Idolatry of the Heart: Jane Eyre

This post begins the series, “Idolatry of the Heart,” which I will be writing to address the nature of dependent love in a variety of forms through literature. This subject is something I am passionate about exploring because I believe we all fill our hearts with things (and people) who are not our first love: God. I am constantly challenged and convicted by this truth and I hope that these posts will stir something inside of you as they have in me. Literature is such a tangible space for us to find our humanity; to explore the severity of our sinful nature. Only through story can we better understand and be understood.
This first post is special because Jane Eyre is one of my absolute favorite novels. It is startling, honest, and full of the passion of a heroine worth looking up to. Jane is a substantial woman of character. There’s really no other way to say it.  Her tenacity and conviction are something that I long to see more of in my own character, as I hope you will too. But she is not without fault. Her singular love for Rochester, and his jealous love for her, are prime examples of what a relationship can look like if void of the outpouring of God’s love first in each party’s life. 
Feel free to email or call anytime if you have a desire to discuss this topic further. I would love to interact with each and every one of you. 
                                                                                                    ~Chloe

 

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane grows up estranged from all parental and filial love because of her status as an orphan. Her guardian, a selfish and evil aunt, has no regard for Jane’s well being and in fact loathes the child. This emotional detachment causes Jane to be much more rational and guarded through the early stages of her life. Only when she meets young Helen Burns at boarding school, does Jane begin to understand what friendship and a sense of love for another truly mean. But even that is prematurely ended with Helen’s death, and Jane is left again without friends or family.

Jane grows into an accomplished young woman and decides to advertise for a governess position. She is granted one at Thornfield Hall. Upon arrival, Jane eagerly begins teaching her young pupil, Adele, and begins slowly forming companionship with her and also Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper. But something is missing in Jane’s life. A sense of deeper communion, more intimate relation. “I desired…more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach…I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in, I wished to behold” (Brontë 104).

Jane intrinsically knows that something more is out there, and within her reach; but what she does not know is that this longing will manifest itself in the complete giving of her heart to a man named Edward Rochester, her employer. Jane meets her future companion on a dark, mist-filled night in the lane between Thornfield Hall and a nearby town. He is startled and transfixed by her; she, resolute and wanting to assist him with his injury, focuses only on the task and not the man–until she meets him again back at Thornfield.

Rochester demands that Jane sit with him as he formulates an inquiry into her character. He examines her art, asks her about her childhood, her education, her family. She complies, but not without flare and conviction. Jane knows her mind, she knows what is morally right and wrong. Rochester’s manner of speaking in grey, subversive tones confuses her, and in turn her answers convict Rochester. He has never met anyone quite like Jane Eyre. Nor she, him. This theme of deeper understanding, of unmet longings being addressed, of conversation having double meanings will be the foundation which Jane and Rochester begin building their love for one another.  “I have something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him…every good, true, vigorous feeling I have gathers impulsively around him” (Brontë 167).

The arrival of a band of houseguests at Thornfield hall briefly puts Jane’s relationship with Rochester on hold, mainly because of the impediment of a young woman named Blanche Ingram. Yet, despite all the assumptions that Jane makes about marriage between Rochester and Miss Ingram, she knows deep in her soul that the union cannot possibly be acted upon. “I was not jealous: or very rarely; –the nature of the pain I suffered could not be explained by that word” (Brontë 176). Jane knows that Miss Ingram’s character is shallow and she trusts that Rochester knows it too. “She was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature…she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own…she could not charm him” (Brontë 177).

Jane knows that she is not equal to Rochester in society’s terms, yet she cannot help but love him; he is the center of her small world, a spiritual and emotional equal. And Rochester, in turn, seeks solace in Jane to mend his troubled heart. This combination proves to be an ill-fated one as their love for one another grows more inwardly by the day. “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion…I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol” (Brontë 257).

It is no surprise to the reader that Jane has forsaken much of her “religious” upbringing in favor of this profound connection to her soul mate. She has previously been battered by effigies of religious mandate in boarding school, been obscured by a society that deemed her nonessential, and cut off from any sense of familial ties. God exists only to punish Jane prior to her meeting Rochester. Her soul has been deeply punctured by a longing for companionship; a longing that will ultimately never be met by another human being. And it will take the violent act of separation and despair for Jane and Rochester to realize that their love is not enough; that God must come first. Only from the outflow of God’s love will they be able to truly love each other.

Jane leaves Rochester upon discovering that he has another wife, an invalid whom he has locked up for twenty years. She steals away in the dark of night, escaping the house and Rochester, but not escaping her own tortured soul. “May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised as in that hour left my lips; for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love” (Brontë 301). Only by leaving, coming to the utter ends of herself, does Jane discover who she is and what she really wants. She still loves Rochester, but knows she cannot have him in this life under the present circumstances without ruining her soul.

Overcome by the weariness of travel, she stumbles across the threshold of St. John Rivers, a clergyman who lives with his two sisters in a small farming town. Jane is immediately taken in and cherished by the sisters, inspected by the brother, and given employment as the local school teacher. She passes time in this small world, another sphere that delights her as Thornfield once had. She discovers through a solicitor that she is actually kin to St. John and his sisters. This brings Jane much joy, and she elects to use her inheritance to support them all, sharing with them something she has been longing for her whole life: family. But even through all these events, something is still missing. Jane has to surrender her heart to God, which she finally does after an argument with St. John in which he forcefully demands she be his missionary wife.

Jane knows that going to India will lead to her death–both spiritual and physical. She cannot go with St. John without denying every part of who God created her to be. This revelation allows Jane to finally accept God as the most important and reliable source of love that she has experienced thus far. It compels her to pursue a new life, pursue a renewed relationship with Rochester, pursue the freedom that comes from allowing God to fill the longings in her heart.

Rochester also painfully learns of his need for God’s love in his life, but in a more violent way than Jane. It takes the burning down of Thornfield, the death of his wife, and the mutilation of limb and face for Rochester to finally resign his impetuous heart to God. But what a miraculous transformation he has:

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…divine justice pursued its course, disasters came thick on me: I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death…I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. (Brontë 416-417)

Later in the chapter Rochester also remarks, “I thank my Maker, that, in the midst of judgment, he has remembered mercy. I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life that I have done hitherto!” (Brontë 418).

Through their simultaneous–yet separate–journeys, Jane and Rochester reconcile their hearts to God and to one another. The love that once kindled between them, idolatrous and jealous in nature, is now perfected through their mutual respect and love of their Creator-God. They are equal companions pursuing life, constructing new memories in love, without the compromise of possession. Neither desire the other to be something they are not. And God blesses their union through the close of the novel.

 

 

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