Teaching keeps me very busy, so I'm doubling up with this post. It is serving for The Sunday Salon and the Classics Bookclub.
I was excited to read Jane Eyre for the Classics Bookclub at 5 Minutes for Books. I've read the book and few times, and much of my honors thesis in college was on this book. I have thought about this book a lot in a lot of different ways. My thesis was on the influence of the Johannine texts in the Bible (the Gospel, epistles, and Revelation) on the works of the three Bronte sisters.
In her Jane Eyre Preview, Jennifer asked us evaluate how feminist Charlotte Bronte is by the standards of her day as well as today. My post is going to kind of be related to this prompt.
When she leaves Rochester after she finds out about Bertha in the attic, I think we can definitely see Jane as an independent woman who stands up for herself. She leaves Rochester when they are about to be married because no matter how much she loves him, she knows she can't be his second living wife. She tells him quite powerfully:
"I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man" (408).
Her belief in following the law enables her to hold her own self-worth higher than her love for Rochester. She does the right thing for herself and Rochester, even though it is impossibly painful for her to have to leave the one man who has made her happy.
Although this action is, for any time period, a heroic and feminist action, Jane's most truely feminist decision happens towards the end of the book, when she refuses St. John's offer of marriage.
A lot is going on in this situation, but here is my general stance. I believe that Jane is feminist in this moment because she holds true to her interpretation of God and God's love, rather than succumbing to St. John's attempt to interpret God's will for her. He dares to assume that he knows what is best for her, but she has her own ideas of what is right for her. She cannot believe that a marriage without love would be something God with command. The following is an excerpt from my thesis directly related to this idea.
"[St. John] assumes that [Jane's] plain outward appearance has marked her for a path different than the one in her heart. He tells her: “It is not personal, but mental endowments [God and nature] have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love” (Bronte 501). St. John does not see, as Rochester does, that Jane’s loving heart is all that she needs to be “formed for love.” Outward externals such as beauty don’t matter at all when it comes to a love derived from God. St. John’s other terrible mistake is assuming that God would condone Jane giving her body to St. John without a pure love between them. Jane sees that to “give [her] heart to God” (Bronte 505) she cannot betray her own feelings in that way. Jane’s refusal of St. John is her refusal to betray her “natural unenslaved feelings” (Bronte 507), but it is above all her refusal to defile her belief in God’s gift of love."
Some people see Jane's choice as selfish. How can it be selfish to follow what you believe is God's will? In my thesis I talk about how the Gospels and epistles written by John are all about love, and how love is the most important aspect of spirituality. Take a quotation from the 1st epistle: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (1 John 4:8) and you can see that love is at the center of what God wants for us in our spiritual and human relations. Therefore, love is not some selfish thing that humans make up to meet our own desires; love is straight from God. God's will is for us to love. Jane is simply following God's will when she chooses to refuse a loveless marriage. Her bravery in the face of St. John's guilt trips is both feminist and spiritual.
Here's another excerpt from my thesis:
"Unlike Lerner’s suggestion that Jane chooses love rather than duty, Jane actually does not have to make a choice between the two. Jane is in fact choosing the duty that the author of John’s Gospel and epistles lays out, a duty that has love at its center. Barry Qualls suggests that “where [St. John] aligns duty with working towards heaven, Jane aligns it with love of one’s fellowman” (Qualls 64). Jane’s concern with human affection does not change throughout the novel because living and loving on earth is Jane’s spiritual duty, as evidenced by the path of love with Rochester to which Heaven directs her in her deepest moment of need. As long as she keeps God at the center of her moral compass, the choices she makes to live a life full of love are just as noble as Helen Burns’ calm resignation to death. Jane is supremely concerned with making the morally right choice. Some contemporary readers of Jane Eyre found her decision to be a shirking of duty, because it eschewed St. John’s overtly Christian path of martyrdom and mission-work. However, within the context of the Johannine books, Jane’s path is undoubtedly taking the moral and spiritual high road."
When Jane returns and marries Rochester, one might think she has lost her feminist strength. However, the circumstances are different now. Rochester's first wife is dead, so Jane is not committing adultery. Also, Rochester is blind, and his state gives Jane a position of power in their relationship. Jane’s choice to experience earthly love is very Johannine and religious in an important way; she follows Jesus’ instructions to “love one another” and lives in the joy of an earthly union. Yet Jane’s choice to love remains revolutionary in that her duty is empowering rather than limiting.
Many people point out how ironic it is that St. John, who is unable to really love anyone, bears the name of the gospel writer who wrote most about the importance of love: John. If we are to see Jane's story as spiritually feminist, should we be disturbed that St. John gets the last word in the entire book? Does she let him get the last word because she believes her marriage choice was wrong? I don't think so. These are St. John's dying words, and they echo the peniultimate verse in Revelation, the last book in the Bible. I think Charlotte ends with this because she wants to parallel St. John's coming union with Jesus, the bridegroom, and the union that Jane and Rochester have on earth. She wants to show us the different choices we can make to live a life for God.
St. John made a choice, and for him the choice was the right thing. He had his own vision of God and what He wanted for St. John in his own life. But St. John made the mistake of trying to force his own beliefs on Jane. He tried to interpret God's will for Jane, but Jane was able to hear God's will for herself through the supernatural call she hears from Rochester. She doesn't need a man to mediate between her and God. She can interpret God's will for herself.
Bronte's decision to end with St. John's words can actually be seen as feminist and a little shocking. It takes some confidence to end a novel with the almost last words of the Bible, an authoritative religious text! I believe Bronte does this on purpose. Here's the last excerpt from my thesis:
"The ending of the novel is Jane’s contradiction of authorities other than herself and God. St. John Rivers in the final lines speaks from the authoritative text of his namesake, invoking patriarchal Christianity and its imagined demands on humanity. Jane ends with these words, but we can see that she has refused to join St. John in his vision of God’s will and created her own vision of God’s will, one that importantly centers on her truth: the centrality of love to the religious and spiritual experience."
Jane Eyre is not my favorite book. I don't really like how Jane talks like Yoda a lot ("Sure I was") I don't like how Jane, and actually quite a few of the characters in Charlotte's other novels call their men "Master." However, I do love the way Charlotte creates a woman who stands up for herself, stands up for her ability to interpret and follow God's will, and stands up for what I believe is God's strongest call to all of us: to love one another.