Jane Eyre 6: Faith and Fairies – Conventional Spirituality versus What the Heart Hears

If you’ve read Bronte’s own preface to the second edition, you’ve noticed that, besides  laying it on a bit thick in praise of Thackeray, she also indicates that the novel has been getting some serious criticism for its religious elements (or lack thereof). Those of us here who are used to being lambasted as the spawn of the devil for reading Harry Potter might find ourselves doing the proverbial head-scratch over folks getting their dander up over the likes of Jane Eyre, which still makes the school reading lists  at religious schools and is hardly the text likely to set parents shouting at PTO meetings. In many ways, of course, this is a Christian novel, so much so that its “preachiness” sometimes turns off modern readers (as we’ve already seen in our conversations here), but its depiction of the spiritual and the supernatural is often unconventional, leading “Currer Bell” to remind readers, in the preface, that “conventionality is not morality.” As we look at the roles of the Christian faith, the spiritual, and the supernatural in Jane Eyre, we may never see what some of those nineteenth-century critics were in such a tizzy over, but we will certainly see some of Bronte’s deft touches with the non-corporeal elements of Jane’s story.

Gimme that Old Time Religion

Based on the tone of her preface, it seems likely that the folks who want to ban books they’ve never read were probably sending Currer Bell nasty notes about the novel and their perception of its opposition to the Christian faith. Yet, Jane is undoubtedly a Christian. She has a sincere faith and is even willing to serve as a missionary  (for the sake of the gospel, not for St. John Rivers). She attends services regularly, is knowledgeable about the scriptures, and follows Christian teachings and traditions both at school and upon her employment at Thornfield and later during her exile with the Riverses.

More importantly, she demonstrates an adherence to the teachings and examples of Christ. Despite her abuses at the hand of her Aunt Reed, she exhibits a truly Christlike attitude toward the dying woman and her self-absorbed daughters (though Eliza appears to be self-effacing in her desire to be modest and even taking the veil of a nun, she is actually just as self-focused as Georgiana, just on her own self-control and structure instead of on her own pleasure.). Though Jane could certainly be justified if she chose to ignore Betsy’s summons or even if she took advantage of her aunt’s condition to say a few choice words to the old tyrant, she is the model of Christian charity, playing the part of daughter better than the woman’s two actual daughters, whom she always preferred over Jane. Truly, our protagonist takes to heart our Lord’s admonition to “love those who hate you.”

Jane’s moral standards are also firmly grounded in her faith. She refuses to join Rochester in a life of sin, despite her love for him. Her separation from him is physically and emotionally devastating, but she chooses to sacrifice her temporary happiness for her Christian ideals. Though she leaves Rochester, she extends to him the truly Christ-like spirit of forgiveness. She doesn’t behave as “wronged” women do in many books, films, and Country music songs (I just can’t see Jane flattening Rochester’s tires and keying his door); rather, she continues to love him, to hope for his spiritual renewal in her absence, and to seek him out when it becomes evident that he needs her.

Besides Jane, the novel also includes other Christian characters who illustrate the virtues of faith. Through negative example, Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst serve, like the Pharisees, as examples of legalistic, heartless practices that are far from the loving example and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns and her would-be suitor St. John Rivers are both completely focused on their faith, despite being flawed human beings. Helen, though a rather slovenly and perhaps slow child, works hard to improve herself and, rather than bristling under criticism, takes even the unkind words of a teacher as constructive discipline. She accepts her own death and even looks forward to it as her opportunity to be with God, using her last moments to encourage and console her friend. When, years later, Jane is able to procure a headstone for Helen’s grave, its inscription—Resurgam (I will rise again)—is a perfectly appropriate one for a child with such an assurance of faith.

