How is religion presented in the novel Jane Eyre?
Angus Lau 11C (11)
As a clergyman’s daughter who lived in a highly religious Victorian society, Charlotte Brontë was able to witness the hollowness of religion with hindsight. People manipulated religion just to achieve their goals and justify their moral conscience. To condone the hypocritical nature of religion at the time, Brontë contrasted the ways in which characters such as Mr. Brocklehurst, St. John, and Jane Eyre utilized religion; the former two used religion as an excuse for their actions, while the latter employed religion as guidance by creating a spiritual connection with God.
Firstly, Brontë reflects the misuse of religion by depicting Victorian people’s blind preaching of religion. This is first evident from how Mr. Brocklehurst proclaimed that Jane had “a wicked heart” and “must pray to God to change it: to give you a new and clean one: to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” when she remarked that “psalms are not interesting.” From how Mr. Brocklehurst immediately denounced Jane’s disinterest in the psalms without determining the reason, readers are able to infer that Mr. Brocklehurst’s connection to religion was shallow, as he was only concerned about people’s adoration for all aspects of religion, but not their understanding of religious values or ability to integrate religion into their morals. This idea is also displayed when he would gift two nuts to his son just because he chose “a verse of psalm to learn” over “a gingerbread-nut to eat” and would proclaim “I wish to be a little angel.” However, this is ironic as Mr. Brocklehurst was completely ignorant that his son only chose to learn the psalms because was fully aware that doing so would grant him a larger reward, exhibiting the facile nature of religion during Victorian times. Not only that, but Mr. Brocklehurst’s superstition that Jane genuinely had a “heart of stone” reinforces his naive attachment to religion as he only interpreted the teachings of the bible literally, not metaphorically.
Brontë further portrays people’s simplistic view of religion by showcasing how religion was not used to teach virtue, but manipulated as a mode for punishment. This is again reflected by Mr. Brocklehurst as he threatens Jane by forcing her to read “a book entitled the ‘Child’s Guide,’” which contained “an account of the awfully sudden death of Martha G -, a naughty child addicted to falsehood and deceit” so that she would be able to envision the punishments that would be inflicted on her if she breached such Christian values. From how Mr. Brocklehurst utilized religion as a weapon, but not as a facilitator for the teaching of integrity, readers are able to infer how Mr. Brocklehurst simply used religion as a means to inflict harm on others while cementing his authority as the headmaster of Lowood. Similarly, this is reiterated as Mr. Brocklehurst announced that “I have studied how best to mortify in them the worldly sentiment of pride.” Despite Mr. Brocklehurst trying to prevent the pupils at Lowood from indulging in pride, one of the seven deadly sins, from how Brontë implemented “mortify,” it implies that Mr. Brocklehurst’s intention was to humiliate and to forcefully employ discipline. This ironically contradicts with the teachings of the bible, in which he has previously proclaimed was the basis of his moral principle. Besides, Brontë conveys how religion is employed as a weapon by illustrating how St. John tried to coerce Jane into marrying him. This is pronounced as St. John states that if Jane refuses to be his “suitable missionary’s wife,” “it is not me that you deny, but God.” From how St. John exploits Jane Eyre’s religiousness and manipulates a higher power to achieve his goals, Brontë displays how people corrupt religion to justify their immoral behavior.
Furthermore, Brontë exhibited how religion was often employed simply as an excuse for one’s actions. This is observable from how despite Mr. Brocklehurst stating that Julia Severn was “in defiance of every precept and principle of this house” by wearing “her hair one mass of curls” and demanded “all those top-knots should be cut off,” his daughters wore “grey beaver hats, then in fashion, shaded with ostrich plumes” and “wore a false front of French curls.” From how Mr. Brocklehurst was willing to strip the natural identity of the students at Lowood, but was unwilling to abandon a luxurious lifestyle that was made possible only by the exploitation of school resources, readers are able to discern the hypocrisy of organized religion as people were only willing to preach the religious values that suited themselves. Again, Brontë repeats how religion is used as pretext by using St. John as an example, in which he uses religion as a shield against his feelings for Rosamond Oliver. This is displayed when St. John announced that “if I offered my heart, I believe you would accept it. But that heart is already laid on a sacred altar.” By stating that his passion for religion is greater than that for humans, St. John deprives himself of happiness in the belief that it would lead to a better, more spiritual afterlife in spite of admitting that he loves “Rosamond Oliver so wildly—with all the intensity, indeed, of a first passion.” From how St. John used religion as a way to deny his love for Rosamond Oliver, it is evident how despite not always being a disguise for immoral behavior, religion is implemented as a higher power that provides a rationale for all activity, no matter how absurd.
On the other hand, Brontë also paints religion in a good light by demonstrating how Jane Eyre and Helen Burns use religion as a connection that provides emotional and spiritual support. To begin with, when Jane was distressed over Mr. Brocklehurst’s public denunciation of her for being a “liar,” Helen Burns taught her that “spirits are commissioned to guard us,” and “if scorn smote us on all sides, and hatred crushed us, angels see our tortures, recognise our innocence.” From Helen’s view that God is the only consistent being in life, and that he loves and accepts, readers spectate the contrast between her perception of religion and those of Mr. Brocklehurst and St. John. Additionally, from how Helen transformed Jane’s cynical view to one in which she treasures the teachings of religion, Brontë depicts the way in which religion provides a lifeline for those who are lost. This is indicated when Jane “lay faint, longing to be dead,” and only had one idea that “still throbbed life-like within me—a remembrance of God: it begot an unuttered prayer: these words went wandering up and down in my rayless mind.” From how Jane turned to God as her weakest point, which allowed her to rediscover herself and her values, it exemplified how religion was a strength-giver to those whose cherish its value instead of a tool of manipulation. This notion is reinforced when Mr. Rochester asks Jane “What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion and for some hope?” in which she replied “ ‘Do as I do: trust in God and yourself. Believe in heaven,” because not only is religion portrayed as a guide to morality in which one uses to cleanse themselves of previous sins, from how Mr. Rochester was ultimately rewarded by being able to marry Jane, religion is a mechanism that rewards virtue. Brontë culminates the positivity of religion as she outlines how it teaches forgiveness. This is seen when Jane expresses that “Yes, Mrs. Reed, to you I owe some fearful pangs of mental suffering, but I ought to forgive you,” for you thought you were only uprooting my bad propensities.” From how this is almost a direct quote from the bible just before Jesus died on the cross, this again emphasizes the uprightness of religion by showing Jane’s great capacity for forgiveness.
In conclusion, by expressing the contrasting ways in which religion is implemented by different parties, Brontë presents religion as a way in which the inner motives and views of the different characters are reflected.