The Faces of Christianity in Jane Eyre: St John Rivers

St John Rivers appears in the last quarter of the book after Jane runs away from Thornfield Hall. He and his two sisters take Jane into their home, Moor House, as she nearly dies of cold and hunger after wandering about penniless and desparate for two days. Rivers is a young, intelligent and serious clergyman and soon offers Jane a home and work as a school teacher for the girls from the villages. And eventually they find out they are cousins. He offers to marry her and go to India as missionaries but goes alone in the end. Sorry if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, I have just spoilt it all.

Rivers takes part in a big proportion of the storyline and is a more complicated Christian character compared to Mr Brocklehurst or Helen Burn. As a result, there are quite a lot of materials to sift through and examine. My first impression was that he’s precisely as Jane observes initially: “restless, hard and eager” (p336)*. He would trample down every obstacle in his way to achieve his purpose. But reading some of his speeches made me think he must also be genuinely concerned about the mission work, and is a single-minded and zealous man. But however genuine he is towards God’s mission in India, his view on marriage and love is definitely problematic.

Since this describes the development of my understanding of Rivers, I’ll write below in the same three-step journey. However before we get to analyse Rivers, I have two things to say about the novel. Firstly, I want to show you the perspective of Jane and how it can influence reader’s opinion. Secondly, I want to share my discovery about the clergy as a profession in the Victorian era.

“I scarcely know in which light he regarded it”

The readers see Rivers through Jane’s eyes and a lot of the impression comes from Jane’s response to their conversation and interaction. It’s a bit difficult to know Rivers’ personality accurately because we get to know him through a pair of glasses called Jane. Arguably this is the case for the whole book and every character in it, but I’m aware of this danger (of misunderstanding Rivers) more than when I was thinking about Mr Brocklehurst and Helen Burns. I’ll give a few examples.

Example One

Jane recovers her health and quietly observes Rivers’ daily activities from a distance. “No weather seemed to hinder him in these pastoral excursions: rain or fair, he would, when his hours of morning study were over, take his hat, and, followed by his father’s old pointer, Carlo, go out on his mission of love or duty—I scarcely know in which light he regarded it. (p341-342)” This seems to be a matter-of-fact description but it casts doubt in readers’ mind on Rivers’ motivation for his pastoral visits because Jane says “love or duty—I scarcely know in which light he regarded it”.

Example Two

Another example, “[b]ut besides his frequent absences, there was another barrier to friendship with him: he seemed of a reserved, an abstracted, and even of a brooding nature. Zealous in his ministerial labours, blameless in his life and habits, he yet did not appear to enjoy that mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every sincere Christian and practical philanthropist” (p342).

Does Rivers enjoy “mental serenity”? We don’t know, but Jane doesn’t think he does. Do we then conclude that Rivers, as a Christian, does NOT have contentment and peace from God? It depends on how much we trust Jane as an observer and narrator. Is she fair and accurate in judging people’s character in her life so far? I think generally I’d say yes, so overall I’ll trust her observation and reflection regarding Rivers’ character.

I hope you see what I mean that we get to know Rivers through the lens of Jane a lot of the time.

“the Rivers were gentry in the old days of the Henrys”

Before we go on to my findings of his character. I’d like to mention something about Rivers’ profession as a clergyman. It’s possible that he became a clergyman not because he chose full-time ministry in a modern sense, but because ‘church’ is a natural career path for ‘gentlemen’ as a class. I didn’t realise this possibility until I read Middlemarch and the story of Fred Vincy. (Both novels were written about life in the same period, around 1830s and 40s.) Fred, whose family background is manufacturing, went to colleges at great financial cost to his family all for the prospect of him going into ‘church’ and becoming a respectable gentleman.

(Class in the Victorian era is a fascinating and subtle thing. In Middlemarch, the choice of Lydgate, who is from a genteel background, to study and practise medicine, is seen as a degradation. Rosamund Vincy from a manufacturing background marrying Lydgate is going a ‘step up’, because of his class.)

Rivers’ case sounds familiar to Fred Vincy’s: going to college for the prospect of a ‘church’ profession (p334), and Rivers’ father being against him becoming a missionary and throwing away his respectable livelihood (p352). This also explains why Mr Oliver approves of giving his daughter to a penniless clergyman: because of Rivers’ higher class. In good old servant Hannah’s word:

“Old Mr. Rivers, she said, was a plain man enough, but a gentleman, and of as ancient a family as could be found. Marsh End had belonged to the Rivers ever since it was a house: and it was, she affirmed, ‘aboon two hundred year old—for all it looked but a small, humble place, naught to compare wi’ Mr. Oliver’s grand hall down i’ Morton Vale. But she could remember Bill Oliver’s father a journeyman needle-maker; and th’ Rivers wor gentry i’ th’ owd days o’ th’ Henrys, as onybody might see by looking into th’ registers i’ Morton Church vestry.”

I haven’t studied the Victorian history on this subject so I can’t be one hundred percent sure. It’s just the impression I got. It’s a piece of vital background information and it gives one more dimension to the story and Rivers’ character.

