I haven’t heard of a marriage proposal crashing and burning quite like St. John of Jane Eyre. Below I have edited and shortened the scene where the young town minister proposes marriage to Jane. However, this is not just any proposal. He is planning to depart to India for the rest of his life. St. John fancies Jane to be the perfect missionary wife.
This scene from Charlotte Bronte’s novel was embarrassing–it hit too close to home. I was never quite as stoic and calculating as St. John, but I remember a distinct conversation between me and my then future wife that felt like this one. We had been dating for about a year. To this day I remember the angst and turmoil of that night. I was completely determined to be on the mission field as soon as possible. My girlfriend, who had never even considered life in full-time ministry before meeting me, was having a hard time grappling with the prospect. I wish I could say I handled things well. By God’s grace, she did not choose to break up with me that night!
Seminarians: be warned. This is the marriage proposal from hell. There is a little St. John in each of us. Kill him before he kills your prospects for marriage…
[St. John]: “Jane, come with me to India; come as my help-meet and fellow-laborer…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 labor, 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.”
“I am not fit for it; I have no vocation,” I said…
“Humility, Jane,” said he, “is the ground-work of Christian virtues; you say right that you are not fit for the work. Who is fit for it? Or who, that ever was truly called, believed himself worthy of the summons? I, for instance, am but dust and ashes. With St. Paul, I acknowledge myself the chiefest of sinners; but I do not suffer this sense of my personal vileness to daunt me. I know my Leader; that He is just as well as mighty; and while He has chosen a feeble instrument to perform a great task, He will, from the boundless stores of His providence, supply the inadequacy of the means to the end. Think like me, Jane—trust like me. It is the Rock of Ages I ask you to lean on; do not doubt but it will bear the weight of your human weakness.”
“I do not understand a missionary life; I have never studied missionary labors.”
“There, I, humble as I am, can give you the aid you want; I can set you your task from hour to hour; stand by you always; help you from moment to moment. This I could do in the beginning; soon (for I know your powers) you would be as strong and apt as myself, and would not require my help.”
“But my powers—where are they for this undertaking? I do not feel them. Nothing speaks or stirs in me while you talk. I am sensible of no light kindling —no life quickening—no voice counselling or cheering. Oh, I wish I could make you see how much my mind is at this moment like a rayless dungeon, with one shrinking fear fettered in its depths—the fear of being persuaded by you to attempt what I cannot accomplish!”
“I have an answer for you—hear it. I have watched you ever since we first met; I have made you my study for ten months. I have proved you in that time by sundry tests; and what have I seen and elicited…Jane, you are docile, diligent, disinterested, faithful, constant, and courageous; very gentle, and very heroic; cease to mistrust yourself—I can trust you unreservedly. As a conductress of Indian schools, and a helper among Indian woman, your assistance will be to me invaluable…”
I demanded a quarter of an hour to think before I again hazarded a reply.
“Very willingly,” he rejoined; and rising, he strode a little distance up the pass, threw himself down on a swell of heath, and there lay still…
“I am ready to go to India, if I may go free.”
“Your answer requires a commentary,” he said; “it is not clear.”
“You have hitherto been my adopted brother I, your adopted sister; let us continue as such; you and I had better not marry.”
He shook his head. “Adopted fraternity will not do in this case. If you were my real sister it would be different, I should take you, and seek no wife. But, as it is, either our union must be consecrated and sealed by marriage, or it cannot exist; practical obstacles oppose themselves to any other plan. Do you see it, Jane? Consider a moment—your strong sense will guide you…”
“St. John,” I returned, “I regard you as a brother—you, me as a sister; so let us continue.”
“We cannot—we cannot,” he answered, with short, sharp determination; “it would not do. You have said you will go with me to India; remember—you have said that.”
“Well, well. To the main point—the departure with me from England, the coöperation with me in my future labors—you do not object. You have already as good as put your hand to the plough; you are too consistent to withdraw it. You have but one end to keep in view—how the work you have undertaken can best be done. Simplify your complicated interests, feelings, thoughts, wishes, aims; merge all considerations in one purpose, that of fulfilling with effect, with power, the mission of your great Master. To do so, you must have a coadjutor—not a brother, that is a loose tie, but a husband. I, too, do not want a sister; a sister might any day be taken from me. I want a wife; the sole help-meet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.”
I shuddered as he spoke; I felt his influence in my marrow, his hold on my limbs.
“Seek one elsewhere than in me, St. John; seek one fitted to you.”
“One fitted to my purpose, you mean, fitted to my vocation. 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.”
“And I will give the missionary my energies—it is all he wants—but not myself; that would be only adding the husk and shell to the kernel. For them he has no use; I retain them.”
“You cannot—you ought not. 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…”
“Do not let us forget that this is a solemn matter,” he said, ere long; “one of which we may neither think nor talk lightly without sin. I trust, Jane, you are in earnest when you say you will give your heart to God; it is all I want. Once wrench your heart from man, and fix it on your Maker, the advancement of that Maker’s spiritual kingdom on earth will be your chief delight and endeavor; you will be ready to do at once whatever furthers that end. You will see what impetus would be given to your efforts and mine by our physical and mental union in marriage; the only union that gives a character of permanent conformity to the destinies and designs of human beings: and passing over all minor caprices; all trivial difficulties and delicacies of feeling; all scruple about the degree, kind, strength, or tenderness of mere personal inclination, you will hasten to enter into that union at once…”
“I repeat, I freely consent to go with you as your fellow-missionary, but not as your wife; I cannot marry you and become a part of you.”
“A part of me you must become,” he answered, steadily “otherwise the whole bargain is void. How can I, a man not yet thirty, take out with me to India a girl of nineteen unless she is married to me? How can we be forever together—sometimes in solitudes, sometimes amid savage tribes—and unwed?”
“Very well,” I said, shortly, “under the circumstances; quite as well as if I were either your real sister; or a man and a clergyman, like yourself.”
“It is known that you are not my sister; I cannot introduce you as such; to attempt it would be to fasten injurious suspicions on us both. And for the rest, though you have a man’s vigorous brain, you have a woman’s heart, and—it would not do.”
“It would do,” I affirmed, with some disdain, “perfectly well. I have a woman’s heart, but not where you are concerned; 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. And there are obstacles in the way; they must be hewn down. Jane, you would not repent marrying me; be certain of that; we must be married. I repeat it, there is no other way; and undoubtedly enough of love would follow upon marriage to render the union right even in your eyes.”
“I scorn your idea of love,” I could not help saying, as I rose up and stood before him, leaning my back against the rock. “I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer; yes, St. John, and I scorn you when you offer it.”
He looked at me fixedly, compressing his well-cut lips while he did so. Whether he was incensed or surprised, or what, it is not easy to tell; he could command his countenance thoroughly.
“I scarcely expected to hear that expression from you,” he said; “I think I have done and uttered nothing to deserve scorn.” I was touched by his gentle tone, and overawed by his high, calm mien.
“Forgive me the words, St. John; but it is your own fault that I have been roused to speak so unguardedly. You have introduced a topic on which our natures are at variance—a topic we should never discuss; the very name of love is an apple of discord between us—if the reality were required, what should we do? How should we feel? My dear cousin, abandon your scheme of marriage—forget it.”
“No,” said he; “it is a long cherished scheme, and the only one which can secure my great end; but I shall urge you no further at present…It is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever 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!”
p. 426-434 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte