A SHORT NOTE ON THE ULTIMATE MEANING OF JANE EYRE


“You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness, but I cannot live so: and you have no pity” (Jane Eyre talking to Mrs. Reed at Gateshead)

“Eight years [at Lowood]! you must be tenacious of life.” (Mr. Rochester talking to Jane Eyre)

The most important and famous line in the novel, Jane Eyre, is, “Reader, I married him.” In her marriage to Mr. Rochester all the tensions of the novel, and all the unfulfilled desires of Jane’s heart, are revolved: Jane finds true love, equality of souls, and peace with God. The ultimate meaning of Jane Eyre is that a human being is completed, or made whole, by an authentic love rooted in moral integrity and an equality of justice. If Jane Eyre suffered immensely from being unloved and from living in isolation at the beginning of the novel (at Gateshead), she ultimately finds true love and affirmation in her marriage to Mr. Rochester at the end of the novel (after many struggles and a profound purification of Mr. Rochester’s heart). “In their marriage,” says Eric Knies in The Art of Charlotte Bronte, “all the conflicts of the novel are resolved. Jane is at peace with God and man, and especially with herself.”

The two virtues I see Jane Eyre striving after during the course of the novel are real justice and authentic love. She insists on these two things; she demands them; she will not compromise them, no matter how dear the sacrifice (even if she has to sleep on the ground and almost starve to death). At Gateshead she is precocious precisely because she is treated unfairly by the Reeds. At Lowood she is profoundly upset by unjustly being labelled a liar. At Thornfield she will not consent to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress; at Moor House she cannot accept a marriage proposal by St. John Rivers based on self-sacrifice and moral duty (but without love). Clearly, a blessed rage for justice and true love burns within the heart of Jane Eyre, and she will not compromise it!

Jane Eyre is not primarily a novel about Jane’s growth in self-knowledge (which doesn’t mean she didn’t learn a few things along the way and, to be sure, her dying school-mate, Helen Burns, teaches Jane a powerful lesson about Christian forgiveness in Chapter 6). There is a moral sturdiness to Jane Eyre from the very beginning of the novel, and she has a keen eye for the counterfeit throughout the story. Jane does not suffer from self-deceit, but from the deceit of others (such as Mr. Brocklehurst’s religious hypocrisy, Mrs. Reed’s deception about the inheritance, and Mr. Rochester’s concealment of an existing marriage). Jane will not enter into love on deceptive terms, and her moral integrity is never in doubt throughout the novel, even though there is conflict in her heart when Mr. Rochester essentailly pleads with her to stay with him after their failed wedding at Thornfield. The character in the novel who grows in self-knowledge is Mr. Rochester, who no doubt undergoes a significant conversion after the devastating fire at Thornfield, a conversion not unrelated to his prayer and penitence (“I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance, the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were but very sincere”).

In reality, Mr. Rochester underwent the most painful of purifications, losing everything, as his entire life is essentially purged in the devastating fire at Thornfield, wiped out so to speak, burned up. He emerges from this holocaust as a new man, humbled, repentant, blinded and maimed. And yet in God’s Providence, which is an underlying theme in the novel, he and Jane will be reunited, and will experience true happiness, true communion of souls.

Acknowledging Charlotte Bronte’s literary prowess and imaginative genius in weaving a story out of various strands of story-telling techniques, Jane Eyre is, nevertheless, to quote Professor Ruth A. Blackburn (who is in turn relying on Robert B. Martin’s study, The Accents of PersuasionCharlotte Bronte’s Novels)“essentially a religious novel”. Indeed, if one were assigned the task of demonstrating how Jane Eyre exemplifies the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, there would be plenty of material in the novel to successfully complete the assignment. Still, Charlotte Bronte utilized her wonderful skill at incorporating suspenseful Gothic elements into her Jane Eyre story, and relied also on her knowledge and appreciation of the Romantic movement in literature to give the story (to borrow from Milton) a sensuous, personal and passionate style. And yet, for all of this, Bronte is able to maintain the story’s realism.  As G.K. Chesterton acutely observes of Jane Eyre:

