Jane's Crown of Thorns: Feminism and Christianity in Jane Eyre

Article excerpt

St. John is unmarried: he never will marry now. Himself has hitherto sufficed to the toil; and the toil draws near its close: his glorious sun hastens to its setting.... And why weep for this? No fear of death will darken St. John's last hour: his mind will be unclouded; his heart will be undaunted; his hope be sure; his faith steadfast. His own words are a pledge of this:--

`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!"'

Despite the loftiness of its rhetoric and the heroic light it casts on St. John's endeavors, the closing passage of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is more likely to disappoint or confuse readers than inspire them. Perhaps the most perplexing ending of any Victorian novel, Jane's closing tribute to the rigid, patriarchal, and gloomy St. John presents a particular challenge to readings of the novel as a feminist bildungsroman. Classic feminist readings have tended to view St. John as one-dimensional patriarchal villain; accordingly, Jane rejects not only her pious cousin, but also the Christian worldview he represents. Since St. John's religious agenda serves only as a vehicle of masculine self-aggrandizement and domination (Gilbert and Gubar 366), Jane ultimately rejects his "patriarchal religious value-system" for an earthly paradise of marital equality with the reformed and chastened Rochester (Rich 490). To interpret the novel's conclusion as an exorcism of religious thought and belief, however, fails to account for St. John's virtual apotheosis on the final page. Nor do such interpretations acknowledge the earnest (if at times unorthodox) religious commitments of the book and its author. Bronte was, after all, a loyal member of the Church of England who firmly defended Jane Eyre against charges of immorality and anti-Christian sentiment: "To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee," she insisted in a preface to the book's second edition, "is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns" (3).

Over the past decade, scholars have begun to read and interpret Jane Eyre with far greater attentiveness, both to its religious themes, and the theological and doctrinal controversies ofBronte's era. Consequently, some more recent studies suggest that Jane Eyre's Christian commitments are not necessarily incompatible with the book's presumably feminist emphases. Readings by J. Jeffrey Franklin, Janet L. Larson, Marianne Thormahlen, Susan VanZanten Gallagher, and Amanda Witt, for example, all highlight the assertion of Jane's religious and spiritual autonomy as a major component of her bildungsroman. (1) By discerning for herself what she perceives to be God's will, Jane effectively resists Rochester's and St. John's attempts to possess her spirit as well as her body. Ultimately, Jane marries Rochester because it is her vocation--the divine call that only she herself can hear. Given the religious resonances of Jane's marriage, as Thormahlen and Franklin both suggest, the prominence of St. John (less a patriarchal bogeyman than a sincere if over-zealous Christian) at the novel's end "balances the book" (Thormahlen 217). "Both have sought and received Divine guidance and been faithful to the claims of their God-created selves," argues Thormahlen (218), while Franklin perceptively suggests that the novel's concluding emphasis on St. John underscores Jane's freely chosen vocation as "a missionary of spiritual love" (482). Gallagher's reading of Jane Eyre as a "Christian feminist bildungsroman" suggests a similarly balanced and unproblematic ending: "The novel's religious assertion of a woman's right to self-identity and its depiction of marriage as a relationship of equality," she argues, "anticipate twentieth-century Christian feminism" (68).

So intertwined were discourses of religion and gender in the Victorian period, that a close examination of Jane Eyre's religious themes inevitably furthers our understanding of the novel's gender politics: that is, we see more clearly what is at stake for Jane in her struggle against male control. …