The manager of the school, Mr. Brocklehurst, believes that Christian humility is best developed through undernourishment, ugly clothing and unheated rooms. Then, an outbreak of typhoid sweeps through the school, and not only is Jane’s life spared, but life at the school improves after an investigation into the epidemic exposes Mr. Brocklehurst’s abuses.
After about 8 happy years, Jane grows restless when her favourite teacher marries and leaves the school. She decides to advertise for a position as a governess. In a few weeks, she’s off to see Mrs. Fairfax at Thornfield Hall where she spends several agreeable months as the governess of little Adèle Varens. But there’s a mystery: who is Grace Poole and why does she laugh so strangely up on the third floor?
Then the owner of the estate returns and she finds herself drawn to moody Mr. Rochester. One night, she wakes up and smells smoke in the corridor. It’s coming from Mr. Rochester’s room. Someone has set the bed curtains on fire and she wakes him up in the nick of time. Now he owes her his life and their bond grows even closer.
In the fall, he proposes marriage to her, but on their wedding day, an old friend of Mr. Rochester shows up and says—sorry, I can’t tell you. You’ll have to read it for yourself.
Jane flees Thornfield Hall with only twenty shillings and goes as far from Mr. Rochester as she can. But you can’t outrun your destiny and in the small industrial town where she ends up, she finally meets – oh wait, I can’t tell you that either.
Jane almost falls into another trap, but thanks to her independent and resilient spirit, she—what you thought I would give away the ending? Suffice it to say, Charlotte Brontë, that queen of storytelling, resolves Jane’s two big problems—no love and no money—leaving her heroine beloved and wealthy. But you’ll have to read Jane Eyre to find out how.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition has a blue B on its burnt-orange cover engulfed in flames. This is the perfect choice for a book where fire brings Jane and Mr. Rochester together. There’s the first mini-fire where Jane rescues Rochester in the middle of the night, then there’s the last great fire that ruins Thornfield Hall and mutilates its owner. But things always come in three, don’t they? Indeed, they do. In the second instance, as Jane refuses to marry him, Rochester is on fire: “his eyes blazed” (345), “He seemed to devour me with his flaming glance; physically, I felt, at the moment, powerless as stubble exposed to the draught and glow of a furnace” (360). “forth flashed the fire from his eyes” (362). Or perhaps the second fire is the tree cloven in two by lightning.
There’s really nothing I can say about Jane Eyre that hasn’t already been said. But I still do have one little assertion to make: that Jane Eyre is a Christian, but not an evangelical book. Here’s why.
Scripture references in nearly every scene
They say that to understand English literature, you need to have a working knowledge of the Bible. Even up until the 1960s when most children went to Sunday School, the main Bible characters and events were widely known. Now, however, I’m not sure the average reader would get the references to
-Paul and Silas (478)
There are close to 200 Biblical allusions in Jane Eyre. Yet another reason to read the Bible.
Universalist take on the afterlife
But despite all these Scripture references, it's not clear whether Brontë actually believes in the eternal damnation of unbelievers. Helen Burns, Jane’s friend at the orphanage, believes “another creed” where all people shed not only their bodies after death but also “debasement and sin” and this gives her peace about her imminent death. Does Charlotte Brontë also believe this? Probably, because the most sympathetic characters usually express the author’s own viewpoint. It’s in stark contrast to Jane’s conversation with Mr. Brocklehurst who affirms bad little girls go straight to hell.
But where is the justice in poor Helen's view, if the righteous and the wicked end up in the same happy state? If it had been an evangelical story, not merely a Christian one, on her deathbed, Helen might have whispered John Newton’s 82nd Olney Hymn ‘Let us love and sing and wonder’:
Let us wonder, grace and justice,
Join and point to mercy’s store;
When through grace in CHRIST our trust is,
Justice smiles; and asks no more:
He who washed us with his blood,
Has secured our way to God.
St.John’s mission work for the betterment of humanity, not for the gospel
At least St. John shows some cultural sensitivity by attempting to learn the language before going to India to “better his race” by bringing peace, freedom, religion and hope (424). But while he reads the Bible beautifully, he behaves without love. St. Paul would say therefore that he’s nothing more than a “clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1)
In this novel, the more religious the man, the more detestable he seems to be. After publication, Charlotte Brontë was criticized for her portrayal of Christian men as abusive hypocrites (Mr. Brocklehurst) or loveless despots (St. John Rivers). In the Preface, she defends herself: “To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.”
It’s true she refers to “the world-redeeming creed of Christ” in the Preface, but Christ doesn’t actually redeem anyone in the story. If anything, the fire at Thornfield Hall is the purging force, clearing the way for Jane and Rochester to marry.
For what it’s worth, that’s my little argument about Jane Eyre being Christian literature, though more universalist than evangelical in flavour.
I just love this story. Re-reading it for the third time has been like spending the day with an old friend I hadn’t seen in ages. I had forgotten certain aspects of the story and was delighted to rediscover the plot twists. In fact, the suspense was heightened for me because I saw how cleverly Charlotte Brontë dropped little clues along the way.
How many times have you enjoyed Jane Eyre? What are your favourite parts?
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!