Jane EyreCharlotte Brontë
For Further Study
Published in 1847, Jane Eyre brought almost instant fame to its obscure author, the daughter of a clergyman in a small mill town in northern England. On the surface, the novel embodies stock situations of the Gothic novel genre such as mystery, horror, and the classic medieval castle setting; many of the incidents border on (and cross over into) melodrama. The story of the young heroine is also in many ways conventional—the rise of a poor orphan girl against overwhelming odds, whose love and determination eventually redeem a tormented hero. Yet if this all there were to Jane Eyre, the novel would soon have been forgotten. In writing Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë did not write a mere romantic potboiler. Her book has serious things to say about a number of important subjects: the relations between men and women, women's equality, the treatment of children and of women, religious faith and religious hypocrisy (and the difference between the two), the realization of selfhood, and the nature of true love. But again, if its concerns were only topical, it would not have outlived the time in which it was written. The book is not a tract any more than it is a potboiler. It is a work of fiction with memorable characters and vivid scenes, written in a compelling prose style. In appealing to both the head and the heart, Jane Eyre triumphs over its flaws and remains a classic of nineteenth-century English literature and one of the most popular of all English novels.
Jane Eyre is subtitled An Autobiography. It is, however, a novel. Yet critics have discerned a number of autobiographical elements in the book.
Charlotte Brontë was born on March 31, 1816, in the village of Thornton in the West Riding of Yorkshire (now West Yorkshire), England. She was the third child in a family that soon consisted of five girls and a boy. Only seven years separated the eldest, Maria, from the youngest, Anne. Her father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë (originally Brunty), came from an impoverished Irish family; he had immigrated to England in the late 1700s and studied at Cambridge University before being ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England. Charlotte's mother, Maria Branwell, was originally from Penzance, Cornwall, at the southwest tip of England. In 1820 the family moved to Haworth, an isolated mill town on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. They took up residence in the small parsonage next to the local parish church where Reverend Brontë was minister. Mrs. Brontë died of cancer the following year.
In 1824 Reverend Brontë sent his four eldest daughters to the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge, Yorkshire, run by a Reverend Carus Wilson. Conditions at the school were strict and physically harsh. The two eldest Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, both developed tuberculosis and died the following year. More than twenty years later, Charlotte's experiences at the school would form the basis of several characters, incidents, and settings in Jane Eyre. Reverend Wilson became the model for the character Mr. Brocklehurst, while Maria Brontë served as the model for Helen Burns. Lowood Institution in the book was based largely on the Clergy Daughters School.
Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth, where they remained for the next six years with their father and their surviving siblings, Branwell and Anne. During this time the children escaped into a world of imagination and creative fantasy. Charlotte and Branwell collaborated in writing romantic stories, in tiny hand-made books, about a fictional kingdom called Angria. The hero of these stories was a character known as the Duke of Zamorna—a character to whom Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre bears much resemblance.
In 1831 Charlotte went away to Roe Head school. Although she remained only a year, she made two life-long friends, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. The school's principal, Margaret Wooler, would be the model for Ms. Temple in Jane Eyre. In 1839 Charlotte took her first job as a governess. She also received, and turned down, proposals of marriage from two ministers, one of whom was Ellen Nussey's brother. She was not in love with either of these men, and did not feel that she could enter into this kind of marriage. This situation was to be recounted fictionally in the relationship between Jane and Reverend St. John Rivers. Several years later Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels, Belgium, to attend a school run by Constantin Héger. Charlotte evidently formed a passionate attachment to Héger, an older, married man who did not return (and probably was not even aware of) her affection.
Returning to Haworth, Charlotte wrote poetry and was surprised to find that Emily also wrote poetry—as did Anne and Branwell. In 1846 the three women published a joint volume of their poems, using the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The collection, produced at their own expense, sold only two copies. Undaunted, the three women each wrote a novel, which they submitted to a London publisher, again using the same pseudonyms. Emily and Anne's manuscripts—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey-were accepted, but Charlotte's—The Professor—was turned down. Almost immediately, Charlotte began writing JaneEyre. She completed the book quickly and sent it off to the publishing firm of Smith, Elder & Co., the same company who had rejected The Professor. The publishers reacted with great enthusiasm, and Jane Eyre was published just three months later, in October, 1847. So good were the sales that within a year the book was issued in its third edition. Whereas her sisters had earned advances of fifty pounds for their novels, Charlotte received five hundred pounds for hers—a considerable sum of money at that time. However, her publisher and the reading public still knew the audhor only as "Currer Bell." There was even speculation that the three "Bells" were in fact a single author writing under three different pseudonyms. In July, 1848, Charlotte and Anne took the train to London to visit their publisher, who was astonished but delighted to learn that Currer Bell was a woman.
In the midst of their literary success, more tragedy struck the Brontë family. Branwell, who had become a hopeless alcoholic, died of tuberculosis in 1848, followed in December of that year by Emily. Anne died of the same disease the following year, leaving Charlotte the sole survivor among the original six Brontë children. She went on to write two further novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853). In 1854 she married the Reverend Arthur Nicholls, her father's curate. Charlotte Brontë died less than a year later, apparendy from complications during pregnancy. However, her reputation, and that of Jane Eyre, continued to grow.
Jane Eyre opens with the narrator, the adult Jane Eyre, recalling her childhood experiences growing up as an orphan at Gateshead, the home of her unfriendly aunt, Mrs. Reed. Mrs. Reed treats Jane as an outcast. On one occasion when her cousin John attacks her, Jane tries to defend herself. As a result, she finds herself being punished by being locked in the frightening "Red Room," where her uncle Reed had died many years earlier. A terrified Jane screams and faints.
Jane soon learns that Mrs. Reed plans to send her away to school. The stern Mr. Brocklehurst of the Lowood School for orphaned girls comes to visit. Having been told by Mrs. Reed that Jane is an evil child, he questions Jane about her religious beliefs and assures her that bad girls will suffer in hell. Mr. Brocklehurst agrees to enroll Jane in his school. On the day she is to depart, only the servant Bessie rises to say good-bye to her.
The Lowood School offers Jane a very different life, as the conditions there are very poor. It is cold and drafty, the water is frozen, and the bland food the girls are given, which is often burnt, is insufficient to satisfy their hunger. On her second day at Lowood, Jane sees the cruel Miss Scatcherd punish a new friend, Helen Burns. Helen's reaction, however, is that she deserves such treatment and that she believes in Christian patience and endurance.
After three weeks Mr. Brocklehurst visits the school, ordering the long hair of the older girls to be cut off and lecturing the girls on the sin of vanity. Though trying to avoid notice, Jane drops her slate and catches Mr. Brocklehurst's attention. Ordering Jane to stand on a stool for punishment, Brocklehurst announces to the rest of the children that she is a liar and is not to be trusted. Jane is comforted by Helen and by the kind head teacher, Miss Temple.
In the spring Lowood suffers a typhus epidemic. Many of the girls die, and Jane learns that Helen has grown quite ill. One night after a doctor's visit, Jane sneaks into Helen's bed and talks with her about dying. Helen expresses no fears or regrets. Jane falls asleep, and when she awakens in the morning, she discovers that Helen had died during the night. Jane remains as a pupil at Lowood for six more years, and then becomes a teacher for two more. When her beloved Miss Temple marries and leaves Lowood, Jane has no reason to continue there, so she secretly advertises her services as a governess and soon is offered a position.
Jane travels to Thornfield, the estate where she is to begin a new career as a governess. She is greeted by Mrs. Fairfax, the woman who had hired her, who is the housekeeper for the house's owner, Mr. Edward Rochester. Jane's pupil is to be Adèle Varens, a young French girl who is Mr. Rochester's ward. While showing Jane around the spacious house, Jane hears a haunting cackle coming from a room on the third floor. Mrs. Fairfax assures her that it is Grace Poole, an eccentric woman hired to do sewing.
