Table of Contents
- Who is St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre?
- St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre: Character Analysis
- Quotes of St. John Rivers
- Lesson Summary
St. John Rivers is a key character in the novel Jane Eyre. Written by Charlotte Bronte, the work was originally titled Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and was published in 1847. The love story between the protagonist Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, her employer, remains one of the most iconic love stories in classic Victorian Era literature.
Though the St. in his name implies sainthood, St. John Rivers is not actually recognized as a saint. Pronounced with the correct accent, his name sounds like 'SIN-jun'. The naming is intentional and symbolizes his ambition to relinquish his mortal self for the sake of his missionary work. He believes himself to be on the path toward sainthood and this is the driving motivation for his character.
St. John Rivers isn't introduced until nearly the end of the novel. He is described as severe, serious, and handsome. He befriends Jane and is attracted to her pious nature rather than to her. Believing himself to be on the path of the righteous he is committed to living a life free of such human things as passion.
It's important to understand the context of how Jane came to meet him and his sisters. In the previous chapters, Mr. Rochester has confessed his feelings to Jane, and they are to be wed. Unfortunately, Jane discovers that her husband-to-be has already been married and is still married to his first wife, Bertha Antoinetta Mason.
Due to mental illness, Mr. Rochester has kept her in the attic, being cared for by Grace Poole. This accounts for all the mysterious events that had happened since Jane's arrival at Thornfield Hall. The night that Mr. Rochester's rooms were set afire it was not due to some ghost or ill-willed spirit, it was Bertha who had escaped from the confines of her room which happened at times when Grace drank too much.
Jane is shocked and dismayed realizing that she has been lied to and now cannot in good faith marry the man she loves. Since their marriage cannot properly be done, Jane would not be a wife, but a mistress. In distress, Jane flees her Thornfield Hall without taking her belongings or having any kind of plan for herself. Besides being unable to marry Mr. Rochester, Jane has also lost her newfound sense of home, something she had not felt so acutely anywhere else.
Ironically, Jane's grief-stricken journey lands her at the door of Diana and Mary Rivers, two sisters who are later revealed to be Jane's cousins. In a strange twist of fate, Jane loses her home and then stumbles onto the family. Without food, water, or shelter and in the throes of loss she is quite ill by the time she meets the sisters. Though they are poor, the sisters are intellectually on a similar level to Jane and are incredibly generous and kind. They are reading the night Jane knocks on the door. They come to adore Jane and hope that Jane will inspire their brother to stay in England.
St. John believes he must spread the word of Christianity to all corners and plans to begin his work in India. St. John Rivers has directed his passion towards serving only his soul. He has chosen to forsake the passionate love he feels for Rosamond Oliver.
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!
Though Rosamond Oliver has a cheerful disposition and beauty and is an heiress, he believes these attributes will not help him walk the path of God. Though Rosamond loves him in return, he refuses to consider her as a wife because he doesn't believe she'd be the right kind of wife for a clergyman.
Upon meeting Jane, he offers to wed her with the proposal that she would act not as much as a wife, but rather as an assistant on his missionary journey to India. St. John sees the body and soul as separate and believes that the desires of the flesh are inherently corrupt and sinful. Rather than believe he should attempt to unite his own body and soul he seeks to draw a line between the two and follow a path towards divinity. Though he loves Rosamond he sees this as a moral failing that must be scourged.
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.
Jane decides that she cannot consent to marry St. John Rivers, stating, He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all. Unmarried to him, this would never grieve me; but can I let him complete his calculations — coolly put into practice his plans - go through with the wedding ceremony? Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love and know the spirit was quite absent? No — such a martyrdom would be monstrous
Jane turns him down, realizing that she does not agree with his notions that love and passion are sinful and meant to be separated from one's soul.
St. John openly admits that he does not love Jane, yet when she refuses to marry him, he suggests that it's a sign of her sinful nature, and proclaims she is placing her desires above her duty to God. Of course, like other characters who touted such grandiose judgments about Jane, they accuse her of acting immorally for attempting any kind of autonomy or attempting any explanation or counterargument to their discourse. The idea that Jane might interpret morality or her spirituality differently than what is prescribed by St. John is described as blasphemous. He fails to recognize his hubris in believing he knows more concretely what God would want or expect of Jane and believes he alone walks the path of righteousness.
Given the time, Jane's refusal to wed St. John is rebellious. St. John Rivers symbolizes the perfect Victorian Era mate having everything to offer, except love. While St. John is convinced that Jane is acting against God, she has determined for herself that she cannot marry without love because of her duty to God. Jane's character represents free will. In many ways, the novel continually juxtaposes her character's sense of spirituality and understanding of God against the rigid religious and societal expectations of the time.
