Jane Eyre: By Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)
Jane Eyre (originally published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography) is a novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë, published under the pen name “Currer Bell”, on 16 October 1847, by Smith, Elder & Co. of London. The first American edition was published the following year by Harper & Brothers of New York. Jane Eyre follows the experiences of its eponymous heroine, including her growth to adulthood and her love for Mr. Rochester, the brooding master of Thornfield Hall.
Basic Information about the Novel:
Full Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë (originally published under the male pseudonym Currer Bell)
Type of Work: Novel
Genre: A hybrid of three genres:
- the Gothic novel (utilizes the mysterious, the supernatural, the horrific, the romantic);
- the romance novel (emphasizes love and passion, represents the notion of lovers destined for each other); and
- the Bildungsroman (narrates the story of a character’s internal development as he or she undergoes a succession of encounters with the external world)
Time and Place Written: 1847, London
Date of First Publication: 1847
Publisher: Smith, Elder, and Co., Cornhill
Narrator: Jane Eyre
Climax: The novel’s climax comes after Jane receives her second marriage proposal of the novel—this time from St. John Rivers, who asks Jane to accompany him to India as his wife and fellow missionary. Jane considers the proposal, even though she knows that marrying St. John would mean the death of her emotional life. She is on the verge of accepting when she hears Rochester’s voice supernaturally calling her name from across the heath and knows that she must return to him. She can retain her dignity in doing so because she has proven to herself that she is not a slave to passion.
Protagonist: Jane Eyre
Antagonist: Jane meets with a series of forces that threaten her liberty, integrity, and happiness. Characters embodying these forces are Aunt Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Bertha Mason, and Mr. Rochester (in that he urges Jane to ignore her conscience and surrender to passion), and St. John Rivers (in his urging of the opposite extreme). The three men also represent the notion of oppressive patriarchy. Blanche Ingram, who initially stands in the way of Jane’s relations with Rochester, also embodies the notion of a rigid class system—another force keeping Jane from fulfilling her hopes.
Setting (Time): Early decades of the nineteenth century.
Setting (Place): The novel is structured around five separate locations, all supposedly in northern England: the Reed family’s home at Gateshead, the wretched Lowood School, Rochester’s manor house Thornfield, the Rivers family’s home at Moor House, and Rochester’s rural retreat at Ferndean.
Point Of View: All of the events are told from Jane’s point of view. Sometimes she narrates the events as she experienced them at the time, while at other times she focuses on her retrospective understanding of the events.
Falling Action: After Jane hears Rochester’s call to her from across the heath, she returns to Thornfield and finds it burned to the ground. She learns that Bertha Mason set the fire and died in the flames; Rochester is now living at his home in Ferndean. Jane goes to him there, rebuilds her relationship with the somewhat humbled Rochester, and marries him. She claims to enjoy perfect equality in her marriage.
Tense: Past-tense; Jane Eyre tells her story ten years after the last event in the novel, her arrival at Ferndean.
Foreshadowing: The novel’s main instances of foreshadowing focus on Jane’s eventual inheritance (Chapter 33) from her uncle John Eyre. In Chapter 3, Jane tells Mr. Lloyd that her aunt has told her of some “poor, low relations called Eyre,” but she knows nothing more about them. Jane first receives hints of her uncle’s existence in Chapter 10 when Bessie visits her at Lowood and mentions that her father’s brother appeared at Gateshead seven years ago, looking for Jane. He did not have the time to come to Lowood, she explains, and he subsequently went away to Madeira (a Portuguese island west of Morocco) in search of wealth. Foreshadowing again enters into the novel in Chapter 21, when, returning to Gateshead to see her dying Aunt Reed for the last time, Jane learns that her uncle had written to her aunt three years earlier, reporting that he had been successful in Madeira and expressing his desire to adopt Jane and make her his heir; her aunt had deliberately ignored the letter out of spite. Another powerful instance of foreshadowing is the chestnut tree under which Rochester proposes to Jane. Before they leave, Jane mentions that it “writhed and groaned,” and that night, it splits in two, forecasting complications for Jane and Rochester’s relationship (Chapter 23).
