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May 4, 2021

Why Salvation Means Submission

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Sarah Barnette

Sarah Barnette is a scholar of English literature with an interest in Victorian literary ethics.

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Why Salvation Means Submission

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Jane Eyre: An Autobiography
was an instant success when it appeared in 1847 under Charlotte Brontë’s (1816–1855) pseudonym, Currer Bell. It heralded “Jane Eyre fever,” and more than one reviewer confessed to crying over its pages before lauding its “decided power” and ascension into “the exalted region of art.”1 It was also censured as a dangerously heterodox and heathen text, morally suspect and ethically corrosive because of the rebellious, proud, and imprecise nature of its protagonist. The critic Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (1809–1883) called it “preeminently an anti-Christian composition,” while the reviewer George Searle Phillips (1815–1889) wrote of it as “Religion is stabbed in the dark.”2 Others did not condemn it outright but, even as they detected its religious themes, they claimed that it was unclear whether Jane was “Hindoo, Mahomedan, or infidel.”3 

The novel remains extremely popular in the West—it is perhaps the best-known and most widely read work by the Brontë sisters, praised in particular for its gift of Jane to the world as an “icon of feminist activism.”4 Literary critics, classing it predominantly as romantic Gothic fiction, hold it aloft for its vibrant contributions to largely secular feminist, postcolonial, and psychoanalytical discourses. In part, this status is warranted. Jane Eyre, as both domestic romance and bildungsroman, or novel of education, speaks powerfully to debates of gender, empire, and psyche, and it has rich elements of ballad, fairy tale, myth, and the Gothic. But it has, too, binding relationships with scripture and with theological literature, such as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) puritan prose allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come; these relationships are often diminished in literary criticism or else revised and subsumed into the emerging secularism of the period.5 This, I maintain, is a mistake. The novel’s religiosity perfumes its story as a whole, to the point that even its engagement with lay texts assumes a sacred air, as we shall see. In fact, Jane Eyre is a deeply pious text, with a transcendent and spiritual Christian evangelicalism at its heart. Readers attuned to a devotional veneration of temperance, humility, and submission, being better suited to recognizing Jane as a religious literary figure, may trace this spiritual current more naturally than do secular-minded literary critics. To the former type of reader, it is clear that Jane seeks a straight and narrow path, enacting the closely held beliefs of her originator. The oft-forgotten subtitle of the novel is, after all, An Autobiography.6

The Brontë family lived at Haworth parsonage on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. The romantic, wild, and sweeping moorland is now well-known as Brontë country, but when the Brontës occupied the parsonage, it had a different set of associations. The Anglican priests and fathers of British Evangelicalism—John (1703–1791) and Charles Wesley (1707–1788) and George Whitefield (1714–1770) among them—had all preached from the same pulpit as Charlotte’s father, Patrick Brontë, an evangelical Anglican priest himself, and the Yorkshire landscape invoked their revivalist legacy. Evangelicalism was a religious reform movement that crossed denominational lines and dominated the spiritual lives of the Brontë family. Briefly outlined, Evangelicalism insisted on “born again” conversion, emphasized the cross and Christ’s death for humanity’s sins, advanced belief in the Bible as the infallible word of God, and bid practical piety either through local acts of charity or far-flung missionary endeavors. Its chief tenet professed that all earthly life must be directed toward salvation. Yet when it came to soteriology, the branch of theology dealing with the study of salvation, and to eschatology, the related study of the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell), dogmatic differences abounded. In short, an individual’s perception of God, man, sin, conscience, free will, and the hereafter depended on one’s denomination and theological system.

Charlotte, for instance, struggled with the implications of Calvinism and with the extremes its doctrines of election, predestination, and reprobation produced: a self-righteous certainty of salvation in some and the miserable uncertainty of redemption in others.7 Charlotte fell in the latter camp and, for most of her life, anguish concerning the state of her soul possessed her. In letters, she frequently describes her agitated condition to her friend Ellen Nussey: “I keep trying to do right, checking wrong feelings, repressing wrong thoughts—but still—every instant I find—myself going astray[...] if the Doctrine of Calvin be true I am already an outcast—You cannot imagine how hard rebellious and intractable all my feelings are.”8

Calvinism was not all that Charlotte knew, however. Religious questions and spiritual matters reigned under Charlotte’s father, a supporter of the more lenient Wesleyan Arminian theology, who encouraged free inquiry in his children from an early age, inviting them to form their own views on politics, art, literature, and complex doctrinal subjects. As a result, the Brontë children had anything but a narrow or exclusively punitive view of religion. Even Charlotte’s contemporaries were astonished by her sweeping comprehension of the subject; Mary Taylor, a close school friend, expressed her surprise at Charlotte’s vast knowledge of denominations, past and present, and the fine differences between them.9 Instruction in Calvinist doctrine, then, may have been a formidable part of Charlotte’s education, but other views, and particularly the Arminianism espoused by her father, tempered many of Calvinism’s stern tenets, opening a promising vista to the more benign belief that salvation is offered to all mankind, not just to an “elect.” Through an Arminian lens, God’s role as a merciful savior moderates His wrathful majesty, hope counterbalances fear, and humanity retains free will and a measure of responsibility in the matter of reaching salvation.