Jane finds life at Thornfield pleasant, but unstimulating. While walking out to mail a letter one day, she is passed by a huge dog and then a strangelooking man on horseback. After passing Jane, the horse slips on a patch of ice and the rider is thrown, spraining his foot. Jane helps the man back onto his horse, and upon returning home, she learns that the man is her employer, Mr. Rochester. Although his manner is brusque and often offensive, Jane is drawn to him. One night after talking with Mr. Rochester, Jane is awakened by the strange laugh, and leaves her room to find Mr. Rochester's bedroom in flames. She wakes him and helps him to put out the fire, but he offers no explanation concerning these events. To Jane's surprise and disappointment, Mr. Rochester leaves early the next day without saying good-bye.
Two weeks later, Mr. Rochester returns home and holds a huge party at his house, during which time Jane witnesses his flirtatious behavior with the beautiful but cold Blanch Ingram. One night a gypsy visits Thornfield, and tells the fortunes of the guests. As the gypsy tries to learn of Jane's feelings for Rochester, she discovers that the gypsy is Rochester in disguise. Jane tells Mr. Rochester of a visitor, Mr. Mason, who had arrived at Thornfield that day. That night Jane hears noise coming from the ceiling, and running upstairs, finds that Mr. Mason has been attacked, apparently by Grace Poole.
Shortly after the Mason incident, Jane learns that her Aunt Reed is dying. Returning to Gateshead to visit her aunt, Mrs. Reed tells her that many years ago Jane's Uncle John in Madeira had tried to contact her; he was interested in making Jane the heir to his fortune. Mrs. Reed, however, had told Uncle John that Jane was dead.
Upon Mrs. Reed's death, Jane returns to Thornfield and meets Mr. Rochester one night while walking in the garden. He admits to her his plans to marry. Jane begins to cry, but she soon learns that Mr. Rochester's intention is to marry her, and not Blanche Ingram. That night lightning strikes the huge horse chestnut tree under which she and Mr. Rochester had become engaged.
The night before her wedding, Jane awakens to see a strange and frightening figure in her room, shredding her wedding veil. Rochester assures her that the figure is Grace Poole. The next morning, Mr. Rochester tries to rush the wedding ceremony along, but it is stopped ultimately by Mr. Briggs, a lawyer, and Mr. Mason, who reveal that Rochester is already married to Mr. Mason's sister. An angry Rochester then takes the entire party up to the third floor at Thornfield and reveals his insane wife, Bertha, who is attended there by Grace Poole. Against Rochester's wishes, Jane decides that she must leave Thornfield:
"Jane, do you mean to go one way in the world, and to let me go another?"
"Jane" (bending towards and embracing me), "do you mean it now?"
"And now? softly kissing my forehead and cheek.
"I do—" extricating myself from restraint rapidly and completely.
"Oh, Jane, this is bitter! This—this is wicked. It would not be wicked to love me."
"It would to obey you."
A wild look raised his brows—crossed his features: he rose, but he forebore yet. I laid my hand on the back of a chair for support: I shook, I feared—but resolved.
"One instant, Jane. Give one glance to my horrible life when you are gone. All happiness will be torn away with you. What then is left? For a wife I have but the maniac up stairs: as well might you refer me to some corpse in yonder churchyard. What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?"
"Do as I do: trust in God and yourself. Believe in heaven. Hope to meet again there."
Jane steals out early in the morning and boards a coach. Soon out of food and money, she desperately stumbles over the moors to a small house and begs for help. She is taken into "Moor House" by two kind young ladies, Diana and Mary, and their brother, the pious minister St. John Rivers. When she recovers her health, St. John finds Jane a position as a school mistress in a small local school. Soon news comes that the Riverses' Uncle John has died, but has left them only ten pounds each. One night St. John visits Jane, and amazingly, begins to recount for her the story of her past life. It turns out that he has discovered Jane's real name and identity, and that she and the Riverses are cousins. Moreover, their Uncle John is also Jane's Uncle John, and she has inherited her uncle's fortune of twenty thousand pounds.
St. John Rivers begins to press Jane into marrying him and wishes her to join him in his life as a missionary. One night, St. John attempts to make Jane believe that not following her destiny with him will result in her going to hell. A stunned Jane suddenly hears Mr. Rochester calling her name. Sharing her new wealth with her cousins, she leaves them and returns to Thornfield.
Jane is shocked to find Thornfield in ruins and learns that Mr. Rochester's wife started a terrible fire that took her life, destroyed the house, and crippled and blinded Rochester. Traveling to look for Rochester at his other house, Ferndean, Jane is reunited with him. When he describes his desperate calling out for her several days earlier, Jane realizes that they have had a psychic experience. She agrees to stay with Mr. Rochester and to marry him.
A woman who is the "nurse" at Mrs. Reed's house, Gateshead Hall, Bessie helps take care of the Reed children and young Jane Eyre. Jane regards Bessie as the most sympathetic figure in the Reed household, although Bessie seems somewhat aloof. In her narrative, Jane recalls Bessie as "pretty" and "a slim young woman, with black hair, dark eyes, very nice features, and good, clear complexion." Jane also remarks on Bessie's "capricious and hasty temper, and indifferent ideas of principle or justice." Bessie helps Jane prepare for her departure to Lowood Institution. Bessie shows up again about eight years later as Jane is leaving Lowood for Thornfield Hall. She has married, and she tells Jane what has happened to the Reeds in the intervening years. She also says that Jane's uncle had come to Gateshead Hall searching for Jane but had gone back to his home on Madiera when Mrs. Reed told him that Jane was dead. Jane meets Bessie again when she (Jane) returns to Gateshead to visit the dying Mrs. Reed.
Mr. Brocklehurst is the proprietor of Lowood Institution—the boarding school for orphans that Jane Eyre attends. He is introduced in chapter 4, when he comes to Gateshead Hall (Mrs. Reed's home) to examine Jane before admitting her to Lowood. He is described as "a black pillar! The straight, narrow, sable-clad shape standing erect on the rug." Mr. Brocklehurst is one of the novel's hypocrites. Although he professes to run Lowood as a charitable institution, he is more concerned with making a profit than he is with educating the girls who live at the school. He criticizes Miss Temple for giving the girls a special lunch of bread and cheese, saying that the girls' bodies should be starved to help save their souls. He also denounces some girls for having naturally curly hair and orders it to be cut off. (However, he does not seem to object to his own daughters' elaborate curls.) When Jane drops her slate and breaks it, Mr. Brocklehurst makes her stand on a stool in front of the class as punishment. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst is based partly on William Carus Wilson, an evangelical clergyman who founded the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge. Wilson mismanaged the school and many of the girls (including Charlotte Brontë and her sisters) suffered from the resulting poor conditions. However, Wilson was evidently well intentioned, unlike the hypocritical Brocklehurst.
Helen Burns is a girl who becomes Jane Eyre's best friend at Lowood Institution—the boarding school for orphans that Jane attends. Jane meets Helen in chapter 5, during an outdoor exercise period. Jane notes that Helen is reading Samuel Johnson's Rasselas; the book's name strikes Jane as "strange, and consequently attractive." Jane has earlier heard "the sound of a hollow cough" but does not immediately identify Helen with this cough. (The cough foreshadows Helen's fatal bout of consumption, or tuberculosis). Four years older than Jane, the fourteen-year-old Helen helps the newly arrived orphan adjust to the school and teachers. Helen embodies the virtues of patience, forbearance, humility, forgiveness, and Christian love. She conveys the importance of these qualities to the more worldly Jane. As Helen lies dying of tuberculosis, she tells Jane that she is not afraid: she is going to a better world. Jane gets into bed with Helen; the next morning, Helen has died. The character of Helen Burns is modeled after Charlotte Brontë's eldest sister Maria, who died of tuberculosis in 1825.
