The Faces of Christianity in Jane Eyre: Mr Brocklehurst

A brief introduction to Mr Brocklehurst: before eighteen-year-old Jane Eyre came to Thronefield Hall and met the love of her life, she lived in Lowood Orphan Asylum. Mr Brocklehurst is the “treasurer and manager of the establishment” and “a clergyman, and is said to do a great deal of good” (p49)*. When ten-year-old Jane met him for the first time, his face left quite a striking impression:

“What a face he had, now that it was almost on a level with mine! what a great nose! and what a mouth! and what large prominent teeth!”

If I wasn’t holding a book 500-pages thick, I’d thought I was reading the Little Red Riding Hood meeting the Wolf.

There are two major scenes where Mr B featured in: one is when he first interviewed Jane in Mrs Reed’s house before her admission to Lowood Orphan Asylum, the second is when he visited Lowood a few months later. There are also other mentions of him in various passing comments.

“they go to hell”

Mr B was summoned to Gateshead Hall when Mrs Reed had finally had enough of Jane and wished to get rid of her once and for all. Straight after requesting her name, his pleasantry was, “Well, Jane Eyre, and are you a good child?” After hearing from Mrs Reed that the answer was no, he labeled her in the next breath as a “naughty child” and then immediately said, “Do you know where the wicked go after death?” Jane had her “ready and orthodox answer”, “they go to hell” (p31).

One of Mr B’s theories of educating children seems to be to threaten them with the terror of hell and punishment and to make them feel unworthy of human companionship, respect or love by comparing them with some made-up story in which children were ‘angels’. I said they were likely to be made-up because in my next essay when we meet Helen Burns who is the most ‘angel-like’ creature in the whole book, she’s not praised or held up as an example in Lowood. She’s despised and trod upon just like Jane.

Continuing his monologue, Mr B was not hesitant in informing Jane that he “buried a little child of five years old only a day or two since,—a good little child, whose soul is now in heaven. It is to be feared the same could not be said of you were you to be called hence” (p32).

Without any hesitation he pronounced the damnation of a child to eternal punishment. He’s wrong NOT because his damnation is given without any evidence other than Mrs Reed’s “expressive shake of the head”. He’s wrong because he has not the right to do so. No one can judge a person’s heart and eternal destiny except Jesus: “he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10.42)**.

He puts himself in the place of God and pronounces judgement over ‘sinners’. The other side of the same coin is the implication that he himself is above judgement and is neither wicked nor sinful. When asked “are you a good child?”, Jane had the honesty and conscience to stay silent, even though she was in the right and was harshly and unfairly treated. However, imagine if someone asked Mr B, ‘are you a good person?’, his response would surely be a resounding yes with an air of ‘how could you ask such an offensive question?’. But the Bible’s assessment of human condition is that “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3.10). Human beings are by birth sinful, Mr B included. But he seemed to have forgotten that.

To people like Mr B, “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else”, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector (or this child Jane Eyre, poor, disobedient, wicked). I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'”

And here’s Jesus’ verdict: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18.9-14). I wonder how would Jesus judge Mr B and Jane.

When Jane explained that she liked reading “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” (I’m very impressed!) but finding Psalms boring, the judgement from Mr B. was that it “proves you have a wicked heart; and you must pray to God to change it: to give you a new and clean one: to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (p32).

Firstly, it’s too absurd even to take on the argument that not being a fan of the Psalms is a proof of a wicked heart. I’ll just roll my eyes and let it pass. Clearly Jane had a deep appreciation for Psalms later on in life: at her lowest point of life, when all hopes were dashed and her heart broken, Jane Eyre, whose words conquered in the face of enemies and blossomed in love and joy, quoted two Psalms to express the extent of her grief and despair.

The second half of his sentence is a quote from the middle of Ezekiel 36.24-28. Here’s the verse with its original context, this is God speaking to Israel, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.”

Israel had been rebellious and lost out on God’s blessing. Here comes God promising that he will take the initiative to remove their rebellious actions by curing their stone-cold heart, so Israel would willingly love and follow God and be blessed as a result. We are rebellious towards God in a similar vein as the Israelites although in 21st century ways, so we CAN take this promise as if it is to us.

