Pray­ing with Jane Eyre: Reflec­tions on Read­ing as a Sacred Practice

Vanes­sa Zoltan

  • Review
By – May 3, 2023

Vanes­sa Zoltan believes in lit­er­a­ture like it’s reli­gion — and she’s out to prove that the two are hard­ly dif­fer­ent. After leav­ing a pro­gress­less career in edu­ca­tion reform, the self-described devout Jew­ish athe­ist” enrolled in a master’s pro­gram at Har­vard Divin­i­ty School, where she hoped to become a hap­pi­er and alto­geth­er bet­ter per­son. Zoltan did, before long, feel more ful­filled in the pres­ence of tra­di­tion­al reli­gious struc­tures. But she had yet to feel changed by them. It wasn’t until she was sit­ting in a chapel-turned-class­room that she drew a con­nec­tion between a professor’s lec­ture and Jane Eyre—her favorite nov­el — and real­ized her path for­ward. As she com­muned with fel­low Eyre­heads, she would go on to learn that the book did not deter­mine the sacred­ness; the actions and actors did, the ques­tions you asked of the text and the way you returned to it.”

In these six­teen inti­mate essays — which cul­mi­nate with an acces­si­ble guide to sacred read­ing — Zoltan prac­tices what she preach­es, ana­lyz­ing scenes from Jane Eyre, and oth­er nov­els that have res­onat­ed with her, with midrashic atten­tion. She applies char­ac­ters’ sit­u­a­tions to her own life expe­ri­ences, and even to those of her grand­par­ents, all four of whom sur­vived the Holo­caust. When in the throes of chron­ic ill­ness, Zoltan iden­ti­fies with Jane’s will to live despite, or per­haps in spite of, the pain the girl has suf­fered at the hands of her keep­ers. When strug­gling with severe depres­sion, she sees in Char­lotte Brontë’s hero­ine a young woman caught in a sim­i­lar state of in-between. And when she reflects on a per­son­al fail­ing in her work as hos­pi­tal chap­lain, she does so through the lens of Har­ry Pot­ter, ulti­mate­ly sens­ing that, some­times, peo­ple in cri­sis don’t want advice — some­times, like Har­ry in the final moments of the series, all they need is company.

Zoltan estab­lish­es ear­ly on that each essay serves as a kind of ser­mon, and each con­cludes with an offer­ing of uni­ver­sal truth. While some of these offer­ings veer into redun­dan­cy and cliché, Zoltan nev­er­the­less man­ages to gen­er­ate sur­prise. She inti­mates, for exam­ple, that even a devout athe­ist like her can learn from Jane’s devo­tion to fairies, to phe­nom­e­na that sci­ence can­not explain. Bet­ter yet, she stress­es the impor­tance of tak­ing after Bertha, Jane’s daunt­less foil who lit­er­al­ly burns the patri­archy to the ground.

Zoltan approach­es her pri­ma­ry text of choice as one would any exe­ge­sis: with a crit­i­cal gaze. After so many chap­ters of pray­ing with Jane Eyre, Zoltan, a white woman, comes to reck­on with the ways in which her beloved nov­el is a racist argu­ment for West­ern colo­nial­ism, slav­ery, and misog­y­ny. I had cho­sen this book to put at the cen­ter of my life,” she writes. I had cho­sen it because the Bible was too taint­ed.” Like­wise, Zoltan’s stud­ies of Har­ry Pot­ter force her to con­front its author’s trans­pho­bic beliefs. With­out such instances of self-scruti­ny, the col­lec­tion might have risked for­sak­ing sacred­ness for idol­a­try. But Zoltan’s aware­ness — pass­ing though it may be — rein­forces her con­vinc­ing the­sis: that a text is not a text, but how a read­er ques­tions it.

Kyra Lisse is Jew­ish Book Council’s Edi­to­r­i­al Fel­low. She’s a grad­u­ate of Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege in Lan­cast­er, PA, where she stud­ied cre­ative writ­ing and Latin. Cur­rent­ly, Kyra is a sec­ond-year MFA can­di­date and grad­u­ate assis­tant at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty in Roanoke, VA, con­cen­trat­ing on cre­ative non­fic­tion. Her email is kyra@​jewishbooks.​org.

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