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Servants of God or Servants of Men?


By Campbell Healy

During the Victorian period in Great Britain there were many strict expectations from society. Social status determined who could marry whom or what school a person could attend, and women were under the authority of men in many aspects of life, even religion. Men were regarded as the spiritual authority in church and in marriages, and women were expected to follow them because supposedly God intended for them to do so. However, one woman, author Charlotte Bronte, challenged such views and beliefs in her novel Jane Eyre, which follows a passionate and self-reliant woman as she struggles to find equality in the rigid hierarchy of Victorian England. In Jane Eyre, Bronte explores and criticizes how men manipulate Christianity to claim and hold power over women and to justify it, rather than accepting women as equal followers of God.

Moving as a child to the Lowood boarding school, Jane encounters for the first time a man who treats her as lesser and uses God as justification. He is Mr. Brocklehurst, and Bronte portrays him as not only pompous and hypocritical, but also cruel. Mr. Brocklehurst manages Lowood, a charity boarding school for orphans, and from the beginning it is clear that though he feigns dedication to helping these girls, in reality he feels they are not entitled to basic human decency. The girls at Lowood receive inedible food, wear thin clothes that can’t protect them from the cold, harsh winters, and are denied any sort of delicacy. He claims that he is humbling the girls, but as Bronte makes clear, he is in truth degrading them. When he visits Lowood, he sees a girl with curly red hair, and he questions why her hair is curled. The teachers tell him that her hair curls naturally, to which he responds, “Yes, but we are not to conform to nature: I wish these girls to be the children of Grace: and why that abundance?” (Bronte 66). Mr. Brocklehurst decides to cut off much of her hair. Just as this girl is punished for something she did not choose, all the girls at Lowood are punished for having no parents and low social status. Meanwhile, Mr. Brocklehurst’s wife and daughters enjoy expensive clothing and lives of luxury. Brocklehurst claims that he is turning the boarding school girls into humble and grateful followers of God, but the minimal necessities provided and the charge for sending the girls to Lowood suggest that Brockehurst is motivated by profit and not by true Christian values.

After leaving Lowood and becoming a governess at Thornfield, Jane meets Edward Rochester, who loves Jane but is also guilty of similar manipulation of Christianity in attempts to control her. Rochester is the master of the house, and despite their large differences in age and social status he falls in love, even as he is moving towards marriage with Blanche, a woman within his social class. Rochester realizes he prefers Jane, but prefer proposing, decides to lie about his intentions in order to determine whether Jane loves him as much as he loves her. He discusses sending her to Ireland and never seeing her again, pushing Jane to tears. Once he ends the deceit, and tells her that she must stay, she angrily reveals how hurt she would be staying with Blanche there, and scolds him for thinking of her as heartless. She tells him that she is equal to him in heart, in soul, and in God’s eyes. How Bronte employees Jane in challenging the 19th century status quo is examined by Emily Griesinger, an English professor at Azusa Pacific University, in her work, “Charlotte Bronte’s religion: faith, feminism, and Jane Eyre.” When discussing Jane’s marriage to Rochester, Griesinger states, “Her angry outburst on the night he proposes exemplifies a ‘biblical feminism’ in recognizing that regardless of custom and conventionalities that emphasize wealth, class, and gender, men and women stand at God's feet, in Jane's words, ‘equal--as we are!’” (Griesinger 29+). Jane acknowledges the differences in social classes, but her belief in God leads her to see herself as equal to all others, unlike the men in Jane Eyre. Although Rochester isn’t careless enough to assume that Jane would be happy staying at Thornfield if he married Blanche, he ignores Jane’s strong reaction to his lies and how heartbroken she is at the idea of leaving. For someone who claims to view Jane as his equal, he pays little attention to how his self-serving manipulations affect her. His words indicate that he does not view Jane as an equal but rather as someone innocent and weak whom he must save through marriage in order to achieve spiritual and moral redemption. When Jane accepts Mr. Rochester’s marriage proposal, Mr. Rochester murmurs, “It will atone—it will atone. Have I not found her friendless, and cold, and comfortless? Will I not guard, and cherish, and solace her?” (Bronte 258). Mr. Rochester’s statements indicate that he is moved to marry Jane in part because he sees her as a way to atone for the sins he has committed, by taking a lonely and vulnerable girl and surrounding her with love and safety. Through this act of kindness, Mr. Rochester believes that he can be forgiven by God, and by believing that Jane is a way to forgiveness he views her into an instrument rather than an equal. However, Jane continues to believe in her religious interpretations of equality before God, and that God is the only being who can dictate or save others. Earlier, Rochester asks her whether a sinful man is justified in marrying someone out of his social class to achieve redemption through this person, clearly referring to himself and Jane. Jane replies that no person can be another’s salvation, that they must seek strength from the divine, rather than their peers, so that they may redeem themselves. Griesinger makes a connection to a passage in the Bible, showing that though Bronte’s feminist views, presented through Jane, were not often supported by religious authority in the Victorian period, her feminist views were intertwined with her Christian views. Griesinger writes, “This too resonates with Christian feminists who see men and women equally fallen, equally in need of saving grace, equally responsible for ‘working out their own salvation,’ as the Bible says, ‘with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12).” (Griesinger 29+). Jane’s interpretation that no person can save another shows how she considers all humans equals, and that God is the only being greater than them. But as they prepare for the wedding, Rochester attempts to dress her in elegant clothes and give her expensive jewelry so that everyone can see her as the beautiful “angel” he sees. Jane rejects these offers multiple times, arguing that dressing her in that manner would hide her true self. Rochester seems to care more about elevating Jane’s social status and “saving” her than what she wants. One night, Jane decides to wait for Rochester outside in the rain. Rochester remarks, “…I seem to have gathered up a stray lamb in my arms: you wandered out of the fold to seek your shepherd, did you, Jane?” (Bronte 280). This metaphor further shows how Rochester thinks of Jane as someone weak and pathetic whom he needs to guide and save, and how his view is related to his interpretations of God’s will. The shepherd and the lamb metaphor appears in the Bible to illustrate the relationship between God and humans, and by employing this metaphor Rochester is essentially assuming the position of God in this relationship. He believes that Jane is his lesser, and that it is his duty to lead and protect her, as God leads and protects humans. But when Jane discovers that Rochester is already married and that he intends for her to become his mistress, she chooses her integrity and her Christian values over her love for him, and leaves Thornfield.

