ane Eyre is a famous and influential novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë. It was published in London, England, in 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. with the title Jane Eyre. An Autobiography under the pen name "Currer Bell," the "autobiography's" supposed editor. The first American edition was released the following year by Harper & Brothers of New York. The Penguin edition describes it as an "influential feminist text" because of its in-depth exploration of a strong female character's feelings.
The novel merges elements of three distinct genres. It has the form of a Bildungsroman, a story about a child's maturation, focusing on the emotions and experiences that accompany growth to adulthood. The novel also contains much social criticism, with a strong sense of morality at its core, and finally has the brooding and moody quality and Byronic character typical of Gothic fiction.
It is a novel often considered ahead of its time due to its portrayal of the development of a thinking and passionate young woman who is both individualistic, desiring for a full life, while also highly moral. Jane evolves from her beginnings as a poor and plain woman without captivating charm to her mature stage as a compassionate and confident whole woman. As she matures, she comments much on the complexities of the human condition. Jane also has a deeply pious personal trust in God, but is also highly self-reliant. Although Jane suffers much, she is never portrayed as a damsel in distress who needs rescuing. For this reason, it is sometimes regarded as an important early feminist (or proto-feminist) novel.
Jane Eyre is a first-person narrative of the title character. The novel goes through five distinct stages: Jane's childhood at Gateshead, where she is emotionally and physically abused by her aunt and cousins; her education at Lowood School, where she acquires friends and role models but also suffers privations and oppression; her time as the governess of Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her Byronic employer, Edward Rochester; her time with the Rivers family during which her earnest but cold clergyman-cousin St John Rivers proposes to her; and the finale with her reunion with and marriage to her beloved Rochester.
Jane Eyre is divided into 38 chapters and most editions are at least 400 pages long (although the preface and introduction on certain copies are liable to take up another 100). The original was published in three volumes, comprising chapters 1 to 15, 16 to 26, and 27 to 38; this was a common publishing format during the 19th century, see Three-volume novel.
Brontë dedicated the novel's second edition to William Makepeace Thackeray.
The novel begins with a ten-year-old orphan named Jane Eyre who is living with her uncle's family, the Reeds, as her uncle's dying wish. Both of Jane's parents died of typhus. Jane’s aunt Sarah Reed doesn’t like her and treats her like a servant. She and her three children are abusive to Jane, physically and emotionally. One day Jane gets locked in the room in which her uncle died, and panics after seeing visions of him. She is finally rescued when she is allowed to attend Lowood School for Girls.
Jane arrives at Lowood Institution, a charity school, with the accusation that she is deceitful. During an inspection, Jane accidentally breaks her slate, and Mr. Brocklehurst, the self-righteous clergyman who runs the school, brands her as a liar and shames her before the entire assembly. Jane is comforted by her friend, Helen Burns. Miss Temple, a caring teacher, facilitates Jane's self-defense and writes to Mr. Lloyd whose reply agrees with Jane's. Ultimately, Jane is publicly cleared of Mr. Brocklehurst's accusations.
The eighty pupils at Lowood are subjected to cold rooms, poor meals, and thin clothing. Many students fall ill when a typhus epidemic strikes. Jane's friend Helen dies of consumption in her arms. When Mr. Brocklehurst's neglect and dishonesty are discovered, several benefactors erect a new building and conditions at the school improve dramatically.
After eight years of school Jane decides to leave, like her friend and confidante Miss Temple. She advertises her services as a governess, and receives one reply. It is from Alice Fairfax, who is a keeper of Thornfield Hall. She takes the position, caring for Adele Varens, a young French girl. While Jane is walking one night to a nearby town, a horseman passes her. The horse slips on ice and throws the rider. She helps him. Later, back at the mansion she learns that this man is Edward Rochester, master of the house. He wonders whether she bewitched his horse to make him fall. Adele is his ward, who could be his daughter; she was left in Mr. Rochester's care when her alleged mother was found with a rival of Mr.Rochester, laughing at his faults. Mr.Rochester denies he is her daughter and disowns her. Mr. Rochester and Jane enjoy each other's company and spend many hours together, and Jane longs for him.
Odd things happen at the house, such as a strange laugh, a mysterious fire in Mr. Rochester's room, which Jane threw water and an attack on Rochester's house guest, Mr. Mason. Jane hears that her aunt was calling for her, after being in much grief because her son John committed suicide. She returns to Gateshead and remains there for a month caring for her dying aunt. Mrs. Reed gives Jane a letter from Jane's uncle, John, asking for her to live with him. Mrs. Reed admits to telling her uncle that Jane had died of fever. Soon after, Jane's aunt dies, and Jane returns to Thornfield.
