What’s Up With the Ending?
Strangely, Jane Eyre doesn’t end with Jane Eyre herself. Oh, sure, at the beginning of the last chapter, we get that famous line, "Reader, I married him" (3.12.1), and we’re excited that we finally get to have the wedding that Jane was denied at the end of Volume II. But the novel seems to be pretty much over the whole wedding thing by this point; after just a few understated paragraphs where Jane tells us about how Rochester’s servants take this news, it’s suddenly ten years later, Rochester has gotten his sight back, he and Jane chat all the time, and "perfect concord is the result" (3.12.13). Hooray, a happy ending. But what Jane’s really concerned with telling us at the end isn’t how her story ended – it’s about what happened to lots of the other characters, especially, for some weird reason, St. John Rivers.
St. John Rivers – remember him? The intensely, not to say obsessively, religious cousin who wants to marry Jane, teach her Hindustani, and take her with him on a missionary trip to India? And she’s just about willing to go for the last two ideas, but the first one is definitely out of the question? Maybe you should brush up on him in the "Character Clues" section if you’ve forgotten, because the very end of the novel isn’t about Jane or her marriage – it’s about how St. John did go to India on his mission and has basically worked himself to death there. The last line of the book is Jane quoting from one of St. John’s letters, in which he accepts his imminent death with the words "Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!" (3.12.24). That’s a pretty weird ending for a book that has been more about "Morality and Ethics" than about "Religion" most of the time. Why, at the very end, does the novel move away from Jane and the marriage plot and toward a consideration of obsession, illness, and overseas travel to other parts of the British Empire?
Well, let’s think about how each of those issues has persisted throughout the novel. First, there’s St. John’s obsession with missionary work. One of the problems in Jane Eyre seems to be how to serve other people in the right way – after all, Jane’s a servant for most of the book, and a pretty good one, really. That’s why St. John wants her to go with him – because she’s hardworking and intelligent. But Jane’s pretty good at setting the right boundaries for herself, and she can tell that St. John’s ideas about service are too intense, too self-sacrificing, too extreme.
Second, there’s illness. St. John’s own sickness seems to come from overworking himself and just generally being keyed up about things, but other characters sicken and die without causing their illness themselves, like Helen Burns and Mrs. Reed. And, of course, there are other moments of affliction that don’t result in death: Mr. Rochester’s blindness, Mason’s wound, Jane’s fever after she runs away from Rochester. Of course, part of it is just that illnesses were more dangerous in the nineteenth-century because medical science wasn’t as advanced, but there’s more going on here. Jane is the nurse for most of these characters, but St. John she can’t help. She can’t even ease his suffering, as she does for Helen or Mrs. Reed, and she certainly can’t cure him.
Third and last, there’s "overseas," foreign places that are and aren’t part of Britain. India, St. John’s destination (before Heaven, that is), reminds us of the West Indies, where Bertha came from and where Mr. Rochester made his money. Travel to and from these colonial outposts is definitely a major theme here (see our discussion of "Foreignness and ‘The Other’" in the "Themes" section).
So maybe in one way St. John is taking all these loose ends, all these aspects of the novel that are too intense, too dangerous, or too impossible for Jane to sort out – extremes of self-sacrifice in serving others, dangerous incurable fevers, and whatever intangible weirdness Bertha and Rochester bring back with them from the Caribbean – and taking them out to a distant colony so that England can feel "safe." Maybe St. John is the opposite of Bertha, taking away, instead of bringing, a near-insane intensity that degenerates into illness. And maybe the novel ends by thinking about these issues because they’re more provocative – maybe even more interesting – than Jane getting married. Even Jane seems more interested in St. John’s work than her own marriage, even if she doesn’t want to go with him – after all, they’re exchanging letters. Jane Eyre seems at first to have a traditional marriage plot, but talks itself into following a different plot – one for which St. John, not Jane, is the end point. Do you buy that? We’re not sure, but it’s a good place to start. Er, end, that is. You get the idea.