Although Jane flees from the condescending but loving Rochester to keep her integrity and her free will, she next faces another challenge in dealing with a man who attempts to control her. After leaving Rochester, Jane stumbles upon her previously unknown cousins, who welcome her and provide her with shelter and a job. One of these cousins, St. John Rivers, is a parson and completely dedicated to God and Christianity. After observing Jane as a teacher for a poor village, Rivers decides that she would be perfect for a missionary’s wife, so he asks her to travel to India with him as his wife. Jane is certain that she is not physically strong enough to survive a missionary trip to India, and she cannot bear becoming Rivers’s wife and submitting her spirit and will to him, but Rivers ignores her protests and claims that it is God’s desire for Jane. In “Jane’s Crown of Thorns: Feminism and Christianity in Jane Eyre,” author and educator Maria LaMonaca writes, “Because God is all-knowing, St. John seems to believe that he himself, as God’s servant, is likewise omniscient,” (LaMonaca 245+). Rivers is so confident that his desires are God’s desires due to his extreme devotion to Christianity. Rather than considering himself a servant and lesser than God because of his human imperfections, he essentially believes that he is as righteous and wise as God. This belief in his reflection of God’s wishes ultimately results in Rivers judging others and determining what people should be, like God might. By assuming that he knows God’s wishes, and that such wishes are unknown to everyone else, Rivers is presenting himself as God himself rather than as a servant. Therefore Jane is not only a servant to God but also a servant to him, whom he must lead and control by making her into his missionary wife. This view is also exemplified by his justification for claiming her and making her his wife: that God desires it, not him. Jane argues that there is no need for her to be his wife, rather that she will go as his adopted sister and keep her independence and freedom. It seems strange that God would require Jane to be Rivers’ wife rather than being content with her just being a missionary, so it can be assumed that the wish is Rivers’s because he needs complete control of Jane so that he can manipulate her to do what he believes is God’s work. As Jane says, she is just a weapon to him, an instrument to wield and utilize. However, Jane almost allows him this control because she fails to fully acknowledge how flawed Rivers is, and instead thinks that his blemishes are a result of his strong morals. Lamonanca provides a reason for why Jane does not have a negative opinion of Rivers despite the many flaws readers may find: “His countenance--so perfect and regular it suggests the hard lineaments of Greek statuary--accurately reflects a soul made rigid by its own moral strengths.” (Lamonaca 245+). Rivers may appear at times harsh and apathetic, but to Jane it is only because of his strong and inspiring dedication to God and to Christian morals. Rather than lessening her opinion of him, his faults instead reinforce her positive and somewhat revenant opinion. This makes it even more difficult to deny his assumptions of God’s will, since they both believe he is the most dedicated Christian. When Rivers ask Jane to marry him for the final time, Jane even refers to him as her hierophant, someone who interprets sacred mysteries, and states that, “Religion called—Angels beckoned—God commanded—life rolled together like a scroll—death’s gate opening, showing eternity beyond: it seemed, that for safety and bliss there, all here might be sacrificed in a second,” showing her strong conviction that Rivers is speaking for God (Bronte 421). Jane is willing to submit to him only because of this conviction, since she sees him as God, the only being she believes to be her superior.

