THE THEME OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION IN JANE EYRE

“As to St. John Rivers, he left England: he went to India. He entered on the path he had marked for himself” (Chapter 38)

I intend to make this a quick note rather than anything that might be considered a scholarly note! I really have been trying to make sense of that strange ending to Jane Eyre regarding her follow-up (or epilogue) on the missionary journey of St. John to India (in the last page or two of the novel). After all, it seemed like the novel was going to end on the happiest of terms regarding Jane’s marriage to Mr. Rochester, but then at the very ending Bronte relates some rather grim details of St. John’s lonely life and impending death. Thus, after such a joyous ending, the novel returns to the stark realism of death and to the hope of resurrection.

Let’s face it: Jane Eyre is a Death and Resurrection story. I mean, look at the life of Mr. Rochester: his life journey may be a bigger death and resurrection story than Jane’s! After all he lives through a literal holocaust in the burning down of Thornfield from which he emerges a humbled, repentant, maimed man who begins to pray and turn his life towards God. You don’t need to be a literary genius to see the death and resurrection motif here. Clearly after the burning down of Thornfield Rochester is a changed man with a new life. 

Then there is Jane’s own resurrection story. I won’t go into all the details, but after her failed marriage at Thornfield she undergoes a sort of religious passion where she is basically stripped of everything she ever had and all that is left is her faith in God. Perhaps at the very doorstep of death, and famished from lack of food, she is rescued by the kindness of St. John’s household and given a new life there! Jane admits later on in Chapter 35 that St. John had “once saved my life.” The death and resurrection motif here is quite patent, and is resumed again when she flees Moor House and is reunited to the now completely transformed Mr. Rochester whom she marries (against all odds).  

And of course there is that famous and touching scene in Chapter 9 where Jane stays with Helen Burns at her time of death. Helen tells Jane about her faith in God despite her impending death: “I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.” After Helen’s death Jane “learned that Miss Temple, on returning to her own room at dawn, had found me laid in the little crib; my face against Helen Burns’ shoulder, my arms round her neck. I was asleep, and Helen was—dead. Her grave is in Brocklebridge church-yard; for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a gray marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name and the word ‘Resurgam'(Chapter 9).” Resurgam is a Latin word meaning “I will rise again,” so the theme of death and resurrection is powerfully displayed in the life and death of Helen Burns, inspiring Jane to such a degree that fifteen years following Helen’s death Jane marks the grave with the word Resurgam! Indeed, Jane Eyre is a Resurgam story!

Even Adele is rescued by Jane from her overly strict school as related at the end of the novel. When Jane visits Adele, the child is “pale and thin,” and very “unhappy.” Jane found the school to be “too severe for a child of her age” and Jane “took her home with me.” Jane placed Adele in an English boarding school which corrected her “French defects” and molded her into a “good-tempered, well principled” young lady and an obliging companion for Jane. So we see, then, that even Adele’s story has an implicit resurrection theme as she is given new life in a new school and thus a happy and fulfilling existence.

Finally, we return to St. John Rivers. What is his Death and Resurrection story? It is given to us by Bronte in the very final pages of the novel. It is the grim reality that his “toil draws near its close.” There almost appears to be a slight tone of acerbity for St. John in the words used by Jane, but this cannot be true because she says that his last letter “drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with Divine Joy.” St. John anticipates his “sure reward,” his “incorruptible crown,” and “no fear of death” will “darken his last hour.” Jane adds that “his hope will be sure; his faith steadfast.”

Jane Eyre does not conclude with a fairy-tale happy ending. The stark reality of St. John’s impending death concludes the story. And the hope of resurrection related there (in the very last sentences of the novel) underscores the underlying Christian nature of the novel, consistent with the theme of death and resurrection so prevalent in the story.

Tom Mulcahy

References: In her very helpful essay, Human Performance, Divine Reality: The Spectacle of Jane Eyre, Corinna Cole makes the following insightful observation regarding St. John Rivers’ impending death: “The inevitability of death is the truest claim Bronte can make on her audience. It collapses the distance between the characters and the reader and resolutely grounds the novel in the divinely sanctioned final reality of death. Thus, the enchanting pageantry of the novel concludes by returning both her audience and characters to realism.”  

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