The narrator, central character, and eponymous heroine of Jane Eyre, Jane is both a fully realized fictional creation in the novel and, in many ways, a voice for the author, Charlotte Brontë. In a book that makes use of many of the stock situations and characters of the Gothic genre, Jane stands out as a woman who runs against the Gothic stereotype of the submissive woman in distress. Physically plain and slight, Jane is acutely intelligent and fiercely independent. She is also a shrewd judge of character. Throughout the novel, she relies on her intelligence and determination to achieve selffulfillment. Yet her strength of character does not make her immune to suffering; on the contrary, she suffers because she is so keenly aware of the difference between how things are and how they might be. Jane believes that "we were born to strive and endure." Her nature is passionate, but she also recognizes the dangers of uncontrolled passion. Although she is rebellious when rebellion is called for, she is inherently conscious that actions must be tempered by reason. When she refuses to become Rochester's mistress, she cites a higher moral law as her justification: "Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise against their rigor.…" In this action, as well as in refusing to marry St. John Rivers, she proves her unwillingness to compromise her principles. She wants to achieve her goals on the right terms, not on any terms. Utterly opposed to hypocrisy, she nonetheless is capable of recognizing that goodness exists within flawed human beings. Because she is secure in herself, she is able to give herself fully to Rochester as his equal. At the end of the novel, writing about her marriage in language reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, she says: "I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine." Intellectual, faithful, loving, Jane Eyre is one of the most original, vivid, and significant characters in the nineteenth-century English novel.
- Jane Eyre has been the subject of numerous adaptations for other media. During the silent film era, there were at least three silent movie versions. The first talking picture adaptation was released in 1934. Written by Adele Comandini (based on Charlotte Brontë's book) and directed by Christy Cabanne, it starred Virginia Bruce, Colin Clive, Beryl Mercer, Aileen Pringle, Jameson Thomas, David Torrence, and Lionel Belmore. Produced by Monogram Studios.
- The most famous film version of Jane Eyre was adapted by John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, and Robert Stevenson and released in 1944. Directed by Stevenson, it starred Joan Fontaine, Orson Welles, Margaret O'Brien, Sara Allgood, Agnes Moorehead, and Elizabeth Taylor.
- Franco Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore wrote the script for the 1996 film version of Jane Eyre, directed by Zeffirelli. This version starred Charlotte Gainsbourg, William Hurt, Anna Paquin, Joan Plowright, Billie Whitelaw, Elle Macpherson, Geraldine Chaplin, and John Wood.
- The first adaptation of Jane Eyre for television was broadcast in 1939 on the NBC network. Produced and directed by Edward Sobol, this version starred Flora Campbell, Dennis Hoey, Effie Shannon, Daisy Belmore, and Ruth Mattheson.
- While there have been other adaptations of Jane Eyre for television since 1939, critics have noted that the most faithful one is the BBC's television mini-series adaptation of Jane Eyre produced in 1983. Directed by Julian Aymes, it starred Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton.
- Jane Eyre has lent itself to numerous adaptations for the stage. A recent version included one for a 1996 regional touring production in England, adapted and directed by Charles Vance.
- The book was recorded, unabridged, in a series of four sound cassettes, read by Juliet Stevenson. Available from BBC Enterprises Ltd., New York, NY, 1994.
- An abridged recording read by Dame Wendy Hiller is available on two cassettes from Listen for Pleasure, Downsview, Ontario, Canada.
The housekeeper at Thornfield Hall, Mrs. Fairfax replies to Jane's advertisement and offers her the position of governess at Thornfield. Jane initially assumes that she is the owner of the house. An older woman, Mrs. Fairfax is a widow, and is a distant relation of Mr. Rochester by marriage. Jane finds her "a placid-tempered, kind-natured woman, of competent education and average intelligence." Although she treats Jane in a friendly manner, she cannot provide the kind of intellectual stimulation and companionship that Jane craves.
See John Reed
Blanche Ingram is a young woman, the daughter of a local aristocrat who spends some time in the company of Mr. Rochester. Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that Rochester is expected to marry her. Blanche is very tall but has a proud, haughty manner, a "mocking air," and a "satirical laugh." Her speech is affected, especially when she speaks to her snobbish mother, Lady Ingram. In short, Blanche is "very showy" but "not genuine." She treats Jane with extreme condescension and exhibits a "spiteful antipathy" toward Adèle. Although she herself is in love with Rochester, Jane seems to stoically accept that he will marry Blanche. Ironically, this apparent certainty makes Jane more passionate toward Rochester, who in turn reveals that he had no intention of marrying Blanche. As well as serving the plot function of bringing Jane's passion for Rochester to a head, Blanche serves as a character foil to Jane: her artificiality makes Jane's frankness all the more evident and attractive.
The mother of Blanche Ingram, Lady Ingram makes rude, condescending remarks about governesses during a social visit to Thornfield Hall. She reminds Jane of Mrs. Reed, with whom she has certain parallels.
An apothecary who examines and treats young Jane Eyre in chapter 3, Mr. Lloyd is a sympathetic figure. He notes that Jane is profoundly unhappy at Gateshead Hall (Mrs. Reed's home) and asks Jane if she would like to go away to school. He apparently broaches this subject with Mrs. Reed, although it is some months before Jane is sent away to Lowood Institution.
Bertha Mason, the insane wife of Edward Rochester who has been hidden away in an attic room at Thornfield Hall, is one of the more exotic figures of nineteenth-century fiction. Yet she appears on only a few pages of the book and never speaks. (Indeed, she is not capable of rational conversation; the noises she makes are scarcely human). She is not so much a character as a symbol, although critics do not agree on exactly what she symbolizes. She may be an embodiment of violence, unbridled sexuality, or the animal nature that lies behind the veil of civilization. She also suggests Rochester's dark side. It has been suggested, too, that she is Jane's darker double. (Indeed, Bertha's confinement in the attic may be seen as an echo of Jane's earlier confinement in a locked room at Gateshead Hall.) In more immediate terms of the plot, Bertha functions as an impediment to Jane's marriage to Rochester. Her Gothic existence is felt long before it is revealed. Shortly after her arrival at Thornfield, Jane hears a strange laughter that is attributed to Grace Poole, the woman who in fact looks after Bertha. Bertha subsequently instigates several violent acts that disrupt the calm of Thornfield, setting fire to Rochester's bed and later attacking her brother, Mr. Mason. On both occasions, Jane intervenes, respectively rescuing Rochester and tending to Mr. Mason's wounds. On both occasions, Rochester tells Jane that Grace Poole was responsible for this violence. On the eve of Jane and Rochester's intended wedding, Bertha enters Jane's room and tears Jane's wedding veil; Jane tells Rochester what she has seen, but Rochester dismisses the vision as a nightmare. Once Bertha can no longer be denied, Rochester shows her to Jane and tells Jane the sordid story of his arranged marriage, years earlier in Jamaica, to this woman whom he barely knew. Bertha ultimately dies when she sets fire to Thornfield—an act that also results in terrible injury to Rochester; but this action sets up Jane's return and Rochester's redemption.
Mr. Mason is the brother of Mrs. Rochester (Bertha Mason). Mason's sudden arrival at Thornfield Hall during Rochester's social party clearly upsets Rochester, though Jane is not aware of its significance. That night, Jane hears a horrible sound and discovers that Mason has been attacked and is bleeding badly. On Rochester's instructions, she tends to Mason, whose true identity she does not know. Mason is spirited away early the next morning. He returns to interrupt Jane and Rochester's wedding and reveals that Rochester is already married. Mason, who resides in the West Indies, is conventionally handsome, but Jane notes that his face lacks character. Rochester suggests to Jane that Mason shares the Mason family congenital feeblemindedness.
An "underteacher" at Lowood Institution—the boarding school for orphans that Jane Eyre attends—Miss Miller is introduced in chapter 5 when Jane arrives at Lowood. She receives Jane and helps to orient her. Miss Miller is described as "a tall lady with dark hair, dark eyes, and a pale and large forehead." Jane's narrative also describes her as "ruddy in complexion, though of a careworn countenance; hurried in gait and action, like one who had always a multiplicity of tasks on hand." Miss Miller disapproves of Mr. Brocklehurst and of the way he runs the school, but is powerless to do anything about it. Jane notes that she looks "purple, weather-beaten, and over-worked."
