The Reverend Mister Brocklehurst

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken June 30, 1996

The movie is never as good as the book, right? Not always.

For a Christian minister, the first long scene of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre is appalling. In the scene a horse-drawn carriage pulls up the drive of Gateshead Hall, a small country estate. Out steps a tall, dark man with grotesque features, bushy black eyebrows and a menacing scowl. Those familiar with the iconography of the modern film already will have guessed the man’s occupation. Anyone this diabolical must be a minister.

And so he is. As the frightful man stands at the door he is solemnly introduced to the lady of the house as the “Reverend Mister Brocklehurst.” After the exchange of a few unpleasantries young Jane Eyre is brought into the sitting room for his inspection. The Rev. Mr. Brocklehurst, as it turns out, is the headmaster of Lowood School. Young Jane is being presented to him as a candidate for matriculation. Poor Jane is an orphan who has the misfortune of living with an aunt and cousins who are trying to get rid of her by packing her off to boarding school.

“Your name, little girl?” asks Rev. Brocklehurst as he begins the inquisition.

“Jane Eyre, sir.”

“Well, Jane Eyre, are you a good child?”

Jane hesitates, because she knows full well that she is not a “good child.” Yet it will hardly do to admit that she is a naughty little girl. Her aunt intervenes: “Perhaps the less said on that subject the better, Mr. Brocklehurst.”

The minister then calls the orphan to stand in front of his chair. “Do you know where the wicked go after death?” he asks threateningly.

“They go to hell,” she replies.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

This was a subject Jane had not covered in catechism, so she was on uncertain ground when she answered, “I must keep in good health, and not die.” [This dialogue has been reconstructed from the text of Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993), p. 27].

I won’t recount the rest of the dialogue, but you get the picture. The Rev. Mr. Brocklehurst is threatening and abusive. He embodies the law of God without displaying the grace of the gospel. He is the kind of minister you would hate to see on your doorstep with a tract in his hand. As the movie continues, he is increasingly sanctimonious, hypocritical, vengeful, and violent.

“There’s a Window on the World in this,” I told Lisa on the way home, “about the way the secular media portrays clergy. “Unless they are effeminate, ministers are always portrayed as child molesters or serial killers. It is not just that they are weak and irrelevant, they are downright evil.” I was certain that Zeffirelli had made Brocklehurst into a caricature of the character in Brontë’s novel.

I was wrong. Cora Hogue, who is our pastoral assistant for counseling, also went to see Jane Eyre and shared my desire to see how the book compared with the film. “The minister isn’t as bad in the book as he is in the movie,” she told me a few days later. “He’s worse!” It turns out, much to my surprise, that the portrait of Mr. Brocklehurst in the Zeffirelli film is faithful to the Brontë novel. That gives us a good lesson in the importance of getting our facts straight, and also a good lesson in not exaggerating the evils of contemporary culture. Things are bad, but they are not as bad as they could be.

It also means that Charlotte Brontë has something to teach us about hypocrisy in the church. When Jane Eyre was published, some of its first readers were alarmed by its portrayal of Christianity. They displayed the kind of misguided zeal I displayed when I saw the film. In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë answered her critics. Apparently, some readers had mistaken Brontë’s portrayal of the Rev. Mr. Brocklehurst for an attack on Christianity, or even for an attack on Christ. This criticism had a harsh bite to it because the Brontë sisters were the daughters of an Anglican minister.

Brontë used her preface to explain that her real motives were to strengthen the church, not to undermine its ministry. She was not attacking Jesus Christ, she was merely attacking those who called themselves “Christians” but did not live for Christ. “Self-righteousness is not religion,” Brontë observed. “To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns” [Jane Eyre, v].

That is an especially perceptive comment: “To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.” Too often, our outrage about the way Christians are portrayed in the secular media is prompted by our own pride rather than by true zeal for the glory of Christ. We worry too much about what other people think of us. We are too quick to defend our own righteousness, which is indefensible.

One of the values of Jane Eyre—both the movie and the book—is that it plucks the mask from our own faces. What we ought to see in the Rev. Mr. Brocklehurst is a little bit of ourselves, especially those of us who are ministers. Like Brocklehurst, many of us are more effective at preaching the law than we are at living by grace, and there is something diabolical about that, after all.

[Production of the Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre, which was first published in 1847]

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