Jane Eyre Study Guide

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë. Hulton Archive

To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, modern readers often assume that Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, published in 1847 under the ridiculous pseudonym Currer Bell, will be old-fashioned and difficult to relate to, only to be astonished by a novel that largely feels as fresh and modern today as it did in the 19th century. Regularly adapted into new films and TV shows and still serving as the touchstone for generations of writers, Jane Eyre is a remarkable novel both in its innovation and in its enduring quality.

Innovation in fiction isn’t always easy to appreciate. When Jane Eyre published it was something remarkable and new, a fresh way of writing in so many ways it was astounding. Closing in on two centuries later, those innovations have been absorbed into the larger literary zeitgeist and to younger readers might not seem so special. Even when people can’t appreciate the historical context of the novel, however, the skill and artistry that Charlotte Brontë brought to the novel makes it a thrilling reading experience.

There are, however, plenty of very good novels from the period that remain eminently readable (for reference, see everything Charles Dickens wrote). What sets Jane Eyre apart is the fact that it’s arguably the Citizen Kane of English-language novels, a work that transformed the art form permanently, a work that supplied many of the techniques and conventions still in use today. At the same time it’s also a powerful love story with a protagonist who is complicated, intelligent, and a pleasure to spend time with.

It just also happens to be one of the greatest novels ever written.

Plot

For many reasons, it’s important to note that the subtitle of the novel is An Autobiography. The story begins when Jane is an orphan at just ten years old, living with her cousins the Reed Family at the request of her deceased uncle.

Mrs. Reed is cruel to Jane, making it clear that she views her as an obligation and allowing her own children to be cruel to Jane, making her life a misery. This culminates in an episode where Jane defends herself from one of Mrs. Reed’s children and is punished by being locked in the room in which her uncle passed away. Terrified, Jane believes she sees her uncle’s ghost and faints from sheer terror.

Jane is attended by the kindly Mr. Lloyd. Jane confesses her misery to him, and he suggests to Mrs. Reed that Jane be sent off to school. Mrs. Reed is happy to be rid of Jane and sends her to the Lowood Institution, a charity school for orphaned and poor young girls. Jane’s escape at first only leads her to more misery, as the school is run by the mean-spirited Mr. Brocklehurst, who embodies the pitiless “charity” often championed by religion. The girls in his charge are treated poorly, sleeping in cold rooms and eating a poor diet with frequent punishments. Mr. Brocklehurst, convinced by Mrs. Reed that Jane is a liar, singles her out for punishment, but Jane makes some friends including fellow classmate Helen and the kind-hearted Miss Temple, who helps clear Jane’s name. After a typhus epidemic leads to the death of Helen, Mr. Brocklehurst’s cruelty is exposed and conditions improve at Lowood.

Jane eventually becomes a teacher there.

When Miss Temple leaves to marry, Jane decides it’s time for her to move on as well, and she finds employment as a governess to a young girl at Thornfield Hall, the ward of Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester. Rochester is arrogant, prickly, and often insulting, but Jane stands up to him and the two find that they enjoy each other immensely. Jane experiences several odd, seemingly-supernatural events while at Thornfield, including a mysterious fire in Mr. Rochester’s room.

When Jane learns that her aunt, Mrs. Reed, is dying, she puts aside her anger towards the woman and goes to tend to her. Mrs. Reed confesses on her deathbed that she was worse to Jane than previously suspected, revealing that Jane’s paternal uncle had written asking Jane to come live with him and be his heir, but Mrs. Reed told him Jane was dead.

Returning to Thornfield, Jane and Rochester admit their feelings for each other, and Jane accepts his proposal—but the wedding ends in tragedy when it’s revealed that Rochester is already married. He confesses that his father forced him into an arranged marriage with Bertha Mason for her money, but Bertha suffers from a serious mental condition and has been deteriorating almost from the moment he married her. Rochester has kept Bertha locked up in a room in Thornfield for her own safety, but she occasionally escapes—explaining many of the mysterious events Jane experienced.

