Charlotte Bronte addresses the theme of Religion in the novel Jane Eyre using many characters as symbols. Bronte states, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”(preface v). In Jane Eyre, Bronte supports the theme that customary actions are not always moral through the conventional personalities of Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St. John Rivers.
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The novel begins in Gateshead Hall when Jane must stay away from her aunt and cousins because she does not know how to speak pleasantly to them. Mrs. Reed possesses a higher standing in society. Due to Jane’s lower class standing, Mrs. Reed treats Jane as an outcast. As Bessie and Miss Abbot drag Jane to the “red room” a most scary room for a child, she is told by Miss Abbot: “No; you are less than a servant for you do nothing for your keep”(14).She must stay in the red room after she retaliates to the attack John Reed makes upon her, her obnoxious cousin. John tells Jane “mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not live here with gentlemen’s children like us and eat the same meals that we do, and wear clothes at our mama’s expense”(12). She receives no love or approval from her family. The only form of love that she does have is the doll she clings to at night when she sleeps. Mrs. Reed is a conventional woman who believes that her class standing sets her to be superior, and therefore better than a member of her own family. As a result of Jane’s tantrums, quick temper, and lack of self- control, society classifies her as an immoral person.
She speaks up for her herself when she knows she is not supposed to, and her family believes that she acts more like a “rebel” than a young woman. Her spontaneous and violent actions go against conventionality and she must suffer for being so free-spirited.
Miss Abbot believes: “God will punish her: He might strike her in the midst of her tantrums”; (15). Jane’s tantrums are not customary or acceptable, so during those precise moments of her tantrums, she is especially susceptible to God’s punishment. Miss Abbot constantly reminds Jane that she is wicked, she needs to repent, and she is especially dependent on prayer. The Reed children, in contrast, are treated completely opposite. Although John Reed is cruel and vicious to Jane, he receives no type of warning that God will punish him.
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The novel proceeds to Lowood, a school designed to educate and care for orphaned children. Mrs. Reed decides to send Jane there after the doctor, Mr. Lloyd, advises her that Jane should attend school. Mrs. Reed is glad to be rid of Jane and asks Jane not to wake the family the day of her departure. Jane arrives at Lowood and observes the behavior of the students. They are “all with plain locks combed from their faces, not a curl visible; in brown dresses, made high, and surrounded by a narrow tucker about the throat”(49). The day is long and all students must wake up at dawn and read the Bible for hours at a time. One day, Miss Temple serves the children cheese in order to compensate for their burnt porridge. Mr. Brocklehurst, the self-righteous leader of Lowood, tells Miss Temple: “You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is not to accustom them to luxury and indulgence, but to render them, hardy, patient, and self-denying”(65). Mr. Brocklehurst stresses the importance of plain clothing and humility. The acts performed by Mr. Brocklehurst are even more hypocritical when one compares them to the acts of Helen Burns. She serves as a role model to Jane and states: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despite fully use you”(60). Bronte uses Helen’s beliefs as a contrast to the conventional and self-righteous actions of Mr. Brocklehurst. Life continues at Lowood and the children trudge to Brocklebridge Church daily in the freezing cold without proper clothing. The long walks coupled with the lack of food at Lowood lead to an outbreak of typhus.
During this outbreak, Helen dies and she states “I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to him, reveal him to me”(114). Here, Bronte emphasizes the point that Helen dies happy and clings to her religious beliefs. The outbreak of typhus leads authorities to examine the school. They discover the awful conditions the students of Lowood live in. “And the discovery produced a result mortifying to Mr. Brocklehurst, but beneficial to the institution”(116). Mr. Brocklehurst is punished for his actions. He no longer may run the institution on his own. He is a self-righteous man who confused the ideals of Religion with suffering.
Jane blossoms at Lowood and acquires many new skills. Mr. Brocklehurst was not able to fulfill his desires to change his students at Lowood into servants and sufferers because others gained authority over him. Bronte’s views that “self-righteousness is not religion” are supported through the actions of Mr. Brocklehurst. The novel then proceeds to Thornfield, where Jane meets Mr. Rochester. She falls in love with him after some time, but she leaves him when she finds out that he would commit an act of bigamy if he marries her. Jane ends up with the Rivers family. Jane meets a very enthusiastic religious man, St. John, who devotes his life to performing religious acts. Jane states, “He was comparatively seldom at home: a large proportion of his time appeared devoted to visiting the sick and poor among the scattered population of his parish”(353). As a clergyman, St. John Rivers performs all of the duties that society expects of him, he visits the poor, he takes care of the sick, and he plans to take mission trips.
If St. John believes that the society will perceive a mission trip to India as a beneficial thing, then he will go to India. All of his actions are planned and traditional and as a result, St. John takes no personal satisfaction in the work that he does. As Jane learns about St. John, she realizes that he is similar to Mr. Brocklehurst, she seems to get a hint of distrust in him. St. John Rivers is also a hypocrite. He preaches the news of God, as a missionary, but he simultaneously commits a very sacrilegious act. He tries to force Jane to marry him when he states: “and do not forget if you reject it, (the proposal) it is not me you deny, but God”(411). St. John focuses his life on the acts of Religion and is not a happy person and is not easily able to lead a satisfactory life. Like Mr. Brocklehurst, he confuses the idea of conventionality with morality. The novel ends when Jane marries Mr. Rochester, who establishes a firmer grasp on religion. He has overcome many handicaps throughout the novel. He once believed that he had to lavish individuals with gifts in order to show his love for them. When the novel ends, Rochester has changed his value system and no longer places an extreme emphasis on physical things; he confesses his sins to God. He does not confuse morality with conventionality as St. John and Mr. Brocklehurst have. He knows that in order to maintain a relationship with God, he does not have to travel to church in the freezing cold. Bronte uses Mr.Rochester as a contrast to Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St. John Rivers. Mr. Rochester changes his conventional ways, and then is able to live a more moral and happy life. The characters Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St. John lead their lives in conventional and self-righteous ways and Bronte portrays them to be corrupt. This idea supports the main theme in Jane Eyre, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.