After returning to Thornfield, Jane broods over Mr. Rochester's impending marriage to Blanche Ingram. But on a midsummer evening, he proclaims his love for Jane and proposes. As she prepares for her wedding, Jane's forebodings arise when a strange, savage-looking woman sneaks into her room one night and rips her wedding veil in two. As with the previous mysterious events, Mr. Rochester attributes the incident to drunkenness on the part of Grace Poole, one of his servants. During the wedding ceremony, Mr. Mason and a lawyer declare that Mr. Rochester can not marry because he is married to Mr. Mason’s sister Bertha. Mr. Rochester admits this is true, but explains that his father tricked him into the marriage for her money. Once they were united, he discovered that she was rapidly descending into madness and eventually locked her away in Thornfield, hiring Grace Poole as nurse to look after her. When Grace gets drunk, his wife escapes, and causes the strange happenings at Thornfield. Mr. Rochester asks Jane to go with him to the south of France, and live as husband and wife, even though they cannot be married. Refusing to go against her principles, and despite her love for him, Jane leaves Thornfield in the middle of the night.
Jane travels through England using the little money she had saved. She leaves her bundle of her possessions on the coach and has to sleep on the moor, trying to trade her scarf and gloves for food. Exhausted, she makes her way to the home of Diana and Mary Rivers, but is turned away by the housekeeper. She faints on the doorstep, preparing for her death. St. John Rivers, Diana and Mary's brother, saves her. After she regains her health, St. John finds her a teaching position at a nearby charity school. Jane becomes good friends with the sisters, but St. John is too reserved.
The sisters leave for governess jobs and St. John becomes closer with Jane. St. John discovers Jane's true identity, and astounds her by showing her a letter stating that her uncle John has died and left her his entire fortune of £20,000 (equivalent to £1.34 million in today's pounds). When Jane questions him further, St. John reveals that John is also his and his sisters' uncle. They had once hoped for a share of the inheritance, but have since resigned themselves to nothing. Jane, overjoyed by finding her family, insists on sharing the money equally with her cousins, and Diana and Mary come to Moor House to stay.
Thinking she will make a suitable missionary's wife, St. John asks Jane to marry him and go with him to India, not out of love but out of duty. Jane initially accepts going to India, but rejects the marriage proposal. Jane's resolve begins to weaken when she mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester's voice calling her name. Jane returns to Thornfield to find only blackened ruins. She learns that Mr. Rochester's wife set the house on fire and committed suicide by jumping from the roof. In his rescue attempts, Mr. Rochester lost a hand and his eyesight. Jane reunites with him, but he fears that she will be repulsed by his condition. When Jane assures him of her love and tells him that she will never leave him, Mr. Rochester again proposes and they are married. He eventually recovers enough sight to see their first-born son.
- Jane Eyre: The protagonist of the novel and the title character. Orphaned as a baby, she struggles through her nearly loveless childhood and becomes governess at Thornfield Hall. Although she falls in love with her wealthy employer, Edward Rochester, her strong sense of conscience does not permit her to become his mistress, and she does not return to him until his insane wife dies and she herself has come into an inheritance.
- Mr. Reed: Jane's maternal uncle, who adopts Jane when her parents die. Before his own death, he makes his wife promise to care for Jane.
- Mrs. Sarah Reed: Jane's aunt by marriage, who adopts Jane but abuses and neglects her. Her dislike of Jane continues until her death.
- John Reed: Jane's cousin, who bullies Jane constantly, sometimes in his mother's presence. He ruins himself as an adult and is thought to have died by suicide.
- Eliza Reed: Jane's cousin. Bitter because she is not as attractive as her sister, she devotes herself self-righteously to religion. She leaves for a nunnery near Lisle after her mother's death.
- Georgiana Reed: Jane's cousin. Though spiteful and insolent, she is also beautiful and indulged. Her sister Eliza foils her marriage to a wealthy Lord. She also becomes a friend of Jane's towards the end of the novel and eventually marries a wealthy man.
- Bessie Lee: The plain-spoken nursemaid at Gateshead. She sometimes treats Jane kindly, telling her stories and singing her songs. Later she marries Robert Leaven.
- Robert Leaven: The coachman at Gateshead, who brings Jane the news of John Reed's death, which brought on Mrs. Reed's stroke.
- Mr. Lloyd: A compassionate apothecary who recommends that Jane be sent to school. Later, he writes a letter to Miss Temple confirming Jane's account of her childhood and thereby clearing Jane of Mrs. Reed's charge of lying.
- Mr. Brocklehurst: The clergyman headmaster and treasurer of Lowood School, whose maltreatment of the students is eventually exposed. He is likened frequently to "a black pillar." A religious traditionalist, he advocates for his charges the most stoic and ascetic possible lifestyle—but not, hypocritically, for himself or for his family. His sermons blaze with hellfire.
- Miss Maria Temple: The kind superintendent of Lowood School, who treats Jane and Helen (and others) with respect and compassion. She helps clear Jane of Mr. Brocklehurst's false accusation of deceit.
- Miss Scatcherd: A sour and vicious teacher at Lowood.
- Helen Burns: A fellow-student and best friend of Jane's at Lowood School. She refuses to hate those who abuse her, trusting in God and turning the other cheek. She dies of consumption in Jane's arms. Some speculate that the book's author based Helen Burns on her elder sister Maria Brontë, who showed signs of dyspraxia.
- Edward Fairfax Rochester: The master of Thornfield Manor. A Byronic hero, he is tricked into making an unfortunate first marriage before he meets Jane, whom he falls madly in love with.
- Bertha Antoinetta Mason: The violently insane first wife of Edward Rochester.
- Adèle Varens: An excitable French child to whom Jane is governess at Thornfield. She is Mr. Rochester's ward and possibly his daughter. However, Mr. Rochester denies this because her mother had been seeing another man behind his back and because he sees no resemblance to himself in her.
- Mrs. Alice Fairfax: An elderly widow and housekeeper of Thornfield Manor. She treats Jane kindly and respectfully, but disapproves of her engagement to Mr. Rochester.
- Leah: The young, pretty and kind housemaid at Thornfield, with an occasional excitable nature.
- Blanche Ingram: A socialite whom Mr. Rochester appears to court in order to make Jane jealous. She is described as having great beauty, but displays callous behaviour and avaricious intent.
- Richard Mason: An Englishman from the West Indies, whose sister is Mr. Rochester's first wife. His appearance at Thornfield heralds the eventual revelation of Bertha Mason. He is spineless and is disliked by Mr. Rochester.
- Grace Poole: Bertha Mason's keeper. Jane is told that it is Grace Poole who causes the mysterious things to happen at Thornfield Hall. She has a weakness for drink that occasionally allows Bertha to escape.
- St. John Eyre Rivers: A clergyman who befriends Jane and turns out to be her cousin. He is Jane Eyre's cousin on her father's side. He is a devout Christian of Calvinistic leanings. By nature he is very reserved and single-minded.
- Diana and Mary Rivers: St. John's sisters and (as it turns out) Jane's cousins.
- Rosamond Oliver: A wealthy young woman who patronizes the village school where Jane teaches, and who is attracted to the Rev. St. John.
- Alice Wood: Jane's maid when she is mistress of the girls' charity school in Morton.
- John Eyre: Jane's paternal uncle, who leaves her his vast fortune. He never appears as a character.
Jane refuses to become Mr. Rochester's paramour because of her "impassioned self-respect and moral conviction." She rejects St. John Rivers' Puritanism as much as the libertine aspects of Mr. Rochester's character. Instead, she works out a morality expressed in love, independence, and forgiveness.
God and Religion
Throughout the novel, Jane endeavours to attain an equilibrium between moral duty and earthly happiness. She despises the hypocritical puritanism of Mr. Brocklehurst, and sees the deficiencies in St. John Rivers' detached devotion to his Christian duty. As a child she partly admires Helen Burns' turning the other cheek, which helps her to forgive Aunt Reed and the Reed cousins. Although she does not seem to subscribe to any of the standard forms of popular Christianity, she honours traditional morality – in particular in not marrying Rochester until he is widowed. The last sentence of the novel (which is also the next to last line of the New Testament) is a prayer on behalf of St. John Rivers. Religion acts to moderate her behaviour but she never represses her true self.
In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Brontë made clear her belief that "conventionality is not morality" and "self-righteousness is not religion." She declared that "narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ." Throughout the novel, Brontë presents contrasts between characters who believe in and practice what she considers a true Christianity, and those who pervert religion to further their own ends. Mr. Brocklehurst, who oversees Lowood Institution, is a hypocritical Christian. He professes charity but uses religion as a justification for punishment. For example, he cites the Biblical passage "man shall not live by bread alone" to rebuke Miss Temple for having fed the girls an extra meal to compensate for their inedible breakfast of burnt porridge. He tells Miss Temple that she "may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!" Helen Burns is a complete contrast to Brocklehurst; she follows the Christian creed of turning the other cheek and loving those who hate her. On her deathbed, Helen tells Jane that she is "going home to God, who loves her."
