The Religious Side (or Lack Thereof) of Charlotte Brontë

As I continue to read through Jane Eyre, intermittently passing by religious references both casual and explicit, I can’t help but question Brontë’s religious views. Since it can be argued that Jane Eyre is at least in some ways a reflection of Brontë—the secluded upbringing in Haworth Parsonage, the sheltered life and consequently limited knowledge of the world, etc.*—can we also attribute some parallels between Jane’s religious views and that of Brontë herself?

Although I believe there’s definitely some specific relationship between the religious views of Jane and Brontë, I can’t decide what I think it is exactly. I’m unsure whether I believe Jane’s views are an explicit portrayal of Brontë’s own, or if Brontë deliberately juxtaposes Jane with other characters of drastically different beliefs to accentuate the contrast between their beliefs and Jane’s (perhaps Brontë’s?) own—inadvertently causing the reader to think about it all, whether consciously or subconsciously—to show the reader questions and issues that Brontë herself has had to deal with throughout her life with regard to faith.

The first scene that really got me thinking about this is in the first third of the novel, chapter 9, when Jane is spending time with a slowly dying Helen Burns. When Helen, who is so well-versed and knowledgeable in both the education Lowood has given her and of her teachings in religion, reassures Jane that she will be “going to God” and that she “has faith,” Jane expresses obvious doubt–which we can see by her continual questioning of Helen. Jane asks Helen, “Where is God? What is God?” and with regard to heaven, “Where is that region? Does it exist?”

I believe this scene is significant for a few reasons; first, I believe that Brontë uses Jane here to express the religious doubt that she herself has struggled with throughout her life. At least that’s the impression I get from it (I’d love to hear your opinions, too!). Second, I believe that the interactions between Jane and Helen reveal to us hidden truths about Jane’s beliefs, perhaps of Brontë herself. We see Helen as a pious, obedient, yet helplessly submissive student of Lowood—but we also see her as a thoughtful, charismatic and most importantly, wise young woman. Jane really learns a thing or two from her.

The relationship we see between Helen and Jane is almost like that of a teacher and pupil; Helen imparts essentially the same religious values taught at Lowood, but in a much more relatable form—at least for Jane. I feel that Brontë tries very carefully to get us to side with Helen despite her conflicting religious views with that of Jane. But in the end, I think that Brontë wants us to take at least something away from Helen’s dying speech, from her unconditional faith, from her wisdom. I would love to know what you think.

I’ll admit, I seem to be leaning more towards “Brontë-really-is-religious-but-a-little-skeptical” … but I can’t get the scene out of my head of Brocklehurst mentally gang raping Jane in chapter 7—where he tells her to submissively stand on a stool before her peers and humiliates the hell out of her while she stands helplessly for a half hour enduring it all. There definitely were heavy religious connotations in that scene:

“My dear children,” pursued the black marble clergyman, with pathos, “this is a sad, a melancholy occasion; for it becomes my duty to warn you that this girl, who might be one of God’s own lambs, is a little cast-away; not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien. You must be on your guard against her; you must shun her example; if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her from your converse. Teachers, you must watch her; keep your eyes on her movements, weigh well her words, scrutinize her actions, punish her body to save her soul; if, indeed, such salvation be possible, for (my tongue falters while I tell it) this girl—this child—the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma [the supreme God of Hinduism] and kneels before Juggernaut [a title of Krishna in Hinduism, used metaphorically to refer to blind devotion to idols] this girl is—a liar!”

This scene left a really bitter taste in my mouth. I saw Brocklehurst, a heavily religious figure in the novel, as a tyrannical and evil man. I felt that Brontë very deliberately made the reader associate the cruelty of Brocklehurst (along with the harshness and rigidity of Lowood) and the religious upbringing in general. To me, this complicates matters even further—because now I can’t decide where exactly Brontë stands religiously.**

 

*I’ve found an interesting Yahoo Voices article on these parallels. It’s a good refresher for those who might have forgotten the similarities between Brontë and her carefully crafted protagonist.

**Phyllis Kelson Jones, PhD, a former student of The Open University in the U.K., wrote a thesis for his Bachelor of Philosophy in 1997 titled “The Religious Beliefs of Charlotte Brontë, as Reflected in her Novels and Letters”, in which he argues essentially what his title suggests. I thought you guys might be interested in it. He discusses (fairly early on) how Brontë’s upbringing might have influenced what he believes to be her religious beliefs—and is, I think, a good companion piece to the article I’ve mentioned above.

