In chapter thirty of Jane Eyre, having left Rochester after discovering that he was married to Bertha Mason, Jane finds herself taken in by a zealous minister named St. John Rivers. Though she enjoys the company of his sisters, Diana and Mary, she is not quite sure what to make of Mr. St. John himself. She can find no particular fault with him, yet she is disturbed by the fact that St. John seems devoid of "that mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every sincere Christian and practical philanthropist" (ch. 30, p.299). Her doubts about St. John become even more prominent when she goes to hear him deliver a sermon at his church in Morton:
I first got an idea of its calibre when I heard him preach in his own church at Morton. I wish I could describe that sermon: but it is past my power. I cannot even render faithfully the effect it produced on me. It began calm- and indeed, as far as delivery and pitch of voice went, it was calm to the end: an earnestly felt, yet strictly restrained zeal breathed soon in the distinct accents, and prompted the nervous language. This grew to force — compressed, condensed, controlled. The heart was thrilled, the mind astonished, by the power of the preacher: neither were softened. Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness; stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines — election, predestination, reprobation — were frequent; and each reference to these points sounded like a sentence pronounced for doom. When he had done, instead of feeling better, calmer, more enlightened by his discourse, I experienced an inexpressible sadness; for it seemed to me — I know not whether equally so to others — that the eloquence to which I had been listening had sprung from a depth where lay turbid dregs of disappointment- where moved troubling impulses of insatiate yearnings and disquieting aspirations. I was sure St. John Rivers — pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was — had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding [ch.30, p.300]
The zeal that St. John demonstrates in his sermon and the minister's intense passion for missionary work are both very characteristic of evangelicalism. In this particular school of theology, as George P. Landow writes, "the church hierarchy and church ritual are not as crucial to individual salvation as a personal conversion based on an emotional, imaginative comprehension of both one's own innate depravity and Christ's redeeming sacrifice, thus the emphasis upon an essentially Romantic conception of religion that stressed imagination, intensity, and emotion " ("The Doctrines of Evangelical Protestantism"). Clearly, St. John is passionate and driven, and yet Jane is not convinced that he is content. She describes his sermon as more of a punishing lecture than an uplifting oration, and she questions whether St. John has truly come to terms with God.
The passage above is clearly representative of Brontë's opinion concerning the misinterpretation of religious ideals and the loss of true spirituality as a result of extremism. In order to convey this message, Brontë uses the narrator's judgment (i.e. Jane's voice), which is a type of characterization often employed in fictional novels. Over the course of the novel, as the reader has gotten to know Jane, we have come to sympathize with her and trust her. Thus, when she passes judgment on St. John during his sermon, we are inclined to believe her. Moreover, because this novel is characterized by high realism, we know that we don't need to be wary of what Jane tells us. There are no tricks as there are in Alice in Wonderland. Instead, we understand that she is conveying to the reader what she believes to be an honest account of the events that are transpiring.
Though religion is not as important a subject in The Pickwick Papers as it is in Jane Eyre, Dickens uses the one religious character in the novel, Mr. Stiggins, as a means for criticizing certain aspects of evangelical Christianity. This criticism is clearly seen in the elder Mr. Weller's commentary on reverends like Mr. Stiggins:
"The worst o' these here shepherds is, my boy, that they reg'larly turns the heads of all the young ladies, about here. Lord bless their little hearts, they thinks its all right, and don't know no better; but they're the wictims o' gammon, Samivel, they're the wictims o' gammon.'
"I s'pose they are,' said Sam.
"Nothin' else,' said Mr. Weller, shaking his head gravely; "and wot aggrawates me, Samivel, is to see 'em a wastin' all their time and labour in making clothes for copper-coloured people as don't want 'em, and taking no notice of the flesh-coloured Christians as do. If I'd my vay, Samivel, I'd just stick some o' these here lazy shepherds behind a heavy wheelbarrow, and run 'em up and down a fourteen-inch-wide plank all day. That 'ud shake the nonsense out of 'em, if anythin' vould.' (ch. 27, p.359).
Mr. Stiggins is the complete opposite of St. John Rivers. He is a lazy, unmotivated, evangelical minister who seems to have no interest in his duties. Moreover, his perpetual red nose, which is the result of his excessive drinking, is made even more humorous by the fact that his church is supposedly an advocate of temperance.
Though he uses humor, Dickens' message is similar to that of Brontë's. Dickens, who was a religious man himself, seems to see a lack of true spirituality and a great deal of hypocrisy among the evangelicals. Furthermore, like Brontë, Dickens uses characterization — or rather the credibility of a character who provides a judgment — in order to emphasize this point. In this case, Sam's father is the individual who is passing judgment. The father's accusations in the passage above give the reader insight into characters like Mr. Stiggins, and though the elder Mr. Weller is no saint himself, we believe his judgments based on the behavior of Mr. Stiggins. The reader would even be willing to accept a bit of exaggeration when characters pass judgments on one another since this novel has elements of fantasy, but in this particular case, the elder Mr. Weller seems to be right on target.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.
Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1999.
Last Modified 21 March 2003