“Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear.” – Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
In Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel Jane Eyre, our heroine is confronted with a choice: a love fueled by emotion or one driven by reason.
The brooding hunk Rochester’s proclamation of love comes from his heart; his feelings are genuine, stemming from fiery passion. St. John is a cold, pragmatic man whose feelings for Jane come from his intellect; his desire is based on functionalism, notions of compatibility and practical character traits. As Jane and Rochester’s relationship blooms, she responds in kind to his advances by loving him from her heart; it’s a meaningful connection.
St. John’s attempt to woo Jane is a desire to “create a relationship” instead of falling in love. He’s determined in his belief that she’ll make an ideal partner and doesn’t put forth much effort to open his heart. St. John uses common sense to appeal to Jane’s rational mind; he’s looking at the advantages to home and hearth over romantic compatibility and physical attraction. In response to this ploy, Jane inevitably turns cold toward St. John, pitying him. By expressing St. John’s refusal—or, perhaps, his inability to employ feelings over reason in his pursuit of Jane, Brontë reveals his true role in Jane’s life as the antithesis of Rochester’s romanticism. [Image On Left: Ethel Gabain’s Rochester Proposing to Jane (1922)]
Rochester embodies heart-felt, human emotion. He doesn’t allow analytical thought to overshadow or interfere with his feelings, going so far as to show his affection for Jane physically without hesitation. One of my favourite lines from the novel is when Brontë writes, “He held out his hand; I gave him mine: he took it first in one, then in both his own.” It’s a simple gesture of affection, given freely, but in an era of oppressive decorum, it has profound meaning. I think of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence when Newland Archer removes Countess Olenska’s glove to hold her hand or when he caresses her cheek. This is quintessential 19th-century passion in fiction: quiet eroticism opposed to overt hypersexualism. This subtle yet effective demonstration of love reflects the yearning for Jane inside Rochester’s heart, and he’s unafraid to let his guard down to openly reveal those feelings. As the novel progresses, so does Rochester’s comfort level in actively engaging in both the emotional and physical aspects of romance.
Here’s another great moment between Jane and Rochester: “‘Come and bid me good-morning,’ said he. “I gladly advanced; and it was not merely a cold word now, or even a shake of the hand that I received, but an embrace and a kiss. It seemed natural: it seemed genial to be so well loved.” It seemed natural. By using what he feels in his heart and showing his affection openly, Rochester affects Jane in a manner that compels her to open her heart to him. It’s beautifully symmetrical, this mutually positive exchange, with Jane relishing the pure, non-mechanical delivery of affection. Unlike his rival, Rochester is open to romance—to romancing Jane. The giving and accepting of authentic love is a fundamental part of who Rochester is. [Image On Right: Art (1903) By Edmund Henry Garrett]
St. John, however, only offers Jane detachment and rationale: the regulation of emotions. He even voices this: “Reason and not feeling, is my guide.” By exemplifying these traits, St. John can mask any feelings that might be stirring within him for Jane behind a veil of intellect. Emotions are often unpredictable, and the uncontrollable frightens St. John; he finds comfort in the dependability of sense over passion, logic over lust. His stoic behaviour remains steadfast throughout the novel. He isn’t overly empathetic toward Jane’s struggles, and his interest in her is founded not in compassion or connection but in qualities he admires, like endurance, perseverance, and industrious talent. Unlike his rival for Jane’s attention, St. John dislikes tangible showings of affection, even advising Jane not to engage in them with any tenacity. His refusal to practice physical communication shows severe emotional rigidity and discomfort with true intimacy and expressive connectivity. St. John becomes a robot: mechanical and guarded concerning his feelings. His coldness doesn’t go unnoticed by Jane; it unnerves her, creating distance between the two.
Each suitor’s marriage proposal is vastly different. Rochester’s bid is sincere, reflecting his devotion to Jane: he wishes to treasure her forever, a love bonded in marriage. He’s honest about his feelings, openly displaying them when he showers Jane with compliments one would expect to hear from a love-struck fiancé. Rochester finds Jane’s sunny disposition compelling over, say, her appropriateness as a wife and homemaker. Jane believes in the veracity of this paramour’s love, absolutely.
St. John proposes marriage to Jane, not because he’s in love with her, but because she embodies the desired traits he seeks in a life partner. When he describes to Jane the characteristics in her he most admires, he uses words which suggest that rationality is the motive behind his proposal. And it’s not that these qualities are inherently wrong; they just don’t carry any romantic association. St. John never uses spirited terms like “desirable” or “beautiful” to describe Jane. There’s never any real passion behind his words or moves. The attributes he mentions are more suitable to a pet than a paramour.
The one refreshing thing about this trainwreck of a possible relationship is that neither party is fooling themselves into thinking that a marriage between them would be anything more than one of convenience and practicality. But Jane will not abide by this option, going so far as to say to St. John: “I scorn your idea of love. I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer.” Jane Eyre is not a woman who will simply exist within a loveless marriage. [Image On Left: Art (1903) By Edmund Henry Garrett]
Jane’s attraction to Rochester results from his ability to connect with her heart and entice her into doing what she secretly desires: embrace emotion as easily as he does. Her inner need for excitement is personified in the romantically dynamic figure that is Rochester; his mystery and sensuousness make Jane come alive like no other man. Rochester’s utilization of emotion over reason enables him to ultimately penetrate the cognitive barriers Jane has initially set up to protect herself and guard her feelings—psychological and emotional blocks similar to St. John’s. By revealing his true self and ability to connect with his emotions, Rochester’s romancing encourages Jane to abandon her defences and embrace passion.
St. John’s willful disregard for romantic feelings opens Jane’s eyes to the truth about surrendering to reason and suitability. St. John is a hopeless pragmatist who’s more concerned with the practical aspects of life than the aesthetic ones, the sensual. He disregards both the wants of the heart and the pleasures of the flesh, focusing instead on controlling his emotions by shutting out those who aspire to love him romantically. Jane eventually sees that St. John would make an unsuitable husband, especially for her, because he cannot reach women on any fundamental emotional level.
At times, Jane does show aspirations toward self-denial and self-control like many strong-willed nineteenth-century fictional heroines endeavouring to navigate their era’s patriarchy. So her attraction to the discipline St. John has mastered over his life is understandable. Thankfully, Jane does see that giving in to this ideology would be a mistake. She can’t hide her feelings for Rochester, nor can she live in denial: she’s not in love with St. John. [Above Image On Right: Art (1903) By Edmund Henry Garrett]
The ability to see that St. John’s unfeeling rationale is a dark cloud over her head enables Jane to realize that her feelings for Rochester are real and can’t be masked by asceticism. Hence, Jane leaves St. John in his pursuit of stoicism and what is sensible and serviceable and follows her chosen path toward romance and genuine affection with Rochester. By turning to romantic love, Jane’s physical, as well as emotional, self begins a rejuvenation, something rationality has never achieved for her. Knowing that Rochester loves her deeply strengthens Jane’s resolve to adhere to romance and stay the course. By taking Rochester’s lead and expressing her emotions openly, Jane’s life is enriched, and her future, married to Rochester, is bright.