Now let’s move to the character analysis.

“in thought, word and deed

St John Rivers is a clergyman like Mr Brocklehurst. But unlike Mr Brocklehurst, Rivers’ way of life is more consistent with his belief: he excellently and powerfully preaches Calvinistic doctrines in his sermons that “thrill the heart” and “astonished the mind” (p342); he diligently does his pastoral duty by visiting all the poor and needy in his parish (as we saw briefly above); he lives in an old family house without many worldly longings or concerns. In brief, Rivers is a ‘perfect’ example of a model Christian in all his deeds, and it gives us an opportunity to analyse his thought and word.

If you’re familiar with the Confession prayer, you might have noticed my use of the three words from “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed“. A reader of Jane Eyre can confidently say that Rivers rarely sinned against God in deed, as Jane observes, he is “zealous in his ministerial labours” and “blameless in his life and habits”. But how about his thought and word? I did some observation and the result is very interesting.

“for the future I propose to myself”

My first impression: Rivers feels very self-centred in his religion. Not ‘selfish’ – ‘selfish’ is conduct towards other people: grabbing things that benefit oneself and not being considerate to others. Rivers is mostly not selfish towards people. I’m sure he can be generous with his time and money towards his parishioners – because that’s the right thing to do.

However later on his ‘selfishness’ did come through when he insists on Jane marrying him. I see that as a more extreme example of his religious ‘self-centredness’. What do I mean by saying he’s self-centred in his religion? I’ll give a few examples below. But briefly, Christianity as a religion is his means to achieve his desires.

Example One: Daily work for his purpose

“[A] large proportion of his time appeared devoted to visiting the sick and poor among the scattered population of his parish… Sometimes, when the day was very unfavourable, his sisters would expostulate. He would then say, with a peculiar smile, more solemn than cheerful— ‘And if I let a gust of wind or a sprinkling of rain turn me aside from these easy tasks, what preparation would such sloth be for the future I propose to myself?'” Note how he says “I propose to myself”.

Example Two: Mission for his purpose

He was “intensely miserable” in his daily work as a clergyman because he’s bored to death (p352) and he does not know what to do with his energy and talent (p347) in the middle of the Yorkshire moorland. What does he truly want? “I burnt for the more active life of the world—for the more exciting toils of a literary career—for the destiny of an artist, author, orator; anything rather than that of a priest: yes, the heart of a politician, of a soldier, of a votary of glory, a lover of renown, a luster after power, beat under my curate’s surplice. (p352)”

So one day suddenly the idea dawned on him that he should become a missionary, because the profession requires a combination of skills and strength that suit him perfectly. “My cramped existence all at once spread out to a plain without bounds—my powers heard a call from heaven to rise, gather their full strength, spread their wings, and mount beyond ken. God had an errand for me; to bear which afar, to deliver it well, skill and strength, courage and eloquence, the best qualifications of soldier, statesman, and orator, were all needed: for these all centre in the good missionary. (p352)”

That to me is the wrong way of approaching the question if I should become a missionary. Shouldn’t the question be what can I do so more people can hear the Good News of Jesus? I’ll go to the East as a missionary. Rather than, I want to be a “soldier, statesman and orator”, what work can I do to fit all those categories? I know, I’ll become a missionary! (It doesn’t mean God doesn’t use people who do mission with a wrong motive – our motives are all more or less mixed. More on this later.)

Example Three: Marriage for his purpose

Rosamund Oliver is a character that the 2011 film adaptation doesn’t even hint at. It’s a shame because in the film, Rivers asking Jane to marry him can be seen as genuine. But the book gives no illusion of that at all. Rosamund is the young women Rivers loves passionately, seeing her, “his hand would tremble and his eyes burn” (p358). But Rivers refuses Rosamund because he’s going away and “she would not make me a good wife” (p364). And later when he insists that Jane ‘must’ marry him – “A part of me you must become”, “we must be married” (p397) – it is because he has judged Jane a useful and obedient worker, but taking a single woman to a mission field as a companion is unacceptable. Jane sees this very clearly in her response to Rivers:

Rivers: “Do you think God will be satisfied with half an oblation? Will He accept a mutilated sacrifice? It is the cause of God I advocate: it is under His standard I enlist you. I cannot accept on His behalf a divided allegiance: it must be entire.” “Oh! I will give my heart to God,” I said, “You do not want it.” (p395, italic in the original.)

Rivers does not ask Jane to marry him because of love. He just needs someone to obey and labour under his command. That to me is selfish.

After explaining that even their idea of love is different, let alone practise it in real life, Jane says, “My dear cousin, abandon your scheme of marriage—forget it.” “No,” said [Rivers]; “it is a long-cherished scheme, and the only one which can secure my great end. (p398)”

That’s another unmistakable example of his selfishness. Marrying Jane is to complete a scheme to secure his egoistic plan.

How he forces his will on Jane as if it’s God’s will! He doesn’t hesitate to be selfish in God’s name, “do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God… Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself for ever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith and are worse than infidels!” (p398). In other words, if you don’t agree to marry me and go on this mission trip with me, you’re doomed to a useless life and will likely end up in hell. By this point, he’s just as detestable as Mr Brocklehurst. He claims Jane’s obedience in surrendering her life to his will and he uses God’s name to achieve his purpose.

