I already know the basic story because I’ve seen so many film adaptations. And even though I did remember not liking the character of St. John in the movie versions, I assumed his Calvinistic evangelicalism was written so as to be dismissed by a modern reader. I assumed he would be more likable in the book. I assumed a modern prejudice against the clergy had crept its way into the script-writer’s heart but the book would redeem him.
But he is actually worse in the book.
His desire to be a missionary is not an errand of affection for God or man. His desire to take Jane with him is one due to her usefulness and has no semblance to even the shadows of betrothed love. He means to use her in coldness as a companion and aid. His lack of love is nothing in his own estimation. And his estimation is calculating.
When she refuses to go as his wife, he throws heaps of guilt onto her heart. He assumes her life would and could only be one of “dissipation.” Only if she takes up the missionary cause with him and is his “help-meet” in his ambition to be numbered among those saints celebrated for their sacrifice, will life be well spent.
He is cold. He is hard. And he seeks to shame her. His missionary zeal is all about him. He deigns to affect concern for Jane when warning her that rejecting the cause he is bound to just might send her to hell.
As I read his pleas, I could help but imagine many admiring him and nodding in agreement, though the reader is supposed to be appalled. But there is so much of the church crammed into the character of St. John Rivers. And enough lodged in my own heart to make me uneasy. He holds religion with zeal and has set his face like flint on the mission. But he lacks affection and we see it clearly in the way he handles Jane.
The church is flooded with St. John Rivers.