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.