How do different characters portray different views of religion in Jane Eyre?

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Characters in Jane Eyre portray a wide range of religious sensibilities. At the Lowood School, Helen Burns is a good Christian who genuinely lives out her faith. She is forgiving, caring, and kind, and she tells Jane:

“Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He...

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Characters in Jane Eyre portray a wide range of religious sensibilities. At the Lowood School, Helen Burns is a good Christian who genuinely lives out her faith. She is forgiving, caring, and kind, and she tells Jane:

“Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.”

“What does He say?”

“Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.”

Helen is sorely abused by teachers at the school, but bears it all with patience; she is always true and good to Jane. She dies, but her genuine love and faith make a deep impression on her friend.

The hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst, however, uses Christianity as a weapon to punish the girls from poor homes who populate the school. Rather than show them love and kindness, he states:

"I have studied how best to mortify in them the worldly sentiment of pride ..."

Jane can only despise him for living in comfort and ease while dictating that the girls in the school remain hungry and cold.

St. John Rivers, who hopes to become a missionary overseas, wants to marry Jane and take him with her on his travels, but his faith and heart are too cold for her warm nature. She finds his Christianity disturbing:

Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness; stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines—election, predestination, reprobation—were frequent ... I was sure St. John Rivers—pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was—had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding: he had no more found it, I thought, than had I ...

Jane herself lives by Christian moral values, rejecting, for example, a bigamous relationship with Rochester, but her anger makes it difficult for her to have a forgiving spirt towards those who have hurt her.

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To be fair, religion does not emerge very well in this excellent novel. The two main characters who are used by Bronte to comment on religion are the Reverend Brocklehurst and her own cousin, St. John. From her very first meeting with Brocklehurst, it is clear that he is associated with severity and hypocrisy, as the following quotation from Chapter Four makes clear:

I looked up at--a black pillar!--such, at least, appeared to me, at first sight, the straight, narrow, sable-clad shape standing erect on the rug: the grim face at the top was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital.

Note the use of the metaphor a "black pillar" to describe Mr. Brocklehurst, and also the inference of hypocrisy in comparing his face to a mask. As his later treatment of Jane and actions show, Mr. Brocklehurst is a hypocrite who lets his own daughters curl their hair whilst insisting the girls at Lowood have their hair straight, even going as far as having one girl's hair cut off because she has natural curls.

It is interesting that Mr. Brocklehurst is described repeatedly with the colour "black." St. John is described as being "white" or "ivory," yet it is important not to let this denotation of colour suggest a completely positive approach of his religion. St. John is a man obsessed with his goal of becoming a missionary, as this quote reveals:

A missionary I resolved to be. From that moment my state of mind changed; the fetters dissolved and dropped from every faculty, leaving nothing of bondage but its galling soreness... I know I shall overcome, because I have vowed that I will overcome--and I leave Europe for the East.

If Brocklehurst's religious fault was his hypocrisy, St. John's fault is his zeal and obsession, which drives him to manipulate Jane and propose to her even though he does not love her romantically. St. John presents a very different view of religion that is governed by zeal and obsession alone, and where reason controls all. However, his attitude to religion is much more positive than Mr. Brocklehurst's, and critics have pointed out that the novel ends with St. John's words, suggesting a respect that the author has for such zeal.

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