Rochester begs Jane to run away with him and live in France, but she refuses, unwilling to compromise her principles. She flees Thornfield with her scant possessions and money, and through a series of misfortunes winds up sleeping out in the open. She is taken in by her distant relative St. John Eyre Rivers, a clergyman, and learns that her uncle John left her a fortune. When St. John proposes marriage (considering it a form of duty), Jane contemplates joining him on missionary work in India, but hears the voice of Rochester calling to her.

Returning to Thornfield, Jane is shocked to find it burned to the ground. She discovers that Bertha escaped her rooms and set the place ablaze; in trying to rescue her, Rochester was badly injured. Jane goes to him, and he is at first convinced she will reject him for his hideous appearance, but Jane assures him she still loves him, and they finally are married.

Major Characters

Jane Eyre: Jane is the protagonist of the story.

An orphan, Jane grows up dealing with adversity and poverty, and becomes a person who values her independence and agency even if it means living a simple, no-frills life. Jane is considered ‛plain’ and yet becomes an object of desire for multiple suitors because of the strength of her personality. Jane can be sharp-tongued and judgmental, but is also curious and eager to re-evaluate situations and people based on new information. Jane has very strong beliefs and values and is willing to suffer in order to maintain them.

Edward Fairfax Rochester: Jane’s employer at Thornfield Hall and eventually her husband. Mr. Rochester is often described as a “Byronic Hero,” so-called after the poet Lord Byron—he is arrogant, withdrawn and often at odds with society, and rebels against the common wisdom and ignores public opinion. He’s a form of antihero, ultimately revealed to be noble despite his rough edges. He and Jane initially spar and dislike each other, but find they are drawn to each other romantically when she proves she can stand up to his personality. Rochester secretly married the wealthy Bertha Mason in his youth due to familial pressure; when she began to exhibit symptoms of congenital madness he locked her up as the proverbial “madwoman in the attic.”

Mrs. Reed: Jane’s maternal aunt, who takes the orphan in response to her husband’s dying wish. A selfish and mean-spirited woman, she abuses Jane and shows distinct preferment to her own children, and even withholds the news of Jane’s inheritance until she has a deathbed epiphany and shows remorse for her behavior.

Mr. Lloyd: A kindly apothecary (similar to the modern pharmacist) who is the first person to show Jane kindness. When Jane confesses her depression and unhappiness with the Reeds, he suggests she be sent to school in an effort to get her away from a bad situation.

Mr. Brocklehurst: The director of Lowood School. A member of the clergy, he justifies his harsh treatment of the young girls under his care via religion, claiming that it is necessary for their education and salvation. He does not apply these principles to himself or his own family, however. His abuses are eventually exposed.

Miss Maria Temple: The superintendent at Lowood. She is a kind and fair-minded woman who takes her duty to the girls very seriously. She is kind to Jane and has a tremendous influence on her.

Helen Burns: Jane’s friend at Lowood, who eventually dies of the Typhus outbreak at the school. Helen is kind-hearted and refuses to hate even the people who are cruel to her, and has a profound influence on Jane’s belief in God and attitude towards religion.

Bertha Antoinetta Mason: Mr. Rochester’s wife, kept under lock and key at Thornfield Hall due to her insanity. She frequently escapes and does strange things that at first seem almost supernatural. She eventually burns the house to the ground, dying in the flames. After Jane, she is the most-discussed character in the novel because of the rich metaphorical possibilities she represents as the “madwoman in the attic.”

St. John Eyre Rivers: A clergyman and distant relative of Jane’s who takes her in after she flees Thornfield after her wedding to Mr. Rochester ends in chaos when his previous marriage is revealed. He is a good man but emotionless and dedicated solely to his missionary work. He doesn’t so much propose marriage to Jane as declare it to be God’s will that Jane doesn’t have much choice in.

