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“Are you there God? It’s me, Jane”: Struggles with Religious Conformity in Jane Eyre

Published on May 20th, 2016 at 11:35 pm

by Michael Abber

There is a vast difference between unity and conformity. A firm understanding of this has likely been absent in societies throughout history, as seen by how groups of people are often almost all-too-willing to give up their individuality in favor of a group mentality. The ideological apparatus of religion has often been a culprit in facilitating this, because it forces people to conform to a specific method of worship, and denies them of a specific, spiritual relationship or feeling. This is greatly seen in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, in which the headstrong female protagonist navigates life in England during the Industrial Revolution era. Jane innocently disobeys society’s orders by forming her own opinions on traditions and customs, and she soon discovers her own individual ideas on religion. Jane, although a highly spiritual person, does not believe in many of the strict tenets of Christianity and realizes that the religion simply does not satisfy her on the personal level she wishes it to. By simply rejecting mainstream Christianity and believing in her own form of spirituality, Jane separates herself from the conformity of the Church. Since the Christianity was such a patriarchal center of society, viewing the Jane’s relationship with religion from a feminist theoretical framework is especially fascinating. Through the character of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte explores how religion can be a conforming factor in society, and how standing up against it and forming one’s own spirituality is a hallmark of strong character.

In order to fully understand Jane’s distaste for Christianity, one must first see the religion in its historical context. In England, the Industrial Revolution hit like a storm of sorts. All elements of society were altered, ranging from the economy to family life. People were being sent off the work in large factories as the country grew into a modern phase no one had ever dreamed of. In the midst of all this chaos, religion stayed the same. Families often separated by working hours or other conditions could be together on Sunday in church. Everyone, no matter their social class, felt a loyalty to Christianity. Perhaps this is why many viewed it as a unifying force, consolidating and strengthening its power over the country (and nearly all of Western Europe for that matter). However, the strictness of the religion would obviously not please certain freethinking people, and this would in turn not please the majority of citizens who were committed to Christianity.

Jane’s life, however, starts off mostly estranged from this madness. She spent her early years being raised by Mrs. Reed, her wealthy yet wicked aunt. She constantly condemned Jane for her behavior, and in the novel serves as her earliest reminder of her low social standing. In response the cruel language used by Mrs. Reed against her, Jane says, “I had nothing to say to these words: they were not new to me: my very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind. This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear; very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible” (Bronte 21). This gives an important piece of insight into Jane, because it shows that she was highly aware of her place in society. It is this low standing that made Jane less of a reformer in her later life and more of a re-creator. Jane would never become the sort of person able to stand up in front of groups of people and preach her beliefs in order to change their minds, but she would create her own take on societal customs and enact them quietly for herself. This is greatly discussed by Chris R. Vanden Bossche in his essay “What did Jane Eyre do? Ideology, agency, class and the novel,” in which he says:

Jane Eyre in particular invites such readings precisely because its heroine rebels against social exclusion yet ultimately does not seek to overturn the existing social order; her narrative begins with her rebellion against the Reeds, who seek to ‘exclude’ her ‘from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children,’ and ends with her social inclusion as a cousin of the Rivers siblings and wife of Edward Rochester.” (2005)
This is important to understand in terms of Jane’s relationship with religion because she will never fully stand up against it in public disapproval, but work around it through civil disobedience. This follows her throughout the novel.

Jane’s earliest encounters with Christianity come from the highly religious people who surround her. Having its tenets forced upon her, Jane shows an early disliking towards Christianity and its strict laws, many of which she finds nonsensical. While at Lowood School, Jane makes friends with the very pious Helen Burns. In response to Helen’s preaching about loving her enemies and always returning hate with love, Jane experiences her first disagreement with the religion. She says, “When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again” (Bronte 61). Here, Jane shows that she feels no need to conform to the values of Christianity. She has her own beliefs, and feels no need to change them just so she can be like the rest of society. Forming her own ideas on religious matters automatically separates her from society, but she uses her exclusion to strengthen her character. This begins Jane’s ability to rebel civilly against the strict rules of society. Bossche comments on this by saying, “If Jane's rebellion ends when she learns to tell her story with ‘less of gall and wormwood,’ then the remainder of her story, from the time of her arrival at Lowood until its conclusion, would, indeed, represent submission to established cultural institutions. Yet she continues to rebel” (2005). This connects to Bronte’s belief that being able to stand up to a societal norm makes a person stronger. By questioning religion at such an early age, Jane grows the ability to look at things in relationship to herself, and not merely accept what society tells her to. Jane comes to hope for more things in life, and desires to experience emotional and spiritual enlightenment, just not with pure Christianity. Alison Searle, a Christian literary commentator, focuses on this in her essay, “An idolatrous imagination? Biblical theology and romanticism in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre,” in which she discusses Jane’s need for spiritual contentment. She says that it’s Jane’s freethinking philosophy and headstrong personality that gives her the need to question religion. She also says, however, that it’s her imagination that keeps her needing spirituality. Searle says,

Imagination in this sense plays a mediating role between the perceiving subject and the otherness of the created world, human beings, and God, which is rooted in a biblical distinction between Creator and creature and an understanding of human beings as essentially creatures who are realized in relation to an Other. Bronte's novel illuminates the way in which the scriptural virtue of hope underwrites imagination, finding expression in a restless desire for transcendence. (2006)
However, it is not until later in the novel that Jane is able to sufficiently able to implement her own form of Christianity.

