St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre: Character Analysis & Quotes

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  • 0:00 A Love Story
  • 0:29 Jane's Two Suitors
  • 1:28 St. John Rivers
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores the lesser-known character of St. John Rivers in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 masterpiece 'Jane Eyre.' The lesson argues that it is through the character of St. John that Jane learns to embrace her passions and define her own morality.

A Love Story

Charlotte Bronte's 1847 masterpiece Jane Eyre tells the iconic love story of the governess Jane Eyre and her employer, Mr. Rochester. But it is the lesser-known character of St. John Rivers who ultimately forces Jane to choose between passion and duty. In the character of St. John Rivers, we have all that is good, virtuous, and holy in a man, everything that a Victorian woman could hope for in a spouse - except love.

Jane's Two Suitors

To say the least, Jane Eyre is a controversial character. Condemned by some as the poster child for the submissive, tradition-bound Victorian woman, more favorable readings see Jane as an example of early feminism: a woman guided by an independent will, an autonomous morality, and the passions which lead her to reunite with the love of her life, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps nowhere is this emerging feminism more evident than in Jane's relationship with her two suitors: Edward Rochester and St. John Rivers.

Jane meets St. John Rivers and his sisters, Diana and Mary, after she discovers Mr. Rochester was married. Rochester's wife, suffering from mental illness, had been hidden in a locked attic in Rochester's family estate. Rather than consent to be his mistress, Jane abandons the estate, but she loses her money and few belongings and ends up wandering the moors, without shelter, food, or water. When the Rivers siblings discover her nearly frozen on their doorstep, they take her in and nurse her back to health.

St. John Rivers

So what is it about St. John that makes his role in the novel such an important one? Some passages from Bronte's text may shed light.

'St. John looks quiet, Jane; but he hides a fever in his vitals. You would think him gentle, yet in some things he is inexorable as death….It is right, noble, Christian: yet it breaks my heart!'

St. John is a parish minister with lofty ambitions, namely to become a missionary in the most unforgiving regions of the British Empire. His life's goal is to spread the light of Christianity in the globe's darkest corners. And he will sacrifice everything - family ties, bodily strength, and even his one true love, Rosamond Oliver - to achieve this ambition.

'When I colour, and when I shade before Miss Oliver, I do not pity myself. I scorn the weakness. I know it is ignoble: a mere fever of the flesh: not, I declare, the convulsion of the soul. That is just as fixed as a rock, firm set in the depths of a restless sea. Know me to be what I am - a cold, hard man.'

This is the conflict between duty and passion that plays such a vital role in this novel. St. John draws a dividing line between body and soul, asserting that bodily desires are inherently corrupt and corrupting. They are the restless sea, tossing the sufferer recklessly and unpredictably, from the highest highs to the lowest lows. But the requirements of the soul are steadfast: they do not change, compromise, or bend.

For St. John, everything must give way to the unyielding demands of the soul, which means that he must mercilessly scour away his own desires. He hates the passionate love he feels for Rosamond, seeing it as a failing, a mortal temptation to be rebuked, a sinful distraction that would deflect his soul from its divine course.

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