Charlotte Bronte was an English novelist in the Victorian era, during the time gothic literature was at the height of its popularity. In one of her literary works, Jane Eyre, Bronte stays true to the prevalent writing style and revolves her story around a young woman on her spiritual and personal growth from childhood to adulthood. Throughout the novel, Bronte represents religious aspects of power, forgiveness, and devotion individually through Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John Rivers. Bronte’s representation of Christianity by the use of the characters aids Jane, through each of their encounters, in learning to distinguish the separation between religious loyalty and personal desire.
When exploring primary themes within Jane Eyre, religious ideals can be seen in various examples of Bronte’s Characters. Mr. Brocklehurst, the supervisor at Lowood, a school for orphan girls demonstrates this theme. Brocklehurst uses his position within the religious institution to exert his self-proclaimed superiority and tyrannical attitudes. Bronte uses him to represent religion as a dominating power. Despite his claims of being a holy man, Mr. Brocklehurst has a reputation for being “the hypocritical evangelical clergyman” (Vejvoda 244). In the novel, it is revealed that Mr. Brocklehurst hides behind the facade of being a religious man when his true intentions are focused on gaining power. Upon their first encounter, Jane describes his face as “grim… like a carved mask” (Bronte 38).
Immediately Bronte foreshadows his hypocritical tendencies by concealing his true objective, which is eventually revealed with further instances of him in the novel. Brocklehurst truly believes that by being “the upholder of the social order… and the enem[y] of freedom and openness” (Shapiro 685) he is fulfilling his religious duty to God. However, in truth, he cares only to gain and maintain power. His cold-heartedness makes him “impervious to human feelings, and closed to human appeal” (Shapiro 686). Jane is suspicious of him from the beginning and begins to further recognize this during his visits to Lowood. In the few instances Brocklehurst inspects the Lowood staff and attendees his stance becomes more clear to Jane.
Brocklehurst condemns an orphan for having naturally curly hair exclaiming that the girls “are not to conform to nature. [he] wish these girls to be children of Grace” (Bronte 76). Brocklehurst is attempting to force his version of faith on the students. He is conditioning these young girls to believe uniformity and idolizing those in a higher social class is the Lord’s will. Another instance in which Brocklehurst exerts his power is when Jane accidentally drops her slate. Mr. Brocklehurst publicly torments her, mounting her on a stool and warns the other orphans and the teachers that Jane is “a little castaway… an alien” and “a liar” (Bronte 78, 79).
The interactions Brocklehurst has with the members of Lowood further indicate Bronte’s intentions of representing power-hungry Christians who relish in exercising their dominance. Due to her inexperience and naivete’, Jane cannot distinguish real Christian values from Brocklehurst’s corrupt hypocritical ones. However, by realizing the way Brocklehurst charades as a religious man to justify his abuse of power Jane “learns that resisting idolatry can be empowering” (Vejvoda 224).
Although Jane is still not fully able to discern the difference between her desires and religious duty to God, her encounters with Mr. Brocklehurst’s use of God sparked her realization she can resist idolizing corrupt ways of worship. Jane learns that while Brocklehurst is in a religious position of authority, his interests lie not in Christian principles of compassion and mercy but order and control. Although Brocklehurst’s approach was far from genuine his immoral attitude served to teach Jane to be generous. Later in the novel, Jane inherits twenty thousand pounds from her late uncle. Unlike Brocklehurst, who would have likely kept the money himself to feed his greed, Jane immediately divides the money between herself and her three cousins. She ultimately rejects Brocklehurst’s approach and begins to gain her own perspective on a religious lifestyle.
Another character Bronte uses to represent different religious approaches wildly differs in all aspects from Mr. Brocklehurst, save the fact that she too is loyal to her Christian beliefs and aids in Jane’s self-realization. Helen Burns, like Jane, is an orphan who attends Lowood. Contrary to Brocklehurst, Helen represents forgiveness and acceptance within Christianity. Helen is “an older student [who] becomes a model of patience and perseverance to Jane” (Bloom).
It is to be assumed that Helen is more educated than most girls at the school; however, she is often condemned and punished for simple misdemeanors. Helen’s pious approach to life declares her “to submit to the injustices of this life, in expectation of the ultimate justice of the next” (Gilbert et al.) Despite being ill-treated, Helen’s innocent faith and expectations for the afterworld enables her to accept the punishments without opposition. Her relationship with Jane and Christian ideals marks Helen as a perfect candidate “to help Jane come to terms with her fate… [and be] in some sense [a] mother for Jane” (Gilbert et al.).