After her years at Lowood School, Jane becomes a governess at a large estate called Thornfield. The master of the house is a man named Rochester, who will eventually become her husband (after much difficulty). Her years at Thornfield become the time when Jane becomes slightly more vocal about her disagreement with Christianity. Jane has her own ideas about religion, and enacts them in her own way. This leads to minor debates with Rochester, a highly religious man. In one sequence, Rochester discusses how repentance is not enough, one must fully reform themselves in order to be cleansed of sin. Jane, on the other hand, believes repentance and remorse is enough. In response to Rochester saying “remorse is the poison of life,” Jane says, “Repentance is said to be its cure, sir” (Bronte 139). By saying this, Jane is practicing a strong form of civil disobedience that further evidences her high character. She is unafraid to view religion for herself and practice it as she wishes. In reference to Jane’s ability to adjust religion to her own liking and enact it as she wishes, Searle says this is a form of feminism and strength. She states:

The feminism, faith, and imagination of Jane Eyre are primarily biblical in their principled independence, transformative aspiration, and restrained passion. ‘Principled independence’ refers to Jane Eyre's determination to follow her understanding of biblical principles and how they should be applied, despite the alternative and often oppressive interpretations given to these by Victorian society and the people around her.” (2006)
Also, the fact that she says “sir” when explaining her views to Rochester is also important to note, because it shows that she is still aware of her social standing and how she must honor those of higher status. She disobeys society but within her social order. This is again discussed by Bossche in his essay, saying, “Of course, Jane Eyre does not necessarily produce radical or popular subjects any more than it produces middle-class subjects, and its use of the radical discourse of political exclusion is, like its use of class discourse elsewhere, strategic, one aspect of identity that emerges in particular situations” (2005). This furthers the point of how Jane’s disobedience is a symbol of her strong character but her quiet actions reflect her awareness of her low social standing.

On the whole, the character of Jane is a true anti-conformist. The power of religion was impossibly strong in England during this time period, and the tenets of religion were nearly set in stone after centuries of formation and practice. Against all of this, Jane had the chutzpah to stand up against it and mold her own spiritual beliefs. This is evident again in a conversation between Rochester and Jane, in which Rochester says Jane is able to act independently and without reason because she does not have the repercussions of family members. Jane, in turn, says that it’s even more important to act morally and with reason because she is alone. She states,

The more solitary, the more friendliness, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God, sanctioned by man. I will hold the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad — as I am now. Laws and principles are not just for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; strident they are; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break then, what would be their worth?” (Bronte 293)
This proves many things about Jane. The first being that Jane is a highly moral person, likely more than her counterpart Rochester. This shows that just because Jane questions Christianity, the moral centerpiece of society, does not mean she’s a corrupt person. In fact, she’s even more fair and moral than any of the highly religious characters in the entire novel. This shows that Bronte was attempting to depict a person who deviates from society’s customs so that she may better practice the qualities such customs attempt to impose. Jane doesn’t need to conform to a series of strange rituals to feel moral and spiritual, she need only follow her own philosophy to do this. This irony of a lack of religious practice leading to a peak in religious feeling is also discussed by Searle. She says that although Jane may reject convention religion, her words and philosophies are in fact quite religious, “However, within this plurality of voices, biblical theology remains the predominant and controlling religious discourse within the text, providing a crucial focalizing counterpoint to the Romantic imagination that shapes Jane Eyre both implicitly and explicitly: the dialogue is a mutually enriching and liberating exchange” (2006).

Ultimately, Charlotte Bronte did not attempt to depict a religiously radical bra-burner. And this is not who Jane is. She does not fully reject religion, she merely rejects the conformity it brings. Bronte glorifies a woman unafraid to build a life for herself, and Jane does this. By crafting her own religious ideas, Jane oversteps the boundaries the Church has set up for her, and she becomes the master of herself. This is the very definition of an anti-conformity.

Works Cited

Bossche, Chris R. Vanden. "What did Jane Eyre do? Ideology, agency, class and the novel."Narrative 13.1 (2005): 46+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 1999. Print.
Searle, Alison. "An idolatrous imagination? Biblical theology and romanticism in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre." Christianity and Literature 56.1 (2006): 35+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.