Growing up in the home of an Evangelical minister in the Church of England, Charlotte Brontë learned to value the Bible from a / young age and use it to direct her life. In The Life of Charlotte Brontë (2009), Elizabeth Gaskell quotes from a letter written by Brontë’s father, Patrick, in which he recalls asking Brontë as a young girl what she thought was “the best book in the world” (p. 48). Answering from behind a mask (a device Patrick hoped would help her answer boldly), she replied, “The Bible” (p. 48). While this response could be a conventional answer from a young girl trying to please her father, Brontë’s letters reveal that she continues to value the Bible as she matures, though she struggles to relate its precepts to her life.

In a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, written when Brontë was 20 years old, Brontë affirms “the treasures of the Bible” and remarks, “I love and adore them,” but she also describes herself as “Tantalus” who cannot “drink of the pure waters” of the Bible (Barker, 2002, p. 37). In this letter, Brontë reveals her struggle to reconcile her desire to indulge her imagination with her need to accept reality, and her comments about the Bible suggest that she wonders if female creativity can survive within an early-nineteenth-century vision of Christian femininity that required women to remain content within the domestic sphere.

Brontë and Biblical Interpretation.

Brontë manages to negotiate this struggle by enacting her belief that Christians have freedom to interpret the Bible for themselves, going so far as to describe her perspective as “latitudinarianism” in a letter to Gaskell (Barker, 2002, p. 387). Brontë emphasizes this freedom in Shirley (1849). When Joe Scott refuses to discuss business with Shirley, defending himself with the statement in 1 Timothy 2 that women should remain silent, Caroline and Shirley challenge his interpretation (Brontë, 2008c, p. 277). Joe responds by acknowledging that Christians have “the right of private judgment” as they interpret the Bible (p. 277), but he denies that right to women, arguing that women must “take their husbands’ opinion, both in politics and religion” (p. 278). This contradiction, which Shirley calls “a stupid observation” (p. 278), provokes Caroline to argue that Christians might interpret 1 Timothy 2 differently if they had a better sense of the original language and audience. With this exchange, Brontë highlights the hypocrisy of denying women the right to interpret the Bible and suggests that better-informed interpretations of scripture might give women more freedom.

Brontë’s belief that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible provides an important context for her use of scripture. Each of Brontë’s four novels is suffused with biblical allusions, but readers have long struggled with interpreting them. While many nineteenth-century reviewers appreciated the morals expressed within her novels, some were uncomfortable with how she used the Bible, and a few questioned her orthodoxy. More recent critical conversations surrounding her works also reflect divisions based upon scholars’ opinions of how Brontë uses scripture. For some, it reveals her attempt to escape from a patriarchal religion that ultimately constrains her. For others, it demonstrates a powerful ability to undermine orthodox Christianity. And for still others, it enables her to expose radical elements within Christianity that her society ignores.

Biblical Allusion in Brontë’s Novels.

An important question to address, then, is how far Brontë invites her readers to take her interpretations, for she often uses complex combinations of biblical allusions to wrestle with difficult issues within Christianity. In particular, Brontë is drawn to the question of why Christians suffer, and much of the biblical imagery that permeates her novels surrounds her characters’ journeys through suffering. In Shirley Brontë emphasizes the seeming paradox of God demonstrating his love through trials, reminding readers that “whom He loveth, He chasteneth” (2008c, p. 295; Heb 12:6), but as the rest of Shirley and Brontë’s other novels demonstrate, this biblical truth is difficult to comprehend, particularly when suffering is created by social structures that draw their power from problematic interpretations of scripture.

Suffering in The Professor.

In The Professor (written in the late 1840s but published posthumously in 1857), Brontë presents the simplest version of this journey as the main character, William Crimsworth, endures suffering well and receives the rewards of a wife, son, and prosperity. Characterizing William in the preface as a type of Adam who must “share Adam’s doom,” Brontë asserts that, because of original sin, all must “labour … [with] a mixed and moderate cup of enjoyment” (2008b, p. 3). She emphasizes this process by juxtaposing two biblical allusions. In the first, William’s brother, who is about to become his employer, demands William’s utmost loyalty by stating, “No man can serve two masters” (p. 10; Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13). With this character’s ironic misuse of the Bible, Brontë reveals the fallen world that William must negotiate, for his tyrannical brother, who clearly serves Mammon rather than God, now controls his life. William responds by comparing himself to the Israelites as slaves in Egypt struggling to make bricks without straw (p. 34).