Themes

Jane Eyre is a complex novel that touches on many themes:

Independence: Jane Eyre is sometimes described as “proto-feminist” novel because Jane is portrayed as a complete personality who has ambitions and principles independent of the men around her. Jane is intelligent and perceptive, fiercely committed to her view of things, and capable of incredible love and affection—but not ruled by these emotions, as she frequently goes against her own desires in service of her intellectual and moral compass. Most importantly, Jane is the master of her life and makes choices for herself, and accepts the consequences. This is contrasted in a neat gender-flip by Mr. Rochester, who entered into a doomed, unhappy marriage because he was ordered to, a role most often played by women at the time (and historically).

Jane persists against tremendous adversity, especially in her younger years, and matures into a thoughtful and caring adult despite the deprivations of her mean-spirited aunt and the cruel, falsely-moral Mr. Brocklehurst. As an adult at Thornfield, Jane is given a chance to have everything she wants by running away with Mr. Rochester, but she chooses not to do so because she firmly believes it is the wrong thing to do.

Jane’s independence and persistence was unusual in a female character at the time of composition, as was the poetic and evocative nature of the intimate POV—the access the reader is given to Jane’s inner monologue and the adherence of the narrative to her limited point of view (we only know what Jane knows, at all times) was innovative and sensational at the time. Most novels of the time remained at a distance from the characters, making our close association with Jane a thrilling novelty. At the same time, being so closely wedded to Jane’s sensibility allows Brontë to control the reader’s reactions and perceptions, as we are only given information once it has been processed through Jane’s beliefs, views, and feelings.

Even when Jane weds Mr. Rochester in what could be seen as the expected and traditional conclusion to the story, she twists expectation by saying “Reader, I married him,” maintaining her status as the protagonist of her own life.

Morality: Brontë makes clear distinctions between the false morals of people like Mr. Brocklehurst, who abuses and mistreats those less powerful than he is under the guise of charity and religious teaching. There is in fact a deep undercurrent of suspicion about society and its norms throughout the novel; respectable people like the Reeds are in fact awful, legal marriages such as Rochester and Bertha Mason’s (or the one proposed by St. John) are shams; institutions like Lowood that ostensibly demonstrate the good of society and religion are in fact terrible places.

Jane is shown to be the most moral person in the book because she is true to herself, not out of adherence to a set of rules composed by someone else. Jane is offered many chances to take an easier way by betraying her principles; she could have been less combative towards her cousins and curried Mrs. Reed’s favor, she could have worked harder to get along at Lowood, she could have deferred to Mr. Rochester as her employer and not challenged him, she could have run away with him and been happy. Instead, Jane demonstrates true morality throughout the novel by rejecting these compromises and remaining, crucially, true to herself.

Wealth: The question of wealth is an undercurrent throughout the novel, as Jane is a penniless orphan through most of the story but is in secret a wealthy heiress, while Mr. Rochester is a wealthy man who is quite reduced in every way by the end of the novel—in fact, in some ways their roles reverse over the course of the story.

In the world of Jane Eyre, wealth is not something to be jealous of, but rather a means to an end: Survival. Jane spends large portions of the book struggling to survive due to a lack of money or social standing, and yet Jane is also one of the most content and confident characters in the book. In contrast to the works of Jane Austen (to which Jane Eyre is invariably compared), money and marriage are not seen as practical goals for women, but rather as romantic goals—a very modern attitude that was at the time out of step with the common wisdom.

Spirituality: There is only one bona-fide supernatural event in the story: When Jane hears Mr. Rochester’s voice towards the end, calling to her. There are other allusions to the supernatural, such as her uncle’s ghost in the Red Room or the events at Thornfield, but these have perfectly rational explanations. However, that voice at the end implies that in the universe of Jane Eyre the supernatural does in fact exist, bringing into question how much of Jane’s experiences along these lines might not have been truly supernatural.

It is impossible to say, but Jane is a character unusually sophisticated in her spiritual self-knowledge. In parallel to Brontë’s themes of morality and religion, Jane is presented as someone very much in touch with and comfortable with her spiritual beliefs whether those beliefs are in step with the church or other outside authorities. Jane has a distinct philosophy and belief system all her own, and shows a great deal of confidence in her own ability to use her wits and experience to understand the world around her. This is something Brontë presents as an ideal—making up your own mind about things rather than simply accepting what you’re told.