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7 thoughts on “The Religious Side (or Lack Thereof) of Charlotte Brontë

  1. Jason Tougaw

    There’s a running theme here: allegiance to religious ideals but mistrust of religious institutions or rigid ideologies. Part of this stems from the novel’s Romanticism. In general, Romantic writers tend to valorize individuals and ideals and eschew social control, tradition, and the power of institutions.

  2. alixg

    I always have a problem looking at a text in order to discover something about the author himself; I’m a big fan of taking the novel as it is and as a separate entity to be interpreted on its own. In other words, I’m a “Death of the Author” proponent all the way. That being said, I would like to respond to your character analysis. I think you do raise a good point about Helen as this ideal religious figure and Mr. Brocklehurst as a tyrannical one, who is also extremely hypocritical with his religious beliefs. I want to suggest adding another character into the equation that you set up: St John. We have Helen’s and Mr. Brocklehurst’s religious stances in place when we meet St John who, like Helen, is a pious individual except where he differs is that he lacks empathy; he is extremely rigid with his actions. In fact, the way he responds to Jane’s desperation outside of Moor house is purely from a religious conviction rather than a human-to-human empathy: ” All men must die, but all are not condemned to meet a lingering and premature doom, such as yours would be if you perished here of want” (286).

  3. Katryna

    Charlotte Brontes life does reflect into her novel Jane Eyre. The experience at Lowood and religion are significant as you are pointing out. Bronte came from a closed place and later on was introduced to different ways of beliefs. I do think that she was religious but she had doubts or questions which she expressed through Janes character. Jane asking Helen about religion was important as well because Jane could have also been wanting to keep her faith or learn from what Helen knows.

  4. Malorie

    I feel that Bronte uses Jane in an indirect way to question her readers on the questions she has about religion but probably felt she couldn’t ask. I feel like Helen is being used to show the “perfect” side of religion that needs no questioning. She just follows everything that has been taught to her and believes it all. Then Jane is the “imperfect” side because she questions what she learned and isn’t quite sure if any of it is true or not. She has a hard time just accepting it to be true she wants to know why and how. Both sides represent society because in every religion or faith you have the people that believe everything 100% and then the people that have to always question certain things because they find it hard to be true. I’m sure in Bronte’s time everyone had to accept everything and it wasn’t common for people to openly question it. That is why she using Jane. So I do feel that Janes religious views are also Bronte’s.

  5. Angela

    In order for Bronte to describe the beliefs of Helen, as a devout believer, Mr. Brocklehurst as an extreme believer and Jane, as an average believer, I got the feeling that she had to be religious. At the very least, she drew from her religious upbringing to give these voices to her characters. As with all religions, we are taught to have faith. As we experience life, this faith is tested. As best seen through Jane’s character, a strong religious foundation is obvious. How we demonstrate our faith varies from individual to individual. Bronte’s faith was tested according to her biography. Jane’s beliefs and morals appear to stem from an author that may have challenged her faith, but was strongly rooted.

  6. davidginsberg

    Mike – I feel like you summed up everything perfectly. I think that Bronte was religious (“she was raised in a strict Anglican household by her clergyman father and religious aunt” according to her biography.com profile – http://www.biography.com/people/charlotte-brontë-11919959) but due to the illnesses and subsequent deaths of her older sisters at the Clergy Daughter’s School (source: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/brontbio.html) she was understandably harsh in regards to her thoughts and criticisms of these religious institutions.

    I also believe that Laura brings up a great point. Helen is enrolled in a poor school where she is treated terribly and consistently underfed. Seeking religion might have been her way of mentally escaping her brutal surroundings. When she becomes ill, her religious faith is all she has and possibly acts as a reassurance for her.

  7. Laura Gonzaga

    Jane asks Helen, “Where is God? What is God?” and with regard to heaven, “Where is that region? Does it exist?”

    When it comes to faith, I cannot help but relate to Karl Marx’s conception of religion. In “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Marx writes that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” Both Helen and Jane are subject to the unfortunate circumstances life has presented them with. It seems only natural for Helen to find hope in supernatural entities because doing so provides comfort and escape from the harsh truth of her condition. Believing that there is some sort all loving being that will reward us with a place of eternal peace and absence of suffering is a type of coping mechanism. It is very common for people experiencing affliction to turn to spiritual practices or faith. After all, most people don’t want to believe that their life ultimately means nothing (in a spiritual sense) and is just a product of biological evolution.

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