St. John Rivers sacrifices his opportunities for personal happiness and success in order to follow the call of mission work in India (a far more dangerous enterprise then than now). He does of course make the mistake (as preachers can do if they are not careful) of assuming he knows God’s will for Jane as well as for himself and of trying to force her to marry him ( and there does seem some self-motivation there; he can’t have Rosamund, the girl he really loves, so Jane would be sort of a consolation prize, her lack of beauty part of his sacrifice for the Lord); however, his desire to serve is sincere, and, though foiled in his efforts to force Jane into a mission field to which she does not feel called, he does good work in India, staying in touch with Jane and his sisters, but dying in the service of his Savior. Though he is not a perfect person, St. John does follow Christ, his very imperfections a reminder of the Christian’s inability to be perfect without God’s help. In fact, St. John’s faith provides the novel’s last words, quotations from Scripture that reinforce the Christian tone of the text.

The Still, Small Voice(s)

When she is compared to the conventionally devoted Helen and St. John, it is easy to see Jane as an unconventional Christian. She recognizes that missionary service is not the only way to be devoted to Christ, and that everyone does not have the same call.  She also possesses a spiritual quality that both connects her to the teachings of Christianity and sometimes puts her at odds with its more tradition-bound practitioners: a strong sense of justice.

Jane refuses to take lying down the cruelties inflicted on herself or others. While to some, including Helen Burns, this seems to be an indication of pride of Jane’s part, our narrator’s desire to see justice done is not limited to her own concerns. She insists on divvying up her inheritance amongst herself and her cousins, the Riverses, she refuses to let Rochester overpay her, she makes sure Adele is treated fairly, the list goes on and on.  Jane’s sense of justice does not always intersect with the traditional values around her. Rather, it often is connected to her own sense of who God is, her Inner Light, as the Quakers, whom we’ve already mentioned in previous conversations, would term it.  Like the Quakers, Jane is a deeply spiritual person. Her faith is not one of  Sunday Schools and stained glass.  Rather, it is a seeking, yearning spirit that draws her closer to God and advises her on the best course of action.

Jane recognizes that she has her own struggles with faith, admitting that she has turned Rochester into a false idol of worship in place of God during their courtship. Considering how all this turns out, it is evident that the events of the novel serve to illustrate Jane’s mistake on this score. She may be an elf or think Rochester a phantom, as we’ll see in a bit, but she must not abandon her true faith to  deify a human being.

Jane is a person  who clearly lives in her own head and learns to trust her own heart as she listens to the guidance she finds there. Contrary to traditional practices, she trusts her own spiritual insights over those a clergyman (albeit a clergyman who believes he’s been given a word from God that Jane should marry him), and even turns to nature, rather than conventional prayer, as she wanders, friendless, far from Thornfield, before finding her way to Marsh House and the kindly Rivers sisters.

And this Providential, natural guidance she receives seems to be effective. Jane not only ends up on the doorstep of kind people, but people who turn out to be her only living relatives. Clearly, somebody is watching out for Jane, but it may not just be a traditional Christian guardian angel.

Things that go Bump in the Night

Supernatural creatures and experiences make frequent appearances in the novel, further complicating the religious angle. From almost the first page, we find Jane in a room where she believes a ghost visits her.  This experience illustrates her imaginative personality, but also sets the tone for the story. Ghosts are not merely introduced as part of some sort of Gothic Novel checksheet; rather , they are part of a large number of encounters with the supernatural, enoucnters that, as we mentioned in the post on threshold experiences, add to Jane’s story of being stuck between roles, worlds, identities. In addition, they tell us much about the characters of our characters.

