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Religion exists in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a way to measure Jane’s mental, moral, and spiritual growth throughout the novel. It also serves to distinguish the differences in religious practice, and create conflict within Jane’s life and relationships. While other characters, such as Mr. Brocklehurst Helen, and St. John, believe in a strict set of religious values, Jane exists in more around a middle ground. She assembles information and takes ideas from the religious practices of those around her, which helps her to grow and mature, and become the independent woman she wants to be.
Although Brontë portrays religion as hypocritical considering the infinite ways of interpretation, religion serves as a guideline to help Jane grow as an individual and as a practitioner of religious virtue.
Religion exists for use as a guideline for living life. Jane’s religious beliefs and life values evolve throughout the novel. While she conforms to no one’s standard of piety, she is virtuous; yet she maintains a longing for freedom and individuality.
As Jane’s religious structure develops, so does her control over her emotions and level-headedness. Her relationship with Helen shows how Helen is a foil to Jane as much as she is an influence. One of the most memorable things that Helen says to Jane is critical in understanding how Jane develops and grows during the story. Helen says, “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you” (60).
In Jane’s youth, she cannot hold her tongue around Mrs. Reed. She needs to verbalize every emotion and injustice she feels- whereas later in life, particularly at the academy, she learns how to think through her feelings before acting upon them, as seen in her later interaction with the sickly and dying Mrs. Reed. Helen’s advice to Jane is one of the first positive interactions Jane has had with religion and respect. This advice will stick with Jane for the remainder of the novel and help to change her perspective as she witnesses interpretation of religion followed by the likes of Mr. Brocklehurst, and St. John.
Mr. Brocklehurst scolds Miss Temple for providing the girls with additional food despite their slow starvation, by quoting God, saying, “If ye suffer hunger or thirst for My sake, happy are ye.’ Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!” (65). His form of religion not only tolerates but also encourages pain and suffering. He believes that in order to be pious one must sacrifice their happiness for religion and God. Jane lives the beginning of her young life in a state of deprivation and minimization. Mrs. Reed does not treat her as a child but rather, as an unavoidable evil. Thus, Jane experiences such religious interpretation twice in her life, with Mrs. Reed, and at the Academy under the rule of Mr. Brocklehurst. Mr. Brocklehurst’s religion is cold a cruel. Jane’s animosity towards it helps to illustrate her evasion of such behavior in her own religious practice. His “charity” is literally killing the girls he is supposed to be teaching and nourishing- starving them with lack of food, and making them ill with insufficient clothing. He asks Miss Temple, “and why has she, or any other, curled hair? Why, in defiance of every precept and principle of this house, does she conform to the world so openly—here in an evangelical, charitable establishment— as to wear her hair one mass of curls? I have again and again intimated that I desire the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, plainly. Miss Temple, that girl’s hair must be cut off entirely” (66) thus eradicating their individuality and freedom, some things most important to Jane.
Helen’s innate submissiveness highlights Jane’s headstrong and questioning behavior, allowing them to become quick and easy friends. Helen trusts her faith and beliefs and because of this, she is not only able to live and learn in Lowood’s harsh environment, she refuses to succumb to the loss of identity and individualism that Mr. Brocklehurst so very much wants to deny his residents, by enforcing his religious ideals upon them hypocritically. Additionally, while Jane focuses on a physical manifestation of home, and a human to give her love, “Hush, Jane! You think too much of the love of human beings…” (72), Helen believes that one’s soul is called upon and judged along with said person’s character when they reach their forever home at the gates of Heaven. As Helen lay dying, Jane asks, “Are you going somewhere, Helen? Are you going home?” to which Jane responds “Yes; to my long home—my last home” (84) while Jane focuses on the present and finding love and happiness in this world.
Helen is arguably the greatest teacher for Jane and the greatest opposition to Mr. Brocklehurst as far as religious views go. She introduces Jane to the New Testament, “Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example” (59). This helps to guide Jane for the remainder of her life. Helen teaches Jane to learn to go against her nature during a conversation: “But I feel this, Helen; I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved” (59). Jane’s behavior throughout the novel follows this belief until her interaction with the dying Mrs. Reed.
Religion for Jane is her source of abuse, and of comfort. She experiences different religious ideals, which increases her maturity, and teaches her to resist spontaneous temptation. When Jane visits a sick Mrs. Reed, and reflects on the horror she lived through with her, she remembers one lesson she learned from Helen. Jane narrates, “One lies there,’ I thought, ‘who will soon be beyond the war of earthly elements… In pondering the great mystery, I thought of Helen Burns, recalled her dying words—her faith—her doctrine of the equality of disembodied souls” (256). Jane practices what Helen taught, saying to Mrs. Reed on her deathbed, “Love me, then, or hate me, as you will,” I said at last, “you have my full and free forgiveness: ask now for God’s, and be at peace.” Poor, suffering woman! It was too late for her to make now the effort to change her habitual frame of mind: living, she had ever hated me—dying, she must hate me still” (256). Jane forgives Mrs. Reed for all that she has made her suffer, although Mrs. Reed has not forgiven Jane. This shows growth in Jane, from her previous comment to Helen, “I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me” (59).
Jane learns forgiveness from Helen, and hypocrisy from Mr. Brocklehurst, but arguably, one of the most important characters in her religious development does not appear until later on in the novel. St. John acts as an instigator for Jane’s final life lesson. Her rejection of his marriage proposal is one of the final acts that exhibit her matured personality and virtue. Jane’s action of declining St. John illuminates a final realization that a life lived attached to another person, without passion or freedom, is just as bad or worse as a life without principle. Jane says to St. John. “I would always rather be happy than dignified” (447), and “I scorn your idea of love” (445). This interaction culminates in a moment where Jane’s head and heart agree, and she finds the strength to listen. Jane’s decision emphasizes the effect the characters surrounding her have had on her maturity and thought process, but mainly on her religious and personal values.
Jane is a fluid character, growing and developing at every point in the novel. Religion in particular is a source of both education and occasional provocation in Jane’s life- due to the many different interpretations and extreme practices she witnesses. With every experience and every interaction, Jane learns about life and herself, and uses this information to develop her own point of view and values. Religion plays a role in many people’s lives, and oftentimes is used a guideline or standard by which one should strive to live. By incorporating religion and the way it can cause a difference in opinion and values, Brontë was ahead of her time. Today, religion typically veers more towards radical practices, such as in the cases of Helen and Mr. Brocklehurst. Too few people view it as a malleable, ever-changing belief system that can be changed and altered based on personal preference and experience. Should more people follow Jane’s example, observing all interpretations and practices, not condemning nor fully accepting any without question, then there is a possibility the world may learn to live like Jane, with tolerance and freedom.
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