“The shortest way  of stating [Charlotte Bronte’s] strong contribution is, I think, this: that she reached the highest romance through the lowest realism. She did not set out with Amadis of Gaul in a forest or with Mr. Pickwick in a comic club. She set out with herself, with her own dingy clothes, and accidental ugliness, and flat, coarse, provincial household; and forcibly fused all such muddy materials into a spirited fairy-tale. If the first chapters on the home and school had not proved how heavy and hateful sanity can be, there would really be less point in the insanity of Mr. Rochester’s wife—or the not much milder insanity of Mrs. Rochester’s husband. She discovered the secret of hiding the sensational in the commonplace: and Jane Eyre remains the best of her books (better even than Villette) because while it is a human document written in blood, it is also one of the best blood-and-thunder detective stories in the world” (The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).

For all its utilization of Gothic literary techniques and Romanticism, Jane Eyre is essentially the story of a quest for authentic, life-affirming human love, and this is realized especially through prayer, perseverance and Providence, and a keen sense of the counterfeit. As Professor Blackburn observes, “Knies agrees…that the theme of Jane Eyre is the search for love; but he makes clear that it must be the right kind of love, based on ‘moral and individual integrity’, each partner retaining ‘his uniqueness as an individual,’ which ‘in turn requires a firm religious orientation’.”

It would be useless to argue that Jane Eyre is not a religious novel, because at major key points in the novel faith, hope and reliance upon God’s Providential care play a key role in the telling of Jane’s story, whether it is Helen Burns teaching Jane about Christian forgiveness or Mr. Rochester attesting to his personal redemption. Here, briefly, in proof thereof, are some of the main examples of the profound religious dimension of Jane Eyre’s life by way of direct quotes from the mouth of Jane Eyre:

“I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it, and framed an humbler supplication; for change, stimulus; that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: ‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude’!” (Chapter 10).
“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.” (Chapter 21)
“One idea only still throbbed life-like within me – a remembrance of God: it begot a muttered prayer…’Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help’.” (Chapter 26)
“Trust in God…Believe in Heaven…We were born to strive and endure.” (Chapter 27)
“I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?” (Chapter 27)
“God must have led me on…I was weeping wildly as I walked along my solitary way…a weakness seized me and I fell: I lay on the ground some minutes, pressing my face to the wet turf. I had some fear – or hope – that here I should die: but I was soon up: crawling forward on my hands and knees, and then again raised to my feet – as eager and as determined as ever to reach the road” (Chapter 27).
“I felt the might and strength of God. Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had made: convinced I grew that neither earth should perish, nor one of the souls it treasured. I turned my prayer to thanksgiving: the Source of Life was also the Saviour of spirits. Mr. Rochester was safe; he was God’s, and by God would he be guarded. I again nestled to the breast of the hill; and ere long in sleep forgot sorrow.” (Chapter 28)
“Oh, Providence! sustain me a little longer! Aid – direct me!” (Chapter 28)
“I can but die,” I said, “and I believe in God. Let me try to wait His will in silence”…I thanked God – experienced amidst unutterable exhaustion a glow of grateful joy – and slept.” (Chapter 28)
“I adhered to principle and law, and scorned and crushed the insane promptings of a frenzied moment. God directed me to a correct choice: I thank His providence for the guidance!” (Chapter 31)
“When his first born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes….On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.” (Chapter 37)

I pray that I might have as much faith in God’s providential help as Jane Eyre during my times of trial and tribulation! Moreover, the claim sometimes made that Jane Eyre is hostile to religion, especially by the manner in which it portrays ministers in the story, is specifically rebutted by Charlotte Bronte in her “Preface to the Second Edition” of Jane Eyre, a preface which also clearly attests to Charlotte Bronte’s strong personal faith.

