In an extended passage from Jane Eyre, Jane discusses the influence of St. John Rivers' sermon. She determines "I cannot...render faithfully the effect it produced on me" (Brontë, 345). What she proceeds to describe is the effect of his oration, or rather, his narration (for St. John is telling the story of God and the Bible, to his congregation, to Jane and to himself). Yet neither Jane nor St. John seem convinced of St. John's ability to render the story accurately. As Jane herself makes clear, "I was sure that St. John Rivers — pure- lived, conscientious, zealous as he was — had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding." The issue of a narrator's credibility became more and more prominent with the development of an interior/ exterior dichotomy. The notion of psychological realism, the concept that the reader can place him or herself in someone else's mind, in this case, the character's, and see things from his own vantage point, came into existence as a way to bridge the gaps among our respective interiors. There was a need to believe that we are all at least perceiving the same exteriority, even if each of us perceives it differently. A notion of a common morality has allowed for the bridging of gaps. The use of "sympathetic imagination" assumes that the reader and the characters have a common moral understanding of the world that requires us to trust the narrator to render a story in an accurate manner. St. John tries to be a reliable narrator, but he is unable to see the world from any perspective other than his own, thereby limiting his ability to tell a story that connects with any other perspective, establishing himself as an unreliable narrator.

Brontë undermines St. John's narrative authority by giving him arguments which are based only on logic and pathos (the appeal to emotions and feelings), without any appeal to ethics. When St. John is trying to convince Jane to marry him and move to India, he appeals to her with logic, arguing that she has met the "sundry tests" that he has created for her, and that her "untiring assiduity and unshaken temper" make her an ideal missionary's wife. He also appeals to her with pathos, telling her that it is God's will that she should go to India and then he "laid his hand on my heads he uttered the last words...I stood motionless under my hierophant's touch... Religion called — Angels beckoned — God commanded --- life rolled together like a scroll" (Brontë, 408). This description of St. John's effects is mirrored in the Jane's first reaction to hearing him preach. She comments on the "strictly restrained zeal...[which] grew to force-- compressed, condensed, controlled. The heart was thrilled, the mind astonished, by the power of the preacher: neither were softened." St. John's appeal is firmly based, as Jane points out, in Calvinistic doctrines. The placing of St. John within these specific religious contexts further work to place him in a world of logic and pathos.

The Evangelical party doctrines posited the belief that "human beings are corrupt and need Christ to save them." In this way of thinking, believers must "demonstrate their spirituality by working for others- thus Evangelical zeal in missionary work." Furthermore, the notion that "the converted will be persecuted and that such persecution indicates the holiness of the believer" is quite firmly espoused by St. John. As Jane indicates, as "pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was.. [St. John Rivers] had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding" (Brontë). When placed within this historical context, St. John's lack of peace makes perfect sense.

What St. John's arguments lack are an appeal to ethos- an appeal to "the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs" that we, the reader, find in Jane herself (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary). In contrast to St. John, Brontë's characterization of Jane creates her as a credible narrator. Her arguments appeal not only to logic and the evocation of emotions, but also to "the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs." They appeal to our sympathetic imagination. We know Jane as a character who strives to be honest and considerate. We see her strive against the most difficult odds as a child growing up alienated and ridiculed in the Reed household and physically deprived at the Lowood School. We trust Jane and her interpretations of the world, even when they are clearly misinterpretations. St. John's desire to marry Jane is removed from any feeling of love. Jane immediately rejects his proposal on this grounds, but she gets drawn in by his logic and his pathos: "Like him, I had now put love out of the question, and thought only of duty" (Brontë, 409). At this moment, Jane hears "a voice somewhere cry-- 'Jane Jane Jane'" (Brontë, 409). Rochester's voice is the voice that reminds her of love and emotions, bringing Jane back to the moral nature that is so much a part of her character.

Like Jane, Mr. Pickwick also is characterized by his moral nature. His arguments rarely rely on logic or pathos, but almost solely on ethos, on a sense of what he knows to be right. Pickwick's decision to support Jingle and Trotter in their endeavors for a new life style exemplifies this reliance on ethos. Pickwick feeds and clothes them, bringing them back to health. Trotter tells Sam Weller "thanks to your worthy governor, sir, we have half a leg of mutton, baked, at a quarter before three, with the potatoes under it to save boiling... More than that... my master being very ill, he got us a room...and paid for it, sir; and come to look at us, at night, when nobody should know" (Dickens, 734). Pickwick supports them despite all the tricks and scams they have pulled, scams that have placed Pickwick in many embarrassing situations, because, for him, it is the right thing to do. His reasoning in this and other matter places him very squarely as someone who acts out of a sense of ethicality.

Both Dickens and Brontë make ethos — credibility — dominate all other types of characterization. The characters that we respect and relate to are the ones which live by this sense of ethical credibilty. This theme runs throughout both Jane Eyre and The Pickwick Papers.


Victorian Web Overview Charlotte Brontë

Last modified 1996