I had been reading non-fiction lately, which is informative and enjoyable. Yet, for me, it just doesn't touch the heart or awaken the imagination in the same way as fiction.
So, it was a bittersweet feeling a few days ago when I turned the final page of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. There was much to like about the book--the romance, the stunning diction (descriptions of the summer evening or the moon at night were downright poetic), the surprise twists and turns of the plot!
But the best of all: the message.
There are a number of beautiful themes interwoven throughout the novel, but there is one that I found particularly striking and, while Bronte penned the work more than 150 years ago, it still speaks strongly to this generation and culture.
[Warning! Spoiler alerts ahead! If you haven't read Jane Eyre yet, I strongly urge you to make a dash for the nearest library and pick up a copy!]
Jane--an astute, forthright girl, but very plain in appearance--falls in love with her employer. Against any expectation on her part, Mr. Rochester discloses that he, too, has fallen deeply in love with her! Jane could not have wished for anything greater and immediately accepts his proposal to marriage.
However, a glitch soon appears...on their wedding day, nonetheless! Mr. Rochester, it is revealed, is already married! It was a loveless marriage, one in which he entered recklessly at the deceptive urge of his father and brother. His bride turned out to be mad and even attempted to murder him.
Mr. Rochester proposed a solution: he and Jane could escape to a white-washed villa on the shores of the Mediterranean where they could live happily together.
But Jane, of course, immediately sees the moral wrong in this scheme: "Sir, your wife is living: that is a fact acknowledged this morning by yourself. If I lived with you as you desire, I should then be your mistress: to say otherwise is sophistical--is false."
Mr. Rochester does his utmost to persuade Jane that his first marriage is far from what marriage should be and, if Jane should leave him, he would fall into the deepest of misery and may well meet his own destruction.
What other course can Jane take? She is without family, without money. She has no place to go, no job in place. Before her is presented her very dream-come-true: to be with Mr. Rochester, to receive his love and to love him in return.
It is an interior struggle of the greatest magnitude:
"...while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling and that clamoured wildly. 'Oh comply!' it said. 'Think of his misery...remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair--soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?'
But Jane soon came to her conclusion and firm resolution:
"Still indomitable was the reply--'I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad--as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; involate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?'"
Now, here explicitly is where I see the strong message to us today.
Like Jane and Mr. Rochester, many couples find themselves deeply in love, but for a variety of reasons, either they are not married or cannot be married. Before looms an easy answer: they can cohabitate. They can live together--in all appearances as husband and wife, but not in truth.
Sometimes the idea to cohabitate makes a great deal of sense. Perhaps one needs to leave his or her current living situation and doesn't know where else to go. Maybe they want to "test" the relationship before entering into marriage. Circumstances might be that cohabitating is the (seemingly) only way to stay in the same locale.
Certainly, to Mr. Rochester, living together with Jane, despite their unwedded status, was the best solution.
Jane knew, however, that greater than either their feelings, their desires, their plans was the timeless principles and laws that govern marriage: principles not open to change, manipulation, or exception. And as hard and as difficult as it sometimes may be to respect those God-given principles of marriage and sexuality, it is what we are called to do.
Jane rejected Mr. Rochester's recommendation because she respected the institution of marriage and, as she said, she cared for herself. She saw that living with Mr. Rochester, unwed, was to live a lie. She was created by God for a higher purpose. To give of herself completely to a man to whom she was not married was to speak a lie.
Jane took the harder path. She literally fled temptation, leaving Mr. Rochester that very night. She wandered, homeless and without a cent to her name, and was forced to succumb to begging.
This is the extreme she went to, in order to preserve the sanctity of marriage. To what extremes are we willing to go?
When cohabitation seems like the best solution, remember that the easy way is not the best way. Jane eventually found her happy ending--an ending far happier than if she had succumbed to Mr. Rochester's pleading. The latter, too, came to see the grave error in his prior thinking and came to praise God for Jane's courage in holding to the truth.
Though another path may require greater financial burden or even physical separation from your beloved, the sacrifices you make in not cohabitating will be greatly rewarded by a purer, more honest love.
And, while it may not happen right away, I am certain that when you keep the law of God, He will lead you and your beloved to your own happy ending.