What We Can Learn about Biblical Authority from Jane Eyre

Jane saying her evening prayers, from an 1847 illustration by F.H. Townsend

I love Jane Eyre. It’s one of the few novels that I have revisited after completing the final pages. Whether it is a landmark achievement in the history of feminism or a subtle attempt to reinforce Victorian marital ideals, I cannot say, though I am more inclined toward the former. In any case, what I find most interesting about Charlotte Brontë’s lone novel of note is its spiritual content. This is ironic, since many of the critics in her own day called it an affront to religion. Yet while it may have been an affront to bad religion, I do not think we can say that about religion in general.

There are important lessons to be drawn from the pages of Jane Eyre in regard to personal guilt, sexual morality, forgiveness, and cultural Christianity vs. true Christianity. It is not a book that simply condemns religion or trumpets it unthinkingly. There are four main villains in this work, if you don’t count the crazy woman in the attic, who in any case couldn’t really help herself. The first is Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, whose religion is nominal at best. Then there is Mr. Brocklehurst, a fervently religious man who is all law and no gospel. Next, we have Blanche Ingraham, Jane’s romantic rival, who worships nothing but herself. The last villain is often not seen as a villain: St. John Rivers, the cleric who is hell-bent on saving souls but has walled off his own emotions to the point that he could hardly know much about Christ.

The heroes of Jane Eyre also have a variety of religious beliefs. The most obviously good person in the story is Jane’s childhood friend, Helen, who is raised up as a model of true Christianity, showing compassion to those around her while also treasuring the Bible. Jane herself has a strong moral core, no doubt influenced by her Christian upbringing. Even so, you are unlikely to hear her spouting complex doctrines. She is more interested to see how those around her, who nearly all espouse Christian beliefs, actually put those beliefs into practice. Then there is the anti-hero Mr. Rochester, who has committed numerous sins and yet acknowledges his sinfulness and longs for redemption. In this, the novel seems to suggest that he is more Christian than many of the “Christians”. Continue reading