Written by Noam Barsheshat
for Prof. Marie-Thérèse Blanc
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the novel, is under the influence of two conflicting forces throughout her time at various institutions: a form of proto-feminism and a fairly conventional view of Christianity. However, Brontë manages to reconcile feminism and Christianity by presenting a more spiritual form of Christianity as a way of empowering Jane. Through her conflicts with various men―specifically, Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers―Jane’s spiritual identity empowers her and supports her independence.
The notion that Christianity can be empowering to women is first introduced to Jane by Helen Burns in response to the former’s conflict with Mr. Brocklehurst, the cruel supervisor of Lowood Academy. After being publicly humiliated and proclaimed a liar and agent of the devil by Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane seeks comfort in Helen, who describes a less institutional Christianity than that of the overseer. She describes “an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits” (71) that exists all around us and watches over us. By viewing her religion in this light, Helen undermines the authority of men such as Mr. Brocklehurst, who claim to know God’s word and use it to control others. Helen assures Jane that “Mr. Brocklehurst is not a god” (71) and that his opinion of her is of less importance than that of her own conscience. The word of a powerful man is less important than the word of God; having faith in God can thus free one from the judgment of oppressive men. At Lowood, Helen and her spiritual views teach Jane to value her own conscience, which Jane will then put to use at Thornfield in her conflict with Mr. Rochester.
Jane’s rejection of Mr. Rochester demonstrates how feminism and Christianity can be reconciled. By refusing to enter into an unlawful union with her employer, who is still married to Bertha, Jane simultaneously exercises her faith and stands up to a dishonest man, thus affirming her self-respect. She stresses the need to leave Mr. Rochester, both as a Christian and a woman, when she declares, “‘I care for myself … I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God, sanctioned by man’” (314). Jane’s faith also indirectly empowers her by preventing a situation in which she would lose all of her independence. Had Jane agreed to flee with Mr. Rochester to the south of France, her life would have been completely dependent on him. All of his acquaintances in France would have known of the illegitimacy of their union and would have regarded Jane without respect; then, if Jane ever wanted to leave Mr. Rochester, she would have nowhere to go. The possible dire consequences of remaining with Mr. Rochester are illustrated through Bertha as Jane’s doppelgänger. When Jane sees Bertha in a white gown and her own ripped veil, she sees what she herself could be in a few years’ time. She, like Bertha, may lose all of her freedom, locked up in the “attic” that is Mr. Rochester’s villa in France. By adhering to her Christian principles, Jane avoids such a situation and retains her autonomy.
Jane’s spiritual take on Christianity prevents her from entering into another unsuited, oppressive marriage: a union with St. John Rivers. When St. John requests that she join him on his mission to India as his wife, Jane agrees to all but the marriage, as they “[do] not love each other as a man and wife should” (401), and Jane believes it wrong to enter a marriage that is not based upon mutual love. In doing so, she avoids a life of unhappiness, where she would be ceaselessly trying to please a man who cannot be pleased. St. John is a severe, exacting man; Jane feels as though she must “disown half [her] nature [and] stifle half [her] faculties” in order to satisfy his demands (394). Furthermore, St. John is an unusually static character; his personality remains unchanged throughout the novel, and it is unlikely that it would change in India. A marriage with St. John in India would thus be unendurable for Jane. Jane then justifies her rejection through her Christian faith by maintaining, “‘God did not give me my life to throw away” (409). Thus, Jane uses her spiritual view of Christianity to justify avoiding a second ill-suited marriage, and in doing so, preserves both her independence and well-being.
Charlotte Brontë, therefore, presents a spiritual form of Christianity as a tool for feminism. The author reconciles these two impulses through her protagonist, Jane, who uses more abstract Christian concepts and morals to justify self-empowerment in her conflicts with Brocklehurst, Rochester and St. John Rivers.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994. Print.