Date of Award
Open Access Dissertation
School of Arts and Humanities
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
Lori Anne Ferrell
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
©Copyright Heidi Zameni, 2020
As a nineteenth-century writer, Charlotte Brontë lived during a tumultuous time of
challenges to previously incontrovertible mores, leading to a refashioning of societal beliefs and attitudes. Challenges to the Church of England, such as the split by the newly formed Free Church of Scotland and an increase in Dissent, disputes against the historical accuracy of the Bible, the loss of nature as a source for spiritual replenishment, and political and economic strife permeated the lives of the Victorians. All institutions within the British system—law, medicine, prisons, civil service, army—were subject to challenges during this period. The criticism led to a rebellion against fundamental institutions of society and fundamental cosmic elements of the universe. Of course, the oldest of institutions was the Church. J. Hillis Miller in his seminal work The Disappearance of God discusses what he sees as a gradual removal of a Christian God from nineteenth-century writers’ consciousness; Charlotte Brontë’s novels, published in the early Victorian period, seem to reflect the early stages of this void, for they are deeply tied to the zeitgeist of England during her lifetime. Applying feminist theory to Brontë’s works has been de rigeur in the last several decades of research, and textual cruxes tend to be identified with patriarchal concerns. While certainly there is merit in a feminist approach to her writing, the dominance of this approach in Brontë studies has precluded other, perhaps equally worthy, viewpoints and led to an incomplete understanding of her novels. In this study, I propose to
examine the novels Brontë published during her lifetime through a religious lens, connecting the despair and doubt of God’s benevolence that Brontë herself experienced to similar elements in her books. Methods include close readings and analyses of texts, historical analysis of archival and published materials, an examination of Brontë’s unpublished final manuscript, juvenilia, selected poems, and letters along with primary sources available at the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, England. We shall observe the elements of religious incertitude beginning with Jane Eyre (with its moments of unbelief or uncertainty and a fear of Calvinist predestination to eternal damnation), moving through Shirley (with its increased doubt of the efficacy of the Church), to Villette (with its almost fatalistic view of events). As God seemingly disappears from Brontë’s protagonists’ worlds, they are left to fend for themselves; in Brontë’s novels we glimpse protagonists’ moments of atheism and doubts of salvation, encounters with hypocritical clergy, efforts to find true happiness in human rather than divine love, and moments of nihilistic affliction. These elements result in some shortcomings: the failure of key characters, namely Helen Burns and St. John Rivers, in Jane Eyre; in a cluttered plot in Shirley; and problematic denouements in all three novels. In evaluating these novels, I try to show that Brontë’s crisis of faith causes a general doubt concerning which way to obtain assurance of God’s benevolence in Jane Eyre, reasserts itself as a criticism of the Church in Shirley, and explodes in an argument of theodicy in Villette. I conclude that Charlotte Brontë is one of the few Victorian authors who attempted to understand the notion of God’s omnibenevolence in view of the existence of suffering as nineteenth-century English society moved toward secularization. She is one of those authors whom E. M. Forster described as moving the novel forward by creating “a new system of lighting” that elucidates the Victorians’ religious doubt.
Brontë offers up several characters who possess neither certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain, who are “swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight” like the speaker in Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The struggles Charlotte Brontë faced were tremendous: illness, family shame and death, patriarchal constraints, and spiritual incertitude. Her faith, doubt, and gender have left us with a better understanding of the Victorian world, for the homely, diminutive writer succeeded against major obstacles: against those of a patriarchal society and those, perhaps even more dangerous, that threaten a fragile sense of spiritual assurance.
Zameni, Heidi. (2020). “An Unquiet Soul”: Despair and Doubt of God’s Benevolence in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 315. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/315.