Thoughts on the Ending of Jane Eyre

Bicknell captures St. John's zeal.
Jane Eyre does not close with Jane Eyre's marriage to Rochester, the birth of their son, and their happily married life. It certainly mentions those things ("Reader, I married him") but it ends instead with several paragraphs about St. John. The passage is worth quoting in full:
As to St. John Rivers, he left England: he went to India.  He entered on the path he had marked for himself; he pursues it still.  A more resolute, indefatigable pioneer never wrought amidst rocks and dangers.  Firm, faithful, and devoted, full of energy, and zeal, and truth, he labors for his race; he clears their painful way to improvement; he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it.  He may be stern; he may be exacting; he may be ambitious yet; but his is the sternness of the warrior Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon.  His is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks but for Christ, when he says—“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”  His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth—who stand without fault before the throne of God, who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb, who are called, and chosen, and faithful.

St. John is unmarried: he never will marry now.  Himself has hitherto sufficed to the toil, and the toil draws near its close: his glorious sun hastens to its setting.  The last letter I received from him drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with divine joy: he anticipated his sure reward, his incorruptible crown.  I know that a stranger’s hand will write to me next, to say that the good and faithful servant has been called at length into the joy of his Lord.  And why weep for this?  No fear of death will darken St. John’s last hour: his mind will be unclouded, his heart will be undaunted, his hope will be sure, his faith steadfast.  His own words are a pledge of this—

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me.  Daily He announces more distinctly,—‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond,—‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’”
Since I am not a fan of St. John's insidious bullying of Jane during the proposal, I've always shrugged off this part of the story as "spin"--Bronte's attempt to pacify her Victorian audience.

Buchan captures his honesty.
Recently, however, I rethought that idea. Victorians were domestic and pious (they were also earthier than we often imagine them to be; still, they thought of themselves as domestic and pious). Take Jane getting married and having a kid: Victorians readers wouldn't have been too happy about Jane's boldness in returning to Rochester before knowing for sure that his wife was dead and they wouldn't have been too happy about a lowly governess marrying the head of a household although Jane was of a legitimately good family and had her own inheritance. And they wouldn't have been too terribly pleased about her strong  physical response to Rochester's physical advances.

But, still, ya know, marriage and a kid isn't so bad.

St. John, however, for better or worse turned his back entirely on domesticity. Victorians, in resemblance to their beloved queen (who was far less motherly or wifely than her image: see below), placed a high premium on loving God and supporting missionary work--from the comfort of hearth and home. Being religious was very, very important (no atheists here!) but in a restrained, civilized, non-weirdo American way (all those cults!).

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: Wedded Life
St. John is extraordinarily . . . Catholic in his response to his personal call to go abroad. There's a kind of fervor in his decision and in the outcome of that decision. The guy wanted to be a martyr and by George, he succeeded!

That is the furthest thing from the married, middle class, wedded bliss purported by the queen and her subjects plus Victorian painters and poets. And it made me wondered if Bronte was pushing the envelope in more than one direction--not just in extolling Jane's supreme self-confidence in her right to choose (rather than be guided by her male relative) but in praising St. John's supreme self-confidence in his single lifestyle that puts a cause above all else.

The St. Johns of the world make me mighty uncomfortable. I'm like Spike--I like the mundane fun of ordinary life. But I can certainly commend Bronte for knocking down all the fences in her path.

4 comments:

Joe said...

Not satisfied with that answer. Still seems to me like something the publisher/editor insisted on, like insisting on having "what happened next" stories in the end credits. Even then, that it's the very last thing in the book is very weird.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I just finished a book about Jane Eyre/Charlotte Bronte (The Secret History of Jane Eyre by John Pfordresher--what a name!) in which the writer claims, with good reason, that Jane Eyre is Bronte's autobiography, only with more "realistic" resolutions ("realistic" is Bronte's term). Her actual life was such a Thomas-Hardy-novel-meets-tragic-opera series of extreme, weird, and horrific events, no one would ever believe them: hence, the revised versions.

For instance, the school that Jane attends at age 10 is an indictment of the real school that Bronte was sent to when she was 8. By all accounts, it was actually WORSE than Bronte portrays although even Bronte's portrayal upset and alarmed her readers (who recognized the character of "Brocklehurst" and condemned him).

