Religion in Jane Eyre

Another misunderstanding. I think this one came with my idea that the Brontës were quite patriarchal in their religious attitudes. Or maybe it is because her father was a clergyman and in my mind that turned into “strictly religious”. Prejudices all around, on my part.

"I said my evening prayers" - F.H. Townsend,

But how could I ignore the religious themes in this book? Or, how could I have missed them before? In my first reading of Jane Eyre, I must have been too occupied with the love story and the gothic qualities of the book. Knowing the story, at least a little, reading it for the second and third time, I think I had more patience to look at the other aspects of this novel. And religion is a big aspect, or at least, it seemsd to be so to me. Maybe it is because I’m a religious studies student? But really, it is everywhere in Jane Eyre.

Intermixed with humor, when Mr. Rochester exclaims:

In the name of all the elves in Christendom, is that Jane Eyre?

Humor, but not mocking humor. No glaring disrespect for anyone who as a Christian still has a sense of these ideas. Later on, when Jane hears Rochester’s plea for her, through nature, or somehow, I could not help but wonder if part of this isn’t Brontë’s worldview as well. Or at least, she understands it enough to have Jane Eyre feel that way. And I was left wondering how this idea of religion back in the nineteenth-century works. Is it the influence of the Romantics? It is so easy to forget that there were other takes on religion, apart from the stricter line that came with the (re)awakening of pietism, the line I so often have to study.

There is prejudice as well. Catholicism is something that Jane Eyre, or is it Charlotte Brontë? (we’ve discussed this before), clearly does not respect. When her cousin explains that she will go into a convent, Jane says:

“You are not without sense, cousin Eliza; but what you have, I suppose, in another year will be walled up alive in a French convent.”

But when Protestantism is taken up, or rather, when Catholicism isn’t mentioned and there is talk of religion, I admit I’m fascinated. Since I study missionaries, the observations on St. John were very interesting to me. Somehow, I always assumed that people would be in awe of missionaries back then. These were people who were so convinced of their faith, of their calling, that they abandoned their home and went “into wild and unknown land” (that is not a quote from Jane Eyre, btw). And St. John is seen as a good man, a very Christian man, a man with a calling. And yet, through his righteousness he forgets to love the people that surround him, really love them, really feel. He only feels and loves his calling, so it seems. He is painted as an incomplete person. You could almost pity him. Almost, if he hadn’t suffocated Jane as he did.

And there’s Rochester’s redemption. Which is truly redemption, in a sense. He suffers, he loses his sight and his arm, and then when Jane returns to him, slowly, ever so slowly, he recovers his sight. When I read Jane Eyre for the first time in high school, I admit I couldn’t really deal with this. And in a way it still gets to me: why did he have to lose his arm and his sight? But I understand it better now, I understand the message. It might not be my worldview. I do not share it a 100%. But I do respect it for what it means to Jane Eyre, as a character. And that is such an important part of the story.

There is one more thing. In the preface to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë defends her portrayal of a person who tries to commit bigamy, she defends her novel against those who feel that such works will always be sinful. If only for this, I feel for Charlotte Brontë, and respect her. I think I haven’t read something written in the 19th century before, by a woman, that is so forceful, so clear in its intentions, so much an opinion, on such a big topic as religion.

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is – I repeat it – a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

There must be books written about the Brontës ideas on religion, right? If not, please, someone, write that book. I, for one, would love to read it.

18 thoughts on “Religion in Jane Eyre

  1. Beth F

    I haven’t thought long and hard about religion in Jane Eyre but my take on St. John was always that he was prideful in his love of God and his plans for missionary work. That he didn’t love Jane but thought he could save her (as in you can’t have single, independent women around but must marry them off and take them out of their element so they are tamed) and could use her (he needed unpaid assistance and someone to do for him). I always loved that Rochester was maimed because it proved that Jane loved him for what he was inside.

  2. rhapsodyinbooks

    Appropriate topic for today since it is the American Thanksgiving (which was actually celebrated to give thanks for the death of all the Indians (thanks to European-induced diseases) who were taking up the fine American real estate). Or that other day of Thanksgiving declared by Pope Gregory in 1572 after the massacre of the French protestants . (The rivers of France were so filled with corpses that for many months no fish were eaten.)

    Anyway, as you know, the Reformation and subsequent religious wars involving Britain went on for a centuries, influencing even the American Revolution, and certainly coloring religious attitudes for long afterwards. Two good books on this topic, in my opinion, are “The Reformation: A History” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and “The Cousins’ Wars” by Kevin Phillips. The former begins much farther back in time, and the latter takes you into the time of Jane Eyre, highlighting the centrality of religion and intolerance and what roles they played in society. (If you ask me, it all comes down to H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”)

  3. Amanda

    I thought a lot about religion when I read this book two years ago, especially the hypocrisy that exists in the school Jane goes to and in her aunt. Having read half of Villette (it was not my favorite book honestly), Bronte shows a lot more of that anti-Catholic streak, to the point of coming off severly prejudiced against Catholics (and the French, and the Irish, and…etc, you can see why Villette bothered me…).

