We are continuing this week’s Charlotte Brontë feature with a guest post by our friend Kathy. Kathy is an elementary school teacher and an avid fan of Jane Eyre. She has previously reviewed Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson for Pages Unbound.
C.S. Lewis instructs nervous lovers that “to love is to be vulnerable.” In the marital relationship, the husband and wife share with each other not only their wholeness, but also their brokenness, their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. The beauty of the marital relationship lies in the spouse’s total embrace of other, which gives the husband and wife the confidence and drive to grow in virtue for the sake of love. For this beauty to become reality, however, spouses must be totally honest and, consequently, vulnerable to each other. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the beloved title character’s knowledge of her self-worth enables her to choose a marriage covenant in which she can become vulnerable because her entire person, rather than just her purity or capability, will be truly loved and cherished.
In the beginning of the novel, Edward Rochester primarily views Jane as a means of salvation from his past sins and embraces only the parts of her identity that he views as personally beneficial. Indeed, we view Rochester’s appreciation of Jane’s utility in his very first encounter with her. Rochester falls off his horse and places a “heavy hand” upon Jane’s shoulder, explaining, “Necessity compels me to make you useful” (p. 130). Later, when Jane saves Rochester’s life during a house fire, he says in a flirtatious manner, “I knew . . . you would do me good in some way, at some time” and calls her his “cherished preserver” (p. 173), further alluding to Rochester’s self-centered perspective in their relationship. It is interesting to note that although Rochester desires Jane for what she can provide for him, he himself fears revealing his full past and facing rejection. Rochester readily admits to Jane, “I dare not show you where I am vulnerable, lest, faithful and friendly as you are, you should transfix me at once” (p. 251). Nevertheless, he wishes for Jane to absolve him from his youthful foolishness that led him to enter carelessly into a marriage with a beautiful but mentally insane woman. He desires to make Jane his “angel”, his “comforter,” his antidote against the punishment of isolation due to his past mistakes (p. 301). He proceeds to tell Jane, “I believe I have found the instrument of my cure,” namely, Jane’s purity (p. 253). Throughout the night of his proposal to Jane, he reiterates rationalizations of his deceptive act, saying, “It will atone” and “God pardon me . . . I have her, and will hold her” (p. 297). Never, however, does Rochester pledge love and service towards Jane. Despite the intensity of Jane’s feelings for Rochester, Jane, upon learning of his previous marriage, drops the engagement and leaves, for she realizes that as his mistress, she would only be cherished insofar as she would be beneficial to him.
Jane Eyre further resists a half-hearted marital relationship in her interactions with St. John Rivers. St. John Rivers is described as “a domineering male character who is firmly convinced of God’s will for them both” (Lamonaca, p. 150). He loves a beautiful woman of his hometown, Rosamond Oliver, but her more provincial, worldly ways contrast with his dream of serving as a missionary in India, which he believes is his true vocation. When he meets Jane, he does not fall in love with her, but he sees in her the prospects of a good missionary wife, and consequently proposes. While Jane entertains and indeed accepts a future of service in India, she cannot accept his hand in matrimony, for she realizes their relationship would not involve a total embrace of the other. He only admires her for the service she can provide and the appearance of holiness she can display. Vehemently, she describes her aversion to the concept of a loveless marriage:
He asks me to be his wife, and has no more of a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock…he prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all…can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love, and know that the spirit was quite absent? No – such a martyrdom would be monstrous (p. 471).
Jane realizes that because her vocation is to give of herself in love, to marry someone for admirable reasons that do not include love is to forsake that for which she was created. Nevertheless, St. John continues to press his will upon her, even daring to claim that she must consent, for their marriage is, in His eyes, God’s will. He asserts, “God and nature intended you to be a missionary’s wife . . . you are formed for labor, not for love” (p. 468). Though he disguises his intentions with religious language, St. John seeks not the entire person of Jane as a self-gift, but only her skills as a missionary. Lamonaca describes St. John’s “agenda . . . as a vehicle of masculine self-aggrandizement and domination”, an arrangement that Jane “ultimately rejects” because if she were to reveal herself fully to St. John, she would not be wholly embraced (p. 245). Thus, she opposes St. John’s claim, saying, “Oh, I will give my heart to God . . . You do not want it” (p. 472).
It is only when Jane returns to Rochester’s side that she is able to become fully vulnerable in a marital relationship. While Jane was away, Thornfield, Rochester’s estate, experienced a fire that not only hurt and blinded Rochester, but also killed his wife. This time of quiet suffering allowed Rochester time to turn to God with repentance and beg for healing. When Jane returns, he initially cannot believe that she is truly present. “What delusion has come over me?” he cries. “What sweet madness has seized me?” (p. 504). However, upon realizing that Jane is no phantom come to tantalize him, Rochester offers a prayer that authentically reveals a newfound selflessness: “I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto!” (p. 522). Rather than use Jane selfishly to fulfill the deepest longings of his heart, Rochester entrusts his desires to God and, in so doing, is able to love Jane with the unconditional love that every wife deserves. He comes to value Jane’s immense worth as a woman and as an individual so that he no longer only sees her as an instrument for happiness, but also as a gift that he must serve, protect, and cherish. Thus, Rochester comes to seek Jane’s happiness and put her desires above his own.
If a woman must become vulnerable in order to love and be loved authentically in marriage, then she must choose a man who will cherish her entire self: strengths and weaknesses, personality and capability, passions and labor. Jane Eyre serves as an example for women everywhere of the beauty that can result if one has the courage to wait for marriage until one comes who can offer the sacrificial love and service that all women deserve.