A review by Elizabeth Rigby of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre states that the novel "is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition." Is this true? Is there any part that is Christian?
Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is not anti-Christian; it is anti-hypocrisy. As the character Jane Eyre observes, it is not the Bible or the teachings of the New Testament that are deleterious to humanity, but rather the manner in which the Bible is perverted by autocratic figures for the purpose of advancing their own agendas. No better example of this exists in Jane Eyre than the figure of Mr. Brocklehurst, master of Lowood, the Christian-oriented school for orphaned and troubled girls to which young Jane is sent. Early in the novel, Jane observes, "I saw myself transformed under Mr. Brocklehurst's eye into an artful, noxious child, and what could I do to remedy the injury?" Mr. Brocklehurst is a Bible-quoting and referencing task-master who oversees an abusive system in which the pupils are deprived of freedom and both the emotional and literal sustenance needed to mature as happy, healthy adults.
An early illustration of the degree to which Bronte indicts the perversion of religion is Jane's introduction to her new world at Lowood. In this scene, Mr. Brocklehurst discusses with Jane's equally abusive aunt, Mrs. Reed, the attributes of life at Lowood. During the exchange between Brocklehurst and Mrs. Reed, the former comments on the goals of the institution and the role of Christianity:
Humility is a Christian grace, and one peculiarly appropriate to the pupils of Lowood.... I have studied how best to mortify in them the worldly sentiment of pride, and only the other day I had pleasing proof of my success.
Brocklehurst then proceeds to relate his daughter's observations of Lowood, commenting on how "quiet and plain" all the pupils look, and how the students "looked at my dress and mama's, as if they had never seen a silk dress before." Brocklehurst is a classic example of a figure in a position of authority using religious orthodoxy to justify the austerity of his tactics. That he himself has grown wealthy by virtue of his mastery of manipulation is the ultimate manifestation of the abuse of God Bronte and others disdained.
If Jane Eyre serves as an indictment of those who abuse religion, however, it is also cognizant of the benevolence inherent in more humane interpretations of scripture. The character of Miss Temple—note the name: "Temple"—is the antithesis of Mr. Brocklehurst. It is in Chapter VI that the dichotomy between theory and practice is made particularly clear, and it is the troubled soul of Helen who helps to illuminate the contradictions inherent in the teachings to which she and the others have been ritually subjected, at one moment commenting that "Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilized nations disown it," while also imploring Jane to "Read the New Testament and observe what Christ says, and how He acts."
It is clear that Bronte understood the distinction between the word of the Bible and the abusive natures of those who purport to act in God's name.
I do not agree with Rigby's assertion that Jane Eyre is an "anti-Christian" composition. I would say that it is rather an anti-church composition. Bronte is disgusted with Christians who do reflect true Christian values. For example, Brocklehurst, who runs the Lowood institute is hypocritical: he claims generosity but is really parsimonious, perverting words of the Bible for his own purposes. St. John Rivers claims spirituality, and wants to be a missionary but he is very cold and one wonders if he wants to be a missionary to help people and bring them God's Word, or if he wants to go for his own self image and the pride that can be associated with martyrdom.
Helen Burns, however, does show true Christian virtue and is a complete contrast to most of the other characters. She is loving, patient, longsuffering, and kind. She embodies the biblical "fruits of the spirit" found in Galations 5:22-23. She is a true Christian in Bronte's eyes. Even Rochester, who is a sinner wanting to involve her in a bigamous marriage, shows more Christian virtue than many other characters. He is kind, longsuffering, and moved by character rather than riches. At the end of the novel, he "thanks God" for Jane's return and I think a Christian metaphor can be seen in that he who was made blind, was able to once again see.