Critical views of Emily Brontë’s literary relationship to the Bible have been shaped significantly by changing views of her relationship to religion itself. As Micael M. Clarke (2009) has demonstrated in a detailed reception history of Brontë’s writing, critics in the second half of the twentieth century began to move away from earlier readings of Brontë’s work as rooted in mystical and/or enthusiastic religious traditions. Feminist and psychoanalytic criticism from the 1970s onward often regarded religious discourse both as a body of relatively fixed and static received truth antithetical to creative autonomy and as implicated in patriarchal structures of control (e.g., Davies, 1994). From these critical perspectives, instances of biblical allusion and other forms of religious language in Brontë’s work came to be seen as moments at which the authentic voice of the poet is silenced by orthodox discourse (e.g., Homans, 1980).
Recent criticism has challenged these views. In The Brontës and Religion (1999), Marianne Thormählen argues that each of the Brontë sisters experienced their father’s Evangelicalism not as the oppressive influence that some critics have taken it to be but as a tradition that encouraged their individual explorations and creative liberty in matters of religion. Emily Brontë’s relationship to religious texts and traditions remains a subject of ongoing debate. Yet as Micael M. Clarke argues, this debate must avoid “a naïve either/or polarity” (2009, p. 218); we can no longer regard biblical and other religious language, as the philosopher and linguistic theorist Mikhail Bakhtin did, as a discourse that must be accepted or rejected in its entirety. The following sections survey biblical influences and allusions in Brontë’s poetry, essays, and novel.
Emily Brontë’s poems contain relatively few extended allusions to or quotations of specific biblical texts. Instead, the influence of the Bible upon her poetic voice can be seen in frequent echoes of biblical tropes and images relating to the Holy Spirit and of the genre of biblical apocalyptic.
Brontë’s use of biblical tropes and images of the Holy Spirit has been demonstrated by Lisa Wang (2000). Spiritual, imaginative, and emotional liberation in Brontë’s work is often associated with the influences of wind and breath. This imagery is present in several of Brontë’s earliest surviving poems: a storm wind is a source of visionary awakening in “High waving heather ’neath stormy blasts bending” (1836); a numinous “breathing from above” marks the beginning of restored imaginative and emotional vitality in “And first an hour of mournful musing” (ca. 1837). The wind as a sign of numinous presence and imaginative awakening recurs in mature poems such as “Aye there it is! It wakes tonight” (1841) and “The Prisoner (A Fragment)” (1845–1846). Yet it is in “No coward soul is mine” (1846) that the biblical role of the Holy Spirit in ongoing creation (e.g., Gen 1:2; Acts 17:24–28) is recalled most overtly:
With wide-embracing loveThy spirit animates eternal yearsPervades and broods above,Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears
Unlike many of Brontë’s poems, which draw upon tropes of wind and breath common to many biblical texts, “My Comforter” (1844) provides an instance of allusion to a specific biblical discussion of the Holy Spirit. The poem recalls Christ’s farewell discourses in John 14–16. Brontë’s Comforter is suggestive not only of Christ’s promise to send “another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16 KJV), but also of the roles of the Holy Spirit as counselor and as both teacher and aide to the recollection of sacred truth (John 14:26). Brontë’s Comforter rekindles and brings into public view an inner light that “lies hid from men” (cf. Matt 5:15–16).
The poem articulates a tension between these works of the Holy Spirit and the more demonstrative expressions of spiritual experience associated with religious enthusiasm in the mid-nineteenth century (“Around me, wretches uttering praise / Or howling o’er their hopeless days”). Brontë identifies enthusiasm with frenzy and fanaticism that disrupt the tranquility effected by the gentler influence of the Comforter. Mediated through the twin influences of Romanticism and Wesleyan Methodism, biblical images, tropes, and discourses of the Holy Spirit become for Brontë a literary vocabulary available for the articulation of personal spiritual experience external to—at times, in opposition to—the institutional forms and doctrinal expressions of her contemporary religious landscape (cf. Clarke, 2009; Marsden, 2006).
Like her use of biblical images associated with the Holy Spirit, Brontë’s engagement with apocalyptic is rarely characterized by direct, overt allusions to or quotations of specific biblical texts. Her poetry rather reflects the visionary poetics and narrative orientation of the apocalyptic tradition—its imagining of revelatory moments by which the disappointments of the present might be set in eternal context and the poet’s persistent sense of mortality and disenchantment reinterpreted in the light of a redemptive, eschatological future.