Through William’s progress in this sinful world, Brontë demonstrates two important components of survival: refusing to be destroyed by oppression and retaining hope in God’s salvation. Rather than remaining with his brother, William chooses the insecurity of searching for another job, and even though he continues to experience suffering, he keeps his integrity and finds hope, reminding himself, “… Religion looks into his desolate house with sunrise, and says that in another world, another life, he shall meet his kindred again” (2008b, p. 133). William recognizes that God’s reward for enduring suffering with patience may arrive only after death, but Brontë does not make him wait that long, quickly reuniting him with his beloved and providing him with an excellent job. At the conclusion of the novel, Brontë suggests that every Christian must endure this process. As William describes his son, he references “the offending Adam” he sees in his son’s character (p. 222), reminding readers that original sin causes every human to experience a journey through trials to hope, whether the trials are created by sin, oppression, or both.

Suffering in Jane Eyre.

With Jane Eyre (1847), this representation of Christian suffering becomes more complex, for in her attempts to escape oppression, Jane struggles with how to use the Bible for guidance. Early in the novel, Helen Burns reminds Jane of Jesus’s words in Matthew 5: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you” (2008a, p. 58). Rather than resisting the hypocritical version of Christianity used by Brocklehurst to compel the students at Lowood into submission, Helen embraces Jesus’s principles completely, silently enduring her trials until she is freed by death. Jane, however, refuses to accept Helen’s passivity completely, recognizing that it may lead to more oppression. As they progress through the novel, then, readers must decide whether Jane escapes this oppression by rejecting Christianity or redefining it.

Jane and the Bible.

While Jane’s more rebellious nature may suggest that she abandons Christianity, many of Brontë’s biblical allusions suggest she does not. When Jane faces the temptation to become Rochester’s mistress, she turns to the Bible, seeing it as the only solid truth on which she can depend, and asserts, “I will keep the law given by God” (2008a, p. 317). While some readers might see the Bible’s prohibition of adultery as hindering Jane from achieving her desires (particularly since Rochester cannot legally free himself from his mad wife), Brontë emphasizes that Jane uses scripture to protect her sense of self and resist being objectified by Rochester. Depending on the Bible to guide her life enables Jane to preserve her integrity.

Jane’s later encounter with St. John Rivers also emphasizes the important role that Jane’s interpretation of the Bible plays in her ability to maintain her integrity. When Jane is rescued by the Rivers family after she leaves Rochester, she is tempted to submit her will to St. John’s as he determines how she should live her life as a Christian. The crisis comes when St. John reads Revelation 21 aloud and Jane realizes that he sees only two options for her: to marry him and become a missionary or to be eternally damned. Brontë, however, gives Jane another option, for when Jane calls out to God, he allows her to hear Rochester’s voice across the moors.

Brontë’s conclusion.

For some scholars, this episode demonstrates Jane’s rejection of Christianity for romantic love, but two significant uses of biblical allusion suggest otherwise. Unbeknownst to Jane, Rochester has been experiencing his own desolation. Quoting Psalm 23, he describes his experiences as going through “the valley of the shadow of death” (2008a, p. 446) and turns to God in repentance right before he calls Jane’s name. By linking the timing of the miraculous voices to each character’s dependence upon God, Brontë suggests that God brings the two of them together once Rochester, like Jane, has submitted himself to God.

This perspective is enhanced when Jane describes her experience of hearing the voice as being “like the earthquake, which shook the foundations of Paul and Silas’s prison” (2008a, p. 421), for in both cases, God works a miracle to free his servants. Jane then receives the reward of a seeming return to Eden on earth as she is reunited with Rochester and becomes “bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh” (p. 450; Gen 2:23).

Brontë’s decision to conclude the novel with St. John rather than Jane has led some scholars to posit that Brontë is contrasting Jane’s fulfilled secular love with St. John’s religious vocation, demonstrating her escape from patriarchal religion. The biblical allusions that surround Jane’s return, however, may suggest that Brontë imagines two equally valid ways to serve God.

Suffering in Shirley.

With Jane’s journey, Brontë presents her most optimistic ending of a Christian’s struggles. In her final two novels, she questions the idea of an Edenic existence on earth, for the characters in Shirley and Villette are so enmeshed in oppressive societies that earthly rewards become increasingly difficult to achieve.

In Shirley, Brontë emphasizes various types of oppression by combining Caroline’s struggles to live well after being rejected by the man she loves with her community’s struggles to negotiate between the mill owners’ rights and the workers’ rights. Caroline, even more than Brontë’s other characters, repeatedly turns to the Bible for guidance. As she grapples with thoughts of becoming an old maid, for instance, she reflects on the shortness of life and the immortality of the soul in a passage that draws on Psalms, James, and Revelation (2008c, p. 150), and based on this foundation, she commits herself to determining how to live her life well for God as a single woman.

