"My Master," he says, "has forewarned me. Daily he announces more distinctly,-'Surely I come quickly;' and hourly I more eagerly respond,--'Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!" (1) **********
The ending of Jane Eyre, with its mysterious citation of the book of Revelation and anticipation of the martyr's death of St. John Rivers, has long struck critics as problematic. Marianne Thormahlen, for instance, suggests that the shift from "the happy domesticity of the Rochesters to the dying missionary has puzzled readers for generations." (2) Attempts at understanding this shift have centered on the enigmatic characterization and purpose of St. John Rivers? Thormahlen, who writes the most sustained account of the problem, argues that Jane Eyre "seems to transmit a profoundly contradictory picture" of St. John Rivers? Thormahlen holds that St. John acts in an inconsistent manner: he saves Jane from certain death after she has crossed the moor in her escape from Edward Rochester, yet he is also her oppressor in attempting, forcefully, to persuade her to submit to a loveless marriage and a possible early death as a Christian missionary in India. Judith Williams likewise points out the inconsistency, suggesting that St. John cannot be seen as truly charitable, even though he is an exponent of "evangelical charity," as Jane describes him. (5) The significance, for Williams, lies in St. John's demise. St. John anticipates his sainthood, rather than achieves it. His lack of love, then, may play a part in his possible shortfall. (6) On the other hand, Pollard and Gordon suggest more simply that there is no difficulty, as St. John's virtuous withdrawal from worldly pleasures is part of his saintly journey. (7) The central theological question concerning his character seems to be: Is St.John without fault and therefore entitled to sainthood?
Thormahlen resolves the problem of St. John's charitable yet destructive nature by proposing that he has different attitudes to strangers and loved ones. He is charitable to the former but less indulgent to those who have come into his fold. Thormahlen is, nevertheless, of the opinion that, as St.John is devoid of sympathy for his fellow creatures and takes pride in advocating reason above passion, he is at fault. The Christian religion highlights the importance of love, but St. John denies this. Moreover, Thormahlen suggests, St. John is guilty of the sin of spiritual pride. As this would effectively debar St. John from sainthood, Thormahlen considers a range of solutions aimed at understanding his character. Following Jerome Beaty, Thormahlen states that Jane and Edward have acted correctly in having sought and received Divine guidance. (8) Their union is, therefore, validated by God and is as close to perfection as any earthly relationship can be: "The interrelationship of human and Divine love is a central factor in the Bronte fiction as a whole and never more so than in Jane Eyre." (9) The novel, then presents a difficulty, Thormahlen says: "if love is the answer, what about St. John?" (10) Thormahlen's argument up to this point has been that "love for God and Jesus is lacking in his [St. John's] religion as Jane conceives it at Morton, to say nothing of love for mankind." (11) Thormahlen thus is forced to focus on the question of whether anything has changed in St. John's character by the time he reaches the end of his life, and she acknowledges that the novel does not ascribe a change in character to St. John in order to make him worthy of sainthood. She, therefore, argues for a reconsideration of St. John's character at the end of the novel on the basis of the words of his closing letter (quoted in part above) : St. John's
plea expresses an eager yearning for Christ as well as that unquestioning acquiescence in God's will which is the peculiar characteristic of saved souls. The Christian it seems, has finally got the better of the man; he is ambiguous still, but his old relentlessness, the "fever in his vitals" (III. iv. 361), is gone. Like Rochester, so different from him in so many ways, he has submitted to the Divine order, and now he is preparing to meet his true love, Jesus Christ.... The ending of Jane Eyre is not a closure so much as a balancing of the book, which leaves the reader to contemplate two very dissimilar patterns of human endeavour under the Heaven to which both assign ultimate power. It does not seem necessary to prefer one to the other or to pronounce a verdict on either? (12)
Thormahlen's solution is to keep separate the religious paths taken by Edward (and Jane) on the one hand and St. John on the other, arguing that Bronte does not choose between them. There is, in my estimation, however, enough evidence in the novel to suggest that Bronte does make a choice, and that the final sentence of the novel encapsulates its fundamental theme.
The central religious theme of the novel is the renouncing of idolatry, for which St. John acts as a symbol. St. John is problematic, however, because a secondary theme of the novel is that rejecting idolatry does not require a rejection of human relationships. Indeed, part of the point seems to be that renouncing idolatry is necessary for good human relationships. Bronte approves Jane's "pattern of human endeavour," not St. John's. In this article I shall try to demonstrate that the ending, far from creating problems for our understanding of the novel, is in fact part of a sustained account of the role of Jesus, the Christian Messiah, in human relationships, and that if read in the way that I shall suggest, Jane Eyre is, despite some of the ways in which it has been presented in the critical literature, a deeply religious novel, and indeed a novel with an orthodox and unexceptionable Christian message. The novel's idolaters make false gods of other characters; they do this by treating these other characters as if they had Messianic status, or could somehow supplant the Christian Messiah. Much of the evidence for this resides in the Biblical references in the novel, upon which there has, as yet, been little sustained comment. If we look closely at the implicit and explicit Biblical references, it is striking how many of these references overtly or covertly ascribe Messianic status to the various characters in the novel. The novel frequently does this by applying specific Christological verses. This association between Messianic symbolism and fictional characters is wholly eschewed at the end of the novel, to be replaced by an unequivocal focus on Christ. I shall argue that one of the novel's purposes--or at least one of the narrator's purposes--is to show that human relationships are successful only if the partners in the relationship avoid the dangers of idolizing each other. Salvation, as it were, comes not from human relationships and the human beloved, but from Christ, the heavenly beloved. While it is not my main purpose to give an account of the enigmatic role of St. John Rivers in the novel, I shall try to show too that my reading of the religious aspects of Jane Eyre can provide a solution to the cryptic conclusion of the novel, which is, of course, a quotation from a Messianic text.
I shall begin by examining the various Biblical and theological references in the novel, largely in the order in which they appear, highlighting the development of these allusions. I shall not look at all such references, but focus on those that have specific Messianic context, or at least that relate to the general theme of idolatry-the worship of the creature. At the same time, I shall show how the narrative includes contrary images and cautions the reader that these Messianic identifications and pretensions are disordered. Almost all of the passages where characters in the novel are associated with Messianic imagery and texts are negative in their general message and effect. Characters assume the aspect of false Messiahs: their actions are consequently dysfunctional, and the effects of these actions disruptive. But this is not so in every case, and I shall consider the exceptions secondly. On the basis of this examination, I shall try to come to some preliminary conclusions about the Christian message found in the novel, a message which is explicitly found in contemporary religious literature that, variously, either was or may well have been known to Charlotte Bronte I shall finally relate my conclusion to the novel's problematic ending, associated with St. John Rivers.
Jane Eyre displays a clear progression in the ascription of Messianic status. To begin with the protagonists: Edward Rochester implicitly thinks of Jane Eyre as his Messiah from an early stage in their encounter; Jane takes rather longer to think of Edward in this way. A hint of what is to appear later in full-blown form is seen during the second meeting of Jane and Edward--the first meeting when each is aware of the other's identity. Edward commands Jane to "Go into the library," but immediately excuses his peremptory manner: "- I mean, if you please. - (Excuse my tone of command; I am used to say 'Do this,' and it is done: I cannot alter my customary habits for one new inmate)." (13) In at least two respects, this passage represents Edward placing himself in a weak position relative to Jane. Obviously, despite his commanding manner, he is immediately forced to apologize and excuse himself.
But the words of his excuse are taken from an episode that occurs in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: the healing of the centurion's servant. The centurion asks …