Literary Style

Jane Eyre borrowed elements of Gothic novels and poetry that shaped it into a unique narrative. Brontë’s use of the tropes from gothic novels—madness, haunted estates, terrible secrets—gives the story a tragic and ominous overtone that colors every event with a larger-than-life sense. It also serves to give Brontë unprecedented freedom to play with the information given the reader. Early in the story, the Red Room scene leaves the reader with the tantalizing possibility that there was, in fact, a ghost—which then makes the later happenings at Thornfield seem even more ominous and frightening.

Brontë also uses pathetic fallacy to great effect, having the weather often mirror Jane’s inner turmoils or emotional state, and uses fire and ice (or heat and cold) as symbols of freedom and oppression. These are the tools of poetry and had never been used so extensively or effectively in the novel form before. Brontë uses them powerfully in conjunction with the gothic touches to create a fictional universe that is mirrored on reality but seems magical, with heightened emotions and, thus, higher stakes.

This is amplified even more by the intimacy of Jane’s point of view (POV). Previous novels had usually hued closely to a realistic depiction of events—the reader could trust what they were told implicitly. Because Jane is our eyes and ears to the story, however, we’re conscious on some level of never really getting reality, but rather Jane’s version of reality. This is a subtle effect that nonetheless has a tremendous impact on the book once we realize that every character description and piece of action is filtered through Jane’s attitudes and perceptions.

Historical Context

It’s essential to keep in mind the original subtitle of the novel (An Autobiography) for another reason: The more you examine Charlotte Brontë’s life, the more obvious it becomes that Jane Eyre is very much all about Charlotte.

Charlotte had a long history of an intense inner world; along with her sisters she had created an incredibly complex fantasy world Glass Town, composed of numerous short novels and poems, along with maps and other world-building tools. In her mid-20s she traveled to Brussels to study French, and fell in love with a married man. For years she wrote fiery love letters to the man before seeming to accept that the affair was impossible; Jane Eyre appeared shortly afterwards and can be seen as a fantasy about how that affair might have gone differently.

Charlotte also spent time in the Clergy Daughter’s School, where conditions and treatment of the girls were terrible, and where several student did in fact die of typhoid—including Charlotte’s sister Maria, who was only eleven years old. Charlotte clearly modeled much of the early life of Jane Eyre on her own unhappy experiences, and the character of Helen Burns is often seen as a stand-in for her lost sister. She was also later a governess to a family that she bitterly reported treated her poorly, adding one more piece of what would become Jane Eyre.

More broadly, the Victorian Era had just begun in England. This was a time of intense societal transformation in terms of the economy and technology. A middle class formed for the first time in English history, and the sudden upward mobility open to regular people led to an increased sense of personal agency which can be seen in the character of Jane Eyre, a woman who rises above her station through simple hard work and intelligence. These changes created an atmosphere of instability in society as old ways were changed by the industrial revolution and the growing power of the British Empire worldwide, leading many to question ancient assumptions about the aristocracy, religion, and traditions.

Jane’s attitudes towards Mr. Rochester and other monied characters reflects these changing times; the value of property owners who contributed little to society was being questioned, and Rochester’s marriage to the insane Bertha Mason can be seen as an overt criticism of this “leisure class” and the lengths they went to in order to preserve their status. In contrast, Jane comes from poverty and has only her mind and her spirit through most of the story, and yet ends up triumphant in the end. Along the way Jane experiences many of the worst aspects of the time period, including disease, poor living conditions, the limited opportunities available to women, and the stultifying oppression of a harsh, pitiless religious attitude.

Quotes

Jane Eyre isn’t famous solely for its themes and plot; it’s also a well-written book with plenty of smart, funny, and touching phrases.

  • “By dying young I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.”
  • “’Am I hideous, Jane?’ ‛Very, sir: you always were, you know.’”
  • “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel.”
  • “I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, great and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.”
  • “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”
  • “If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved of you and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”
  • “Flirting is a woman’s trade, one must keep in practice.”