Through this search, Brontë emphasizes how society’s interpretations of the Bible hinder women from serving God. When Caroline reflects with admiration on the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, she recognizes that society does not empower her (or any other woman) to achieve that role (2008c, pp. 329–330). This message is affirmed later when Caroline observes a young girl who, drawing support from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 and Luke 19, declares that she will not confine her abilities to household tasks, only to be silenced almost immediately by her mother (pp. 336–367). Brontë demonstrates that Caroline has few options as a single woman, and while Caroline eventually escapes being an old maid by marrying the man she loves, Brontë does not give Caroline the Edenic conclusion she gives Jane, for readers may wonder if Robert, the flawed mill owner and failed suitor of Shirley, is the best match for Caroline. The Bible sustains Caroline through trials, but the structures oppressing women remain, compelling readers to wonder whether Caroline and Shirley’s interpretations of scripture will ever transform society.

Suffering in Villette.

With Lucy’s journey in Villette (1853), Brontë explores this dismal reality further, crafting her one novel where her protagonist does not marry at the conclusion.

Throughout the narrative, Lucy powerfully conveys the depths of her suffering: a mysterious event that compels her to fend for herself, a position as a teacher in a foreign school that leaves her lonely and depressed, and an unrequited love for Dr. John that threatens to plunge her into despair. She receives hope from the Bible, finding comfort in the idea that she, like the children of Israel, is “commanding a patient journeying through the wilderness of the present, enjoining a reliance on faith—a watching of the cloud and pillar” (2008d, p. 231) but also recognizing that she may suffer Moses’s fate, seeing the Promised Land only “from the desolate and sepulchral summit of a Nebo” (p. 231).

Lucy’s hope stems from her belief that “this life is not all” (2008d, p. 361), but she wrestles with this idea when Dr. John marries Paulina, wondering why some are blessed while she is not. In a passage that draws from Acts, 2 Samuel, Psalms, Job, 2 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Habakkuk, Lucy strives to find hope in the midst of suffering, ultimately concluding that she must “finish [the] course, and keep the faith, reliant in the issue to come off more than conquerors” (p. 438).

Like William, Jane, and Caroline, Lucy survives despair by turning to God, but Brontë does not grant her a romantic ending. While Lucy eventually falls in love with Paul Emanuel and awaits his return from a journey so they may marry, Brontë suggests that he dies at sea, leaving Lucy to survive on her own. The sadness of this ending, however, is slightly moderated by the knowledge that, unlike Caroline, Lucy can succeed on her own, for Paul has helped her open a school. Earlier, Lucy wondered what it would be like to have the satisfaction of running her own school even if she never had a husband or children. She recognized the deprivations of that life, but she affirmed its value as well as her hope in God to sustain her (2008, p. 361). If this is Lucy’s fate, readers know that she is prepared to survive it. With this conclusion, Brontë suggests that, even though society does not yet empower women fully, an important first step is allowing women to take control of their lives.

Complexities of Bronte’s Conclusions.

In Villette Lucy declares, “My own last appeal, the guide to which I looked, and the teacher which I owned, must always be the Bible itself, rather than any sect, of whatever name or nation” (2008d, p. 419). This statement holds true for each of Brontë’s protagonists as well as for Brontë herself. Brontë’s exploration of Christian suffering suggests her desire to wrestle deeply with interpretations of the Bible and put them in dialogue with the realities of the world. Each of her characters finds hope in the Bible in the midst of oppression, but the powerful portrayal of her characters’ desperate struggles reminds readers that the Bible may be used inappropriately to endanger others. Throughout her works, she suggests the need for change so that a land that claims to be Christian may actually enact the principles revealed in scripture.

[See also BRONTë, EMILY and VICTORIAN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

References

  • Barker, Juliet. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. New York: Overlook, 2002.
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Edited by Margaret Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008a.
  • Brontë, Charlotte. The Professor. Edited by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008b.
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. Edited by Herbert Rosengarten and Margaret Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008c.
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. Edited by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008d.
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Edited by Angus Easson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Further Reading

  • “The Brontës and the Bible: Influences both Literary and Religious.” Special issue of Brontë Studies 37, no. 4 (2012): 267–372. Provides a good introduction to the variety of opinions surrounding Brontë’s use of the Bible in her works. Contains nine articles specifically on Brontë.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Explores the difficulties Brontë seems to have had with patriarchal Christianity and sets the stage for many later scholarly conversations about Brontë and Christianity.
  • Jenkins, Ruth Y. Reclaiming Myths of Power: Women Writers and the Victorian Spiritual Crisis. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995. Places Brontë within a tradition of women writers who work within Christianity to empower women.
  • Thormählen, Marianne. The Brontës and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Provides an in-depth look at the religious context that surrounds Brontë.

Christine A. Colón