In Greek philosophy, Aristotle proposes a doctrine called the “golden mean,” in which he advocates for balance between extremes. He believes that even something virtuous can become bad when held in excess or if lacked. In Jane Eyre, we are introduced to several characters who hold extreme religious beliefs that influence their actions in ways that Jane is often skeptical of and cannot adopt for herself. Jane seeks to find just the right amount of spirituality — a spirituality that is both grounded in morality yet still allows room for autonomy.
Let’s take a look at a couple of the characters who demonstrate some extreme qualities:
Helen Burns, for one, shows extreme tolerance and patience towards her circumstances. She passively moves through life without standing up for herself while showing humility as she fervently holds on to her faith. Jane says, “I could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance; and still less could I understand or sympathize with the forbearance [Helen] expressed for her chastiser.” At what point does humility become foolish? There needs to be a balance between humility and pride. If people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, for example, never stood up and fought for civil rights but rather endured slavery and prejudice for the sake of humility, we would not be where we are today. Just because Christian authorities deem something as right or wrong does not make their decree necessarily true. People are valuable and should not quietly endure abuse. There is a time to give in and be humble but there is also a time to speak up and fight. Jane often quietly tolerated abuse from Mrs. Reed, from her cousins, from her teachers – but whenever she had a chance to stand up for herself, she did.
St. John Rivers is another character who demonstrates extreme devotion to his religious beliefs. At the end of the novel, Jane speaks of St. John as being the living fulfillment of the Biblical scripture of the servant who remained faithful as he waited for the return of Christ. She explains that St. John “entered on the path he marked for himself; he pursues it still. A more resolute, indefatigable pioneer never wrought amidst rocks and dangers. Firm, faithful, and devoted, full of energy and zeal…” Jane cannot settle for a life with St. John because she realizes that a life with him will be a life lacking true love and passion. The Victorian Web offers an article on St. John and Christian piety.
You can view the article by clicking here: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/grier.html
The article describes how although St. John is “a virtuous man who performs works of charity, he does so with a grim sense of duty, and seems more motivated by carrying out his ideals than by genuine emotional sympathy with his beneficiaries.” There are people, much like St. John, who follow Biblical scriptures to the word and have an overwhelming sense of duty to their religious beliefs. Jane has a strong personality and cannot adopt such a mechanical way of life. She seeks to find balance between the rigid teachings of Christianity and her independence as well as her passions. Religious beliefs can provide people with a blueprint for morality and goodness, but extreme religious practices that inhibits a person’s freedom and happiness is not truly a good thing.
Here is some information on Aristotle’s doctrine of the Golden Mean if you are interested: