I first got an idea of its [St. John's mind's] 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 expressible 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.
Brontë portrays an interesting character here, very different from Reverend Stiggins, the only religious character present in The Pickwick Papers. Brontë's "compressed, condensed, controlled," and "stern allusions" reveal that St. John is centered, focused, driven by extreme discipline in his religious benevolence. His character serves as a pivot for Jane, a force drawing her away from the extremities of her depression and passions and pulling her back into herself through religious deeds. His become the watchful eyes of a father, and it is no wonder that Brontë has him propose to Jane as did Rochester. The characters parallel each other in their similar meshing of the masculine hero, saviour, lover, and father-figure.
Although St. John serves as a type of foil, he is not lacking in development. Brontë also uses him to reveal her negative sentiments surrounding religious figures. Jane finds him "sprung from a depth where lay turbid dregs of disappointment, . . . [full of] strange bitterness, [devoid of] consolatory gentleness." She says, "...pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was — [he] had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding." In short, St. John is much like Eliza who runs too far in one direction seeking solace from the harshness of life. These two characters serve as contrasts to Jane, the character with whom Brontë sympathizes, the character who finds her peace through faith not only in God but in herself and in humanity. She derives strength from her relationships with others and only misery in her passionate isolation.
Dickens's Reverend Stiggins, otherwise known as the Reverend Gentleman with the Red Nose, although serving a similar purpose, is presented in an exactly opposite manner. Stiggins is an alcoholic, evangelical minister, comical because the churches were advocates of temperance, who starts a fight at Bob Sawyer's party. Dickens uses satire to show the uselessness of such Puritanical devices as temperance in society. Dickens, too, is an advocate for faith and religion intermingling with common life. Whereas Brontë describes stringent, religious devoutness to impart a sense of extremist foolishness, Dickens creates a drunken religious hypocrite to convey the same idea. Brontë concerns herself with a philosophical approach, whereas Dickens focuses on satire.
Mid-Victorian England was a time of great religious debate. The query of the Utilitarian movement was whether "all institutions, in the light of human reason . . . were useful [and furthermore] was religious belief useful for the needs of a reasonable person?" (Norton Anthology 896). The struggle of Victorian religious philosophers was that of Dickens and Brontë: to find a balance among the human heart and scientific mind and the faith instilled by a long-standing, religious institution, the Church of England. This was the time of Darwin's theories and suddenly, people began reasoning past ambiguities which previously could only be answered by the Church. "As John Fowles noted in 1968, Darwin's theories made the Victorians fell 'infinitely isolated'" ( Norton Anthology 897), but religion was beginning to have the same effect. This polarization, this pulling of the Victorian consciousness caused both an awakening into nature's community and a retreat into religious isolation. Brontë and Dickens mapped out each polar absurdity respectively, and together they unconsciously called for the Victorians to meet somewhere in the middle.
Last modified 1996