  4. Amateur Reader

    How about The Brontës and religion by Marianne Thormählen, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    One of many treatments. It’s is a big theme in writing about any of the sisters. “Love” is a strong word!

  5. cbjames

    Religion was an important topic in popular fiction of the 19th century. It played a much larger, open role in best selling fiction than it did in the fiction now considered classic. “Olive” by Dinah Mullock Craik and “Sorrows of Satan” by Maire Corelli are two that you can still get copies of today. Olive is about a woman who tries to save the soul of the man she loves. Sorrows of Satan is about a Lucifer figure who appears in late Victorian London. Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South” deals with a minister’s loss of faith.

    Questions of faith were very common in the Bronte’s time.

  6. Pam

    I had many of the same thoughts when I read Jane Eyre in the 8th grade. I was obsessed with the protestant revolution that happened earlier in the UK and I find that her works generally have an anti catholic theme.

  7. Lucy

    I think Jane Eyre (and other CB novels) definately do have anti-Catholic sentiments in, which were probably widely held views in Britain at the time, and still are to a certain extent, especially by areas of the press.
    But I’m currently re-reading Jane Eyre and something I found very interesting was how the 10-year old Jane openly questions religion and whether heaven and hell even exist. Surely quite a shocking notion in those days?
    Another thing that I find interesting is that in the novels of Jane Austen (another clergyman’s daughter) religion is completely absent. They seem to be quite secular, you never hear of characters praying, going to church is more of a social event, and in all of the heroines’ troubles you never see them using religion as a guide in the way that Jane Eyre does.

    1. Iris Post author

      I agree, comparing Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë is very interesting. I have often wondered at the almost complete absence of religion in Austen novels.

      I don’t remember that particular instance in Jane Eyre, but that must have been quite unusual, I think. Maybe not in some circles, but written by a clergyman daughter? I think the young Jane Eyre makes quite a few observations on religion, or anyway, her circumstances show a few. For example the aunt’s and Mr. Brocklehurst’s treatment of her and their advocacy in doing so is obviously not the kind of Christianity Charlotte Brontë agrees with.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

  8. Carolyn

    I’m glad you brought this up. The first time I read Jane Eyre, after growing up in a strict christian home myself, I loved that St. John’s missionary zeal is shown to be hollow and cold compared to Rochester’s flawed but true love. I felt like I’d found a way to live my own life away from the religious oppression I’d grown up under when Jane showed that living with love was more important than trying to do all the good in the world. She was a powerful inspiration for me in that way.

    I’m sure Charlotte Bronte also grew up seeing plenty of religious hypocrisy and wrote so strongly against it, in any form, Protestant or Catholic. She saw it was an excuse for treating people horribly, for exercising power over others in the worst kind of tyranny because it pretends to be about love. She addresses this even more in Villette, as Amanda mentioned, but in the end it does become somewhat accepting of Catholicism, or at least of the pure and good faith of anyone, whatever their beliefs. I say read on, Amanda!

    The Little Professor is a blog about religion in the Victorian era, if that helps!

  9. Ellie

    Just dropping by to say how much I’m enjoying your Bronte posts, Iris… Perhaps YOU should write that book – your musings are so interesting to read and so thoughtful!

  10. chasing bawa

    I never specifically thought of the role of religion in Jane Eyre (although it pervades the entire book!) mainly because I think I usually associate schooling with religion in most European literature of that era (broad generalisation here, I know). And I wasn’t so shocked by St John’s attitude as I felt it was probably something that was quite common too. Often we tend to think religion and love complement and enhance one another, but in reality I’m not so sure, but I guess I’m being a cynic here;P I love that you are discussing one of your favourite books in depth like this, Iris. Looking forward to reading more!

  11. Stephanie

    “To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns” … what a great line! Thank you for this thought-provoking post. It has been a long time since I read Jane Eyre, but I remember being struck between the difference between Jane’s quiet piety and integrity and St. John’s rather loud, superficial faith.

  12. Becky

    Interesting post! Didn’t people of her time have real issues with the Catholic church, as they had for centuries in the UK? There’s that love-hate relationship with the Catholic church in contrast with the Anglican/Church of England, correct?

    I love the quote by Bronte that you included there at the end. It seems that many writers were so much more tolerant of things that supposedly went against the moral and cultural ideals of religion. I’ve always been a huge fan of Thomas Hardy, and I’ve seen these themes pop up in his novels and poems as well. So interesting! Thanks for posting!

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  15. Rachel Rebekah

    Jane Eyre is my favorite book and one of the reasons is because of the religious themes. One of the best parts of the book is when Rochester is trying to convince her that her departure would be “sinful” to which she mentally replies:
    “soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for YOU? or who will be injured by what you do?’ Still indomitable was the reply — ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.'”
    I believe the self-respect to which she is referring comes from the confidence that she is doing the morally right thing; that God’s approval matters more than anything else.

    Read Anne’s novel “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” It also deals in religious themes – particularly the “eternal” nature of one’s suffering in hell – and is said to be strongly motivated by her brother’s sinful and unrepentant lifestyle.

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