Monday, February 10, 2014

Talking About Religion

We're doing Jane Eyre in my Women's World Lit class right now.

As most of you probably remember, there are three religious characters in the book: Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John Rivers.

By "religious characters," I mean characters whose have their religion as their most salient feature -- certainly almost all the characters are Christian to some extent or another, including Jane herself.

In any case, today in class we were discussing what Brontë might be up to with these three characters; or more precisely with the use of religion and these three characters.

I want to make it clear, btw, that I didn't begin this branch of the discussion.  I was going on, as I often am, about agency and how St. John's use of Jane abrogated that agency, blah blah blah, when one of my students demanded to know if this arose from his perverted understanding of religion.

I paused.  Then I said, cautiously (I have learned to be cautious when it comes to religious discussions), "Elucidate, please?"

"Well, he seems like a hypocrite.  Talking about what God wants.  Like he knows what God wants.  When it's what he wants."

"Ah.  Well.  Yes.  Hmm."  I strolled about the front of the room. "We have three different religious characters in the book, yes?  Brocklehurst, Helen, and St. John.  Brocklehurst is pretty clearly meant to be a hypocrite, right?"

They all agreed eagerly.

"Which how can we tell?"

They eagerly gave me all the reasons.  Everyone hates Brocklehurst -- which is why he's such a weak character; Brontë set him up to be hated.

"And Helen," I said.  "Now she's legitimately religious.  Right?  She talks about forgiving your enemies and doing good to those who harm you, and then what does she do?  She goes right on and does it.  Yeah?"

"Like with Miss Temple!" a student agreed.

"Right.  Plus," I strolled back across the front of the room, "she makes Jane better.  Jane at twenty is better than Jane at ten, and that's due at least partly to Helen's influence.  Jane can forgive, she doesn't carry anger around, she can see past the harm that is done to her -- that's all because of Helen.

"But St. John," I said.  "What are we to make of his religion?"

"You don't think he's a hypocrite?" demanded the original student.  "He's using Jane to get what he wants.  Or anyway he's trying to."

"He's using Jane to get what God wants," I corrected.

The student snorted.  "What he says God wants."

"What he believes God wants," another student said gently.

I smiled a little.  "That's why some Jews hold that you're not allowed to do that," I explained.  "Say that this is what God says, that is what God wants.  That's taking God's name in vain -- that's what the second commandment is about, yeah?  You can't say God wants us to do this, because you're saying you know what God wants, and you just don't.  You can't.  You're not God.  It's hubris."

The first student looked keenly interested.  "So Jews don't believe in the Holy Spirit?"

I grinned at her.  "Just one God," I reminded her.  "The real one."

Everyone laughed.

"Anyway," I said.  "St. John does believe he's acting for God.  Does this make it all right for him to abrogate Jane's agency?"


But -- you know -- does it?

And the question of St. John's religion and what Brontë is doing with it is, I think, one of the more interesting questions of the book.  

St. John Rivers strikes me, from my modern vantage, as one of the more horrible characters in the text.  He's controlling and mean-spirited; he denies his sisters and Jane any agency over their own lives, or even over their own minds.  When anyone disagrees with him, on even the most minor of questions, he punishes them by withdrawing emotionally.  He demands that Jane reshape her intellectual, spiritual, and emotional life to fit his life-goals, and will permit no deviation.  When she objects -- when she says his behavior is doing her harm (and we can see she is not exaggerating) -- he dismisses her objections out of hand.  Frankly, I see him as worse than Brocklehurst, who at least only controlled the outer aspects of those around him.

Yet Jane herself admires him.  The text's last lines speak of him -- not Rochester -- and speak of him admiringly.  And it is hard for me to believe that Brontë means those lines ironically.

Like the ending of Troilus and Cressida, which turns abruptly from romance to religion, this ending has always itched at me.  

The rest of the text argues one way.  This ending argues another.  Which argument are we to believe?


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