Jane herself cannot quite profess Helen's absolute, selfless faith. Jane does not seem to follow a particular doctrine, but she is sincerely religious in a non-doctrinaire way. (It is Jane, after all, who places the stone with the word "Resurgam" (Latin for 'I will rise again') on Helen's grave, some fifteen years after her friend's death). Jane frequently prays and calls on God to assist her, particularly in her trouble with Mr. Rochester. She prays too that Mr. Rochester is safe. When the Rivers' housekeeper, Hannah, tries to turn the begging Jane away, Jane tells her that "if you are a Christian, you ought not consider poverty a crime." The young evangelical clergyman St. John Rivers is a more conventionally religious figure. However, Brontë portrays his religious aspect ambiguously. Jane calls him "a very good man," yet she finds him cold and forbidding. In his determination to do good deeds (in the form of missionary work in India), St. John courts martyrdom. Moreover, he is unable to see Jane as a whole person, but views her only as a helpmate in his proposed missionary work. Mr. Rochester is far less a perfect Christian. He is, indeed, a sinner: he attempts to enter into a bigamous marriage with Jane and, when that fails, tries to persuade her to become his mistress. He also confesses that he has had three previous mistresses. In the end, however, he repents his sinfulness, thanks God for returning Jane to him, and begs God to give him the strength to lead a purer life.
Jane's ambiguous social position — a penniless yet moderately educated orphan from a good family — leads her to criticize discrimination based on class. Although she is educated, well-mannered, and relatively sophisticated, she is still a governess, a paid servant of low social standing, and therefore powerless. Nevertheless, Brontë possesses certain class prejudices herself, as is made clear when Jane has to remind herself that her unsophisticated village pupils at Morton "are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy."
A particularly important theme in the novel is the depiction of a patriarchal society. Jane attempts to assert her own identity within male-dominated society. Three of the main male characters, Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers, try to keep Jane in a subordinate position and prevent her from expressing her own thoughts and feelings. Jane escapes Mr. Brocklehurst and rejects St. John, and she only marries Mr. Rochester once she is sure that their marriage is one between equals. Through Jane, Brontë opposes Victorian stereotypes about women, articulating her own feminist philosophy:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (Chapter XII)
Love and Passion
Jane Eyre touches on a number of important themes while telling a compelling story, and critics have argued about what comprises the main theme of Jane Eyre; there can be little doubt that love and passion together form a major thematic element of the novel.
At its simplest, Jane Eyre is a love story. The love between the orphaned and initially impoverished Jane and the wealthy but tormented Mr. Rochester is at its heart. The obstacles to the fulfilment of this love provide the main dramatic conflict in the work. However, the novel explores other types of love as well. Helen Burns, for example, exemplifies the selfless love of a friend. We also see some of the consequences of the absence of love, as in the relationship between Jane and Mrs. Reed, in the selfish relations among the Reed children, and in the mocking marriage of Mr. Rochester and Bertha. Jane realizes that the absence of love between herself and St. John Rivers would make their marriage a living death, too.
Throughout the work, Brontë suggests that a life that is not lived passionately is not lived fully. Jane undoubtedly is the central passionate character; her nature is shot through with passion. Early on, she refuses to live by Mrs. Reed's rules, which would restrict all passion. Her defiance of Mrs. Reed is her first, but by no means her last, passionate act. Her passion for Mr. Rochester is all consuming. Significantly, however, it is not the only force that governs her life. She leaves Mr. Rochester because her moral reason tells her that it would be wrong to live with him as his mistress: "Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation," she tells Mr. Rochester; "they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise against their rigour."
Blanche Ingram feels no passion for Mr. Rochester; she is only attracted to the landowner because of his wealth and social position. St. John Rivers is a more intelligent character than Blanche, but like her he also lacks the necessary passion that would allow him to live fully. His marriage proposal to Jane has no passion behind it; rather, he regards marriage as a business arrangement, with Jane as his potential junior partner in his missionary work. His lack of passion contrasts sharply with Rochester, who positively seethes with passion. His injury in the fire at Thornfield may be seen as a chastisement for his past passionate indiscretions and as a symbolic taming of his passionate excesses.
