“And the Psalms? I hope you like them?”

When Mr. Brocklehurst comes to Gateshead Hall and asks Jane whether or not she reads her Bible and which books from it she is “fond of,” she tells him that she likes “Revelations, and the book of Daniel, and Genesis and Samuel, and a little bit of Exodus, and some parts of Kings and Chronicles, and Job and Jonah.”  After further inquiry, he is appalled to learn that Jane does not enjoy the Psalms, which she considers “uninteresting,” and on account of her preferences he declares that she possesses a “wicked heart.”  What?  Not a fan of the Psalms, Mr. Brocklehurst?  In light of this man’s supposed religious zeal, I hardly think that he would admit to anything less than fervor for the whole of Scripture.  Why, then, does he pronounce Jane to be wicked for preferring Exodus and Kings over the Psalms?  I would like to suggest that Victorian conceptions of gender play into Mr. Brocklehurst’s conviction.

 

 

In “Gender Must Be Defended,” Nancy Armstrong suggests that, in the context of the Victorian period, “the minute one leaves the protection of the household, she ceases to be a ‘woman’ and loses the protection and support owed a gendered body” ­– that is, in the words of the Rivers’ housekeeper, Hannah, “the protection of gentlemen, and dogs, and guns” (Armstrong 543-544).  In light of Armstrong’s characterization of Victorian women as domestic, protected bodies rather than adventuring, protecting bodies, it is no surprise that Mr. Brocklehurst expects Jane to prefer the Psalms over Revelations, Daniel, Genesis, Samuel, Exodus, Kings, Chronicles, Job, and Jonah, most of which involve a great deal of masculine adventure, both in terms of exploits abroad and military defense at home.  In contrast, although the Psalms record a great deal of adventure (and violence), the psalmist is usually the supplicant in need of defense.  He calls out to God to protect him from his enemies who surround him from every side.  The role of the Psalmist, therefore, is more in line with the Victorian conception of the role of the female rather than the male.  In her preference for the accounts of the adventures of the Israelites over the psalmists’ supplications, Jane aligns herself with that which is masculine.  It is to this that Mr. Brocklehurst so strongly objects.

 

 

In light of the above, then, what are we to make of the fact that when Jane is in agony after learning of the existence of Bertha Mason and of her necessary separation from Rochester, the words of the Psalms – “Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help” (Psalm 22:11) – and not those of Genesis or Samuel “went wandering up and down in [her] rayless mind”?  Are we to understand that Jane more fully recognizes her role as a woman, dependent on the “protection of gentleman, and dogs, and men”?  While Jane certainly finds herself in need of help and protection after she flees from Thornfield, I do not think that by doing so she has surrendered to Mr. Brocklehurst’s notions of femininity.  Rather, Jane’s recollection of the Psalms in her hour of crisis reflects the development of her understanding of the character of God – a development that progresses with the narrative.  When Jane first arrives at Lowood School, her conversations with Helen Burns indicate that she does not yet know what she believes about God.  She asks Helen earnestly, “Where is God?  What is God?”  At that time, despite whatever religious teaching Mrs. Reed may have given Jane, and despite (or maybe because of) Mr. Brocklehurst’s religious teaching, Jane does not yet know God as her hope and refuge.  Helen Burns greatly influences Jane, however, and as Jane matures it seems that she, more and more, lives out the kind of faith first shown her by Helen Burns.  When Jane faces the pain of leaving Rochester, she turns to God not as an abstract religious teaching, but as a friend, as strength, as her hope, and as her refuge.  When Jane relies on God to lead her through the difficulties she faces after leaving Thornfield, she does embody the psalmist, but I would argue that she does so because her understanding of the character of God has changed, not because she has embraced Mr. Brocklehurst’s conception of Victorian femininity.

 

 

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. “Gender Must Be Defended.” The South Atlantic Quarterly. 111.3 (2012): 529-547.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. projectgutenberg.org. The Project Gutenberg, 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

 

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