Jane Eyre has a cross to bear. She is choked with anger at her supposed benefactress, Mrs. Reed, for locking her in the spectral red room; she is venomous towards her coddled, beribboned cousins who treat her with scorn and violence. She mopes around the house with her head in a book. Worst of all, she talks back — with a keen sense of injustice — to her aunt. Jane Eyre is a bad sort; in fact, she is downright unchristian.

Biblical imagery — particularly the image of a suffering Christ — is invoked throughout Brontë's novel. Jane's behavior at Gateshead isn't meek or mild. Her literal refusal to turn the other cheek when attacked by John is proof enough to Mrs. Reed that Jane is ungrateful and strong-willed. These deep flaws are brought to light in Jane's interview with Mr. Brocklehurst. The way in which her intransigence is not only unpleasant but also unchristian, deserving of infernal punishment, is agreed upon by Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst. When Jane replies honestly that she prefers Genesis to the Psalms, Mr. Brocklehurst exclaims:

"No? Oh, shocking! I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat, or a verse of a Psalm to learn he says: 'Oh! The verse of a Psalm! Angels sing Psalms,' says he: 'I wish to be a little angel here below;' he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety." [p.27]

Brontë is clearly mocking the evangelical fervor of the wealthy patrician. Yet this tale of the Psalm-devouring infant is more than mere rhetoric. Later on, Brocklehurst chides Miss Temple for giving the children bread and cheese. A judicious instructor, he says,

"would refer to the early Christians, the torments of martyrs; to the exhortations of our blessed Lord himself, calling upon his disciples to take up their cross and follow him . . . 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." [53]

Questions

In the above quotation Brocklehurst appropriates Christ's suffering to "mortify humility" in the girls. How do the other characters in the novel mobilize religious images — particularly that of a self-abnegating Christ — to suit their own ends?

In what ways is Jane Eyre both a martyred figure — portrayed by herself and/or Brontë as Christ-like — and also, as seen by Mr. Brocklehurst or Mrs. Reed, deceitful, a bad Christian. Do these portrayals overlap? Are they contradictory?

How does Jane's time at Lowood affect her attitudes towards religion and, in turn, her character as an adult? Is Jane ever able to fully emulate Helen Burns's admonition to "keep quiet," to meekly accept her punishments?

In her preface Charlotte Brontë writes that her critics see Jane Eyre as an "insult to piety, that regent of God on Earth." She adds, "Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion." In what ways does Brontë's novel itself — either through Jane or others — seek to question normative religious belief and evangelical schooling? Or, conversely, does it question these concepts at all?


Victorian Overview Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre Discussion questions for Jane Eyre

Last updated 3 February 2004