The daughter of a wealthy landowner who lives near the home of St. John Rivers, Rosamond Oliver is very pretty, kind, and high-spirited. Jane finds her "elfin" and fairy-like. However, she is essentially vacuous. Jane initially assumes that Rosamond and St. John will marry, but St. John is uninterested in Rosamond, preferring to consider Jane as his potential wife.
Grace Poole is a mysterious servant who works at Thornfield Hall. When Jane hears strange laughter coming from the attic, Mrs. Fairfax tells her that it is only Grace Poole, who occasionally works there as a seamstress. Grace is "between thirty and forty; a set, square-made figure, red-haired, and with a hard, plain face." She is also fond of alcohol. Rochester initially tells Jane that Grace is responsible for the mysterious incidents at Gateshead. Jane later learns that Grace is actually employed to look after Mrs. Rochester (Bertha Mason), who is insane and who is kept locked in the attic.
Blanche Ingram is a young woman, the daughter of a local aristocrat who spends some time in the company of Mr. Rochester. Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that Rochester is expected to marry her. Blanche is very tall but has a proud, haughty manner, a "mocking air," and a "satirical laugh." Her speech is affected, especially when she speaks to her snobbish mother, Lady Ingram. In short, Blanche is "very showy" but "not genuine." She treats Jane with extreme condescension and exhibits a "spiteful antipathy" toward Adèle. Although she herself is in love with Rochester, Jane seems to stoically accept that he will marry Blanche. Ironically, this apparent certainty makes Jane more passionate toward Rochester, who in turn reveals that he had no intention of marrying Blanche. As well as serving the plot function of bringing Jane's passion for Rochester to a head, Blanche serves as a character foil to Jane: her artificiality makes Jane's frankness all the more evident and attractive.
Georgiana, Jane Eyre's cousin and the younger daughter of Mrs. Reed, is introduced early in the novel when the young orphan Jane is living at Gateshead Hall as a ward of Mrs. Reed. Young Georgiana has "pink cheeks and golden curls" as well as "a spoiled temper, an acrid spite, a capricious and insolent carriage." She is "universally indulged" by her mother. When Jane returns to Gateshead some nine years later, Georgiana has grown into a frivolous, self-centered woman. Jane eventually learns that Georgiana has married a wealthy man.
Jane Eyre's cousin John, the son of Mrs. Reed, is introduced at the beginning of the novel when the young orphan Jane is living at Gateshead Hall as a ward of Mrs. Reed. John, or Jack, is fourteen years old at this time. He bullies and torments Jane behind his mother's back. Jane finds him "disgusting and ugly," but Mrs. Reed indulges the boy and blames Jane for causing trouble while overlooking John's sadistic behavior. Some years later, Jane hears that John has been expelled from college. When Jane is summoned to Gateshead to attend the dying Mrs. Reed, she learns that John had become even more dissolute and has committed suicide.
Mrs. Reed is Jane Eyre's aunt, the widow of Jane's uncle Mr. Reed (who was the brother of Jane's mother and who died nine years before the novel begins). She is also the mother of John (Jack), Eliza, and Georgiana. Mrs. Reed is introduced at the beginning of the novel, when the young orphan Jane is living at Gateshead Hall as her ward. When Mr. Reed was on his deathbed, Mrs. Reed promised him that she would "rear and maintain" the orphan Jane. However, Mrs. Reed resents Jane and treats her as an unwanted burden rather than as a dependent child. She continually belittles Jane and punishes her for what she regards as Jane's rebellious nature, while overlooking the faults of her own children. She arranges for Jane to be sent away to Lowood Institution, a boarding school for orphans. In chapter 4, Jane defies Mrs. Reed and tells her what she really thinks of her. This incident is Jane's first moral victory. Jane returns to Gateshead just before Mrs. Reed dies, but is unable to effect a reconciliation.
The sister of Mary and St. John Rivers; Diana Rivers also turns out to be Jane Eyre's cousin. When Jane arrives at Moor House, hungry and penniless, seeking shelter after she has fled Thornfield Hall, Diana and Mary help restore her to health. Skilled, talented, and well-read, the Rivers sisters develop a close friendship with Jane. Like her, they are both governesses, and Brontë portrays them in a favorable light.
The sister of Diana and St. John Rivers; she also turns out to be Jane Eyre's cousin. When Jane arrives at Moor House, hungry and penniless, seeking shelter after she has fled Thornfield Hall, Mary and Diana help restore her to health. Skilled, talented, and well-read, the Rivers sisters develop a close friendship with Jane. Like her, they are both governesses, and Brontë portrays them in a favorable light.
St. John Rivers
A handsome young clergyman who is the brother of Diana and Mary Rivers; St. John also turns out to be Jane Eyre's cousin. When Jane arrives at Moor House, hungry and penniless, after she has fled Thornfield Hall, St. John offers her shelter. Although Jane becomes close friends with the Rivers sisters, she finds that St. John has "a reserved, an abstracted, and even … a brooding nature"; he is also restless and does not feel at home in England. He tells Jane that she is "intelligent" and that "human affections and sympathies have a most powerful hold on you." Listening to him preach a sermon with Calvinist overtones, she realizes that he has not found peace in his religious faith. He offers Jane the post of schoolmistress at a girls' school he is establishing. It is Rivers who reveals to Jane that they are cousins and that she has inherited a fortune of twenty thousand pounds from their mutual uncle, John Eyre. He persistently asks Jane to marry him and accompany him to India as a missionary—an offer she declines because she realizes that the marriage would be loveless. Although St. John is intelligent, he is austere and inflexible and is unable to appreciate Jane for herself; he would lead her into a life (and death) of martyrdom. In this, he is a complete contrast to the passionate Mr. Rochester.
Mr. Rochester is the central male character and hero (or perhaps antihero) in Jane Eyre. He is generally considered to be one of the most memorable romantic characters in nineteenth-century English fiction. A wealthy landowner, Rochester is the master of Thornfield Hall. Jane gradually falls in love with him after she arrives at Thornfield to tutor his ward Adèle, the daughter of an earlier mistress. When Mr. Rochester is introduced, he is somewhere between age thirty-five and forty, and thus is as much as twenty years older than Jane. Jane first meets him when she is walking from Thornfield to a nearby town to mail a letter. When his horse slips on the ice he is thrown and injured slightly; Jane helps him to remount. She only learns his identity when she returns to Thornfield and finds him there. He is described as having "a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow" and is not considered handsome. The frequent references to his supposed ugliness help to underscore the fact that he is not a conventional hero; they suggest both secret troubles and hidden strengths that are more than skin-deep. Also, by deliberately making him physically unattractive, (at least by a conventional definition of attractiveness), Brontë wants the reader to know that Jane is not attracted to him because of his looks but because she recognizes something good in his soul. Rochester may be considered a Gothic hero. He is haunted by his guilty knowledge and by a past of which he is ashamed. Like the typical Gothic hero, he is prone to bouts of depression and to seemingly irrational behavior; he also possesses a macabre sense of humor. However, he is much more complex than a stereotypical Gothic hero and has more humanity. His treatment of his insane wife may seem cruel by modern standards, but in his eyes it is the best that can be done for her and is preferable to abandoning her. Yet he also acts selfishly in wishing to keep her existence a secret. He considers himself the victim of a cruel hoax: His marriage to Bertha was an arranged one, and he was not told that insanity ran in her family. His subsequent wanderings in Europe and his taking of three successive mistresses are perhaps a stock reaction to the restrictions imposed on him by his sham marriage. His relationship with Jane springs from a different motive. He recognizes Jane for what she is, and realizes that he can find salvation in her love. However, in knowingly planning to enter into a bigamous marriage, and then suggesting that she become his mistress, he transgresses moral law. He must lose Jane and suffer punishment and penance (in the form of losing his eyesight and his right hand, as well as his home) by fire before Jane can be fully restored to him. His marriage to Jane is the meeting of true minds, a marriage without secrets or locked doors.
