Corrupt Institution

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre demonstrates how the class system is heavily interwoven with religious hypocrisy and religious ideals.  The concept of innocence and what is considered innocent is also a notion that arises, which is an aspect of religion. The first few chapters of the novel, Jane is accused of being “wicked” and far from a “good” or “innocent” girl. She is constantly berated for her action by Mrs. Reed, her children, and even the servants.  The worst is Mr. Brocklehusrt, the language he uses with Jane who is a ten years old girl, is shockingly crude and unwarranted.  Mr. Brocklehusrt does not take into consideration that she is just a child; instead he deems her in my opinion as the “devil” or “Satan”. I say Satan because Mr. Brocklehurst illustrates a punishment that Satan himself similarly receives when he rebels against God (Well Milton’s version).  For instance, when Mrs. Reed characterizes Jane as having deceitful tendency, Mr. Brocklehusrt claims, “Deceit is, indeed, a sad fault in a child,…it is akin to falsehood, and all liars will have their portion in the lake burning with fire and brimstone.” (42) This description of Hell reminds me of the Hell described in Paradise Lost Book I.  Milton’s description of Hell is worth reading, but I cannot address it now, but what I will include is an excerpt that presents God’s punishment to Satan and those who followed:

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulfur unconsumed:
Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious, here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set (65- 72)

It is as though Jane’s action for standing up for herself is in fact an act of crime against her  “benevolent” beneficiary. In Jane Eyre, being physically, emotionally, and mentally abused is nothing compared to going against “the hand that feeds you”. As a result, while she is looking forward to leaving the Reeds, she is in some ways heading off into “darkness”, which is the institution. It is heartbreaking to think; perhaps girls like Jane were treated inhumanly, as if the circumstance they were born into was their fault. It must have been psychologically traumatic for children like Jane to live in a society where religion a part of life that “should” provide solace and acceptance is anything but. This can be seen from William Blake’s Songs of Experience poem called “Holy Thursday”, the following link will be an audio version of the poem:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXQ-9eI0L34

and “The Chimney Sweeper”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hijxKx5TQQU

Blake shows the religious hypocrisy that was inherent in the institutions. Were children, especially orphans during this time treated similarly?  Is being an orphan a stigma that correlates with “evil” or “sin”? Was religion a tool that the upper class utilized in order to maintain order and create a strict distinction between the upper and lower classes?  Did Charlotte Bronte condemn religious institution? How did religious leaders, faith, and institutions affect the female psyche?

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6 thoughts on “Corrupt Institution

  1. swu7

    “Is being an orphan a stigma that correlates with “evil” or “sin”?”
    I like this question that you’ve brought up. It immediately brought to my mind “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. Flora and Miles, two orphans, are accused by their governess of being corrupted by the two ghosts Quint and Miss Jessel. She claims that the children do bad things and suspects that Miles was expelled from school because he was corrupting the other children. “The Turn of the Screw” was published in 1898, after Bronte’s novel was published, and I’m sure James knew (and probably read) “Jane Eyre.” While James’s short story deals more specifically about psychology and innocence versus (sexual) corruption, I think that there is a connection because of the fact that the two children are orphans. I think that it is possible James was aware of this “orphan narrative” while writing his story.

  2. clemence

    Your idea about Mr Brocklehurst and the image of God he is talking about is very interesting, and I remember being strucked in this passage by the words he uses. You wrote “Mr. Brocklehusrt does not take into consideration that she is just a child; instead he deems her in my opinion as the “devil” or “Satan”.” and I do agree. The way religion is used in Jane Eyre reminds me of the book La religieuse, by Diderot, published 50 years earlier. The heroine is sent by her mother in a convent, and the way she is marked by religion is comparable to Jane. The years she spent in Lowood formed her character, and religion played a great role in that. Jane is timorous of God and of men, partly because of her stay in Lowood.

  3. Kevin Frazelis

    I love the comparison between Milton and Jane Eyre because the comparison itself is very evident. Jane is treated like an outsider from her estranged family as well as Mr. Brockelhurst. This behavior is completely justified by the idea of religion and it is complete wrong. The frustrating part is that many novels like Jane Eyre were written in this same didactic manner, in order to educate children about the perils and the danger of not conforming to the ideas of God. I feel the word institution can also lend itself to the school, which I feel systematically whines down Jane’s aggressive behavior and reduces her ability to express herself. I wonder if these people and institutions believed in their doctrine of religious standards or simply used to justify their actions and treatments of children at this time.

  4. Jason Tougaw

    You make a great point about Brontë’s representation of religion–as a tool that upholds unfair class distinctions. Your point about Paradise Lost is fascinating. If Mrs. Reed an Mr. Brocklehurst borrow Milton’s (and the Bible’s) rhetoric about the punishment of Satan to justify their treatment of Jane, they cast themselves in the role of God. This is not quite explicit, but the subtext is there.

  5. davidginsberg

    I went on victorianweb to look up Charlotte Bronte’s childhood. In response to the question, “Did Charlotte Bronte condemn religious institution?,” I believe the answer can be found by delving into her past.

    http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/brontbio.html

    In the second paragraph from the above link, it states:

    “In 1824 the four eldest Brontë daughters were enrolled as pupils at the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge. The following year Maria and Elizabeth, the two eldest daughters, became ill, left the school and died: Charlotte and Emily, understandably, were brought home.”

    I undoubtedly believe that the poor treatment of the students at Brocklehurst’s school and the subsequent deaths of the girls were Bronte’s way of not only condemning religious institution, but of perhaps bringing to light the treatment of young women in these types of schools.

  6. mlfiloramo

    These are some excellent questions you raise. I actually have some thoughts about your second-to-last question.

    I think that Bronte uses Jane as a means of expressing her own doubt and perhaps anguish towards religious institutions and religion in general. In terms of representing the religious institution as harshly strict and perhaps corrupt, the scene in which Jane has to stand on a stool before her peers for a half hour while enduring the psychological abuse from Brocklehurst almost immediately comes to mind. Do you think Bronte would be portraying this scene if she did not herself feel similarly to religion as Jane seems to feel? As the reader, we undoubtedly know that all Brocklehurst’s accusations (as well as those of her aunt disclosed earlier to Brocklehurst) are not true at all. Just as well, we see how inhumanely and cruelly the girls are treated in this so-called religious institution. As Brocklehurst puts it, this is all to “save the soul” without any regard to the body.

    I think that in this way, Bronte is indeed expressing her condemnation of the religious institution.

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