views. This ideology pushes Jane to the final step of finding her own.
St. John’s view of religion showed Jane that she doesn’t need to self-sacrifice and get rid of all her worldly possessions and happiness in order to have a good religious ideology and be a good Christian. St. John gave her the final push that she needed in order to create and follow her own view of religion. He taught her determination, to do a good job, to not have doubts, and how to live a good religious life. St. John tries to teach her how to leave her emotions and true feelings in order to be a good missionary but this is when Jane learns that she can’t and that she doesn’t want to leave them behind. Because of St. John, Jane learns that she wants the freedom to feel the emotions she has and to love whoever she loves. Jane decides that this is how she’ll respect and follow God: by finding a religious path to follow that is true to herself. Jane learns all this when St. John tries to make her his wife. He tells 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 labor, not for love… I claim you- not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service” (Bronte, 402). This quote is important because this shows how St. John thinks that Jane doesn’t have a choice in the matter, he thinks that it’s her religious duty to become his wife. This is a very important time for Jane because she realizes that this isn’t the life that she wants. All her life, Jane hasn’t had many choices of her own but choosing Mr. Rochester was one of them. This is significant because the “complications of self-sacrifice were especially dangerous for women who were afforded fewer choices in life and often pressured or coerced into sacrifice” (Blumberg 34). This quote easily describes Jane and her life. Jane’s life has been filled with choices being made for her and her own self-sacrifices. St. John makes her realize that she can choose a life filled with religion and love; that she doesn’t have to get rid of one or the other.
In conclusion, Charlotte Bronte used the three religious figures of Helen Burns, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St. John to show Jane’s own journey to find her religious ideology. Jane struggled to find this ideology because of her own self-sacrificing and she was influenced into keeping her worldly possessions and happiness. Helen taught Jane how to endure the hardships of life. Mr. Brocklehurst taught Jane that self-sacrificing and giving up worldly possessions to the extreme is cruel and will only bring suffering. He taught Jane how to moderately control herself when it comes to this. St. John taught Jane that, instead of giving up her love and happiness, she can have a good relationship and faith in God while also being happy. St. John taught her a good balance so that she doesn’t fall off the path of her religious journey. Jane’s religious ideology is to have faith and strength in God but to also follow her own path of love and happiness. She finds a good balance between them when she goes back to Mr. Rochester at the end of the novel and she’s happy.
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