There are some books that are read so often they become like a close friend. The pages of the book have been tattered and annotated, and you know it so well you can just open it up at any page, and enter into the world the author created at any point. For me, that book is Jane Eyre. I read this book for the first time when I was a freshman in Bible school, and it rocked my world more than any book of theology. It was not assigned to me. I bought it with the $5 my grandmother gave me for Christmas, and read it over break in 3 days. I couldn’t put it down.
Jane Eyre is a gothic novel, known for the rise of Jane, an orphan trained to be governess, who finds her strength as she discovers that her identity is rooted in what she believes to be true and good. Jane resolves to hold fast to what is true (despite her emotions on the matter, or even her best interest) Her character affected me deeply during a very confusing time of my life. She’s a memorable, complex heroine, worthy of all the popularity she’s had over the years.
Yet there is another motif developed throughout the book in the background, and that is of “The Christian Man.” The author, Charlotte Bronte, was a clergyman’s daughter, and a devout Christian. As her character, Jane, comes under the protection of three different men throughout the story, she lays out the faith of each of the men, so we can examine exactly what they believe.
Jane’s life starts by being orphaned and left in the care of her aunt who doesn’t want her. The first man to take Jane under his wing is the pompous Mr. Brocklehurst. He runs a charitable school for girls. He is immediately suspicious of Jane, and labels her as trouble before she opens her mouth. As he introduces her to the school, he immediately tells the student body that she is a liar, and should not be trusted. Life under his care is one of humiliation, poverty, sickness, and even the death of her friends.
For Mr. Brocklehurst, the purpose of the church is a power to wield. He uses the charity under his control as a means to funnel funds to his own family and to keep the lowly girls in their place. Truth is whatever he sees it to be, and if someone questions him, he takes it as a threat to his power. His faith is a means to money and prestige. He cares about God and those in his care only as much as it will benefit him.
In one of the more desperate times of Jane’s life, she finds herself under the care of another man, a small parish pastor named John Rivers, but everyone calls him “St. John.” After Jane recovers from an illness under the care of his sisters, St. John sees she is a sweet, industrious woman. He has a passion for mission work and intends to move to India to spread Christianity. As he is preparing for this big life change, he proposes to Jane and invites her to come with him. Jane rejects the marriage proposal, since they do not love each other, and St. John’s piety flares, and he questions Jane’s faith.
In his mind, his faith is defined by his sacrifices. He is in love with another woman, but she is too frail to travel to India and be a missionary so he has sacrificed love for his faith. Why can’t Jane? He loves his job in the community, working in the church and school. He is sacrificing that for his faith. Why can’t Jane? He has a deep love and affection for his sisters, and an obligation as the man of the family to care for them, and is sacrificing all of that for the sake of missions. Why can’t Jane sacrifice all of her relationships as well?
Yet Jane stands firm that her faith is not in question, as it is not her sacrifices that define her faith, but her belief in the one who sacrificed for her. If it was a matter of serving him as a brother, she had no problem going to India with him, working alongside him, but she would not marry him. He is angered that she is not as pious as he is, and he despises the freedom she claims.
This is the most prominent man in Jane’s life, as he is her first employer and the one her heart loves. Once she graduates from the girls’ school, she becomes the governess to his ward—a little girl who is not his daughter, but the daughter of a previous woman he had an affair with. He sees the good in Jane and wants to partake in her goodness. He feels entitled to a life with her. He tries to love her, but it’s difficult as he is not good. He’s a liar, adulterer, and quite arrogant. When his full character is revealed, Jane flees in heartbreak (the situation that left her desolate, and under the care of St. John). She loves Mr. Rochester, but she does not accept that her love justifies sinning alongside him. She is steadied by her belief in God, and yet she wrestles because God’s truth defines her love, not her emotions.
Later in the book, when she leaves the home of St. John, independent, wealthy, and confident, to see what has become of Mr. Rochester, she finds him quite different. Instead of the arrogant, rich, entitled man she left, who was living a lie, she finds a blind, poor man, who had been brought low. The weight of his sin fell on him, and she finds him dependent and humble. He knows what he lost, and why. Jane is able to love him freely, as he is at his lowest point, with nothing to offer her. He praises God for the grace that he does not deserve. He is overwhelmed that God would give him back Jane, after his life was ruined, with no tricks, no enticements, no coercion – just grace. Pure grace, driven by love.
The picture of a Christian man is not always a popular one and neither is the picture of grace.
“My heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth just now. He sees not as man sees, but far clearer: judges not as man judges, but far more wisely. I did wrong…His chastisements are mighty and one smote me which has humbled me for ever. You know I was proud of my strength, but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness? Of late, Jane—only—only of late—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.”
It is Mr. Rochester who defines the essence of the Christian man. He is not a man who wields his faith for power and influence like Mr. Brocklehurst. He is not a man of self-righteous piety who sees himself as the savior of humanity like St. John. Rochester is a man who knows he’s a sinner. He knows the depth of what he did, and there’s no way he can fix it. He lost everything. But love stoops down and saves him, and he praises his Father in heaven for grace upon grace that leaves him in tears.
Many readers recoil at the grace shown to Rochester. They find it a shame that Jane would love such a man. I remember telling a friend that Jane Eyre was my favorite book, and when she read it, she said “It’s not fair she marries Rochester after he lost everything and is deformed. That’s not a happy ending at all. It’s a horrible ending. Jane deserves better. Now that she’s independent and wealthy, and has everything going for her she’s going to freely choose to bind her life to this crippled, poor, blind man who lied to her. She marries him?”
The picture of a Christian man is not always a popular one and neither is the picture of grace. It feels unfair. That’s love gone too far—that’s love that’s too deep. It defines love not as something that comes to those who are deserving, but a divine instrument of a merciful God.