[Adapted from Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought, 1980. Full text]

Prose fiction, narrative poetry, and related forms, such as the dramatic monologue, frequently employ biblical typology as a device for creating and defining character. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) provides examples of two contrasting uses of scriptural types to describe the moral and spiritual condition of a character. Immediately after Jane has fled from Rochester upon discovering the existence of his insane wife, she shuts herself in her room and discovers herself bereft of hope and faith. Describing herself to the reader in the third person, she confesses:

Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman -- almost a bride — was a cold, solitary girl again. . . . My hopes were all dead — struck with a subtle doom, such as, in one night, fell on all the first-born in the land of Egypt. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing; they lay stark, chill, livid corpses, that could never revive. I looked at my love: that feeling which was my master's -- which he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle. (ch. 26)

In comparing her love to the dead first-born of the Egyptians who had perished in the tenth plague, Jane places that love within an existing spiritual context. She recognizes that she is being punished for not obeying the precepts of the true God, and she also realizes that she is guilty of the sin of the Egyptians -- of believing both that God's powers are limited and that they could evade his law.

Brontë has prepared for this scriptural allusion several chapters earlier. At the close of the twenty-fourth chapter, Jane admits, "My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature of whom I had made an idol." Jane worshipped a man instead of God, and she made an idol of Rochester, worshipping a false god and, as it turned out, a false man as well. After discovering Bertha's existence, she finds her "faith death-struck", and her citation of the type of the first-born makes us aware that this faith was not merely a confidence of one mature woman in her beloved but faith raised to the level of religious belief. (1) She soon enough learns that such faith is false religion; but when she loses it, a merciful and forgiving God sustains her: "One idea only still throbbed life-like within me -- a remembrance of God: it begot a muttered prayer." Having found that the love and faith fathered upon her by Rochester have been blighted, she is sustained by God when a remembrance of Him "begot" a prayer. (2)

Jane's citation of this Exodus type to describe her own spiritual weakness and consequent punishment serves two ends. First, it places her character and actions within a clearly defined scheme of values; and, second, because she self-consciously and accurately applies this type to herself, it serves to dramatize her new self-awareness and her admission of guilt.


Victorian Web main screen Religion Biblical Typology

Last modified 1998