See Bertha Mason
A teacher at Lowood Institution—the boarding school for orphans that Jane Eyre attends—Miss Scatcherd is the most severe of the teachers. Jane's friend Helen Burns tells Jane that "you must take care not to offend her." Miss Scatherd punishes Helen for some minor infraction by flogging Helen on the neck with a bunch of twigs, and she verbally abuses Helen. However, Helen accepts her punishment meekly.
The superintendent of Lowood Institution—the boarding school for orphans that Jane Eyre attends—Miss Temple is introduced in chapter 5 when Jane arrives at Lowood. Jane describes her as "tall, fair, and shapely," with "a stately air and carriage." She is also kindly, perceptive, well educated, and genuinely concerned with the welfare of her students. After the schoolgirls are fed an inedible breakfast, Miss Temple orders that they receive a special lunch of "bread and cheese." Later, she invites Jane and Helen Burns to her room, where she offers the two girls some seedcake and converses with them. She recognizes that both Helen and Jane are exceptional, and acts as their mentor. When Miss Temple eventually marries and leaves Lowood, Jane (who is by then age eighteen, and who with Miss Temple's help has become a teacher at the school) decides to leave the school herself and take a position as a governess.
Mr. Rochester's young ward, about seven or eight years old, Adèle is the daughter of a French opera-dancer with whom Mr. Rochester has had an affair. The woman had claimed that Mr. Rochester was the father, but there is some ambiguity as to whether this is really the case. Adèle has lived most of her young life in France and speaks a mixture of French and English. When her mother abandons her, Mr. Rochester has her brought to England, where he intends to raise her. On Mr. Rochester's instructions, Mrs. Fairfax hires Jane to be Adèle's governess at Thornfield. Adèle is lively and talkative and likes to sing and dance. Jane finds her somewhat coquettish behavior disconcerting, but she comes to feel affection for Adèle in spite of the girl's flaws. By contrast, Blanche Ingram regards Adèle with distaste.
Love and Passion
One of the secrets to the success of Jane Eyre, and the source of its strength in spite of numerous flaws, lies in the way that it touches on a number of important themes while telling a compelling story. Indeed, so lively and dramatic is the story that the reader might not be fully conscious of all the thematic strands that weave through this work. Critics have argued about what comprises the main theme of Jane Eyre. There can be little doubt, however, that love and passion together form a major thematic element of the novel.
On its most simple and obvious level, Jane Eyre is a love story. The love between the orphaned and initially impoverished Jane and the wealthy but tormented Rochester is at its heart. The obstacles to the fulfillment 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 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 Rochester is all consuming. Significantly, however, it is not the only force that governs her life. She leaves 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 Rochester; "they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise against their rigor.…"
Blanche Ingram feels no passion for 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.
Topics for Further Study
- In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote: "Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.… Appearance should not be mistaken for truth." What are some examples of these precepts in Jane Eyre?
- Research the treatment of mental illness around the time of Jane Eyre. What ideas did doctors of Charlotte Brontë's time have about the causes of mental illness? How did society in general regard people with this kind of disease? How might someone like Bertha Mason be treated today?
- As a younger son, Rochester would not have inherited his father's estate; the estate would first have gone to Rochester's older brother. Under English law at the time of Jane Eyre, property passed only to the oldest son; therefore, younger sons were usually left little money and had to make their own livings. What professions did younger sons in such a family usually follow? Also, how did this custom affect the daughters in a family?
- The early twentieth-century English novelist Virginia Woolf once said that "in order for a woman to write, she must have money and a room of her own." Do you think that this maxim applies to Charlotte Brontë as an author? Also, consider the ways in which money and a "room of her own" (that is, a home) are important to the character Jane Eyre.
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. 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. Rochester confesses that his ideal woman is intellectual, faithful, and loving—qualities that Jane embodies. Rochester's 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. 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 be completely happy with one another in this situation.
God and Religion
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 nondoctrinaire way. (It is Jane, after all, who places the stone with the word "Resurgam" 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 Rochester. She prays too that Rochester is safe. When the Rivers's 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), Rivers courts martyrdom. Moreover, he is unable to see Jane as a whole person, but views her as a helpmate in his proposed missionary work. 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.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Much of the religious concern in Jane Eyre has to do with atonement and forgiveness. 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, he makes genuine efforts to atone for his behavior. For example, although he does not believe that he is Adèle'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, 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 right 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 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 literally 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. (When the housekeeper at first shuts the door in her face, Jane has a dreadful feeling that "that anchor of home … was gone.") 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 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.
Jane Eyre is written in the first person, and told from the viewpoint of its main character, Jane Eyre. As part of her first-person narrative, Brontë uses one of the oldest conventions in English fiction: this novel is allegedly a memoir written by a real woman named Jane Eyre and edited by Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë's pseudonym). (Indeed, the full title of the book is Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. As part of this convention, the narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly with the word "reader.") Modern readers know, of course, that this is simply a convention, and accept it as such.
Although the first-person viewpoint means that the narrative scope is somewhat restricted, at times the narrator of Jane Eyre seems more omniscient (aware and insightful) than a typical first-person narrator. Much of the action seems to unfold naturally. In part, this may be because the story is told in retrospect. That is, in Brontë's narrative technique, the action is not happening as it is being told, but has already happened. As in many traditional first-person narratives, the narrator in Jane Eyre describes other characters astutely, both their external appearance and their inner personalities. There are also passages in which the narrator offers particular observations and opinions about life—observations and opinions that sometimes seem as if they are coming from the author. Yet the novel's suspense relies on the fact that the narrator is not entirely omniscient—or at least on the fact that she does not reveal key information until the point in the chronology of events when Jane herself became aware of this information. For example, the narrative does not report that Rochester is married and that his wife is locked away upstairs until the moment in the wedding ceremony when other characters come forth with this information. Similarly, Jane lives with the Rivers for some time before she, and the reader, learn that they are her cousins.
The action of the book takes place in northern England sometime in the early-to mid-nineteenth century, and covers a span of about a dozen years. Brontë does not give specific year-dates for the incidents in the book, nor does she refer to contemporary historical events. Scholars generally assume that Jane Eyre's "autobiography" parallels Charlotte Brontë's life at the same age. Because the narrative frequently mentions specific months and seasons, the reader is rarely in doubt as to the exact time of year a particular incident is taking place. This precision helps give the book a more realistic feeling.
Brontë uses a succession of several main settings—primarily, individual houses—for the plot's action. She describes the settings vividly, thereby creating a particular atmosphere as well as giving the illusion of realism. Moreover, setting is used in a way that gives the novel structural unity and variety. Each setting or grouping of settings corresponds with a distinct phase of Jane Eyre's life.
Among the novel's main settings are Gateshead Hall, the home of Jane's aunt (by marriage), with whom the orphaned girl is living at the beginning of the book. At the age of ten, Jane is sent to Lowood Institution, a charity school for impoverished orphans. From there, at age eighteen Jane goes to Thornfield Hall to serve as a governess. When she learns the secret of Mr. Rochester's marriage to Bertha, she flees across the moors to Moor House, where she is taken in by the Reverend St. John Rivers. Toward the end of the book she finds Mr. Rochester at his other home, Ferndean Manor—Thornfield having been destroyed in a fire set by Bertha during Jane's absence.
Brontë does not use the real names of her locations. However, scholars have identified a number of real places as models for the settings in the book. Lowood Institution is believed to be based on the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, in Yorkshire, which Brontë attended as a girl. Thornfield Hall may be modeled on two different manor houses with which Brontë was familiar. The first, called Norton Conyers, is near the city of Ripon in North Yorkshire. North Lees Hall, a large, forbidding-looking stone manor house in Derbyshire, also seems to fit the description of Thornfield. In 1846 Brontë spent three weeks in the village of Heathersage, in Derbyshire, visiting her old school friend Ellen Nussey. Just before Brontë left to return to her home at Haworth, Ellen's brother, the local vicar, conducted a funeral service for a man named Thomas Eyre. The Eyre family was prominent in the area, and Brontë would most likely also have seen the name on various memorials in the church. North Lees Hall is nearby. Local history books recount that the first mistress at North Lees Hall, one Agnes Ashurst, was insane and was kept locked in an upstairs room. This woman died in a fire, just as Bertha does in the novel. (There is a similar legend about Norton Conyers.) In this area, visible from the vicarage where Brontë stayed, is another manor house called Moorseats—believed to be the model for Moor House.
