Summary of Jane Eyre
This Edition: 1847
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- Victorian literature
What It’s About
An Uncompromising Woman
The story of Jane Eyre may read like a Cinderella fairytale, but it’s far from one: A destitute orphan and governess falls in love with her rich employer and, having overcome many adverse circumstances through virtue, marries him in the end. But the tale of this unusual woman in 19th century England – a period of outlandish prudishness and a rigorous social order – is no penny dreadful. Despite her dismal prospects, Jane Eyre is neither a pliant housewife nor a racy mistress, but a strong, independent woman. She fights for her respect, freedom and integrity, even at the cost of immense personal sacrifice. Some twists of events appear unlikely, others absurd, and as a result there are times when Charlotte Brontë’s novel threatens to drift into triviality. But thanks to her spirited and deep characterizations, the author manages to keep her readers hooked to the end. At the time of its publication, Jane Eyre was a blockbuster success. It continues to be one of the most widely read classics of English literature.
- Published in 1847, Jane Eyre is considered one of the earliest examples of feminist literature.
- Orphaned as a baby, Jane’s cruel aunt ships her off to boarding school. Despite hardships, she becomes a governess at a country estate. She accepts an offer of marriage from her employer, Mr. Rochester, only to discover at the alter that he is already married and has been keeping his mad wife in the attic. She flees, and eventually finds family and fortune. Having become secure and independent, she returns to find Rochester crippled after a tragedy that ended in his wife’s suicide. Now free to marry, they wed as equals.
- Charlotte Brontë is one of the three Brontë sisters, all of whom are famous writers.
- Because female writers faced ridicule in Victorian England, the sisters used pseudonyms for their work.
- Jane Eyre is in part autobiographical; Brontë populated it with many personalities and places from her own life.
- Like her heroine, the author strove to live an independent life, refusing to marry solely for convenience or money.
- She employed Gothic symbols like enclosed spaces to create a new female voice, denouncing the repression women suffered in domestic life.
- Many male critics were uneasy with what they viewed as a revolutionary attitude.
- The novel was a roaring success, not least because of the mystery around the authorship.
- “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”
Surrounded by Jealous Relatives
Orphaned at an early age, Jane Eyre grows up with her mother’s brother and his family on the Gateshead Hall estate. When her uncle dies, he makes his wife promise to raise and love Jane like one of her own children, but the heartless Mrs. Reed can’t bring herself to treat the inquisitive, bright Jane as her own flesh and blood. In her eyes Jane is a treacherous, devious and dishonest child, and she treats her accordingly. Her cousins Eliza, Georgina and John are condescending toward her, particularly the rough brute John who tortures her mentally and physically. After yet another one of his violent abuses, she puts up a fight and strikes back. As a punishment for her “brazen, violent temper” Mrs. Reed locks her in the red-room, which is rumored to be haunted. Alone in the dreadful room, Jane panics and begs her aunt for mercy – but Mrs. Reed only keeps her locked up longer in response. When Jane faints, the local apothecary diagnoses a nervous breakdown and prescribes a change of air and scene – advice that her aunt readily complies with when she arranges for the ten-year-old to live at the Lowood orphanage.
In the Orphanage
Jane is glad to have escaped her aunt and Gateshead at last, but she soon realizes that her new environment is hardly much better. Mr. Brocklehurst, a clergyman with a heavy hand oversees the Lowood orphanage. The many girls receive a scanty supply of ruined and inedible food, the living quarters are cold and drafty and the rules draconian. Jane decides to start a new life and make friends. The first girl she befriends is Helen Burns, who teaches Jane about love and forgiveness.
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.” (Helen Burns)
Thanks to her robust constituency, Jane survives the hard winter in Lowood. Despite the lack of all physical and material comfort she flourishes due to her friendship with Helen – who will die of consumption soon thereafter – and the affection the principle Miss Temple shows her. The wise and fair teacher treats her with the love and respect she had sought for so long. Thanks to that support the girl survives both the callous humiliations from the bigoted Mr. Brocklehurst and a typhus epidemic that more than half of her semi-starved fellow pupils die from. Following public concern at the high mortality rate, conditions at Lowood improve. Jane stays in the orphanage for eight years, the last two as a teacher. When the beloved Miss Temple marries and leaves Lowood, Jane no longer feels at home at Lowood and decides it’s time to move on. The 18-year-old advertises for a position in the newspaper and finds work as a governess soon thereafter.
Governess in Thornfield Hall
Upon her arrival at Thornfield Hall, Jane is pleasantly surprised. The housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax gives her a warm and kind welcome and she gets along well with her pupil Adele right from the start. Adele is the ward of the proprietor Edward Rochester, who has taken the eight-year-old girl from France to his Thornfield manor house. Rochester spends little time at Thornfield. He is rumored to be generous and just, but also a slightly peculiar gentleman. When they first meet, he asks the new governess intrusive questions and seems lacking in basic manners. To Jane, he appears erratic and gruff, yet she changes her mind once she gets to know him better. Rochester, too, comes to appreciate the clever and quick-witted Jane, who doesn’t shy away from standing her ground in conversation. He forms the habit of talking to her at night.
“Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life.” (Mr. Rochester to Jane)
Jane is an excellent listener, and Rochester opens up to her – telling her about his restless and immoral wanderings that he would prefer to forget. Rochester’s turbulent past doesn’t deter Jane, on the contrary: She’s attracted to him; she discerns a noble and good-natured man behind his rough manners.
Jane is happy at Thornfield, with only the most mysterious servant Grace Poole troubling her. Jane continues to hear beastly laughter from Grace’s sewing chamber and she can’t help but feel that something is wrong in the house. When strange noises awaken Jane one night she realizes that there is smoke coming out of Mr. Rochester’s bedroom, located directly above her own. Courageously, she extinguishes the fire at his bedside and saves him from certain death. She waits in vain for an explanation, but he departs the next day, only to return weeks later in illustrious company. Even though she maintains her decorum and tries to suppress her nascent feelings for Mr. Rochester, it pains her that he treats her like a mere servant in front of his guests. The haughty Miss Ingram publicly scorns Jane for her lower-class background. Jane is devastated to see that Rochester has taken a liking to Miss Ingram – a beautiful but thoughtless and loveless woman – and is openly courting her.
When another guest arrives unexpectedly at Thornfield, Jane experiences something frightening yet again: She is startled from her sleep to hear one of the guests, a certain Mr. Mason, cry for Rochester in panic. When Rochester seeks her help, Jane sees Mason lying bloodied in his bed. After receiving treatment from a doctor, Rochester hastily sends the guest away before dawn. Rochester dissembles when Jane asks him for an explanation. He admits that Mason has some connection to his previous life, a life that he would like to rid himself of – by way of marrying Miss Ingram.
“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons, because her rank and connections suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure.” (Jane on Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Miss Ingram)
While Jane is digesting this bad news, she receives yet more: Her cousin John has committed suicide in London, after having frittered away his family’s fortune with his debauched and dissolute lifestyle. Her aunt has suffered a stroke because of the shock and the dying woman now demands to see her niece. Jane immediately departs for Gateshead. There she realizes that her cousins have changed. Her aunt, though mortally ill and barely in control of her senses, openly displays her disgust for Jane. Jane, at peace with herself and her past, feels nothing but mercy for her aunt. One month passes until Mrs. Reed confesses, just hours before her demise, that Jane has an uncle who would have liked to take care of her when she was a child. Mrs. Reed sent the man away because she begrudged Jane a comfortable life.
A Glimpse of Happiness
Jane returns to Thornfield believing that she will soon have to leave the beloved house and her adored Mr. Rochester. But to her great surprise he reveals that the planned marriage with Miss Ingram was just a ruse to make Jane jealous and awaken her feelings for him. He proposes to her, and, after some hesitation, she accepts. Jane is happy, but she can’t help feeling doubtful. She tries to tone down Rochester’s emotional exuberance and demonstrations of love. She refuses to tolerate being showered with jewelry and frills, for fear of failing to remain true to herself.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” (Jane to Mr. Rochester)
On the eve of their marriage she dreams of Thornfield in ruins and suffers another unpleasant experience: In the middle of the night she wakes up to the sight of an unknown and eerie creature beside her bed, tearing apart her wedding veil. Rochester admits that something uncanny is going on in the house, but refuses to explain himself until one year has passed.
During the wedding ceremony, a lawyer representing Jane’s long-lost uncle appears and accuses Rochester of preparation bigamy. He produces Mr. Mason who testifies that Rochester’s wife is his sister. Rochester admits that he is indeed married already, but since his wife is a dangerous woman afflicted by madness, he keeps her in the attic of Thornfield. This also explains the uncanny incidents: The lunatic has repeatedly tricked her guardian Grace Pool and wreaked havoc at the expense of Rochester, Mason and Jane. Rochester thought himself exempt from the marriage contract because of his first wife’s insanity and the machinations of his family and hers to trick him into the match. Yet it’s out of the question for Jane to marry a man who is tied to another. Although she loves him and can see his dilemma, she cannot imagine living any longer under Rochester’s sway. As he threatens to keep her, she steals away in the night.
After her hurried departure, Jane takes a coach to get as far away from Thornfield as possible. She cries the whole way and even forgets her few personal belongings when she disembarks. In this state, she arrives in Whitcross – a tiny, inconspicuous hamlet – where she wanders, searching for work and a roof over her head. She finds neither one nor the other, and must beg for bread and shelter. It takes but a few days until Jane is entirely exhausted, trudging through the deserted and bleak area. She is ready to die when she sees a light in the distance. Jane spots a cottage in the remote moorland and observes its inhabitants, an elderly woman and two young ladies, through the window. Jane knocks on the door, asks for a piece of bread and a place to sleep for the night, but the elderly woman turns her away.
“Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.” (Jane to the elderly woman who turns her away)
Utterly spent, she breaks down in front of the door. Shortly thereafter, a young man picks her up, carries her into the house and feeds her. St. John Rivers and his sisters Mary and Diana host and take care of the sick Jane.
After her recovery, Jane continues to stay in Marsh End with the sisters, who become dear to her. With St. John, however, she has a harder time. The young pastor is reserved and treats her coolly. He finds Jane a position as a teacher at a poor village school, and so she stays in the area.
Her destitute situation changes dramatically when her uncle – the same man who searched for her when she was a child – dies and appoints her as his sole heir. To top off her good luck it turns out that Mary, Diana and St. John are also children of the Eyre family and therefore Jane’s relatives. The second twist of fate causes her the greatest happiness, since she is finally no longer alone, having found her family. Jane decides to divide her inheritance between all four Eyres, so that Mary and Diana can stop working as governesses and St. John may realize his dream: The tireless clergyman feels called to do missionary work in India. He asks Jane to follow him as his wife and dedicate her life fully to God. Jane agrees to accompany St. John as a missionary, yet she refuses to marry him, fully aware that he isn’t in love with her.
“I would always rather be happy than dignified.” (Jane to St. John)
In her view, to marry for duty is out of the question. But St. John doesn’t relent and tries to persuade her by all available means. He has nearly succeeded when she hears a spectral voice calling her name. It’s Edward Rochester’s voice, which she has never forgotten. Drawn back to Rochester by the summons, Jane immediately sets out to Thornfield.
A Happy Ending?
When Jane arrives, she makes the horrifying discovery that the vision in her nightmare has come true: Thornfield Hall lies in ruins. The villagers tell her that the house burned down some time ago. Rochester’s mad wife set the fire and then flung herself to her death from the roof. Rochester himself was badly injured while rescuing the inhabitants. Jane then travels to Ferndean, where Rochester is now living, and finds her beloved a cripple: He has but one hand left and has lost his sight. When she reveals herself to him, the broken man is overjoyed. Finally, his Jane is back and relieves him from guilt and grief. Jane vows she’ll never leave him again.
“Reader, I married him.” (Jane)
Since the death of his first wife has cleared the way for matrimony, they marry. Rochester’s sight slowly improves, so that he is even able to see his first-born son.
About the Text
Structure and Style
Jane Eyre is divided into five parts, marking not only Jane’s stages of development but also the changing localities: Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Marsh End and Ferndean. Jane narrates her life chronologically, beginning with her childhood in Gateshead until her marriage with Rochester in Ferndean. She tells her story in retrospect, as a married woman, though the reader only learns of their happy union in the end.
Jane Eyre is written in the first person, therefore appearing to be an autobiography. The narrator often addresses her readers directly (“Dear readers, …”) or interrupts the story by an interjection or question (“Who blames me?”). In this fashion, Charlotte Brontë establishes a direct connection with the readers, while also allowing for a deep insight into the heroine’s thoughts and emotions. The author proves herself an acute observer, excelling in precise and lifelike characterizations. The sometimes unlikely and overly melodramatic events raise the tension, while also stretching the story’s credibility and challenging the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.
- Jane Eyre maintains her personal integrity while searching for a family and the kind of loving relationships she never experienced as a child. Her early trauma shaped her strong-willed, independent personality and she always remains faithful to her principles, even if the consequences are unbearably harsh.
- Jane is an unusual female figure for Victorian times: She stands up to men, criticizes individuals above her social class and takes it upon herself to speak her mind whenever it strikes her fancy – a welcome change for her mostly female readers in the 19th century where women endured severely restricted lives. Jane Eyre can be understood as a criticism of the overly moralistic English society that was entirely determined by conventions.
- At the end of the novel gender relations are turned upside down: Rochester is broken and crippled, while Jane is strong and wealthy. Only at that point does their marriage become a possibility. On the surface, it appears to be a conventional happy ending, however it was a progressive resolution for its time.
- Charlotte Brontë uses the style of the gothic novel to create a feminine language. The mystery, suffocation, secrets and inability to speak openly about the realities of domestic life model the experience of women in English households.
- Rochester has to be reduced to powerlessness before a truly fruitful partnership with Jane becomes possible. The men in Jane Eyre, whether good or bad, seem deaf to the intent of women’s speech and try to manipulate them to their own purposes. Once Rochester is no longer able to act on his own, he can join Jane in a happy and equal marriage.
