Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, published by Smith, Elder & Company of London in 1847, is one of the most influential and famous of English novels. Brontë first styled it Jane Eyre: An Autobiography under the pseudonym Currer Bell. It was an immediate critical and popular success. Especially effusive in his praise was William Makepeace Thackeray, to whom Brontë dedicated the novel's second edition, which was illustrated by F. H. Townsend.
Jane Eyre is divided into 38 chapters; 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 — Volume One (comprising chapters one to fifteen), Volume Two (sixteen to 26) and Volume Three (27 to 38).
The novel begins in Gateshead Hall, where a ten-year-old orphan named Jane Eyre is living with her mother's brother's family. The brother, surnamed Reed, dies shortly after adopting Jane. His wife, Mrs. Sarah Reed, and their three children (John, Eliza and Georgiana) neglect and abuse Jane, for they resent Mr. Reed's preference for the little orphan in their midst. In addition, they dislike Jane's plain looks and quiet yet passionate character. The novel begins with young John Reed bullying Jane, who retaliates with unwanted violence. Jane is blamed for the ensuing fight, and Mrs. Reed has two servants drag her off and lock her up in the "red-room", the unused chamber in which Mr. Reed died. Still locked in that night, Jane sees a light and panics, thinking that her uncle's ghost has come. Her scream rouses the house, but Mrs. Reed just locks her up for a longer period of time. Then Jane has a fit and passes out. A doctor, Mr. Lloyd, comes to Gateshead Hall and suggests that Jane go to school.
Mr. Brocklehurst is a cold, cruel, self-righteous, and highly hypocritical clergyman who runs a charity school called Lowood Institution. He accepts Jane as a pupil in his school, but she is infuriated when Mrs. Reed tells him, falsely, that she is a liar. After Brocklehurst departs, Jane bluntly tells Mrs. Reed how she hates the Reed family. Mrs. Reed, so shocked that she is scarcely capable of responding, leaves the drawing room in haste.
Jane finds life at Lowood grim. Miss Maria Temple, the youthful superintendent, is just and kind, but another teacher, Miss Scatcherd, is sour and abusive. Mr. Brocklehurst, visiting the school for an inspection, has Jane placed on a tall stool before the entire assemblage. He then tells them that "...this girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut—this girl is—a liar!"
Later that day, Miss Temple allows Jane to speak in her own defense. After Jane does so, Miss Temple writes to Mr. Lloyd. His reply agrees with Jane's, and she is cleared of Mr. Brocklehurst's accusation.
Mr. Brocklehurst embezzles the school's funds to support his family's luxurious lifestyle while hypocritically preaching to others a doctrine of privation and poverty. As a result, Lowood's eighty pupils must make do with cold rooms, poor meals and thin garments whilst his family lives in comfort. The majority become sick from a typhus epidemic that strikes the school.
Jane is impressed with one pupil, Helen Burns, who accepts Miss Scatcherd's cruelty and the school's deficiencies with passive dignity, practicing the Christian teaching of turning the other cheek. Jane admires and loves the gentle Helen and they become best friends, but Jane cannot bring herself to emulate her friend's behaviour. While the typhus epidemic is raging, Helen dies of consumption in Jane's arms.
Many die in the typhus epidemic, and Mr. Brocklehurst's neglect and dishonesty are laid bare. Several rich and kindly people donate to put up a new school building in a more healthful location. New rules are made, and improvements in diet and clothing are introduced. Though Mr. Brocklehurst cannot be overlooked, due to his wealth and family connections, new people are brought in to share his duties of treasurer and inspector, and conditions improve dramatically at the school.
The narrative resumes eight years later. Jane has been a teacher at Lowood for two years, but she thirsts for a better and brighter future. She advertises as a governess and is hired by Mrs. Alice Fairfax, housekeeper of the Gothic manor, Thornfield, to teach a rather spoiled but amiable little French girl named Adèle Varens. A few months after her arrival at Thornfield, Jane goes for a walk and aids a horseman who has taken a fall. He is rude to her and calls her a witch, but she helps him back on the horse nonetheless. On her return to Thornfield, Jane discovers that the horseman is her employer, Mr. Edward Rochester, an ugly, moody yet wonderful, passionate, Byronic, and charismatic gentleman nearly twenty years older than she. Adèle is his ward.
Rochester seems quite taken with Jane. He repeatedly summons her to his presence and talks with her. Adèle, he says, is the illegitimate daughter of a French opera singer, Celine, who was his mistress for a time, though he doubts Adèle is his daughter. That same night, Jane hears eerie laughter coming from the hallway and, upon opening the door, sees smoke coming from Rochester's chamber. Rushing into his room, she finds his bed curtains ablaze and douses them with water, saving Rochester's life. Rochester says a matronly servant named Grace Poole is responsible but does not fire her, and she shows no signs of remorse or guilt. Jane is amazed and perplexed. But by this time, Rochester and Jane are in love with each other, although they do not show it.