These doctrinal debates and Charlotte’s intense desire to be peacefully reconciled to God thrum through Jane Eyre. When we meet Jane, she is a social outcast. Her first actions swing between hot, passionate rebellion and cold remorse. An abused orphan who is ten years old, starved for love, and living at Gateshead Hall, the home of her despotic Aunt Reed and three cousins, Jane is a “discord” in the household—neither servant nor accepted family member. Unwanted and unable to please her aunt, she is exiled from the family hearth one windy, rainy, cold November afternoon. Young Jane obediently retreats to another room, finds a book to read, and climbs onto the window seat, closing the curtains around her. As she sits, she alternates between watching the bitter rain and reading from volume 2 of Thomas Bewick’s (1753–1828) History of British Birds, perusing its images of sea fowl in the frozen Arctic north, her imagination touched by the idea of “those forlorn regions of dreary space,—that reservoir of frost and snow.”10

As Jane reads about icy northern “death-white realms,” the words and images connect with a series of Bewick’s succeeding vignettes and merge in the child Jane’s mind. The narrator carefully describes the scenes to similarly touch the reader’s imagination, and together they conjure vague feelings of loneliness, sin, guilt, and devastation. There is “the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray” and “the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast” as well as “a wreck just sinking” and a “solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone.” For young Jane, the final two vignettes are “objects of terror” and present two devilish figures, one helping a thief with a pack of stolen wares, and the other a “black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows.”11 These short descriptions would have summoned specific woodcuts to Victorian readers’ minds as Bewick’s volumes were vastly popular in the mid-1800s, ubiquitous on families’ bookshelves.12 The graveyard scene, for instance, refers to a particular vignette in which the headstone reads “Good Times & Bad Times & all Times got over.” 

Like Jane Eyre’s original readers, Charlotte knew Bewick’s books well and used to copy out her favorite engravings. The vignettes described here do not all appear in Bewick’s second volume, however, and so we may deduce that Charlotte chose them for the purpose of completing the novel’s opening tableau. She gives us the child Jane as a picture-perfect outcast, sitting against a windowpane spattered by piercing November rain, her head filled with visions of icy wastelands, and her heart plagued by disturbing images that speak both allegorically and directly to the pitfalls and dangers of the life ahead, and to the ultimate fate for us all: death. “Each picture told a story,” our narrator tells us about the vignettes, and pieced together—with their themes of mortality, solitude, destruction, temptation, and judgment—they both foreshadow Jane’s future trials and frame a soteriological and eschatological question: How does one walk a straight and narrow path in this life in order to find solace in the next? The narrator of the novel is of course Jane herself, but, as the reader who finishes the book will learn, she is Jane in maturity, Jane ten years into her blissful marriage, Jane the mother, Jane content and at peace. Jane the narrator speaks to us from an Edenic, earthly paradise. How will Jane the child and exile reach this state of physical and spiritual fulfillment? In effect, Jane Eyre holds in store for readers a pilgrimage in the Bunyan-inspired tradition of Puritan biography, which becomes more explicit as we read on.

Jane Eyre holds in store for readers a pilgrimage in the Bunyan-inspired tradition of Puritan biography.

Moments after the novel’s opening, Jane’s bullying cousin John Reed finds her and strikes her with the heavy Bewick volume. She attacks him in a rage, hardly aware of what she is doing, and is dragged away and locked in the “Red Room” for punishment, a relatively undisturbed (and rumored to be haunted) room, where her uncle had died nine years before. From this point onward, Jane’s rebelliousness, noted so frequently by early reviewers, emerges. She speaks against those who oppress her and, periodically in private moments, even luxuriates in chaos. As readers, we instinctively identify with the younger Jane, first as a child and then as a youthful adult, because that is whom we predominantly live alongside. We witness the wrongs committed against her and, for her sake, want justice and revenge. But to anyone reading Jane Eyre—whether for the first time or fourth—I would put into your hand this piece of advice: pay attention to Jane the narrator. She reaches toward you, calling you “Reader” and thereby forging a sympathetic link, but she also hides behind a veil.