Bronte illustrates Helen as a nurturing parental figure to Jane to emphasize the fact that despite the similarity in age, Helen’s Christian credence and understanding of the world around her, draws in Jane for guidance. The primary instance Helen exercises her forgiving nature is when she is flogged by one of the Lowood teachers. Despite the close bond between the two girls Jane’s confusion of Helen’s religious approach to forgiveness overpowers her interest in its practice. When Jane questions Helen as to why she accepts the harsh punishments of flogging and being ridiculed in public, Helen explains to Jane that to retaliate towards others is frowned upon by God for “the Bible bids us return good for evil” (Bronte 66).
Helen continues to practice forgiveness and remain unphased when she is forced to wear the word ‘Slattern’ across her forehead. Jane protests this ideology although she sees meaning to Helen’s teachings she “turns away from Helen Burns’s other-worldliness, realizes that it is not for her” (Shapiro 687). Through Helen, Jane learns to piece together the extent of her devotion, and capacity of her forgiveness and acceptance. She recognizes the morality in forgiveness but is not able to conform to the idea of accepting all criticisms and punishments without consequence.
However, Helen does aid Jane in becoming more tolerant of others herself. Jane learns “to temper her voice for reasons of strategy” (“Jane Eyre’s Legacy” 192) Evidence of this strategy can be found later in the novel when Jane is taunted by Blanche Ingram, Jane accepts her snide comments and does not reciprocate Blanche’s behavior, knowing that retaliating would not be to her benefit. Also through Helen’s teachings, Jane learns to forgive Rochester for the secrets he kept regarding his wife.
As well as gaining her own diluted version of Helen’s religious approach, Jane begins to grasp the concept of dissociation between her pleasures, fiery passion to protect herself and fulfilling the goodwill of God. Jane realizes there is a healthy balance between the two, and although Jane values the lessons of forgiveness she gained she ultimately rejects Helen’s approach of unquestioning acceptance and sets off to complete her own.
The third representation of Christianity Bronte provides is through St. John. While he is similar to Helen, who exhibits forgiveness, he predominately depicts devotion to Christian. St. John is an aspiring missionary in the town Morton and is “a character who denies himself earthly happiness, specifically happiness in the form of marriage” (256 Vejvoda). St. John prides himself on his vocation as a religious man, and he lets nothing distract him from his faithfulness to God. Bronte depicts St. John as serious and blunt.
This is attributed to the fact that in order to be truly devoted, St. John self-denies and avoids personal pleasure. The extent of St. John’s devotion becomes apparent from his reluctance to pursue a relationship with Rosamond Oliver. It is revealed St. John loves Rosamond, however, he ignores his desire to be with her to pursue his worship, believing that Rosamond is not fit to be a missionary’s wife.
In response to Jane’s suggestion to relinquish his profession for matrimony, St. John becomes enraged and offended, exclaiming, “‘Relinquish! What! My vocation? My foundation laid on earth for a mansion in heaven” (Bronte 431). St. John is blinded by his desire to please God. He is unable to acknowledge the balance between pleasure and piousness. His ardent religious livelihood ensures that “St. John is unable to build a relationship with God’s creatures into his relationship with God; he merely sees their usefulness” (Joshua).
St. John’s lacks meaningful relationships other than with the Lord. St. John’s devotion is further exemplified when he proposes to Jane. His reasoning for his and Jane’s marriage is purely for his religious duty. He believes Jane was built for labor not love thus “the only way for Jane to serve God, St. John insists, is to subsume her identity within his own by becoming a missionary’s wife, an option that would annihilate her selfhood” (Vejvoda 252). St. John smothers Jane with his ideology. He attempts to persuade Jane that she, like him, is made for labor and must submit to God and deny her desires as well. Jane rejects this ideology that life revolves around pleasing God.
By accepting St. John’s way of life, Jane will ultimately lose her individuality. With this, “Jane fully recognizes the danger of excessive devotion” (Vejvoda 250) to religion. Jane finally learns the distinction between desire and God and makes the connection that although she lives her life by Christian morals the sacrifices she makes to maintain righteousness only extend so far. Jane recognizes her “denial of River’s philosophy and view of existence, her affirmation of her own individuality and right to self-expression” (Shapiro 683). She learns from St. John’s mistake of separating himself from humanity in dedication to Christianity and embraces the devotion she has for Edward Rochester. She ventures away from St. John and his missionary duty back to her beloved and learns to fashion her own approach to religion by creating a balance between her morals and her desires.
Ultimately Bronte uses the three characters, Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John Rivers to represent the aspects of power, forgiveness, and devotion within a Christian framework. Jane struggles against conforming to their varying interpretations of living a Christian lifestyle. However, the combination of all three religious characters acts as a catalyst to help Jane discover her own way to honor God and enjoy her desires without conflict.