Regardless of the factual bases of her settings, Brontë's descriptions of these settings, and of the surrounding countryside, are always exceptionally vivid. These descriptions help the reader visualize the places where the action is taking place. They also create a particular mood and atmosphere. Brontë takes stock Gothic descriptive elements (clouds, moonlight, stormy weather, dark hallways) and gives them a particularity that transcends the limitations of the Gothic genre.
Addressing the reader at the beginning of chapter 11, Jane remarks that "a new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play." Jane Eyre is divided into thirty-eight chapters. More significantly, however, the novel can be seen in three distinct parts. Each of these parts traces a pattern of conflict and resolution (or rather, until the work's conclusion, partial resolution); Jane is faced with particular obstacles and opportunities. Running through each of these sections is Jane's effort to find or establish a true home.
The first part (comprised of chapters 1 through 10), covers Jane's childhood and schooling. These chapters are set at Gateshead Hall and at Lowood Institution. The major characters include Mrs. Reed and her children, Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and Miss Temple. The main conflicts and incidents include Jane's rebellion against Mrs. Reed and her friendship with the fatally ill Helen.
Chapters 10 through 27 tell of Jane's life as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with Edward Rochester. Apart from Jane herself, Mr. Rochester is the central character in this section. Mrs. Fairfax, Adèle, Blanche Ingram, Grace Poole, Bertha Mason, and Mr. Mason also have significant roles. The dramatic action in this section centers on Jane's growing love for Mr. Rochester (and vice versa), Jane's fear that Rochester will marry Blanche, and a series of strange incidents that occur at Thornfield.
Finally, chapters 28 through the end of the book center of Jane's life after she has fled Thornfield. The action here takes place in the countryside and at Moor House and Moorton. The Reverend St. John Rivers is the other main character here, along with his two sisters. Although Rochester does not reappear until the end of the book, his presence remains significant in Jane's mind. Dramatic highlights in this part of the novel include Jane's attempt to find shelter, her uneasy relationship with Rivers, and her ultimate return to Mr. Rochester. Many readers and critics have found this to be the weakest, most contrived part of the book. However, the events of this section serve to test Jane's devotion to Rochester. When she returns to marry him at the end of the book, both characters (and their circumstances) have evolved and matured from what they were at the time of their planned wedding in the second section.
Because of its powerful writing, and because of its concern with moral and social issues beyond the immediate plot, Jane Eyre is not generally considered a Gothic novel as such. However, it makes use of many of the elements found in the Gothic genre popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and critics sometimes place the work in the Gothic tradition. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and M. G. Lewis's The Monk (1796) are considered classic examples of this genre. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) also uses some Gothic elements, while Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) satirized the excesses of the genre.
Gothic literature and the Gothic tradition is identifiable by certain characteristics. Often written in overblown language, Gothic novels involve bizarre characters and melodramatic incidents. Menacing castles, decaying manor houses, and wild landscapes are frequently used as settings. The plots of these novels contain an element of the fantastic or the supernatural. There is usually a mood of mystery or suspense, and an innocent heroine is almost always threatened with some unspeakable horror. Additionally, unexplained events take place at night.
Another characteristic of this genre is a hero who has led an adventurous, unconventional life that makes him romantically attractive, but who also has a flaw (usually a terrible secret from his past) that cuts him off from respectable society or makes him socially unacceptable. The Gothic hero may be prone to violent outbursts, but he typically suffers from his awareness of his past actions. In real life, the British poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), was often considered a model of the Gothic hero. (Indeed, the term "Byronic hero" is sometimes used to describe Mr. Rochester and other Gothic heroes.) For Brontë, her brother Branwell also exhibited some of the characteristics associated with a Gothic hero.
In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester might be seen as a Gothic hero. However, Brontë has made him a rounded character, not a stereotype. His circumstances are Gothic, but Brontë imbues them with a moral significance. Thornfield Hall might seem a Gothic residence, but apart from the mysterious presence of Grace Poole (who turns out to be benign if unattractive) and Bertha, it is a comfortable house. The facts surrounding Bertha's presence at Thornfield are highly Gothic, as is Bertha herself. Again, however, she is not important in herself, but for what she represents. Other similarities to Gothic may be seen in Bertha's attacks on Messrs. Rochester and Mason and her intrusion into Jane's bedroom; the sudden interruption of Jane and Mr. Rochester's wedding; Jane's flight across the countryside; the cold-hearted Reverend St. John Rivers; the destruction of Thornfield by fire; and the supernatural intervention of Jane hearing Rochester's voice calling her back to him.
When critics point out the weaknesses of Jane Eyre, they almost always mention its use of unbelievable coincidence. Yet, by no means was Brontë the only major writer to use coincidence as a device for advancing a novel's plot. During the Victorian period, the use of coincidence for this purpose was very common, even among the greatest writers. It was an accepted literary convention of the period. The works of Charles Dickens, for example, are filled with coincidences that no one would believe today, yet Dickens's books remain great works of literature. Thomas Hardy, who wrote later in the Victorian period, also has unbelievable coincidences occur in most of his novels.
Of the coincidences in Jane Eyre, at least two have drawn critical comment. The first concerns the way in which Bertha's brother, Mason, finds out about Jane's impending marriage to Rochester. Mason, who lives in Jamaica, is in the wine trade. So is Jane's uncle John Eyre, who lives on the island of Madeira, several thousand miles away. Earlier, on his way back to Jamaica after his attack by Bertha, Mason happened to stop at Madeira and stayed with John Eyre, unaware of Mr. Eyre's relation to Jane. When John Eyre mentions that his niece Jane is to marry a Mr. Rochester, Mason hurries back to England to stop the wedding. The second incredible coincidence concerns the way that Jane receives her inheritance and learns that the Riverses are her cousins. After Jane flees Thornfield and is penniless and on the verge of starvation, she is finally taken in by strangers—St. John Rivers and his two sisters. The Riverses nurture her back to health and provide her with lodging, friendship, and a position as a schoolmistress, but she does not tell them her real identity. One day St. John tells Jane that he has had a letter from a London attorney informing him that his uncle—John Eyre—has died and left a fortune to Jane Eyre. St. John deduces that the young woman he has assisted is that very Jane, and Jane discovers that the very people who had helped her as a stranger are in fact her cousins. Both these coincidences strain the reader's credibility, yet they are necessary in order to drive important developments in the plot.
Symbolism and Imagery
Jane Eyre is filled with imagery drawn from nature and the English countryside. Brontë uses this imagery to suggest her characters' moral condition and state of mind. There are numerous references to weather and to the sky, in the form of storms, rain, clouds, and sun. At the very opening of the novel, Jane sets the scene by mentioning that "the cold winter wind" had brought with it "clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating." The moon, too, appears frequently. There is a full moon on the night when Bertha attacks her brother, as there is on the night when Jane flees Thornfield. Later, St. John Rivers reads his Bible in the moonlight. Tree imagery is perhaps even more significant. Critic Mark Shorer has noted that "nearly every important scene in the development of the passion of Rochester and Jane Eyre takes place among trees—in an orchard, an arbor, a woods, a 'leafy enclosure."' Shortly after Jane has agreed to marry Rochester, he tells her that she looks "blooming." After their wedding is interrupted, "the woods which twelve hours since waved leafy and fragrant … now spread, waste, wild and white as pineforests in wintry Norway." Ferndean, the house where the blind and maimed Rochester has gone after Thornfield is destroyed, is hidden by the "thick and dark … timber … of the gloomy wood about it." The house itself can scarcely be distinguished from the trees; when Jane arrives there, she also notes that "there were no flowers, no gardenbeds." On their reunion, Rochester tells Jane that "I am no better than the old lightening-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard." Jane retorts that, on the contrary, he is "green and vigorous," and tells him that "plants will grow about your roots … because your strength offers them so safe a prop."