The mature Jane who tells her story is not the Jane of the past, but the hints she drops to this effect are subtle. Her first momentary lifting of the veil, for instance, comes just after Jane the child has been locked in the Red Room and her Aunt Reed has refused to release her, despite her terror. It marks the novel’s first biblical quotation, a significant detail in itself, but her choice of verse also bluntly counters the resistance of young Jane. The elder Jane narrates that “to this day” she still “feel[s] the reverberation” of that frightening experience, and we half expect some verbal abuse or bitterness, but then she quotes Luke 23:34 and repeats the words of forgiveness Jesus utters against his persecutors on the cross: “Yes, Mrs. Reed, to you I owe some fearful pangs of mental suffering. But I ought to forgive you, for you knew not what you did.”13

Mrs. Reed soon rids herself of her niece by sending Jane to a charity school for orphan girls, but before Jane leaves, she confronts her aunt for her cruelty. Jane is so menacing and heated that she frightens her aunt, who leaves the room hurriedly, and for a moment, Jane feels triumphant. But then she shifts agonizingly between extremes—from the “passion of resentment” to the “chill” of remorse. Jane, child as she is, senses that vengeance, however justified, however briefly intoxicating, does not satisfy. Afflicted, she walks outside where “the black frost reigned” and leans against a gate. “I stood, a wretched child enough, whispering to myself over and over again, ‘What shall I do?—what shall I do?’”14 With these words, the author draws an explicit parallel between Jane and the protagonist of Pilgrim’s Progress, for Jane speaks the same desperate words as Christian from the opening paragraph of Bunyan’s work: “[B]ehold I saw a Man cloathed with Raggs,[...] he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, what shall I do?15

Jane’s placement “against a gate” is equally significant. Gateshead Hall, the Reeds’ home, is a hostile place, allegorically aligned with this world, but it is also a gateway, a reference to an early moment in Pilgrim’s Progress when the forlorn, burden-laden Christian is directed by the figure Evangelist: “Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?[...] at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.”16 Each successive place Jane comes to forms a part of her own pilgrim’s progress. From Gateshead, Jane is removed to Lowood Institution, a place of privation and illness but also of edification. Lying in a low wood, it marks a period when Jane’s passionate and vengeful nature is brought low, directed and measured. From Lowood, Jane seeks employment as a governess at Thornfield Hall, a northern country estate. Here, she faces many temptations and trials. This is the place where Jane falls in love with Edward Rochester, the master of Thornfield, and Jane the narrator admits that it was here she made an idol of human love. For a time, Rochester eclipses God: “I could not, in those days, see God for His creature.”17

When it is revealed that Rochester has a wife, a mad woman named Bertha, who has been locked in Thornfield’s third story, Jane reproaches herself in a state of abject humility: “One idea only still throbbed life-like within me—a remembrance of God.”18 Jane flees and wanders through moorland. She is taken in, weak and starving, by a Calvinist clergyman, St. John Rivers, and his two sisters, at Moor House. This place name implies mooring and anchoring. It is where Jane regains her footing, physically and spiritually. She learns of her inheritance from a distant relation and discovers that St. John and his sisters are her cousins. Financial and familial stability are hers for the first time in her life. Moor House, however, also binds and constricts Jane due to the influences of St. John, a strong, cold, and stony Calvinist who aspires to travel as a missionary to India and believes God has willed that Jane accompany him as his wife. Jane’s journey, however, ends at Ferndean, or “fern valley,” Rochester’s ancestral home. To Victorians, ferns symbolized a combination of earthly and heavenly comfort, signaling consolation; the hearth and home; and the lush, quiet grave.19 Jane finds Rochester blinded and lamed from his attempt to save Bertha after she set fire to Thornfield, now a ruin. Bertha is dead. Rochester is humbled and contrite before God. He and Jane marry and have children. 

Charlotte gives Jane a great measure of self-respect… and strongly indicates that she shares, with God, responsibility for her life’s choices and therefore salvation.

The rebelliousness of Jane as a child and her proud, sometimes vehement nature as a young adult troubled many readers in Brontë’s day, even as it thrilled others to a fever pitch. Tied to controversial interpretations of God and man, these features had serious religious implications. Charlotte gives Jane a great measure of self-respect, for instance, and strongly indicates that she shares, with God, responsibility for her life’s choices and therefore salvation. The interplay, too, of so many doctrinal perspectives in Jane Eyre, together with the developmental arc of the heroine, creates an ambiguity about Jane’s exact system of faith. Jane is not Calvinist, and yet she lauds and respects her cousin St. John. She is perhaps Arminian, but then the novel is shot through with hints that Jane accepts Universalism, that borderline heterodox belief, rejected by both Calvinism and Arminianism, that all souls are ultimately saved by God. For a mid-nineteenth-century society that assiduously catalogued its beliefs, this level of ambivalence was not to everyone’s liking. Hence the notice about Jane Eyre in the Church of England Quarterly Review, a mouthpiece of orthodox Anglicanism: “she is a merely moral person, and[...] might have been a Mahomedan or a Hindoo for any bias of Christianity we discover in her actions or sentiments.”20