The Position of Women in the Victorian Period
Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 until 1901, that is almost for the entire 19th century. It was a period of economic prosperity for Great Britain. The Industrial Revolution and its position as a globe-spanning colonial power made England into the world’s leading economy, fostering unlimited optimism and a boundless belief in progress. Yet the rapid economic development and constant change had people searching for stability in middle class traditions. Strict social conventions and excessive prudery shaped society, which banished any touch of eroticism to the social margins.
Society in 19th century Britain considered women authors trivial, and while there were many female writers, only their male colleagues were deemed worthy of respect. Many female writers such as the sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë or Mary Ann Evans, known as George Eliot published their works under pseudonyms. Women had only limited opportunities to develop their skills and gain independence. They were dependent on their families for their entire lives, first their fathers, then their brothers and finally their husbands. Women of little means and orphans could find positions as governesses or teachers, but even in that case they were highly dependent on their masters and employers.
When an inheritance freed the Brontë sisters from having to work as governesses, they could at last realize their dream and dedicate themselves entirely to writing. Even though their joint poetry collection Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell sold only two copies, the sisters started to write their first novels, which, like the poems, they published at their own expense and under pseudonyms.
The authorship of Jane Eyre and the debate as to the extent of its autobiographical content grabbed the popular imagination. Some of the author’s acquaintances served as inspirations for the novel’s characters. For example, Mr. Rochester shows traces of Charlotte’s teacher Constantin Heger, and the sisters Mary and Diana somewhat resemble her own sisters, while Jane Eyre has some features in common with her creator. However, one cannot entirely equate the romanticized novel characters with the Brontë sisters, but should rather understand them as Charlotte’s ideal of herself and her siblings. In addition, she hinted at some real-life locations in the novel: Lowood corresponds to the boarding school that she herself attended and where two of her sisters died of typhus. The central stage Thornfield, however, sprang entirely from the author’s imagination.
Reviews and Legacy
The novel Jane Eyre became a resounding success upon its first publication in 1847, followed by three editions in quick succession. The public puzzled over the pseudonym Currer Bell, and whether it stood for a man or a woman. Not even her publisher knew the author’s true identity. Charlotte only disclosed the secret of her pseudonym after her sisters’ death in 1849, which didn’t spoil its success, however. Most critics liked the novel because of its inherent warmth and passion, and even compared it to the world-wide hit Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Some, however, were concerned about what they thought was a revolutionary attitude and accused the author of “moral Jacobinism.” Fellow writers such as Thackeray and the then famous writer Elizabeth Gaskell acclaimed Charlotte Brontë for her novel. At the time Jane Eyre was more popular than the more complex and powerful Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister Emily. Nevertheless, Jane Eyre is a classic of English literature. Its unusual heroine, lively style and quiet wisdom have greatly influenced generations of writers, including Virginia Woolf, and there are many film versions of the story. It was also complemented by an original companion with Jean Rhys‘ novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a prequel to Jane Eyre that tells the tragic love story between Edward Rochester and his first wife, the “madwoman in the attic.”
About the Author
Charlotte Brontë was born on April 21, 1816, in Thornton/Yorkshire and grew up in the inhospitable North England moorlands as the daughter of a clergyman of Irish decent. Her mother, Maria, died early, as did two of her older sisters, who contracted tuberculosis while at boarding school. Charlotte’s father, Patrick, took her out of boarding school to home school her and her three other siblings. Together with her younger sisters Emily and Anne and the brother Branwell, Charlotte invented a rich fantasy world, which was immortalized in their diaries. Patrick unfailingly supported his children in their intellectual curiosity. In 1831, Charlotte once again attended a boarding school, where she studied to become a teacher. Starting in 1839, began work as a governess. In 1842, she travelled to Brussels with her sister Emily. With the prospect of opening their own school, Charlotte dedicated herself to learning German and fell into an unrequited love with her married teacher Constantin Heger. Feeling terribly homesick, she returned to England in 1844. After the plan to open their own school went nowhere, Charlotte and her sisters published a collection of poems at their own expense, and under the pseudonyms Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne), gender neutral names that they deliberately chose to evade prejudices against female writers. The volume sold no more than two copies, yet the sisters refused to give up, all of them publishing their first novels in 1847: Wuthering Heights by Emily, Agnes Grey by Anne and Jane Eyre by Charlotte, the last to great public acclaim. Unfortunately, the sisters could not enjoy their newfound success for long: In September 1848, Branwell died, three months later Emily and in May 1849 Anne. That same year Charlotte’s second book Shirley was published, and four years later came her novel Villette. After the success of her novels, Charlotte met many famous writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell. In 1854, she married Arthur Bell Nicholls, a curate. Nine months later after the wedding, on March 31, 1855, she died. Her death came just three weeks before her 39th birthday; she was pregnant.
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