If you didn’t notice, the last sentence he said is actually a direct quote from 1 Timothy 5.8: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” It’s out of context. Paul was talking about someone who refuses to look after his family, not about people who refuse to marry a bully.

When his ‘will’ is resisted and rejected by Jane, he turns dismissive, condescending, resentful, cold and he ignores her as if she doesn’t exist. There’s no forgiveness, reconciliation or softening for “cordiality would not warm, nor tears move him” (p399).

“I am the servant of an infallible master”

Having said how ‘self-centred’ he is in many ways, it’s still possible to believe that he’s genuine in his endeavour to do God’s work. Many passages reveal this aspect of Rivers. It’s just that his tunnel vision on this single issue, namely to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, has blinded him to other equally essential commands in the Bible. In his own words, “You have but one end to keep in view—how the work you have undertaken can best be done. (p395)”

And his motivation is often mixed. He’d say in one sentence that working for God is so great he can’t understand why anybody can bear to sit at home and not become a missionary, but then he immediately zeros in on Jane, concluding that she ‘must’ go to India with him. It makes me wonder if he said the first thing just as a pretext to the second thing. Here’s one example showing how mixed his reasoning is:

Jane: “But you need not be a missionary. You might relinquish that scheme.” Rivers: “Relinquish! What—my vocation? My great work? My foundation laid on earth for a mansion in heaven? My hopes of being numbered in the band who have merged all ambitions in the glorious one of bettering their race—of carrying knowledge into the realms of ignorance—of substituting peace for war—freedom for bondage—religion for superstition—the hope of heaven for the fear of hell? Must I relinquish that? It is dearer than the blood in my veins. It is what I have to look forward to, and to live for.”

Note the ‘my’ repeated several times at the beginning of his response. He’s clearly zealous for the work. But whose work? But then the description of the work he hopes to achieve is completely godly.

“He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all”

We have already said quite a lot about Rivers’ selfishness in demanding Jane marry him. In the last section, I want to show the Bible’s view on love and marriage.

First let’s see Rivers’ own words on this subject before we argue against him. Rivers speaks to Jane, “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. (p391)” “I, too, do not want a sister: a sister might any day be taken from me. I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death… Again I tell you it is not the insignificant private individual—the mere man, with the man’s selfish senses—I wish to mate: it is the missionary.(p395)”

Jane understands his proposal very well, she says to herself, “He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all (p394).” She clearly states that she does not love him as a wife either, “for you I have only a comrade’s constancy; a fellow-soldier’s frankness, fidelity, fraternity, if you like; a neophyte’s respect and submission to his hierophant: nothing more—don’t fear.” “It is what I want,” he said, speaking to himself; “it is just what I want…” (p387). Rivers does not want affection from his wife, only obedience and labour are required. A robot would suit him perfectly.

The Bible commands “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (Ephesians 5.25**)”. When Jesus (Christ) was on earth with his disciples (church), he was their close friend and he never used them as minions. He was not a taskmaster or a slave driver. He is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11.29), he came to be “the servant of all” (Mark 9.35), and to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19.10).

For love between husband and wife, Song of Songs in the Bible gives a pretty romantic image. Genesis 2 also describes an affectionate image. God saw man alone was not good so he created a woman for him. When God brought her to the man, he was delighted and became a romantic poet on the spot,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2.23)

Rivers never utters a loving word to Jane or about Jane. He observes and judges her appearance, work and character objectively and coolly. If you want to see a contrast, Mr Rochester’s monologue on page 304 is a good example of affection. He likens her to a finch, tiny and frail in frame, but strong in mind. He hears her speak and watches the subtle changes in her facial expression, and all her voice and images are stored away frame by frame in his heart. He’s curious, attracted and fascinated with her every move, “snarl as I would, you showed no surprise, fear, annoyance, or displeasure at my moroseness; you watched me, and now and then smiled at me with a simple yet sagacious grace I cannot describe. I was at once content and stimulated with what I saw: I like what I had seen, and wished to see more. (p305)” It makes me happy to just see her, to watch her, knowing she’s around. And I always want to spend more time with her and I’m never bored of her company.

Comparing Genesis 2, or Song of Songs to Rivers’ version of love and reasoning for marriage, I think he is mistaken.

In conclusion, I’m much perplexed by St John Rivers and I don’t like him very much. I admire Jane all the more to stand up to him by her conscience and conviction. It can’t be easy. I wonder if that alone says something about the strength of Jane’s mind and character too.


If you’re interested, here are the first two blog posts in this series on Mr Brocklehurst and Helen Burns.

*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.

4 thoughts on “The Faces of Christianity in Jane Eyre: St John Rivers

  1. Thank you! Would love to read your analysis about him :)

  2. teddybearscribblin 07/02/2021 — 3:22 am

    Interesting post! :) I would also like to write about St. John in the future. After having read Jane Eyre, I don’t like him but I think there is much to analyze about the character.

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