Jane Eyre’s faith is intensely personal, subjective in nature (characteristic of the Romantic movement), and this subjectivity is seen too in Helen Burns who appears to hold to an overly idealistic view of salvation, touching upon the idea of universal redemption in stark contrast to the fire and brimstone preaching of Mr. Brocklehurst (see Chapter 6 where Helen says, “I hold another creed…for it extends hope to all: it makes Eternity a rest…not a terror and abyss.”). This is the biggest theological difficulty presented in the novel (along with the concern about syncretism in certain places within the novel), but fortunately it does not compromise the strong moral thrust of the story (see postscript note below).

At the end of Jane Eyre, Jane glories in the joy and happiness of being loved, and of giving and receiving love. She says:

“I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest – blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character – perfect concord is the result.” (Chapter 38)

Finally, by an equality of justice (as I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this note), or perhaps I should call it an equality of love, I am referring to Jane’s social commentary in Chapter 12, where she says:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”(Chapter 12)

It was this equality of souls that endeared Jane to Mr. Rochester, and helped her to fall in love with him. As she said in Chapter 23, when she thought Mr. Rochester was going to marry Blanche Ingram, necessitating Jane to leave Thornfield:

“I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield – I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life, -momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic, and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence; with what I delight in, -with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you for ever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death.”

Of course, however important this equality of love (or equality of souls) is –  it is, nevertheless, not sufficient, in and of itself, to secure a happy marriage for Jane Eyre. It is not until Mr. Rochester’s profound conversion and turning towards God that all the difficulties in the novel are resolved paving the way for the novel’s joyful ending!

CONCLUSION:

Jane Eyre’s incredible journey in search of authentic, life-affirming love, a journey which took her from Gateshead, to Lowood, to Thornfield, to Moor House, and ultimately to Ferndean, is not so much a geographical journey but a journey of the heart. But it is ultimately a journey sustained by faith and trust in God!

It is a journey sustained by Jane’s quest for justice; it is a journey sustained by Jane’s tenacity for life; it is  a journey sustained by Jane’s quest to be loved; but ultimately it is a journey sustained by Jane’s faith in God and in His providential care for her life, a faith sustained even in the midst of tremendous sufferings and heroically endured privations. In this regard, who can ever forget Jane’s advice to Mr. Rochester in Chapter 27 as some of the best advice anyone could ever be given:

         “Trust in God…Believe in Heaven…We were born to strive and endure.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: I looked at a bunch of internet notes on Jane Eyre in preparation for this post (which were helpful), but in my particular case what was most helpful was an old study guide by Professor Ruth A. Blackburn, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and, more precisely, the note therein entitled, “Survey of Criticism,” pertaining to the novel. The influence of Gothic and Romantic literary styles in Jane Eyre is touched upon in many commentaries. The commentators agree that the burning down of Thornfield is symbolic of Mr. Rochester’s personal purification.

Theological Problems in Jane Eyre: Theologically speaking, I am personally able to separate the good from the bad in Jane Eyre, and it seems to me that the novel ends on a strong Christian note (the fleeing from sin, trust in God, the redemption of Mr. Rochester, the praise of God’s mercy and the value of a God-centered marriage). In short, Jane Eyre gives a boost to my faith although I am not unaware that there are theological difficulties present in the novel such as universalism, syncretism and excessive subjectivity of faith not adequately linked to the community and the Church.

The main difficulty in Jane Eyre is not its criticism of clergymen but the “blurring” or “merging” of Christian spirituality with other forms of spirituality that opens Charlotte Bronte to the charge of syncretism, although I suspect that she would be able to mount a defense to this charge.

The difficulty with universalism in Jane Eyre is mentioned in a number of internet articles (Google: Charlotte Bronte and universalism). The difficulty (and examples thereof) of syncretism in Jane Eyre is also discussed in a number of internet articles (Google: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, syncretism, and the merging of spiritualities in Jane Eyre).

I will always remember Jane Eyre as the woman who said to Mr. Rochester, “I advise you to live sinless,” and to God as she walked through the valley of the shadow of death (I paraphrase), “Lead me on.” It would be hard to get better advice than that!

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