Jane Eyre is not only a love story; it is also a plea for the recognition of the individual's worth. Throughout the book, Jane demands to be treated as an independent human being, a person with her own needs and talents. Early on, she is unjustly punished, precisely for being herself — first by Mrs. Reed and John Reed, and subsequently by Mr. Brocklehurst. Her defiance of Mrs. Reed is her first active declaration of independence in the novel, but not her last. Helen Burns and Miss Temple are the first characters to acknowledge her as an individual; they love her for herself, in spite of her obscurity. Mr. Rochester too loves her for herself; the fact that she is a governess and therefore his servant does not negatively affect his perception of her. Mr. Rochester confesses that his ideal woman is intellectual, faithful, and loving — qualities that Jane embodies. His acceptance of Jane as an independent person is contrasted by Blanche and Lady Ingram's attitude toward her: they see her merely as a servant. Lady Ingram speaks disparagingly of Jane in front of her face as though Jane isn't there. To her, Jane is an inferior barely worthy of notice, and certainly not worthy of respect. And even though she is his cousin, St. John Rivers does not regard Jane as a full, independent person. Rather, he sees her as an instrument, an accessory that would help him to further his own plans. Jane acknowledges that his cause (missionary work) may be worthy, but she knows that to marry simply for the sake of expedience would be a fatal mistake. Her marriage to Mr. Rochester, by contrast, is the marriage of two independent beings. It is because of their independence, Brontë suggests, that they acknowledge their dependence on each other and are able to live happily ever after.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Much of the religious concern in Jane Eyre has to do with atonement and forgiveness. Mr. Rochester is tormented by his awareness of his past sins and misdeeds. He frequently confesses that he has led a life of vice, and many of his actions in the course of the novel are less than commendable. Readers may accuse him of behaving sadistically in deceiving Jane about the nature of his relationship (or rather, non-relationship) with Blanche Ingram in order to provoke Jane's jealousy. His confinement of Bertha may bespeak mixed motives. He is certainly aware that in the eyes of both religious and civil authorities, his marriage to Jane before Bertha's death would be bigamous. Yet, at the same time, Mr. Rochester makes genuine efforts to atone for his behaviour. For example, although he does not believe that he is Adele's natural father, he adopts her as his ward and sees that she is well cared for. This adoption may well be an act of atonement for the sins he has committed. He expresses his self-disgust at having tried to console himself by having three different mistresses during his travels in Europe and begs Jane to forgive him for these past transgressions. However, Mr. Rochester can only atone completely — and be forgiven completely — after Jane has refused to be his mistress and left him. The destruction of Thornfield by fire finally removes the stain of his past sins; the loss of his left hand and of his eyesight is the price he must pay to atone completely for his sins. Only after this purgation can he be redeemed by Jane's love.
Search for Home and Family
Without any living family that she is aware of (until well into the story), throughout the course of the novel Jane searches for a place that she can call home. Significantly, houses play a prominent part in the story. (In keeping with a long English tradition, all the houses in the book have names). The novel's opening finds Jane living at Gateshead Hall, but this is hardly a home. Mrs. Reed and her children refuse to acknowledge her as a relation, treating her instead as an unwanted intruder and an inferior.
Shunted off to Lowood Institution, a boarding school for orphans and destitute children, Jane finds a home of sorts, although her place here is ambiguous and temporary. The school's manager, Mr. Brocklehurst, treats it more as a business than as school in loco parentis (in place of the parent). His emphasis on discipline and on spartan conditions at the expense of the girls' health make it the antithesis of the ideal home.
Jane subsequently believes she has found a home at Thornfield Hall. Anticipating the worst when she arrives, she is relieved when she is made to feel welcome by Mrs. Fairfax. She feels genuine affection for Adèle (who in a way is also an orphan) and is happy to serve as her governess. As her love for Mr. Rochester grows, she believes that she has found her ideal husband in spite of his eccentric manner and that they will make a home together at Thornfield. The revelation — as they are on the verge of marriage — that he is already legally married — brings her dream of home crashing down. Fleeing Thornfield, she literally becomes homeless and is reduced to begging for food and shelter. The opportunity of having a home presents itself when she enters Moor House, where the Rivers sisters and their brother, the Reverend St. John Rivers, are mourning the death of their father. She soon speaks of Diana and Mary Rivers as her own sisters, and is overjoyed when she learns that they are indeed her cousins. She tells St. John Rivers that learning that she has living relations is far more important than inheriting twenty thousand pounds. (She mourns the uncle she never knew. Earlier she was disheartened on learning that Mrs. Reed told her uncle that Jane had died and sent him away.) However, St. John Rivers' offer of marriage cannot sever her emotional attachment to Rochester. In an almost visionary episode, she hears Mr. Rochester's voice calling her to return to him. The last chapter begins with the famous simple declarative sentence, "Reader, I married him," and after a long series of travails Jane's search for home and family ends in a union with her ideal mate.