Pfordresher claims that St. Rivers is the most invented of the characters in Jane Eyre: Rochester was actually based on several someones while St. Rivers is pure creation. Pfordresher goes on, however, to detail the clergymen that Jane Eyre did know and of whom she had a collectively low opinion (the exception being her father).

One such clergyman-to-be was the brother of one of Charlotte Bronte's school friends. Just as one of Jane Austen's friend's brothers proposed to her, this brother, Henry Nussey, wrote Bronte a rather cold letter suggesting they marry (seems to be something that friends' brothers felt obligated to do). Bronte and Austen appear to have had similar reactions: this guy is NOT my style. Bronte went so far as to explain that what Henry truly wanted was a sweet, mild woman while she, Bronte, would prove far too discomfortingly eccentric and "satirical."

She was right about the satirical part. When she learned that Henry once desired to become a missionary, Bronte mocked the idea, stating in a letter to his sister, Ellen Nussey, that should he pursue this "amusing" dream, he would "not live a year." (He didn't pursue it. He gave it up and become quite well-off.)

Bronte addresses ambitious, preaching clergymen in some of her other writings and almost always negatively. She sees them as fanatics; her Christianity is more about "mental serenity." Pfordresher proposes that Bronte kills off St. Rivers as punishment for vainglory: that's what happens to self-righteous prigs!

I'm less sure--Jane's attitude towards St. Rivers at the end is so entirely positive. But then by the time Bronte finished Jane Eyre, she had met the curate Nicholls, who would later, eventually, become her husband. So maybe she was feeling a little less anti-clerical by the time she reached the epilogue. (Perhaps in an original version, St. Rivers was eaten by a snake.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

Speaking of snakes, some literary theorists see St. John Rivers as Lucifer, the ultimate prideful preacher.

Marianne Thormahlen disagrees. Regarding the ending, she writes, "The shift from the happy domesticity of the Rochesters to the dying missionary has puzzled readers for generations." Why doesn't the book end with, as you say, Joe, "St. Rivers was eaten by a snake, which serves him well, the arrogant sod. I lived happily ever after." Her explanation is two-fold: St. John ends--like Rochester--somewhat more weathered by his experience. In his final letter to Jane, he is no longer so utterly extreme in his pride or ambition. Like Rochester, he has been "tamed" by external forces. Thormahlen also argues that the Brontes liked to leave their readers with non-answered religious questions, not entirely explaining the literal and figurative afterlife(s) of their characters.

I had another thought. When pointing out that St. John is not Lucifer, Thormahlen argues that he focuses his talents on trying to carry out a will greater than his own. She writes, "The thought of what could have happened if he had joined his abilities to the forces of darkness is terrifying; Heathcliff's local evildoing would have seemed trivial in comparison to the large-scale disasters which gifts like St. John's could have brought about. He is the only person who comes close to assuming control of Jane Eyre's fiercely independent spirit."

My thought after reading this was--Good thing he is miles away in another country on the verge of death! And hey, maybe that's the point: Jane Eyre is breathing a sign of relief that this nutty cousin of hers is so very, very far away.

Ultimately, however, Thormahlen has to admit that many books in the 19th century ended with Rev. 22:20: "Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

St. John Rivers ends his letter: "'Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond,—‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!'"

So it looks like, yup, it may have been a literary convention--a literary convention that Bronte gave to St. John rather than to her beloved Jane.

Thormahlen, Marianne. "The Engima of St. John Rivers." In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations. Pp. 123-142. Infobase Publishing, 2007.

Joe said...

The very last paragraph makes sense. I still think the rest was an editorial decision to give Jane a pass for not doing the "noble" thing. An argument could be made that Jane will better whomever she is with and this is a way to say that St. John turned out okay and didn't need Jane after all. Which is hogwash. (St. John and Rochester are both self-centered, but St. John has no humanity or affection to reciprocate. He didn't suddenly get these personality traits. You could say that this ending makes Jane actually look worse--had she been less selfish, she would have enjoyed St. John's miraculous new personality. Alas she didn't.)