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“Reader, I married him,” proclaims Jane in the first line of Bronte’s famous conclusion to her masterpiece, Jane Eyre (552). The reader, in turn, responds to this powerful line by preparing for what will surely be a satisfying ending: the fairy-tale culmination of a Cinderella-esque novel. Thankfully, Bronte does not disappoint in this regard, as both Jane and, consequently, her readers are swept up in a cloud of matrimonial bliss and unparalleled happiness. “I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth,” declares Jane of her dear Rochester (554). Emotion and passion abound in the first few pages of the conclusion. Love, it seems, is everywhere, and sweet fulfillment is granted to both Jane and her faithful readers. Indeed, only one thing can distract the reader from this final note of happiness; only one person can possibly shift the reader’s focus from the pervasive sense of joy. Indeed, only St. John himself can mar the last couple of pages.
In the last two pages of the novel, the story of Jane and Rochester is interrupted by the appearance of the frigid St. John. This sudden disruption leaves readers surprised, disappointed, and perhaps even a bit annoyed. Why did Bronte end her passionate love story with the appearance of St. John and a revelation from the Bible? Likewise, if conclusions exist in order to aid readers in their interpretation of the rest of the novel, why does Bronte conclude by saying of St. John, “Amen, even so come, Lord Jesus!”? These questions loom over the reader like a dark cloud intent on ruining a sunny day. A satisfying reading of the classic novel can be garnered only after one grapples with the role of the final two pages in the novel as a whole.
Upon closing the book, the reader’s mind immediately begins to cycle around the notion of religion in the text, and what the closing lines may or may not say about the importance of spirituality. Indeed, the reinforcement of religion in the novel’s ending could be Bronte’s way of indicating that religion is a main theme, and should not be overlooked. If this is true, we must consider whether the ending portrays religion in a positive or a negative manner. On the other hand, perhaps the notion of fate is the resounding message, one that has far more to do with the fulfillment of individual destiny than with religion as a whole. All possibilities must be examined before any sort of a conclusion can be reached.
Before jumping to the end, we must briefly examine the ways in which religion is presented throughout the novel. Bronte weaves religion throughout the text, infusing spirituality into the characters of Helen Burns, Mr. Brocklehurst and, of course, St. John Rivers. Each character represents a different aspect of religion, a different way for Jane to view the paradoxical (and often patriarchal) Christian faith of the time. Helen Burns is influential thanks to her extreme Christian views, which espouse tolerance and forgiveness at all costs. “The Bible bids us return good for evil,” states Helen to Jane (117). While Jane rejects this form of Christianity as overly passive, she nonetheless absorbs its lessons and takes from it what she pleases.
The second glimpse of religion is offered to Jane in the form of Mr. Brocklehurst. While Jane considers some of Helen’s views, she seems to wholeheartedly reject Brocklehurst’s evangelic hypocrisy and self-righteous speeches. As head of Lowood, he preaches about the value of sacrifice and deprivation while simultaneously enjoying a rich lifestyle: “my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh” (127). Though this view of Christianity is outwardly rejected by Jane, she quietly accepts the plain way of living at Lowood. These two early impressions of religion resurface time and time again and remain in the reader’s mind throughout the novel.
While Helen and Mr. Brocklehurst influence Jane as a child, St. John Rivers is the dominant Christian model in her adult life. Rather than being passive like Helen’s beliefs or hypocritical like Mr. Brocklehurst’s views, St. John’s brand of religion is rejected by Jane on the grounds that it is too detached from the passions of life. Often compared to ice, St. John is devoted to Christianity at the expense of every worldly pleasure, including his one true love: “A missionary’s wife you must shall be,” states St. John to Jane. “You shall be mine: I claim you not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service” (501). St. John rejects pleasure and prizes Jane “as a soldier would a good weapon” (504). Jane is forced to choose between divine love and human love, a division which seems both arbitrary and unnecessary. Recognizing that she cannot deny the passion within her, Jane proclaims, “If I join St. John, I abandon half myself: if I do to India, I go to a premature death” (503). Jane rejects St. John’s notion of complete religious devotion, opting instead to follow her own heart and spirituality.
With these three different versions of Christianity permeating the text, the last two pages on the life of St. John stand out as more than a mere summary of what has happened thus far. Indeed, Bronte appears to intend the conclusion of the novel to be read as a final comment on religion. “Firm, faithful, and devoted; full of energy, and zeal, and truth, he labours for his race,” states Jane of St. John, “he clears their painful way to improvement” (555). She goes on to praise him as “chosen” and a “good and faithful servant”: qualities that uplift him, his work, and his undying devotion to religion. In this sense, bringing St. John back in the end of the novel creates a sense of praise, a celebration of those who give everything that they have to religion. Just as Jane admires Helen Burns, she apeears to admire the devout nature of St. John. Similarly, St. John seems to embody a “true” sense of religion, particularly in comparison to Mr. Brocklehurst, since he actually lives his life as he says he will and suggests that others follow his example. While Jane is happy in love, relegating St. John to the conclusion of the novel seems to suggest that his divine love stands on a more elevated level, a level that most people – including Jane – can only strive for. Indeed, while Jane and Rochester will someday have to face judgment, “no fear of death will darken” St. John’s last hour, as “his mind will be unclouded; his heart will be undaunted; his hope will be sure; his heart steadfast” (556). If the reader chooses to leave the novel with these thoughts in mind, the ending can be read as portraying St. John as an ideal religious figure, and Jane as merely too weak to follow him.
