Jane Eyre is largely the story of Jane becoming an increasingly Christian character as she learns to tame her romantic but often misguided and egotistical passions, cultivating in their stead the Christian virtues of love, charity, and humility. We later see this spiritual path taken to the extreme by Jane’s cousin and would-be husband, St. John Rivers. St. John’s behavior parallels Jane’s — he argues for curbing one’s romantic, but often egotistical emotions and behavior in order to become a virtuous Christian — but he goes much farther than Jane is capable of doing, completely eschewing both feeling and emotional attachments in favor of a pure and unswerving commitment to his ideals. While Jane deeply admires St. John’s spirituality, she ultimately rejects his approach as antithetical to her nature, raising questions about the nature and goals of Christian virtue in Brontë’s world. Jane’s spiritual path consists largely of reconciliation: by the novel’s end, she has reconciled her emotional commitments and duties to herself with a loving, humble Christian outlook; her worldly tendencies have become inextricably linked to her moral commitments and service to others. But this ability to love and sympathize with others — normally thought of as an essential Christian virtue — is a quality which St. John, with his harsh, judgmental moralism and abstract commitment to grand ideals, ironically lacks. While a virtuous man who performs works of charity, he does so with a grim sense of duty, and seems more motivated by carrying out his ideals than by genuine emotional sympathy with his beneficiaries.

I am, simply, in my original state — stripped of that blood-bleached robe with which Christianity covers human deformity — a cold, hard, ambitious man . . . Reason, and not Feeling, is my guide . . . I watch your career with interest, because I consider you a specimen of a diligent, orderly, energetic woman: not because I deeply compassionate with what you have gone through, or what you will suffer. [Brontë p. 472]

Brontë thus portrays St. John as a primarily philosophical creature, who strives to remove himself from the fetters of excessive emotional attachment; spiritual pleasure for him derives not from the positive effects of his labors but from his very commitment to his philosophy and his role in carrying out “God’s work”: “I am . . . a Christian philosopher — a follower of the sect of Jesus. As his disciple I adopt his pure, his merciful, his benignant doctrines. I advocate them: I am sworn to spread them.” St. John is an undeniably virtuous man and dedicated Christian, but his behavior toward those around him leaves both Jane and the reader slightly uneasy, as it indicates a lack of two of the traits that Jane and Brontë admire most — love and compassion. While we often hear of his considerable charity, we seldom see him effect a positive change in anyone he knows, or treating any of his acquaintances with genuine kindness; and Brontë often hints that his unswerving commitment to Good is just as much the result of his restless and ambitious nature as it is of a genuine commitment to his fellow men. Given St. John’s feelings for Rosamond Oliver, it is unlikely that he has no capacity for love or sympathy; but he suppresses both feeling and worldly desire in order to pursue an otherworldly goal. While Jane deeply admires “the Christian” in him, then, she finds she must often overlook the cold and judgmental nature of the man himself (Brontë p 509). Nonetheless, for Jane the Christian in him wins out, and she ends the book by valorizing and praising this behavior which is so alien to her and so impossible for her to accept as her own:

The last letter I received from him [St. John] drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with Divine joy . . . 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!’” [556]

The book ends, then, with St. John’s exhortation of faith, framed sympathetically and admiringly by Jane. Nonetheless, in the preceding passages we have learned that Jane has a family, is wealthy and is happily married to Mr. Rochester, her love having uplifted him and saved him from lifelong despair; she also has a clear conscience and the assurance of having behaved justly and compassionately all throughout her recent years. She has in effect managed to balance both worldly and spiritual fulfillment. St. John, by contrast, will never marry But in light of the recent disquisition on Jane’s newfound happiness — as well as Jane’s ambivalent attitude toward his character throughout the book — the glorification of St. John’s self-abnegating philosophy at the very end is an odd choice and raises questions about the relative value of Jane’s and St. John’s approaches to Christian virtue.

Qustions

1. While Jane does not appear to adhere to a particular Christian doctrine, St. John’s philosophy has a decidedly Calvinist tinge; he constantly sermonizes about predestination and expresses disappointment that Jane does not act as befits the “Elect.” Do St. John’s severity and otherworldly focus, then, exemplify the highest ideals of Christianity itself, or does his behavior conform only to a particular strain of Christianity, one that isn”t necessarily suited to everyone?

2. By the end of the book St. John is dying, and throughout his life he has been essentially not of this world; he does not marry, does not act on his love for Rosalind, and derives no spiritual pleasure from human relationships, or indeed from anything but his mission and philosophy. Could this be a larger statement on the difficulty of reconciling Christian ideals with earthly concerns?

3. Jane’s exuberant praise of St. John’s religious approach comes in the context of her own newfound joy and happiness, which themselves were largely the product of her own, more worldly, brand of faith. Is preference given in the novel to either Jane’s or St. John’s approach, or are both presented as equally valid, depending on one’s temperament and spiritual capabilities?

4. When Jane rejects St. John’s proposal of marriage, he dismisses her decision as egotistical, motivated by emotional weakness and selfish personal feelings. Jane, while deeply admiring St. John’s virtue, comments on his ability to be fulfilled only through philosophy and not through genuine love of his fellow creatures. Could one make a case for Jane being the novel’s most balanced and genuine Christian character, precisely because she is not self-abnegating, but in fact affirms her own personality through moral laws and through service to her loved ones and community? Is Christian philosophy itself more important than those whom it would benefit?


Victorian Overview Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre

Last modified 14 July 2012