“I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.” – Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre (1847) is a novel that needs no introduction as a classic, that’s for certain. But why it is rarely regarded as a Christian novel appears a mystery to me, as the novel is surely one woman’s constant struggle to reconcile the desires of her heart with the will of God, with references to God in heaven as explicit in meaning and numerous in quantity as those in any modern Christian romance or amish fiction. And yet I have never seen it on any Bible bookstore shelf. The fact that it is gothic and disturbing in nature signifies little, considering other works of fiction that contain violence or horror, such as Frank Peretti novels or the multitude of spy and terrorist bestsellers (which unfortunately tend to be more of the drugstore paperback caliber), that span the shelves at Christian bookstores and libraries. The only conclusion I can arrive at is that, firstly, the book is simply too intellectual, and secondly, the church has long abandoned classic art (we rarely see Bach in the music section either, although we are seeing a revival in hymnody, at least).*
Jane Eyre is often framed as a “beauty and the beast” narrative, but her romance with the unbecoming Mr Rochester occupies only half or more of the novel; in actuality, the story is about Jane and the choices she must make in defiance of those who would control her, as well as her reactions to the twists of providence that leave her with little choice at all. The Christian reading that I extract from the novel is that Jane only achieves happiness by acting in accordance with both the law of God and the Spirit of God – by walking in both obedience and love. Jane loves Mr. Rochester desperately, but chooses not to marry him because such an adulterous action would be disobeying God’s law. She also refuses to marry St. John Rivers, even though he offers her lawful matrimony, because it would not be a covenant formed in love, and she believes God made marriage to be both lawful and loving; because neither Rochester nor Rivers offer her both, she must live a chaste and solitary life so as to be faithful to God’s will.
Both men’s offers are a source of temptation to Jane; Rochester’s adulterous affair entices her with the indulgence of her senses and emotions (“while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me….They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery…soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his.'”), and Rivers lays before her religious security: “Religion called – Angels beckoned – God commanded – life rolled together like a scroll – death’s gates opening, showed eternity beyond: it seem, that for safety and bliss there, all here might be sarificed in a second.” But Heaven cannot be gained here on Earth in defiance of God; neither can Heaven be won through human toil on Earth. Neither earthly pleasure nor toil can secure true happiness, Jane knows full well. Jane knows the voice of the devil when it tempts her, and makes the better choice than Eve. For all Rochester’s arguments that she would not be a mistress, but his genuine wife, because his first marriage was a sham, Jane knows that to admit anything other than the truth is “sophistical – is false.” She clings to her faith, explaining to the reader the motive for her actions and perhaps the definitive statement of her faith:
“I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man…. 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? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane – quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.'”
Here is where modern romances part ways with Jane Eyre; being in love, Bronte says, can be a kind of madness that affects one’s ability to think rationally and we should not allow it to become our slavemaster. Modern popular doctrine of the Eat, Pray, Love variety urges exactly the opposite: just follow your heart (consider, in contrast, Jeremiah 17:9 and how it applies to Jane Eyre). Certainly, “I need to follow my heart” is the refusal Jane gives Rivers (in much more eloquent wording) in answer to his proposal of marriage, but of course her heart is bound to God first and foremost and tempered by his law, and so even though her heart calls her after Rochester, she does not follow it but instead chooses to watch that dream float away. Her faithfulness to God is rewarded later in life when she is able to legally marry Rochester.
But there is more than just the specter of adultery that shocks Jane to her senses after her failed wedding. Jane also realizes that
“My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol.”
Contrary to film adaptations and academic readings of the book that stupidly, in the case of the former, turn a blind eye, and in the latter, subordinate it to a feminist narrative, Jane Eyre is about Jane’s working out of her faith. It is categorically a Christian novel, a story dealing with sin, salvation, redemption, the ten commandments, mercy, grace, the afterlife – the whole nine yards, much more than can be covered in one blog post. Surely we can start stocking it on the shelves of Christian bookstores now.
* Also it doesn’t help that the film industry completely erases most traces of Christianity in most film adaptations of classic literature. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an excellent (read: terrible) example of this.
Read works by Charlotte’s sister Anne: