Monday, June 13, 2011

In Defense of St. John Rivers

I've been rereading the latter parts of Jane Eyre as I work on my current chapter, and one of the things that struck me was that yes, I (and, as far as I can tell, I alone) adore St. John Rivers.

Two disclaimers before I get down to business. First, this is not going to be a piece of literary criticism with lots of German words and some Franco Moretti citations. For that, read my dissertation. Second, I'm not going to argue that Jane should have married St. John. If Jane had married him, Jane Eyre would not be the masterpiece that it is, because it would have been pretty much exactly like all Charlotte Bronte's other novels. Stern, righteous, more or less pedagogical figures abound in the Bronte oeuvre, and usually, they get the girl.

So, then. Why my unusual passion for St. John Rivers? We'll lay aside my idiosyncratic tendency to like unpleasant literary characters as a rule, because St. John, I argue, is not in fact particularly unpleasant. He is cold and demanding, yes. But St. John is, as his name implies, the bright reverse of the disturbing John Reed early in the novel--a figure who, along with his sisters, can redeem the concept of family for Jane.

It occurred to me as I was conceptualizing all this that I might just as well write a defense of Romney Leigh as St. John Rivers. I chose not to because Romney is not as widely known and therefore not as widely vilified. But Rivers shares key features with Barrett Browning's hero, most particularly impassioned idealism. I think that's a feature that's too easy to overlook because too obvious. St. John Rivers goes to be a missionary in a dangerous and far-off India because of his zealous Christianity--the same quality that led to him saving Jane from death by exposure and starvation.

I believe that what makes St. John unattractive to modern readers lies in two key facets of his characterization. One, rampant early Victorianism. There's no getting around that. Two, he represents the icy Puritan control that Jane has imposed on herself as a kind of defense throughout the novel. In resisting St. John's claims on her, Jane is actually resisting her own tendency to self-denial.

So, with all that said, why do I still find such charm in his character? I could wiggle through by saying something about the higher value of the Apollonian over the Dionysian for me. And it would probably be true (if horribly, horribly dated!). But I also believe that idealism and self-denial are underrated qualities in modern society. We could do with a few more St. John Riverses in our world--not too many, that wouldn't be any fun--but certainly a few more.

As a final tidbit, in Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the heroine's evangelical mother reads her Jane Eyre--but somehow makes up an ending wherein Jane marries St. John and goes off to become a missionary. Frankly? I find that way more disturbing than the novel as it stands, bigamists or no bigamists!

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