Bronte criticizes the use of religion by men as a reason and a way to gain power over women through her protagonist, Jane Eyre, who struggles for independence and equality because of her Christian values. Jane leaves Rochester and their uneven relationship on the basis of protecting her morality, since adultery is a sin to Christians, and her freedom. Jane believes that by becoming Rochester’s mistress, and in the process moving to France and changing her whole life just to be with Rochester, she will lose her free will and be under his thumb. When Rochester asks her whether it would be wicked to love him, she responds by saying it would be wicked to obey him, revealing her fear of oppression and control. While Jane is able to escape this oppressive relationship, she almost submits to another by agreeing to marry Rivers. After being convinced of his understanding of God’s will, Jane agrees to the marriage, only to be summoned by Rochester’s voice calling for her. She returns to Thornfield, and after reuniting with Rochester he tells her how he prayed to God for her return, and after calling out for her he heard a response in her voice. Jane heard his voice at the same time, and her response was the same one he heard. The knowledge that Rochester prayed to God before the extraordinary exchange across space suggests that Bronte summons God to stop Jane from marrying Rivers. Lamonaca finds another connection to God in how Jane responds to the new information, and states, “Indeed, Jane's final comment to the reader, "I kept these things then, and pondered them in my heart" echoes Luke's description of Mary's response to the miraculous event of the Incarnation.” (Lamonaca 245+). This allusion to Jesus’s birth as recounted in the Gospel of Luke further supports the concept that this is an instance of divine intervention, in which case God is directly communicating with Jane. This direct communication rejects River’s beliefs that Jane must receive God’s wishes through him, and that Jane must be subservient to Rivers. God sends Jane away from Rivers and back to Rochester, also rejecting Rivers’s attempts to control Jane. But Jane’s relationship with Rochester is now different from how she left it. Since Jane left Rochester, she has found friends, found a new job, and even become economically independent through a recently received inheritance. She can return to him as an independent and an equal, and not as a “friendless, and cold, and comfortless” dependent in need of his salvation. Therefore, considering the summons as divine intervention indicates divine support for a marriage in which Jane and her spouse are equals, and that Bronte’s God sees women and men as equals. Before, Jane left Rochester because of her Christian values, and because she felt that as his mistress he would have control over her. Now, however, she is prompted to marry him rather than Rivers by God. As Griesinger remarks, “Rather, Jane finds true freedom and equality in a marriage sanctioned by the same teachings.” (Griesinger 29+). Christianity’s hand in causing Jane to leave Rochester when he did not consider her an equal and to return when her independence makes him regard her as one shows Bronte’s Christian feminist view.

Jane succeeds in establishing and maintaining her freedom and finding equality in the strict social hierarchy despite attempts by men to dominate her through the employment of religion. In Victorian England, men claimed divine authority to support their supposed superiority over women. In Jane Eyre, Bronte is not attacking Christianity per se, but rather how men have co-opted it for their own benefit. She even wrote a preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre denying accusations that the novel contains anti-Christian sentiment. Through her character Jane Eyre, Bronte makes a powerful argument for women’s rights, even though Victorian England was hardly ready to embrace it. Griesinger’s phrase is apt: Jane Eyre truly can be read as a work of “biblical feminism.”

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: New American Library, 1960. Print.
Griesinger, Emily. “Charlotte Bronte’s religion: faith, feminism, and Jane Eyre.” Christianity and Literature 58.1 (2008): 29+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.
Lamonaca, Maria. "Jane's Crown of Thorns: feminism and Christianity in Jane Eyre." Studies in the Novel 34.3 (2002): 245+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

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