magine for a moment Charlotte Brontë’s famous character Jane Eyre, recently parted from Mr. Rochester after the discovery just moments before their wedding of Rochester’s still very alive albeit mentally incapacitated wife, sitting on the set of the popular television program The View. Shortly after their thwarted marriage ceremony—the brother of Rochester’s wife having declared an impediment to the marriage—Rochester approached a devastated Jane and offered to whisk her away to his Mediterranean villa, out of the sight of prying eyes.
Whoopi Goldberg—“But Jane, Rochester is handsome and rich. How can you just walk away from him?” Barbara Walters—“But Jane, you love each other! Why shouldn’t you be together?”
At this point in the novel, Jane Eyre found herself in a situation that would be the envy of many of her modern contemporaries. She and Rochester did love each other, and they had the financial resources to live and travel the world opulently. Remember, this was the world before Facebook, Twitter, and camera phones. Only a small circle of people would have ever known the truth. What then, is the value of a novel published almost 170 years ago, and what lessons could be applicable for us and how we are to live today?
In his attempt to persuade Jane to run away with him, Rochester was positively twenty-first century in his appeal. He asked, “Is it better to drive a fellow creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law—no man being injured in the breach?” In examining Rochester’s question, it’s important to recognize that it had two parts. First, he asked Jane whether his feelings and emotions, in this case his intense feelings for Jane, weren’t more important than a human law: the law that once a person is committed in matrimony, he or she must forsake all others. And second, he asked Jane what could be so wrong with their being together as long as no one else was being hurt. These are questions we hear asked frequently today by the enlightened voices of “progress” in culture. Why should long-standing traditions get in the way of my happiness? What’s the big deal if no one else is hurt by it?
Rochester’s appeal to emotion in the first half of his petition to Jane was rooted in a self-preoccupation that elevated emotional intensity above the God-ordained institution of holy matrimony. As we see currently, self-preoccupation and desires easily attach to the language of rights, in this case, Rochester believed he had the “right” to be happy, even though he was still married to someone else. His desires, feelings, and wishes congealed into a central inner force willing to discard one of the fundamental societal and theological tenets of civilization, as self-preoccupation and feelings generally treat any form of restraint as a barrier needing to be bulldozed. For Rochester, as with many today, the only requirement necessary for moral approval of a relationship is the consent of the parties.
The second half of Rochester’s question plays on the contemporary belief that if a behavior doesn’t harm anyone else, it must be permissible. Rochester believed that he and Jane could cocoon themselves in their own world, and no one else would have been hurt. Both Rochester and contemporary society fail to recognize that there are two components to the “no harm, no foul” moral standard, and both are based on theological inaccuracies. The first inaccuracy builds on the previously discussed elevation of the self. When an individual bases behavior on his or her belief that an action doesn’t harm another, the person making the statement sets him- or herself up as the arbiter of right and wrong. This is a role reserved for God alone. Psalm 119:142 reminds us that “thy law is the truth.” It’s not “my law is the truth.”
Next page »