This (often fragile) hope is articulated in various ways, often associated with a transformed perspective enabled by imaginative vision. In “To Imagination” (1844), a perpetual cycle of “earthly change from pain to pain” is juxtaposed with the transient power of imaginative vision to “call a lovelier Life from Death.” “A Day Dream” (1844) similarly contrasts the poet’s consciousness of mortality with a fleeting vision of resurrection and renewal. “The Philosopher” (1845) is structured as a dialogue between the eponymous philosopher—an individual tormented by internal conflicts figured as three warring gods—and a seer who bears witness to a vision in which this fragmented trinity is reconciled into wholeness and harmony. Another dialogic poem, “Anticipation” (1845), contrasts the despondency of an individual able to see only worldly disappointments with the hope sustained by an eschatological perspective orientated toward “what is to be.” These poetic dialogues bring into focus a recurring trait of Brontë’s apocalyptic poetry. The language of apocalypse offers glimpses of a redemptive future, yet this hope is held in unresolved tension with the despondency engendered by skeptical reason and by the transience of imaginative vision itself (Marsden, 2013, pp. 113–143).
Brontë’s final poem, “Why ask to know the date—the clime?” (1846; a revised version of the poem remained incomplete at her death), provides some of the most overt illustrations of biblical influence in her work. Set in a version of Brontë’s fictional kingdom of Gondal, yet resisting specificities of time and place, the poem depicts a civil war that has left the landscape devastated and which becomes, for Brontë, an expression of the inevitable corruption of political idealism by human fallenness:
Why ask to know the date—the clime?More than mere words they cannot be:Men knelt to God and worshipped crime,And crushed the helpless even as we—
Brontë writes in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, condemning displays of formal religious observance by a people who practice cruelty, violence, and injustice (cf. Isa 1:10–17; Jer 8:8–12).
The poem is narrated by a former soldier in the civil war. Telling his story from the perspective of awakened conscience, the soldier recalls the corruption of his youthful idealism by the violence of the war. Remembering that “I grew hard—I learnt to wear / An iron front to terror’s prayer,” the soldier is haunted by his merciless torture of a prisoner. The soldier’s moral awakening begins when his own son is captured by the opposing army and the prisoner—a high-ranking officer—gives orders that the child be freed without harm. Too late, the soldier realizes that his failure to show mercy places him outside the reach of divine grace; as the prisoner dies, the soldier sees his “sad face raised imploringly / To mercy’s God and not to me.” The poem becomes a meditation on the principle, articulated in numerous New Testament texts, that the promise of divine mercy is closely connected to human willingness to demonstrate mercy to others (e.g., Matt 5:7; 6:12; 18:21–35). As one of the soldier’s comrades observes, “sin genders sin”; Brontë contrasts the new hatred engendered by the soldier’s cruelty with the glimpse of an ending to the cycle of violence offered by the prisoner’s act of mercy.
Two of the essays composed by Brontë as exercises in French composition while a student and teacher at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels in 1842 offer some insight into her approach to biblical hermeneutics. Though it is possible to identify thematic parallels between the essays and Brontë’s poetry and novel, the essays differ stylistically in their use of biblical texts—the result, perhaps, of the twin limitations of writing in a foreign language and on prescribed subjects. In the essays, Brontë employs more extended allusions to specific biblical texts than is common in her poetry and novel. They therefore offer some additional insights into her reading of those texts.
“The Butterfly” is both the most widely discussed of Brontë’s essays (e.g., Miller, 1975, pp. 157–211; Clarke, 2009) and the one shaped most overtly by biblical metanarrative. The essay is structured around a progression of ideas and images similar to the one that Brontë would subsequently employ in her poem “A Day Dream.” Beginning as a meditation on the violence and destruction endemic to the natural world, the essay focuses on a single caterpillar hidden by the flowers of the same plant on which it feeds parasitically. The destructive laws of nature prompt the narrator to question the goodness of God for his failure to annihilate his creation on the occasion of humanity’s first fall. The narrator herself crushes the caterpillar, an act that symbolically enacts the judgment withheld by God.
Yet this act of judgment is immediately reinterpreted by the appearance of a butterfly—a traditional symbol of resurrection—and an inner voice that reminds the narrator that the present world is the embryonic form of the new heaven and earth (Isa 65:17–25; Rev 21:1). The essay’s apocalyptic conclusion does not efface the destructive violence of its beginning, but rather allows present suffering to be reinterpreted in the light of a redemptive future. The narrator’s symbolic act of judgment, initially an assertion of her moral superiority over the divine, is similarly reinterpreted as evidence of her failure to grasp the mercy and redemptive purposes of God. Brontë reads the apocalypse as an ending that gives shape and meaning to apparent disorder, allowing the fallen world of the present to be perceived in the light of its future resurrection and renewal.
“Filial Love” takes as its text the Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exod 20:12 KJV). Brontë’s rendering of the commandment—“Honor thy father and thy mother if thou wouldst live”—strengthens its implied threat. Brontë’s discussion of the verse discloses both a strain of Romantic antinomianism and an approach to biblical hermeneutics predicated upon an opposition between law and grace; the latter a common tendency of nineteenth-century Protestantism. Brontë argues that the love between parent and child, visible throughout the natural world, is the proper outworking of the “particle of the divine spirit” within the human person. Yet because humanity silences and distorts this principle of creation, the law and its warnings are given to restrain the excesses of human ingratitude and infidelity. The Law of Moses itself thus becomes an expression of divine disappointment: in the commandment and its warning, Brontë argues, “is hidden a more bitter reproach than any open accusation could contain, a charge against us of absolute blindness or infernal ingratitude.”