Brontië's England: The Social Context
Jane Eyre is set in the north of England sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century. During this period, British society was undergoing slow but significant change. Perhaps most apparent was the transition from a rural to an industrial economy. The Industrial Revolution had begun in Britain in the late 1700s, and by the time of Jane Eyre, it was running full steam. Although Charlotte Brontë wrote about some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution in her 1849 novel Shirley, she touches on three areas of social concern in Jane Eyre: education, women's employment, and marriage.
Victorian attitudes toward education differed considerably from those prevalent in modern America. For one thing, the level of one's schooling was determined by social class and also by gender. At all levels of society and in virtually all levels of the education system, boys and girls were taught separately. The children of poor or workingclass families were taught in local schools, such as the one in which Jane Eyre is a schoolmistress. Such children would rarely progress beyond learning basic skills; most learning was by rote. Most of these children would have left school by their early teen years to work on farms or in factories; boys would often leave to join the army or navy. Upperand upper-middle-class families, on the other hand, sought to enroll their sons in exclusive private schools (known paradoxically as public schools). In truth, however, conditions in these schools were often as harsh as those in schools for orphans and the poor such as Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. But a public school education would serve as an entree into good society; the graduates of public schools staffed the higher ranks of government and the professions. Virtually all young men who went on to university (i.e., college) first attended public schools. Women were excluded from universities until the 1870s. The first women did not graduate from an English university until 1874, when four women received degrees from Cambridge University.
Young children in upper-class and upper-middle-class families—both boys and girls—would often receive their earliest education from governesses. Governesses were women who were hired to serve as live-in tutors; they provided their charges with ongoing lessons in a variety of subjects until the child was old enough to be sent away to school. For the most part these women were daughters of the middle classes and the professional classes who had attained a certain level of education. Although the profession of governess was not financially rewarding, it was respectable. Working conditions for governesses varied, depending upon the particular family for which a governess might work. Some parents treated their hired governess with respect, as a professional, while others considered governesses little more than servants who were expected to keep in their place.
In the traditional curriculum of the time, girls and young women did not study such "serious" subjects as mathematics, science, or classics. However, they were taught grammar, history, geography, and French. Art, music, and sewing or embroidery were also considered appropriate subjects, and young women were all expected to have a knowledge of the Bible and basic Christian teachings. These subjects were taught both by governesses and at school. Jane Eyre may not be a typical governess, but clearly she has an excellent command of most of these subjects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, some twenty-five thousand women in England worked as governesses.
Jane Eyre depicts several views of marriage. The marriage of Rochester and Bertha owes more to the Gothic imagination than to reality, while the marriage of Rochester and Jane may also have been more the exception than the norm. Perhaps the most historically accurate view of marriage in early Victorian England is suggested by those marriages in the novel that might, but do not, take place. The anticipated marriage of Rochester and Blanche Ingram, for example, would seem an appropriate one to many Victorians because the two partners come from the same social class. A marriage such as the potential one between Jane and St. John Rivers would also not have been unusual. A husband such as Rivers would secure a "helpmeet" to share his burdens, while the woman in such a marriage would be given an opportunity to establish her own home and family and to do good works.
When it was published in October, 1847, Jane Eyre attracted much attention, and the novel became an almost instant commercial success. So high was demand for the book that the publisher issued a second edition within three months, followed by a third edition in April, 1848. The influential novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was one of Jane Eyre's earliest admirers. He wrote to the publisher, saying that he was "exceedingly moved & pleased" by the novel. He also asked the publisher to express his admiration to the author. Brontë subsequently dedicated the second edition of the book to Thackeray.
Compare & Contrast
1840s: Like other creative and intellectual pursuits, novel writing is considered a male preserve. Women such as the Brontë sisters, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), and in France, George Sand (Amandine-Aurore Lucille Dupin), write under male pseudonyms in order to have their work taken seriously.
Today: Many of the leading novelists in Britain are women, and they are regarded as the equals of their male counterparts. Major British women novelists include A. S. (Antonia) Byatt, P. D. (Phyllis) James, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark.
1840s: Many well-to-do families employed women as governesses to educate their children at home and to supervise children's activities. By 1851, some twenty-five thousand women worked as governesses in Britain. Although being a governess was regarded as respectable, opportunites for governesses to move into other positions were limited.
Today: Some young women take temporary jobs abroad as "au pairs," supervising a family's children in return for room, board, and wages. Although these jobs are low-paying, they allow young women to travel and gain life experience before going into another profession or continuing their education.
1840s: A typical English governess or school teacher might make from fifteen to thirty pounds per year.
Today: The standard salary for teachers in England rose to 420 pounds per week in 1995.
1840s: Preschooling is virtually nonexistent.
Today: Nearly two-thirds of three and four year olds in Britain attend nursery school.
1847: College admission is limited to young men, most of whom come from the upper class.
Today: Almost one out of every three teenagers goes on to college. Higher education is free for all students in Britain, therefore, young people do not have to work their way through college.
1840s: Haworth was a small, isolated hilltop town. Textile mills provided the local industry.
Today: Haworth thrives on tourism, with more than 250,000 tourists visiting Haworth every year. Many tourists go to the Brontë Parsonage, which houses a museum displaying original manuscripts and drawings by Charlotte Brontë and her siblings. The museum also includes other interesting items, such as Charlotte's wedding dress and her tiny gloves.
Jane Eyre was reviewed in some of Britain's leading newspapers and literary journals. Most early reviewers were enthusiastic. The Edinburgh Review pronounced it "a book of singular fascination." The critic for the London Times newspaper called it "a remarkable production" and noted that the story "stand[s] boldly out from the mass." The Westminster Review noted that the book's characters were astonishingly lifelike. (However, a reviewer in Spectator took the opposite view, saying that the characters did not behave like people in real life.) Fraser's Magazine gave a resounding endorsement and helped to spur sales by encouraging readers to "lose not a day in sending for it."
Contrary to this general praise, a handful of reviewers professed to be shocked by the passions expressed in the novel. A writer in the Christian Remembrancer regarded the book as an attack on Christianity and an example of "moral Jacobinism." Elizabeth Rigby (Lady Eastlake) denounced it in her unsigned notice in the Quarterly Review, calling it "pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition" and an attack on the the English class system. Perhaps unconsciously echoing Mrs. Reed, she condemned the title character as "the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit." The identity of Jane Eyre's author was still unknown, but Rigby commented that if it was a woman, she "had forfeited the society of her sex." However, unknown to Brontë and to the public, the book received the ultimate Victorian seal of approval: Queen Victoria privately referred to Jane Eyre as "that intensely interesting novel" and read it to Prince Albert.
