Welcome to Sundays with Jane. Every week I’ll be covering certain themes and topics in Jane Eyre, in an attempt to explain just how much I love this book and how much richness there is to it. Certainly, this list isn’t exhaustive and I may very well add more weeks to this series as we go, but what I currently plan to cover includes:
- Fire & Ice
- Magic & Mysticism
- Emotion & Integrity
- Use of the 1st Person
Last Sunday we talked about two words, “automaton” and “deglutition,” which Charlotte Bronte uses to give us insight into Jane Eyre’s complex feelings about the role of emotion in our lives.
Today we’ll discuss “puerile” and “hierophant”—one word which is used again to shed light on how Jane feels about emotion and sentimentality, and the other word which brings to light something entirely different.
Puerile: adj. childishly silly and trivial
In last week’s post, we saw how Jane defends emotion as an important part of our lives. She takes her own feelings seriously. But now we get a glimpse into the tension she holds between emotion and reason throughout the book. On the night before her wedding, Mr. Rochester has been away and Jane is waiting for him to return. It gets later and later, and Jane’s patience is waning:
A puerile tear dimmed my eye while I looked—a tear of disappointment and impatience: ashamed of it, I wiped it away.
Jane has been very happy as Mr. Rochester’s fiancee, but she hasn’t indulged much in her happiness. In fact, she set out on a very determined mission to irritate and annoy Mr. Rochester. She does this because she doesn’t trust him; she believes that if she swoons in happiness like most other girls would, Mr. Rochester would lose interest in her. (She’s right.) But her wiping this puerile tear away isn’t just part of that endeavor to keep Mr. Rochester all hot and bothered; Jane sincerely disproves of childish, vain displays of emotion.
She seems to draw a distinct line between two types of emotion: emotion that is upright and worth listening to (as we saw last week when she stands up to Mr. Rochester), and emotion that comes from what she feels is a lack of discipline or from temptation. The right thing to do in this scenario is to keep patiently waiting for Mr. Rochester, but Jane is having a hard time doing that, and she is ashamed of what she perceives to be a weakness. She has incredibly high moral standards.
These high moral standards make her particularly susceptible later to St. John’s manipulations when she is living at Moor House. While Jane doesn’t idolize St. John as she idolized Mr. Rochester, she is in awe of him. He has so much conviction—a quality that she admires—that it is hard for her to resist him. In addition, he is a reverend and speaks not just with conviction, but with the assurance that his cause is a holy one, decreed by God.
As I mentioned last week, St. John is convinced that he is called to be a missionary in India. This is all fine and good, but he’s also convinced that he needs a wife to go with him to India, and it can’t be Rosamond, the woman he loves. He tests Jane in various ways to see how teachable she is, how docile, how obedient. Really, her whole time with St. John is hard to read because it’s so degrading. Jane is docile and obedient with him because she is still heartbroken over Mr. Rochester and because she is paralyzed by St. John’s righteous persuasions. He finally decides that she, Jane, should go with him to India as his wife.
And then it’s like the spell is broken. When he finally reveals his plan to marry her, the Jane we all know and love fights back. She would be willing to go to India with him as his sister, but not as his wife. St. John is surprised that Jane is not agreeing with his brilliant plan, and he punishes her by withdrawing the little amount of warmth and friendliness he’d been giving her. One night, before he leaves for Cambridge for a short time, he rebukes Jane, even laying his hand on her head, like “a pastor recalling his wandering sheep—or better, a guardian angel watching the soul for which he is responsible.”
Jane says she feels “veneration” for St. John (another great word), and she is tempted in this moment to give in.
I stood motionless under my hierophant’s touch. My refusals were forgotten—my fears overcome—my wrestlings paralyzed. The Impossible—i.e. my marriage with St. John—was fast becoming Possible. All was changing utterly, with a sudden sweep. Religion called—Angels beckoned—God commanded.
Jane calls St. John a “hierophant,” which means “a person, esp. a priest in ancient Greece, who interprets sacred mysteries or esoteric principles.”
This word has double significance: first, it brings back to mind when Jane first met St. John—she compared him to a Greek god (which should right away give you an idea of how much power he has over her). Second, it tells you something about how Jane views herself. While, as we’ve learned, she is very good at interpreting her own feelings and she has a high view of God, I don’t ever get the sense that she is particularly close to God—close in a way that she might claim to know God’s will for her in this instance. She relies on other people (in this case, St. John) to tell her about what God wills, and then she compares that to how she feels and makes a decision.
So, in this moment, it’s not hard to see how Jane could be tempted to give in to St. John, considering how much she reveres him and how sincerely she wants to do what is “right” in God’s eyes. Jane doesn’t realize it at the time, but she is on the edge of making a terrible decision. We hear from her later self writing this autobiography, who says:
To have yielded [to Mr. Rochester] would have been an error of principle; to have yielded now would have been an error of judgment. So I think at this hour, when I look back to the crisis through the medium of time: I was unconscious of folly at the instant.
Thankfully, Jane doesn’t end up giving in to St. John.
What do you think of these words, and these scenes?
Next week we’ll talk about one of Charlotte Bronte’s goals with Jane Eyre: to expose hypocrisy.