In literature, a foil is a character who is designed to significantly contrast another character. This is often done to highlight key traits in the other character, most often painting the latter in a positive light.
St. John's excessive ambition and extreme seriousness make Mr. Rochester seem more playful and passionate in comparison to the former. St. John comes across as cold, insensitive, and uncaring because he's worked diligently to stifle those aspects of himself. This humanizes Mr. Rochester as a man. St. John Rivers symbolizes a man who is at the extreme opposite end of the moral spectrum so much so that his moral superiority becomes a major flaw.
With Mr. Rochester, she would become a mistress whereas with St. John she would be free from the obligations of being a housewife. Given that Jane felt stifled in many of her childhood homes, St. John is indeed offering her a chance at greater freedom and a higher sense of purpose beyond marriage. In some ways, she would be freer as a woman. St. John offers Jane a chance to transcend, but at a cost to her moral integrity.
Jane determines she would be sacrificing herself in marrying St. John, not finding herself. For her, the loneliness of being in a loveless marriage, existing only for serving God and others, would suffocate her soul far more than accepting her womanly desires. In a compromise, Jane offers to accompany him on his missionary work, but not as his wife.
I repeat I freely consent to go with you as your fellow missionary, but not as your wife; I cannot marry you and become part of you.
St. John refuses to travel with her alone. Rather than seeing his failure to compromise for the sake of God's work, he blames Jane wholly. As in times previously, Jane is verbally persecuted by someone who believes they are morally superior. She is told she is being ungrateful or poor-tempered or, in this case, sinful because she dares to speak honestly and make her mind up about morality.
Jane refuses to see herself as a sinner for turning St. John down. She decides that it is not immoral or weak to love or desire someone and concludes that God intended passion and sexuality to be part of the bond between husband and wife.
Jane's relationship with St. John allows her to fully accept herself and she returns to Mr. Rochester.
Some might interpret Jane's character as pitiful in many ways. She is a tradition-bound, stifled woman, a victim of her circumstances and of the times. But this interpretation is inadequate. Her decision to trust herself and her moral compass is an act of courage in an era that did not offer a lot of options for women. Jane took each opportunity presented to her to expand herself, educate herself, and take authority over whatever decisions she was able to make. Jane's rejection of St. John is the most symbolic act of feminism in the novel. Jane continually grapples with her morality throughout the novel and decides for herself what is righteous when it comes to love, passion, and desire is a key theme.
God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary's wife you must? — Shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you? — not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign's service.
This quote by St. John shows his lack of love and feeling for Jane, admitting even in his proposal to her that he takes no manly pleasure in marrying her, but sees it as a service to God.
I acknowledge myself the chiefest of sinners; but I do not suffer this sense of my personal vileness to daunt me. I know my Leader: that He is just as well as mighty; and while He has chosen a feeble instrument to perform a great task, He will, from the boundless stores of His providence, supply the inadequacy of the means to the end. Think like me, Jane? Trust like me. It is the Rock of Ages I ask you to lean on: do not doubt but it will bear the weight of your human weakness.
This quote explains that St. John views himself and all humans to be generally weak, failing by giving in to their passions and desires. But this quote also summarizes his ambition to ascend his bodily weaknesses by denying himself his desires.
St. John Rivers is a key character in the novel Jane Eyre. He is Jane Eyre's second suitor and acts as a foil to her true love, Mr. Rochester. He symbolically represents the restrictive and spiritually oppressively aspects of religion and morality during the Victorian Era. Though St. John is in love with Rosamond Oliver he forgoes his passions believing it is right to give up bodily sins like lust. He has devoted himself to being a servant of God and is an aspiring missionary. While this would normally be seen in a positive light, St. John takes his purpose to a severe place and Jane sees him as trampling over her and others in his pursuit of moral superiority.
Charlotte Bronte masterfully used St. John Rivers to highlight the novel's overall exploration of Christian morality vs. an individual's spiritual integrity and personal moral compass. By juxtaposing him against Mr. Rochester, she gives Jane Eyre agency as a protagonist and allows Jane to accept her feelings of passion, love, and desire as crucial to her soul and spirit, not separate from them.
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St. John proposes to Jane, but she turns him down since she sees him more as a brother, and knows they do not love each other like a husband and wife. Jane offers to accompany him as a friend and assistant, but he believes this is morally impossible as they are not blood-related. So, ultimately he travels to India as a missionary alone.
Jane suggests that she accompany him to India, but not as his wife. He refuses this option. She also asks that he consider her still as a friend, but he spends his final weeks making her feel guilty and miserable for her rejection. He takes a trip to Cambridge and asks Jane to reconsider his offer as he fears for her soul.
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