Tone: Jane Eyre’s tone is both Gothic and romantic, often conjuring an atmosphere of mystery, secrecy, or even horror. Despite these Gothic elements, Jane’s personality is friendly and the tone is also affectionate and confessional. Her unflagging spirit and opinionated nature further infuse the book with high energy and add a philosophical and political flavor.
Themes: Love versus autonomy; religion; social class; gender relations
Motifs: Fire and ice; substitute mothers
Symbols: Bertha Mason; the red room.
Characters of the Novel:
Jane Eyre: The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Jane is an intelligent, honest, plain-featured young girl forced to contend with oppression, inequality, and hardship. Although she meets with a series of individuals who threaten her autonomy, Jane repeatedly succeeds at asserting herself and maintains her principles of justice, human dignity, and morality. She also values intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Her strong belief in gender and social equality challenges Victorian prejudices against women and the poor.
Edward Rochester: Jane’s employer and the master of Thornfield, Rochester is a wealthy, passionate man with a dark secret that provides much of the novel’s suspense. Rochester is unconventional, ready to set aside polite manners, propriety, and consideration of social class in order to interact with Jane frankly and directly. He is rash and impetuous and has spent much of his adult life roaming about Europe in an attempt to avoid the consequences of his youthful indiscretions. His problems are partly the result of his own recklessness, but he is a sympathetic figure because he has suffered for so long as a result of his early marriage to Bertha.
St. John Rivers: Along with his sisters, Mary and Diana, St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”) serve as Jane’s benefactor after she runs away from Thornfield, giving her food and shelter. The minister at Morton, St. John is cold, reserved, and often controlling in his interactions with others. Because he is entirely alienated from his feelings and devoted solely to an austere ambition, St. John serves as a foil to Edward Rochester.
Mrs. Reed: Mrs. Reed is Jane’s cruel aunt, who raises her at Gateshead Hall until Jane is sent away to school at age ten. Later in her life, Jane attempts reconciliation with her aunt, but the old woman continues to resent her because her husband had always loved Jane more than his own children.
Bessie Lee: The maid at Gateshead, Bessie is the only figure in Jane’s childhood who regularly treats her kindly, telling her stories and singing her songs. Bessie later marries Robert Leaven, the Reeds’ coachman.
Mr. Lloyd: Mr. Lloyd is the Reeds’ apothecary, who suggests that Jane be sent away to school. Always kind to Jane, Mr. Lloyd writes a letter to Miss Temple confirming Jane’s story about her childhood and clearing Jane of Mrs. Reed’s charge that she is a liar.
Georgiana Reed: Georgiana Reed is Jane’s cousin and one of Mrs. Reed’s two daughters. The beautiful Georgiana treats Jane cruelly when they are children, but later in their lives she befriends her cousin and confides in her. Georgiana attempts to elope with a man named Lord Edwin Vere, but her sister, Eliza, alerts Mrs. Reed of the arrangement and sabotages the plan. After Mrs. Reed dies, Georgiana marries a wealthy man.
Eliza Reed: Eliza Reed is Jane’s cousin and one of Mrs. Reed’s two daughters (along with her sister, Georgiana). Not as beautiful as her sister, Eliza devotes herself somewhat self-righteously to the church and eventually goes to a convent in France where she becomes the Mother Superior.
John Reed: John Reed is Jane’s cousin, Mrs. Reed’s son, and brother to Eliza and Georgiana. John treats Jane with appalling cruelty during their childhood and later falls into a life of drinking and gambling. John commits suicide midway through the novel when his mother ceases to pay his debts for him.
Helen Burns: Helen Burns is Jane’s close friend at the Lowood School. She endures her miserable life there with a passive dignity that Jane cannot understand. Helen dies of consumption in Jane’s arms.
Mr. Brocklehurst: The cruel, hypocritical master of the Lowood School, Mr. Brocklehurst preaches a doctrine of privation while stealing from the school to support his luxurious lifestyle. After a typhus epidemic sweeps Lowood, Brocklehurst’s shifty and dishonest practices are brought to light and he is publicly discredited.