Soon after the fire incident, Mr. Rochester departs Thornfield, reportedly to the Continent. He returns unexpectedly with a party of high-class ladies and gentlemen, including Miss Blanche Ingram, a beautiful but shallow socialite whom he seems to be courting. The party is interrupted when a strange old gypsy woman arrives and insists on telling everyone's fortunes. When Jane's turn comes, the gypsy tells her a great deal about her life and feelings, and questions her sentiments toward Rochester, much to Jane's surprise. Then the gypsy reveals "herself" to be Rochester in disguise.
That night, after a piercing scream wakes everyone in the house, Mr. Rochester comes to Jane for help in attending to a wounded guest, a certain Mr. Richard Mason, a handsome yet placid Englishman from the West Indies. Mr. Mason has been stabbed and bitten in the arm, and a surgeon comes and secretly whisks him away. Again, Rochester hints that Grace Poole is responsible.
Jane receives word that Mrs. Reed, upon hearing of her son John's apparent suicide after leading a life of dissipation and debt, has suffered a near-fatal stroke and is asking for her. So Jane returns to Gateshead, where she encounters her cousins Eliza and Georgiana Reed. Eliza has become self-righteous. Georgiana, much admired for her beauty in London a season or two ago, has become plump and vapid, always moaning about her love affair with Lord Edwin Vere. Eliza, out of envy, had prevented their marriage. The two sisters despise each other and are barely on speaking terms.
Although she rejects Jane's efforts at reconciliation, Mrs. Reed gives Jane a letter that she had previously withheld out of spite. The letter is from Jane's father's brother, John Eyre, notifying her of his intent to leave her his fortune upon his death. Mrs. Reed dies in the night, and no one mourns her. Eliza enters a convent in France, and Georgiana travels to London, eventually marrying a wealthy but worn-out society man.
About a fortnight after Jane's return to Thornfield, Jane, after months of concealing her emotions, vehemently proclaims her love for Edward, who in turn passionately proposes to her. Following a month of courtship, Jane's forebodings arise when a strange, savage-looking woman sneaks into her room one night and rips her wedding veil in two. Yet again, Rochester attributes the incident to Grace Poole.
The wedding goes ahead nevertheless. But during the ceremony in the church, the mysterious Mr. Mason and a lawyer step forth and declare that Rochester cannot marry Jane because his own wife is still alive. Rochester bitterly and sarcastically admits this fact, explaining that his wife is a violent madwoman whom he keeps imprisoned in the attic, where Grace Poole looks after her. But Grace Poole imbibes gin immoderately, occasionally giving the madwoman an opportunity to escape. It is Rochester's mad wife who is responsible for the strange events at Thornfield. Rochester nearly committed bigamy, and kept this fact from Jane. The wedding is cancelled, and Jane is heartbroken.
Back in his library, Rochester explains further. "When I left college, I was sent out to Jamaica, to espouse a bride already courted for me. My father said nothing about her money; but he told me Miss Mason was the boast of Spanish Town for her beauty: and this was no lie. I found her a fine woman, in the style of Blanche Ingram: tall, dark, and majestic. Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race; and so did she. They showed her to me in parties, splendidly dressed. I seldom saw her alone, and had very little private conversation with her. She flattered me, and lavishly displayed for my pleasure her charms and accomplishments. All the men in her circle seemed to admire her and envy me. I was dazzled, stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I thought I loved her. There is no folly so besotted that the idiotic rivalries of society, the prurience, the rashness, the blindness of youth, will not hurry a man to its commission. Her relatives encouraged me; competitors piqued me; she allured me: a marriage was achieved almost before I knew where I was. Oh, I have no respect for myself when I think of that act!—an agony of inward contempt masters me. I never loved, I never esteemed, I did not even know her. I was not sure of the existence of one virtue in her nature: I had marked neither modesty, nor benevolence, nor candour, nor refinement in her mind or manners—and, I married her:—gross, grovelling, mole-eyed blockhead that I was!"
However, he was not aware that the members of Bertha's family carry a hereditary vein of madness in their genes, with women in particular succumbing to it. Rochester assumed that Bertha's mother was dead when really she was locked away in an asylum due to her madness. The same illness affected her grandmother, and a younger brother who was all but mentally retarded. When Bertha became openly insane, Rochester secured her in Thornfield and departed for a life of dissipation (but not debauchery) in Europe.
Rochester then asks Jane to accompany him to the south of France, where they will live as husband and wife, even though they cannot be married. But though she still loves him, Jane refuses to betray the God-given morals and principles she has always believed in.
"...while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. "Oh, comply!" it said. "Think of his misery; think of his danger—look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair—soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?"
Still indomitable was the reply—"I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot."
But she does not trust herself to refuse a second time. In the dead of night, she slips out of Thornfield and takes a coach far away to the north of England. When her money gives out, she sleeps outdoors on the moor and reluctantly begs for food. One night, freezing and starving, she comes to Moor House (or Marsh End) and begs for help. St. John Rivers, the young clergyman who lives in the house, admits her.