A different reading of the ending can lead readers to a far different conclusion, one in which religion does not fare quite so well. In one light, the ending portrays Jane and Rochester as a happy couple, complete with children and a home, while St. John lies alone on his deathbed. Both St. John’s assumed death and Helen Burns’ actual death are associated with suffering and isolation from the outside world. “St. John is unmarried: he never will marry now,” states Jane. “Himself has hitherto sufficed to the toil; and the toil draws near its close” (556). The somber tone of the last few paragraphs has the potential to leave readers with a negative, almost sacrificial view of religion. Jane, choosing her own spirituality and human love over the structure and sacrifice of devout Christianity, ends the novel happy and in love. The religious characters, in contrast, fare poorly throughout the novel, and the end can be seen as a mere extension of their sad fate. Helen, of course, dies of consumption at the depressing Lowood boarding school. Brocklehurst is “discharged of his duties by gentlemen of rather more enlarged and sympathetic minds,” leaving the hypocritical evangelist without a high position. St. John presumably dies alone in a foreign country, distant from the pleasures and realities of the human world. In this sense, the end can be viewed as a critique of structured religion, favoring individuals like Jane who strike a balance between this life and the next over those who, like St. John, give all that they have to God.
While one can see both the positive and negative interpretations of religion offered by the ending, neither analysis is wholly satisfying. The novel, after all, is the story of Jane Eyre and her search for spirituality and fulfillment, not a definitive judgment on religion. Viewing the ending as offering a concrete stance on religion leaves readers unsatisfied, as the great love of Jane and Rochester seems almost diminished by the appearance of the religious St. John and his Biblical wisdom. Indeed, one could argue that a truly satisfying interpretation of the novel can be achieved only when the role of destiny – both human and divine – is placed above the importance of the novel’s religious theme.
“God has given us, in a measure, the power to make our own fate,” proclaims St. John to Jane long before he tries to persuade her to accept a life of servitude (457). The line echoes throughout the novel, becoming a main theme in the text. Although Jane rejects the three dominant representations of religion, she never abandons her faith in God and spirituality. Jane’s personal faith in both God and in herself guides her actions, and it is this combined fate that ultimately leads her to where she is meant to be. Whenever Jane is faced with a moral or physical challenge, she looks to God for strength and guidance. For example, she turns to God for the strength to leave Rochester after finding out about the disgraceful situation he has put her in: “I did what human beings do instinctively when they are driven to utter extremity looked for aid to one higher power than man: the words ‘God help me!’ burst involuntarily from my lips” (394). Likewise, when Jane finds herself poor and starving after she has left Rochester, she comments that she feels “the might and strength of God” (416). Jane uses her unique relationship with God to curb her overwhelming passions, rather than to deny them altogether like St. John. Ultimately, she is able to garner courage through her faith.
On a similar level, she sees that she must leave Rochester once she realizes that he has become a god to her, blurring the balance between the human and the divine. “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven,” proclaims Jane. “He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol” (361). This idea that Jane needs both the divine help of God and the powerful force of human love is integral both to her spirituality and to her character as a whole. While Jane knows that she cannot deny her love for Rochester, she appreciates the fact that she cannot happily exist without doing what is right and moral in the eyes of God. This sense of living morally drives her away from Thornfield, but in the end her passions bring her back after the moral stain – Bertha – is removed from the equation, allowing Jane to live both morally and passionately with her beloved.
God’s work and destiny seem to go hand in hand in this novel, as the characters attribute the end results of their lives to divine destiny. Jane, for example, believes that God led her in the right direction after she left Rochester: “I feel now that I was right when I adhered to principle and law, and scorned and crushed the insane promptings of a frenzied moment. God directed me to a correct choice: I thank His providence for the guidance” (455). While she is the one who made the decision to leave, she still credits God with the outcome of her decision. Even Rochester attributes Jane’s return to him at the close of the novel to an act of God: “Now, I thank God!…Yes, I thank God” (551). Similarly, St. John’s decision to devote his entire life to God is portrayed as God’s will, evident in the fact that St. John sees himself as “chosen.” “I know my leader,” claims St. John, “that He is just as well as mighty; and He has chosen a feeble instrument to perform a great task” (501). This notion of God dictating the actions of men can also be witnessed in the fact that each volume of the novel ends on a religious note, suggesting that it is God who is directing the lives of each character towards a good and just end. Thus, the book can be read as a reinforcement of faith and morality, rather than as a judgment on religion as a whole.
The reader can view the conclusion as a fulfillment of individual destiny: the workings of God and man allow each person a hand in choosing his or her own fate. Just as Rochester and Jane fulfill their destiny by becoming a married couple, St. John fulfills his fate to be a missionary for a God he cannot deny. Looking at the novel in this way, the question of whether the religious characters have happy endings to their lives is irrelevant, as each character makes decisions guided by a desire to follow their own destiny – a destiny shaped by both human and Divine workings. Arguably, reading the ending in this manner makes for a more satisfying experience than reading it from a typical, religious viewpoint. Rather than an endorsement of one way of life or one form of religion, the ending indicates Bronte’s belief that each person – St. John included – receives the life he or she has prayed for. Indeed, the novel ends with the line, “Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!” as a means of praising God for watching over the lives of Helen, Jane, and St. John, for guiding them through life to their ultimate destiny (556).
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002.
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