Maria Temple: Maria Temple is a kind teacher at Lowood, who treats Jane and Helen with respect and compassion. Along with Bessie Lee, she serves as one of Jane’s first positive female role models. Miss Temple helps clear Jane of Mrs. Reed’s accusations against her.
Miss Scatcherd: Jane’s sour and vicious teacher at Lowood, Miss Scatcherd behaves with particular cruelty toward Helen.
Alice Fairfax: Alice Fairfax is the housekeeper at Thornfield Hall. She is the first to tell Jane that the mysterious laughter often heard echoing through the halls is, in fact, the laughter of Grace Poole—a lie that Rochester himself often repeats.
Bertha Mason: Rochester’s clandestine wife, Bertha Mason is a formerly beautiful and wealthy Creole woman who has become insane, violent, and bestial. She lives locked in a secret room on the third story of Thornfield and is guarded by Grace Poole, whose occasional bouts of inebriation sometimes enable Bertha to escape. Bertha eventually burns down Thornfield, plunging to her death in the flames.
Grace Poole: Grace Poole is Bertha Mason’s keeper at Thornfield, whose drunken carelessness frequently allows Bertha to escape. When Jane first arrives at Thornfield, Mrs. Fairfax attributes to Grace all evidence of Bertha’s misdeeds.
Adèle Varens: Jane’s pupil at Thornfield, Adèle Varens is a lively though somewhat spoiled child from France. Rochester brought her to Thornfield after her mother, Celine, abandoned her. Although Celine was once Rochester’s mistress, he does not believe himself to be Adèle’s father.
Celine Varens: Celine Varens is a French opera dancer with whom Rochester once had an affair. Although Rochester does not believe Celine’s claims that he fathered her daughter Adèle, he nonetheless brought the girl to England when Celine abandoned her. Rochester had broken off his relationship with Celine after learning that Celine was unfaithful to him and interested only in his money.
Sophie: Sophie is Adèle’s French nurse at Thornfield.
Richard Mason: Richard Mason is Bertha’s brother. During a visit to Thornfield, he is injured by his mad sister. After learning of Rochester’s intent to marry Jane, Mason arrives with the solicitor Briggs in order to thwart the wedding and reveal the truth of Rochester’s prior marriage.
Mr. Briggs: John Eyre’s attorney, Mr. Briggs helps Richard Mason prevent Jane’s wedding to Rochester when he learns of the existence of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s wife. After John Eyre’s death, Briggs searches for Jane in order to give her her inheritance.
Blanche Ingram: Blanche Ingram is a beautiful socialite who despises Jane and hopes to marry Rochester for his money.
Diana Rivers: Diana Rivers is Jane’s cousin and the sister of St. John and Mary. Diana is a kind and intelligent person, and she urges Jane not to go to India with St. John. She serves as a model for Jane of an intellectually gifted and independent woman.
Mary Rivers: Mary Rivers is Jane’s cousin, the sister of St. John and Diana. Mary is a kind and intelligent young woman who is forced to work as a governess after her father loses his fortune. Like her sister, she serves as a model for Jane of an independent woman who is also able to maintain close relationships with others and a sense of meaning in her life.
Rosamond Oliver: Rosamond is the beautiful daughter of Mr. Oliver, Morton’s wealthiest inhabitant. Rosamond gives money to the school in Morton where Jane works. Although she is in love with St. John, she becomes engaged to the wealthy Mr. Granby.
John Eyre: John Eyre is Jane’s uncle, who leaves her his vast fortune of 20,000 pounds.
Uncle Reed: Uncle Reed is Mrs. Reed’s late husband. In her childhood, Jane believes that she feels the presence of his ghost. Because he was always fond of Jane and her mother (his sister), Uncle Reed made his wife promise that she would raise Jane as her own child. It is a promise that Mrs. Reed does not keep.
Summary of the Novel:
Jane Eyre is a young orphan being raised by Mrs. Reed, her cruel, wealthy aunt. A servant named Bessie provides Jane with some of the few kindnesses she receives, telling her stories and singing songs to her. One day, as punishment for fighting with her bullying cousin John Reed, Jane’s aunt imprisons Jane in the red room, the room in which Jane’s Uncle Reed died. While locked in, Jane, believing that she sees her uncle’s ghost, screams and faints. She wakes to find herself in the care of Bessie and the kindly apothecary Mr. Lloyd, who suggests to Mrs. Reed that Jane be sent away to school. To Jane’s delight, Mrs. Reed concurs.