For today’s readers, Jane Eyre continues to captivate, but because of the frequent error of overidentification with the young Jane, its ending confuses.21 Why does the elder Jane eulogize St. John Rivers and his missionary endeavors so animatedly before closing her narrative with lines from his last letter from India? Why does the novel end with the words “Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (St. John’s quotation of Revelation 22:21, the penultimate verse of the New Testament)? In a secular reading of the novel, St. John is generally regarded as a pure critique of Calvinist Christianity. Yet, like Jane, St. John is explicitly aligned with a positive figure from Pilgrim’s Progress. Jane, in maturity, describes him: “He may be stern; he may be exacting; he may be ambitious yet: but his is the sternness of the warrior Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim-convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon.”22 In Bunyan’s allegory, Greatheart is the warrior who kills Giant Despair and escorts Christian’s wife and children to the Celestial City, protecting them and others from the “foul Fiend” Apollyon. Greatheart appears in part 2 of Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian’s story having been told in part 1. Like Christian, he is noble and heroic, but unlike Christian, he does not confine his attention to his own salvation; instead, Greatheart focuses on the salvation of others and, in so doing, expands the model of Christianity that Christian represents. Jane Eyre, then, closes with the hint that the straight and narrow path may differ from person to person. As the Sufi adage tells us, there are as many paths to God as there are souls on the Earth. 

To my mind, the spiritual benefits of reading Jane Eyre have not been fully explored or enumerated—certainly not to the extent of its feminist, postcolonial, and psychoanalytical benefits. Its reverent God-centeredness has, typically, been misread, either by its original readers who recognized its devout language but mistook it for heterodoxy or by twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers who have habitually viewed it via a secular optic that distorts Charlotte’s original intentions and dramatically changes the novel’s message.23 Yet reading Jane Eyre can lead to profound spiritual self-examination, to an eager pursuit of the study of Christian doctrine, and even to a curiosity about the variety of world religions. (I know of at least one person for whom it led to a religious awakening. And if, dear Reader, you are of a sympathetic disposition, you may guess at once to whom I refer.) 

For readers willing to see (and perform) the novel’s deep religiosity, Jane Eyre is a gateway to, or perhaps a link between, numerous Christian sects and religious traditions. Intensely evangelical, rooted in biblical allusions and theological disputations, it yet possesses an authenticity and singularity in the way it presents the author’s beliefs that make it almost Abrahamic; it is mystical and gets at the primacy of things, at the primordial, as it attempts to steer the reader along a path of moderation, teaching by example how to eschew extremes. Like the guiding gleam that directs Christian’s steps in Pilgrim’s Progress, Jane Eyre illuminates a middle way for believers between the delights of earthly pleasures and the joys of spiritual living—one does not need to shun the former in order to reap the reward and benefit of the latter, our narrator seems to say. Asceticism, masochism, sybaritism—these things are presented in Jane Eyre in various, and often religious, guises, through references to Christian martyrdom; allusions to the Juggernaut and the Hindu practice of suttee; and sensuous-laden orientalist mentions of seraglios, houris, and harems. Jane rejects them all, following instead “that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience.”24

Even as Jane Eyre storm-tosses its readers, pushing us along Jane’s path and compelling us to experience her trials and temptations with her, it also impels us to seek a fixed point, a harbor or lodestar, in our own lives. For Jane, as religious literary figure and pilgrim qua guide, exemplifies that Arminian soteriological balance—that in any search for salvation, Providence joins with an individual’s free will, making a practiced ability to hear and submit to one’s conscience needful in this life in order to safely traverse it into the promise of the next. It is all too easy to be transfixed by the younger Jane, who always seems to hang around Jane-as-narrator, coloring her so that we can hardly say we know the mature Jane on her own terms. But we would do well to mark the elder Jane’s steps from loneliness to deliverance, pride to humility, and rebellion to submission. The novel is meant to serve, in a way, as a litmus test for readers’ hearts, to see how morally sound they are.25

The ending of the novel is as neat and precise as its opening. It keeps death and the hereafter before the reader, framing St. John’s imminent martyrdom in India as his marriage to Christ. As Jane has wedded Rochester and reached a mercifully Edenic state on Earth, so does St. John, through death, become the “bride” of Christ in Heaven.26 On July 31, 1848, Charlotte wrote to her publisher: “I perceive myself that some light falls on Earth from Heaven—that some rays from the Shrine of Truth pierce the darkness of this Life and World—but they are few, faint, and scattered—and who without presumption can assert that he has found the only true path upwards?”27 It is a worthwhile question, and one that Jane Eyre poses to each of us.

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