So when Mr B said to Jane “you must pray to God to change [your wicked heart]”, it’s actually not wrong (for once). But it can’t help but sound hypocritical coming out of his mouth. If I were Jane, I would have said, ‘Yes sir, I will. You must pray likewise!’

“why that abundance?”

The second episode starts with Mr B’s complaints about the management of the Asylum: girls’ stockings on the washing lines had whopping holes – they were not mended properly; a lunch of bread and cheese were served twice on one occasion – who gave authority to such luxury and indulgence? While in reality, children’s hands and feet were covered in chilblains because they had no warm clothes when water for washing their faces froze in pitchers. Meals were so small and disgusting, older children bullied smaller children to surrender their portions and small children starved.

Here’s another of Mr B’s theories about educating children: the body should be punished to save the soul. His response to this impoverished condition that is solely caused by him and his stinginess? The teachers should, firstly, drill in them that their hunger and coldness is a hallmark of a genuine Christian, just like the martyrs.

Martyrs throughout the ages have suffered for sure, they have known “hunger and thirst”, “have often gone without food” and “have been cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11.27), because they would not bow down to worship any other god, they would not compromise their conscience or their Christian faith, and they would travel in physical danger to parts of the world where the gospel had not been heard. They suffer, not because their school’s treasurer and manager withheld basic clothing for winter and decent meals for growing children. And Mr B, when you meet your Maker, you’ll have to give an account of all you’ve done.

The Bible is clear about a Christian’s responsibility in helping the poor, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress… (James 1.27)”. I’m pretty certain if you accuse Mr B of not looking after the orphans and widows in their distress, he’d say ‘why! this is exactly what I’m doing! Why else would I labour day and night to manage this institution for these orphan girls? They should be grateful for the extravagant home and thorough education they receive from me.’

Why would he run the school? Because that’s a respectful and charitable thing to do as a clergyman. It raises his reputation and honour among the wealthy and influential. He’s not even paying for it out of his own pocket: the family of the pupils and “different benevolent-minded ladies and gentlemen in this neighbourhood and in London” pay for the fees. However, Mr B, “for economy’s sake, bought us bad needles and thread, with which we could hardly sew (p121)”. I wonder what he did with all the money and if those benevolent-minded ladies and gentlemen knew about it, especially when we see his wife and daughters appear “attired in velvet, silk and furs” (p63) and wearing the most trendy hat and fake curls. Fake curls! Just a minute before their grand entrance, Mr B ordered a girl to get her natural curls cut off entirely. His hypocrisy laid bare as ugly as his wolf-like face.

And he dared talk about grace! “I wish these girls to be the children of Grace: and why that abundance?” Funny you should ask that Mr B. Grace is naturally given in abundance! In his grace God gave this girl a beautiful mass of curls because God delights in doing so. But Mr B cannot accept this grace lavished on a girl who is poor and undeserving. If Jesus were standing in the room at that moment, saying I gave her that hair, Mr B would have said, ‘no my Lord, it’s not wise of you to give her hair like that, she will be tempted by the devil of vanity and she’ll end up in hell. No Lord, I’ll not approve of it!’

Does he really care about the welfare of these orphans as fellow human beings? No. Mr B and his family never came to visit the school when half of the pupils fell sick and many died from typhus fever, made worse by the cold and semi-starvation. He had for the orphan girls only the crumbs. Even the crumbs he held in tight fists and dropped reluctantly with a hard heart.

What an awful witness Mr B must be to these children! I can imagine Jane saying to herself, ‘He’s a clergyman so he must be as Christian as a person can get, but he’s so “harsh, pompous and meddling” (p121), and we suffer so much. A Christian must be a disagreeable thing!’

‘Verdict’ of Mr Brocklehurst

He’s clearly an advocate of the doctrine of judgement and hell. He preaches salvation by submission and good behaviour with the motivation of avoiding the terror of hell.

He clearly does not believe salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone. He does not see the kindness, gentleness and compassion of God in Jesus and does not see the point of showing it to others. I bet there’s little joy in his life because being a Christian is a duty to him. He does ‘charity’ so others think well of him. He’s self-righteous and a hypocrite.

__________

*All the page numbers are from the Oxford World’s Classic edition

** I include all the Bible chapter and verse numbers for your reference, so you can check them out if you like.

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