Once at the Lowood School, Jane finds that her life is far from idyllic. The school’s headmaster is Mr. Brocklehurst, a cruel, hypocritical, and abusive man. Brocklehurst preaches a doctrine of poverty and privation to his students while using the school’s funds to provide a wealthy and opulent lifestyle for his own family. At Lowood, Jane befriends a young girl named Helen Burns, whose strong, martyrlike attitude toward the school’s miseries is both helpful and displeasing to Jane. A massive typhus epidemic sweeps Lowood, and Helen dies of consumption. The epidemic also results in the departure of Mr. Brocklehurst by attracting attention to the insalubrious conditions at Lowood. After a group of more sympathetic gentlemen takes Brocklehurst’s place, Jane’s life improves dramatically. She spends eight more years at Lowood, six as a student and two as a teacher.
After teaching for two years, Jane yearns for new experiences. She accepts a governess position at a manor called Thornfield, where she teaches a lively French girl named Adèle. The distinguished housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax presides over the estate. Jane’s employer at Thornfield is a dark, impassioned man named Rochester, with whom Jane finds herself falling secretly in love. She saves Rochester from a fire one night, which he claims was started by a drunken servant named Grace Poole. But because Grace Poole continues to work at Thornfield, Jane concludes that she has not been told the entire story. Jane sinks into despondency when Rochester brings home a beautiful but vicious woman named Blanche Ingram. Jane expects Rochester to propose to Blanche. But Rochester instead proposes to Jane, who accepts almost disbelievingly.
The wedding day arrives, and as Jane and Mr. Rochester prepare to exchange their vows, the voice of Mr. Mason cries out that Rochester already has a wife. Mason introduces himself as the brother of that wife—a woman named Bertha. Mr. Mason testifies that Bertha, whom Rochester married when he was a young man in Jamaica, is still alive. Rochester does not deny Mason’s claims, but he explains that Bertha has gone mad. He takes the wedding party back to Thornfield, where they witness the insane Bertha Mason scurrying around on all fours and growling like an animal. Rochester keeps Bertha hidden in the third story of Thornfield and pays Grace Poole to keep his wife under control. Bertha was the real cause of the mysterious fire earlier in the story. Knowing that it is impossible for her to be with Rochester, Jane flees Thornfield.
Penniless and hungry, Jane is forced to sleep outdoors and beg for food. At last, three siblings who live in a manor alternatively called Marsh End and Moor House take her in. Their names are Mary, Diana, and St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”) Rivers, and Jane quickly becomes friends with them. St. John is a clergyman, and he finds Jane a job teaching at a charity school in Morton. He surprises her one day by declaring that her uncle, John Eyre, has died and left her a large fortune: 20,000 pounds. When Jane asks how he received this news, he shocks her further by declaring that her uncle was also his uncle: Jane and the Reverses are cousins. Jane immediately decides to share her inheritance equally with her three newfound relatives.
St. John decides to travel to India as a missionary, and he urges Jane to accompany him—as his wife. Jane agrees to go to India but refuses to marry her cousin because she does not love him. St. John pressures her to reconsider, and she nearly gives in. However, she realizes that she cannot abandon forever the man she truly loves when one night she hears Rochester’s voice calling her name over the moors. Jane immediately hurries back to Thornfield and finds that it has been burned to the ground by Bertha Mason, who lost her life in the fire. Rochester saved the servants but lost his eyesight and one of his hands. Jane travels on to Rochester’s new residence, Ferndean, where he lives with two servants named John and Mary.
At Ferndean, Rochester and Jane rebuild their relationship and soon marry. At the end of her story, Jane writes that she has been married for ten blissful years and that she and Rochester enjoy perfect equality in their life together. She says that after two years of blindness, Rochester regained sight in one eye and was able to behold their first son at his birth.