Jane, who gives the false surname of Elliott, quickly recovers under the care of St. John and his two kind sisters, Diana and Mary. St. John arranges for Jane to teach a charity school for girls in the village of Morton. At the school, Jane observes the interactions of St. John, a cold and stern man but a truly devout Christian, and Rosamond Oliver, a beautiful but silly young heiress. Jane comes to believe that the two are in love, and boldly says so to St John. St. John confesses his love but says that Rosamond would make a most unsuitable wife for a missionary, which he intends to become.
One snowy night, St. John unexpectedly arrives at Jane's cottage. Suspecting Jane's true identity, he relates Jane's experiences at Thornfield and says that her uncle, John Eyre, has died and left Jane his fortune of 20,000 pounds. After confessing her true identity, Jane arranges to share her inheritance with the Riverses, who turn out to be her cousins.
Not long afterwards, St. John decides to travel to India and devote his life to missionary work. He asks Jane to accompany him as his wife. Jane consents to go to India but adamantly refuses to marry him because they are not in love. St. John is not cruel or hypocritical like Mr. Brocklehurst, but he does not respect other people's feelings when they conflict with his own. He continues to pressure Jane to marry him, and his forceful personality almost causes her to capitulate. But at that moment she hears what she thinks is Rochester's voice calling her name, and this gives her the strength to reject St. John completely.
The next day, Jane takes a coach to Thornfield. But only blackened ruins lie where the manorhouse once stood. An innkeeper tells Jane that Rochester's mad wife set the fire and then committed suicide by jumping from the roof. Rochester rescued the servants from the burning mansion but lost a hand and his eyesight in the process. He now lives in an isolated manor house called Ferndean. Going to Ferndean, Jane reunites with Rochester. At first, he fears that she will refuse to marry a blind cripple, but Jane accepts him without hesitation.
Speaking from the vantage point of ten years, Jane describes their married life as blissful.
I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result. (Chapter XXXVIII)
Meanwhile, St John has gone to India as a missionary. In the novel, Jane writes, "I know that a stranger's hand will write to me next, to say that the good and faithful servant has been called at length into the joy of his Lord" (Chapter XXXVIII). Therefore, while St John's death may be implied, it is never clearly stated.
Rochester eventually recovers sight in one eye, and can see their first-born son when the baby is born.
Morality: Jane refuses to become Rochester's paramour because of her "impassioned self-respect and moral conviction." She rejects St. John Rivers's puritanism as much as Rochester's libertinism. Instead, she works out a morality expressed in love, independence, and forgiveness. Specifically, she forgives her cruel aunt and loves her husband, but never surrenders her independence to him, even after they are married. For he is blind, more dependent on her than she on him.
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 rejects St. John Rivers' cold devotion to his perceived Christian duty, but neither can she bring herself to emulate Helen Burns' turning the other cheek, although she admires Helen for it. Ultimately, she rejects these three extremes and finds a middle ground in which religion serves to curb her immoderate passions but does not repress her true self.
Social Class: Jane's ambiguous social position—a penniless yet learned orphan from a good family—leads her to criticise 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."
Gender Relations: A particularly important theme in the novel is patriarchalism and Jane's efforts to assert her own identity within male-dominated society. Three of the main male characters, Brocklehurst, Rochester and St. John, try to keep Jane in a subordinate position and prevent her from expressing her own thoughts and feelings. Jane escapes Brocklehurst and rejects St. John, and she only marries Rochester once she is sure that theirs is a marriage between equals. Through Jane, Brontë refutes Victorian stereotypes about women, articulating what was for her time a radical 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)
Disability: Recent scholarship has also begun to explore themes in the novel relating to disability, looking at the "madness" of Bertha Mason Rochester, the blinding and maiming of Rochester, and the unusual affect of the heroine, perhaps suggestive of autism or Asperger.
The early sequences, in which Jane is sent to Lowood, a harsh boarding school, are derived from the author's own experiences. Helen Burns's death from tuberculosis (referred to as consumption) recalls the deaths of Charlotte Brontë's sisters Elizabeth and Maria, who died of the disease in childhood as a result of the conditions at their school, the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge, near Tunstall, Lancashire. Mr. Brocklehurst is based on Rev. William Carus Wilson (1791–1859), the Evangelical minister who ran the school, and Helen Burns is likely modelled on Charlotte's sister Maria. Additionally, John Reed's decline into alcoholism and dissolution recalls the life of Charlotte's brother Branwell, who became an opium and alcohol addict in the years preceding his death. Finally, like Jane, Charlotte becomes a governess. These facts were revealed to the public in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) by Charlotte's friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.
The Gothic manor of Thornfield was probably inspired by North Lees Hall, near Hathersage in the Peak District. This was visited by Charlotte Brontë and her friend Ellen Nussey in the summer of 1845 and is described by the latter in a letter dated 22 July 1845. It was the residence of the Eyre family, and its first owner, Agnes Ashurst, was reputedly confined as a lunatic in a padded second floor room.
Literary allusions from the Bible, fairy tales, The Pilgrim's Progress, Paradise Lost, and the novels and poetry of Sir Walter Scott are also much in evidence. The novel deliberately avoids some conventions of Victorian fiction, not contriving a deathbed reconciliation between Aunt Reed and Jane Eyre and avoiding the portrayal of a "fallen woman".