Brontë’s literary engagement with biblical hermeneutics is developed most fully in Wuthering Heights (1847). More than any other of Brontë’s works, the novel is concerned with the ways in which biblical texts are read both within and at the margins of religious communities. In the novel’s third chapter, Lockwood dreams of attending a church service in which the Reverend Jabes Branderham preaches a sermon titled “Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy First.” The biblical text of the sermon (never identified explicitly in the novel) is taken from Matthew 18, in which Jesus commands his followers to forgive their brothers not “Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22 KJV). Branderham reads this commandment as a legal condition the requirements of which must be fulfilled before vengeance can be exacted; his sermon describes 490 individual transgressions that must be forgiven before the “first of the seventy-first” is reached and retribution may ensue.
Brontë’s construction of the sermon is inflected by the post-Reformation convention of reading the New Testament in terms of a presumed opposition between law and grace. Branderham reads Christ’s words as law. As J. Hillis Miller has observed, however, Branderham should have read a little further in his Bible: his legalistic pursuit of vengeance is in direct contradiction of the parable of the unforgiving servant—Christ’s own gloss on the “seventy times seven”—which invites its auditor to acknowledge his or her own status as a sinner forgiven by God and thus to extend the same forgiveness freely to others (Miller, 1975, pp. 188–189; cf. Matt 18:23–35). In this respect, the collapse of the service into a scene of violence in which “every man’s hand was against his neighbor” represents an ironic fulfillment of the preacher’s commandment to execute “the judgment written” (iii): the only judgment written in Branderham’s biblical intertext is directed against the individual who refuses to forgive the human offenses of others. In this respect, each member of the congregation is guilty as each withholds forgiveness from another.
The significance of Branderham’s sermon for the novel’s engagement with themes of forgiveness and revenge has been discussed widely by critics (e.g., Madden, 1972; Miller, 1975, pp. 157–211; Thormählen, 1999, pp. 134–143). Less attention has been paid to the ways in which the sermon illustrates the novel’s relationship to its biblical intertexts. Brontë declines to elucidate the moral point of Branderham’s corruption of Matthew 18: though the sermon can be seen to embody the distortion by legalistic moral seriousness of Christ’s call to unconditional forgiveness, this reading is dependent upon the reader’s ability to identify both the biblical source-text of the sermon and its narrative context in Matthew’s Gospel. As I have argued elsewhere, biblical intertexts in Wuthering Heights often appear in corrupted forms; meaning is created in the reader’s recognition of dissonance between the original text and its appearance in the novel (Marsden, 2013, pp. 72–86). For example, Joseph’s assertion that “all warks together for gooid tuh them as is chozzen, and piked aht froo’ th’ rubbidge” (Brontë, 1998, p. 85) represents both a distortion of Romans 8:28—“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (KJV)—and a pointed critique of his Calvinist theology and moralistic severity: literally and figuratively, Joseph removes love from his reading of the New Testament.
A comparable use of biblical allusion occurs upon Heathcliff’s return from his three-year absence. Urging Catherine to moderate her reaction, Edgar Linton observes that “the whole household need not witness the sight of your welcoming a runaway servant as a brother” (Brontë, 1998, p. 95). The allusion is to Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which the welcoming of the runaway servant as a brother is urged as the moral and spiritual duty of the Christian. Like Branderham’s sermon, these distortions and corrupted echoes of biblical intertexts contribute to Brontë’s depiction of a society in which professing Christians, constrained by moral legalism, personal grievance, and socioeconomic structures, fall short of embodying the New Testament’s calls to forgiveness, mercy, and agapaic love.
- Brontë, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë. The Belgian Essays. Edited and translated by Sue Lonoff. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.
- Brontë, Emily. The Complete Poems. Edited by Janet Gezari. London: Penguin, 1992.
- Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Edited by Ian Jack. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Clarke, Micael M. “Emily Brontë’s ‘No Coward Soul’ and the Need for a Religious Literary Criticism.” Victorians Institute Journal 37 (2009): 195–223.
- Davies, Stevie. Emily Brontë: Heretic. London: Women’s Press, 1994.
- Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
- Madden, William A. “Wuthering Heights: The Binding of Passion.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 27, no. 2 (1972): 127–154.
- Marsden, Simon. “ ‘Vain Are the Thousand Creeds’: Wuthering Heights, the Bible and Liberal Protestantism.” Literature and Theology 20, no. 3 (2006): 236–250.
- Marsden, Simon. Emily Brontë and the Religious Imagination. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
- Miller, J. Hillis. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.
- Thormählen, Marianne. The Brontës and Religion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Wang, Lisa. “The Holy Spirit in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Poetry.” Literature and Theology 14, no. 2 (June 2000): 160–173.