In a strict, Calvinist boarding school in the cold and wet environs of Northwestern England, amid “clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating,” Charlotte Brontë’s fictional orphan, Jane, begins to undergo a series of hardships that form in her a strong moral compass and an equally strong desire for a love she has never had. As a young woman, she must learn that love consists in neither a passion nor detached “choice,” but an act of the whole person as he actually exists: body and soul.
After a difficult and dreary childhood (to which the first third of Jane Eyre is devoted), Jane becomes the governess of Lord Edward Rochester’s French ward, Adèle Varens. Soon after her arrival at Thornfield Estate, Edward becomes captivated by Jane—particularly, by her sincerity and commitment to truth. He falls deeply in love with her, and she with him: though he is rugged and impetuous, Jane perceives in him a confidence and strength that she is drawn to. Edward finds in Jane an intellectual equal, and delights in her observations, opinions, and ideas: despite her lower social standing, he sees her as one who is worthy of his respect and trust.
After some time, Edward proposes to Jane, and she accepts. But this engagement of theirs ends when Jane discovers—at the altar—that Edward is already married to a madwoman who resides in his attic. Despite this terrible, yet binding fact, Edward pleads with Jane to flee with him to the south of France, where they can live together in a luxurious villa as master and mistress.
It is here that Jane makes the difficult decision to separate from Edward by leaving Thornfield Hall in the middle of the night for the small, country village of Morton. Having travelled by foot and without provision for four days, Jane graciously accepts a position at a humble village school for girls. Though she is fluent in French and the classics, she earnestly goes about the work of teaching stitching to poor girls who can barely read or write.
On a cool summer evening, while looking upon the “lovely sky of eve and lonely vale of Morton,” Jane reflects on the sadness she feels at having left Edward for the quiet life she now lives:
—But where am I wandering, and what am I saying, and above all, feeling? Whether it is better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles—fevered with delusive bliss one hour—suffocating with the bitterest tears of remorse and shame the next—or to be a village-schoolmistress, free and honest, in a breezy mountain nook in the healthy heart of England?
At this moment she turns her attention back to God, whom she thanks for helping her to crush the “insane promptings of a frenzied moment,” which would have made her a slave to the passions of a selfish lover. Though Jane and Edward truly admired and desired each other, they could not have loved each other properly had they remained together, since to do so would have turned Edward into an adulterer, and Jane into an adulteress. To love another is to will his good, but the union of Edward and Jane would have placed both at odds with the natural and divine law.
While Jane is in Morton, she meets a parson, St. John Rivers, who proposes to her—but only so that he will have a companion to assist him on his missionary travels to India. It isn’t long before Jane discovers that St. John, in a way quite unlike that of Edward, is limited in his ability to really love her.
St. John loves principle, despises the flesh, and trades realities for abstractions. While despising the “inferior” elements of human nature and embarking on a mission to save the “human race,” he neglects his immediate relations and scorns the erotic love that draws man and woman together. As a stringent Calvinist who claims that his merit is in the “blood-bleached robe with which Christianity covers human deformity,” St. John overlooks his and Jane’s own natures. When he proposes, he says to her, “Again I tell you it is not the insignificant private individual—the mere man, with the man’s selfish senses—I wish to mate: it is the missionary.” Jane reflects on the effect that he has had on her:
As for me, I daily wished more to please him; but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature, stifle half my faculties, wrest my tastes from their original bent, force myself to the adoption of pursuits for which I had no natural vocation. He wanted to train me to an elevation I could never reach; it racked me hourly to aspire to the standard he uplifted. The thing was as impossible as to mould my irregular features to his correct and classic pattern, to give to my changeable green eyes the sea-blue tint and solemn lustre of his own.
In his “struggle between Nature and Grace,” St. John is unable to love Jane as a person. Were they to marry, St. John would value her only inasmuch as she’d be to him a wife and missionary. By scorning his senses and even the higher faculties that sometimes “call us to the things of this world,” (as poet Richard Wilbur puts it), St. John cannot see Jane for who she is, and thus, he cannot really love her. “Ubi amor, obi oculus,” writes Hugh of St. Victor. Where there is love, there is sight, and without the aid of all our faculties—sense, memory, imagination, and intellect, which is both passive and active—it is impossible for us, as embodied beings, to come to know and love other, embodied beings, which are particular in their universality as rational beings created for union with God in Christ.
Jane’s final relationship culminates in her marriage to Edward Rochester, which takes place after she is divinely summoned—by God, we may assume—back to Thornfield Estate, where she discovers that Edward’s wife has, despite Edward’s attempts to save her, committed suicide. Now Edward, blinded and maimed by the fire into which he ventured to save Bertha, is free to lawfully marry Jane. He is also transformed after having chosen to follow God and his law. He confesses to Jane,
I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent flower—breathed guilt on its purity: the Omnipotent snatched it from me. I, in my stiff-necked rebellion, almost cursed the dispensation: instead of bending to the decree, I defied it. Divine justice pursued its course; disasters came thick on me: I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. His chastisements are mighty; and one smote me which has humbled me forever. You know I was proud of my strength: but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness? Of late, Jane—only—only of late—I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were, but very sincere.
“I thank my maker that, in the midst of judgment, he has remembered mercy,” says Edward. “I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto!” Rochester and Jane marry, now that they are free to love virtuously, with their whole selves.
While Jane’s first relationship with Edward is marked by passion, her relationship with St. John is construed by parched principles. Neither one is correct, but through each, Jane learns how important it is to love with one’s whole self. “Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Perhaps Brontë would agree?