"Almost My Hope of Heaven": Idolatry and Messianic Symbolism in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

Article excerpt

"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. …