Jane clearly is fascinated with the fantastical, as her sketchbook illustrates. When Rochester asks to look at her artwork, work Jane says sprang from images seen with her “spiritual eye,” he selects three for special attention: one of a sea bird carrying a bracelet taken from the arm of body drowned in a shipwreck; one a personification of the evening star; and one of an arctic image wearing the northern ‘lights as a crown. Rochester states that the thoughts that inspired the sketches are “elvish”; indeed, Rochester accuses Jane of being an elf or fairy more than he swears “by the deuce” (in other words, a lot), even casting her as fairy in the story he tells Adele to explain the changing relationship between himself and the child’s governess.  He assumes Jane is a fairy when she returns from her aunt’s funeral and especially when she finds him at Ferndean. His assumption that she is a fey and not real emphasizes his disbelief that she would or should ever come back for him, but it also adds to the layering of Jane’s character, Like the fey, she is in motion, changing and yet constant, devoted but not slavish, passionate but not foolish. Small and elfin in appearance, too, Jane is capable of Puckishness, as her toying with Rochester at the novel’s end demonstrates.

Jane returns the favor, thinking that Pilot, Rochester’s dog, is the Gytrash (a cousin of the Grim, no doubt) of Bessie’s nursery stories when she and Rochester first meet.  She also refers  to Rochester as “phantom like” when she has been beset by fears before his late return on the eve of their disastrous first attempt at marriage.

Not all the novel’s supernatural figures are as engaging as elfin Jane and spooky Rochester, however. Jane suspects early on that there is something odd about Grace Poole, thinking that the terrible laughs she hears from the secret room are Grace’s, only to learn later that they belong to the far more terrifying Bertha Mason Rochester, who is compared to a whole train of negative supernatural creatures. When Jane sees Bertha, she thinks in a nightmare, two nights before her wedding, she  describes her as a vampire (Rochester uses the term “goblin”).  When Rochester finally tells Jane the truth about Bertha, he describes the first Mrs. Rochester as a succubus, that supernatural seductress who draws in and destroys men. In her mad destruction of Thornfield, Bertha resembles a banshee, except the death her presence predicts is her own.

The most important supernatural experience of the novel is, in many ways, the voice that calls to Jane and pulls her from the brink of consenting to marriage with St. John. The scene is a fascinating battle between St. John’s type of faith and the real experience of the supernatural that Jane has when she hears Rochester’s voice crying pain and runs to his aid. Jane knows she does not pray as St. John does, that she is a disappointment to him, and yet, she has found her true path and soon is reunited with her beloved. The struggle between the traditional beliefs of Christianity and the unconventional beliefs of Jane are thus resolved: Jane chooses the voice in her heart over the more traditional, but artificial, vision created by St. John.

Clearly the role of the supernatural, alongside the novel’s more conventional Christian elements,  adds to the richness of this text that continues to engage readers, preventing it from becoming either a preachy Victorian morality lesson or a wildly unrealistic Gothic tale. Instead, it becomes this riveting story that at once embraces Christianity and its ideals but is also peopled with the residents of fairy-land, making Jane’s world one worth visiting  again and again.

This will be our final purely Jane Eyre Reading Club post, as the next installment will be  bringing in Jasper Fforde’s fun Thursday Next novel, The Eyre Affair. But do feel free to return to our conversation here with your Jane thoughts!


  1. Very interesting post. I haven’t visited in a while and haven’t been part of the re-read, but I recently reread Jane Eyre myself. Another thing that struck me on re-reading is some of Helen Burns’s beliefs, particularly about heaven. She seems to be rather Universalist in her views about salvation. She not only remarks about death being so certain an entrance into happiness and glory (and seems to be all people in this, regardless of their earthly behavior, she also states, when Jane asks her what God is “My Maker and yours; who will never destroy what he created.. God is my friend..You will come to the same region of happiness;be received by the same mighty, universal Parent”. It seemed to me that Helen was expressing her faith that God, in his goodness, will save her and everyone, because he’d never destroy his own creation. Universal salvation was a very unconventional idea then and now. Though Jane’s spirituality is uniquely her own, Helen’s beliefs strongly influence Jane and her relationship with God, as opposed to the Calvinistic principals adhered to by St. John and Mr. Brocklehurst (though Mr. B. was of course a dreadful hypocrite that believed they only applied to the poor).

  2. Diva_alix’s point is interesting. Charlotte Bronte’s sister Anne also made reference to universalist ideas in her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

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