Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

An Idolatrous Imagination? Biblical Theology and Romanticism in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

An Idolatrous Imagination? Biblical Theology and Romanticism in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

Article excerpt

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte explores from a biblical perspective the ways in which imagination is involved in idolatrous desire and eschatological anticipation. The novel "invokes imagination.... [It] is informed by the energies of high romanticism, by its visions of quest, of conquest, of "incident, life, fire, feeling"--of the aspiring ego, of creative vigour, and of restless desire" (1) (Glen, Charlotte Bronte 235). This is countered by a critique of the potential excesses of such a "high" Romantic imagination, shaped by Evangelical theology, which contested the idolatrous attachments and desires cherished by such aspiring egos. However, Bronte's biblical critique does not simply suppress the imagination. She also demonstrates its positive role in envisaging the future, defining a space for women that was not socially acceptable in Victorian society, and orientating the restless energy and passion that drives Jane Eyre (and in some respects her cousin, St. John Rivers) through the eschatological vision offered by the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, which was Jane's favorite reading material as a child (Bronte 33). In both these positive and negative aspects, Bronte draws upon a biblical understanding of the imagination; its nature and direction are always traced back to the relational allegiance of the heart. The centrality of Bronte's critique of idolatry to the structure of Jane Eyre has recently been explored by Essaka Joshua and Kathleen Vejvoda. Bronte's attempt to balance this fear of idolatry with a positive appreciation of the imagination--particularly its eschatological dimension--equally rooted in biblical theology has not been examined in significant detail.

In order to articulate her attempt to achieve a biblical balance, this article will begin by considering the theme of idolatry as developed by Bronte in Jane Eyre, examining its relationship to the "imagination ... informed by the energies of high romanticism" (Glen, Charlotte Bronte 235) and the potential of this function to become implicated in false perceptions, imprisoning fantasies, or overweening pretensions. Bronte effectively achieves this by her narrative exploration of idolatry biblically defined. The positive role of the imagination as an element of desire will then be analyzed: anticipating a future open to hope and envisaging alternatives that allow Jane to imagine and follow a path for herself not circumscribed by the poverty and pain of her childhood. Imagination in this sense plays a mediating role between the perceiving subject and the otherness of the created world, human beings, and God, which is rooted in a biblical distinction between Creator and creature and an understanding of human beings as essentially creatures who are realized in relation to an Other. Bronte's novel illuminates the way in which the scriptural virtue of hope underwrites imagination, finding expression in a restless desire for transcendence.

Idolatry

Bronte's most famous novel, Jane Eyre, is enshrined in the canon as a sublime exemplification of the Romantic and feminist imagination. Various readings have been ascribed to the exemplary career of its "heroine ... plain and small" (Gaskell 235): Charlotte Bronte is seen as part of a tradition of English novelists who substitute faith in human love for a traditional Christian dependence upon God. In this reading, Jane and Rochester find their ultimate satisfaction in each other (Polhemus 110). Feminist readings, of which there are many, typically foreground Jane's passionate assertion of independence and unwillingness to compromise the integrity of her selfhood through relationships with the powerful men she encounters (Showalter 112-23). This is undoubtedly a strong element in Bronte's characterization of her heroine, but it fails to acknowledge the broader narrative context provided by the rich intertextual relationship with scripture, and also the providential framework informing the story as a whole, which has been noted in works by Beaty, Tkacz, and Joshua. …

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