Of Brontë's four novels, Jane Eyre has continued to be the most popular and has received the most attention of critics and scholars. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, the critic M. H. Scargill noted in the University of Toronto Quarterly that Jane Eyre marked a turning point in the English novel, away from external concerns and toward personal experience. Scargill called the novel "a profound, spiritual experience" in which fiction approaches the condition of poetry. Modern feminists see Jane Eyre as one of the first feminist novels. In her biography of Brontë, entitled The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family, Rebecca Fraser remarks that it was "Charlotte's protest against the stifling convention society imposed, which never allowed true feeling to be voiced." However, Scargill notes that "Jane Eyre may speak for women, but it speaks also for all humanity.…"
Much discussion centers on just what makes Jane Eyre such a compelling work. Critics have noted that the book succeeds in spite of some obvious weaknesses, particularly its episodic structure and a plot that in places defies credibility. In the hands of a less talented author than Brontë, the story might have amounted to little more than a conventional Gothic romance. What makes the work so memorable, say most modern critics, is the sharp delineation of the characters, the vivid realization of the settings, and the powerful theme of redemption through love. Mark Schorer is one critic who takes the book to task. "The action is pitted with implausibilities, indeed, absurdities," notes Shorer, yet "somehow the whole of the novel is compelling and strong even though so much of it is composed of … silly, feeble parts." Ultimately, however, Schorer finds that this novel has a "visionary quality" that makes it more akin to dramatic poetry than to conventional realistic fiction. Similarly, Margaret Lane, in her Introduction to "Jane Eyre", remarks that "It is … this rare capacity for emotional feeling, expressed in a singularly musical, pure, and moving prose, which gives [Brontë] her unique place as a writer. Her prose is so compelling that it has at times an almost hypnotic quality; we lose touch with our surroundings and are swept along on the strong current of her imagination.…" In a similar vein, Rebecca Fraser has argued that while Brontë lacked the creative scope of Dickens, George Eliot, and Tolstoy, "the incandescent power of her writing gives Jane Eyre … a uniquely flavoured niche in the affections of the reading public." The novel's grip on the imagination is further confirmed by the numerous film, television, and stage adaptations that have been produced over the years. A century and a half after it was written, many readers of all ages continue to name Jane Eyre as one of their favorite novels.
Arnold A. Markley
In the following essay, Markley, an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, provides an general overview of the many aspects of Jane Eyre, portraying the novel as unique, both for its time and even for contemporary literature.
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was first published in England in October, 1847, and it made a huge splash among the Victorian reading public. The novel was subtitled, "An Autobiography," and readers through the years have been charmed by the strong voice of the heroine who tells the story of her life. The narrator's habit of addressing the reader directly throughout the book, making statements such as "Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt," and "reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!" are quite effective in drawing the reader into the action of the novel.
Jane Eyre is a character whose strength and individuality are remarkable for her times. As a model for women readers in the Victorian period and throughout the twentieth century to follow, Jane Eyre encouraged them to make their own choices in living their lives, to develop respect for themselves, and to become individuals. But the early readers of Jane Eyre were not all charmed by the heroine's bold personality. Many readers objected to the novel because they felt that it was "un-Christian," taking offense at Brontë's often bitter attacks on certain aspects of religion and the church in contemporary England. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst, for example, a deeply religious but highly hypocritical figure, was based on a wellknown clergyman alive at the time, and many readers recognized the characterization right away.
What Do I Read Next?
- Anne Brontë is the least well known of the three Brontë sister novelists. Written at the same time as Jane Eyre, her first novel, Agnes Grey (1847), is the story of an unhappy governess. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), is considered a more ambitious and passionate work. Charlotte Brontë was disturbed by Anne's depiction of the heroine's alcoholic husband, who was based on Branwell Brontë.
- The Life of Charlotte Brontë, by Elizabeth Gaskell, was comissioned by Reverend Patrick Brontë just after Charlotte's death and was originally published in 1857. Gaskell, one of the best-known English novelists of her time, had met Charlotte in 1850, and the two became close friends. Gaskell's frank biography caused some controversy and passages were cut from it in subsequent editions. However, the first edition of the work remains in print and is today considered a classic of English literary biography.
- The poetry of Charlotte Brontë is represented in a modern Everyman edition of the Brontës' Selected Poems, along with poems by Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë. Published in 1985, this edition was edited by Juliet Barker, curator and librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. Barker is also the author of a family biography, The Brontës.
- The Brontës (1969), by Phyllis Bentley, is an illustrated biography of the three Brontë sister-authors (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) in Thames and Hudson's "Literary Lives" series. This book is especially good in depicting the conditions in which Charlotte Brontë lived, and in relating the places where she lived to her life and work.
- Readers have noted some similarities between Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier's classic 1938 romantic suspense novel Rebecca. A young woman recounts the early days of her marriage to a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter. The first Mrs. de Winter—Rebecca—died mysteriously, and her memory casts a chilling spell over large English manor house where the new Mrs. de Winter has come to live.
- Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a novel by Jean Rhys that might be considered a "prequel" to Jane Eyre. In this novel, Rhys imagines the life of young Edward Rochester and the first Mrs. Rochester in Jamaica some years before the action of Jane Eyre.
- Brontë (1996) is a novel by Glyn Hughes, a young British writer who lives in West Yorkshire. The book is a fictional account of the inner and outer lives of the members of the Brontë family, including Charlotte.
Other Victorian readers felt that the novel was "coarse" because it addresses issues and incidents that were not "proper" for a female narrator to discuss. When Edward Rochester tells Jane of his past history with women, for example, and his possible fathering of Adèle Varens, many readers found it highly improper to imagine a man speaking of such matters to a young girl of eighteen. Moreover, Mr. Rochester's plans to marry Jane even though he was married already was a rather shocking situation for a novel to explore. Many readers believed that the writer of the novel was a man, not able to imagine that a woman could possibly write such a story. Brontës use of the pen-name, "Currer Bell" encouraged this assumption for some time. Many women writers like Brontë chose to publish under a man's name because publishers, critics, and readers were much more likely to respond well to a work by a man, and because the general belief was that it was improper for ladies to write at all.
The issue of female independence is central to Jane Eyre. Much of the strength of Jane's character comes directly from Brontë who was able to voice a lot of her own thoughts and feelings concerning the life of women in the nineteenth century. Additionally, Brontë based a fair amount of the material in the story on actual events from her own family's life. The Lowood School, for example, is closely based on an actual boarding school for the daughters of clergymen that Brontë and several of her sisters attended as children. Her depiction of the horrors of life in such a place is not exaggerated; the conditions were such that two of Brontë's sisters died from illnesses they contracted while living at the school.
In the nineteenth century women had far less personal freedom, and there were few options available for them to support themselves outside of choosing to marry and raise children. Jane's work as a governess represents one of the only respectable ways in which a woman could employ herself if she lacked personal wealth. Even so, governesses were typically treated only a little better than servants, as seen when Mr. Rochester brings his wealthy houseguests to Thornfield and they disdain to interact with Jane at all.
Many readers have noted the strong relationship between Jane Eyre's story and fairy tales. Her descriptions of her early life are very similar to the story of "Cinderella," for example. Her aunt, Mrs. Reed, is akin to the archetypal evil stepmother, and Jane is mistreated while the other children of the house are indulged in every way. The story of Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester also reflects a few details of the story of "Beauty and the Beast." Mr. Rochester is, after all, described as a rather unattractive man with a gruff exterior, yet Jane gradually grows to love him despite his exterior, much as Beauty grows to love the Beast.
Despite the story's roots in traditional fairy tales, however, it is quite modern and unusual in its description of a woman's search for self and for the life of her choice. Sandra Gilbert has discussed the novel as the story of a woman's coming of age that is accomplished through several important psychological stages. The story begins with Jane's first home, the Reeds' Gateshead, where Jane learns to stand up for herself when she is wrongfully accused of being a liar and a bad child. The story then moves to the grim setting of the Lowood School where Jane gains an education and "becomes a lady" as her old nurse Bessie declares when she visits Jane at the end of chapter 10. Here she is given the model of the saintly Miss Temple, and here she encounters the equally saintly Helen Burns, who responds to her irrational abuse at the hands of Miss Scatcherd with calm acceptance. Helen is in many ways a model Christian who always turns the other cheek, but Jane cannot respond to such treatment in the same way, and her resolve to demand fair treatment in her life is solidified by her relationship with Helen.
Jane then moves on to a new life at Thornfield, whose name suggests some degree of the troubles she will endure there before fleeing to a new chapter in her life with the Rivers family at Moor House, or Marsh End, which Gilbert sees as the end of Jane's journey to adulthood, and where she finally finds a family to replace the awful Reeds of her childhood. Finally, Jane chooses to return to Mr. Rochester, at a new place, Ferndean, hidden deep in the woods. Ferndean represents a separation from the rest of society which is appropriate, since her relationship with Mr. Rochester is to be a new kind of relationship—one between equals, and based on spiritual love, a concept of marriage quite unusual for its time.
One of the most unusual aspects of Jane Eyre is the depiction of Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester. From the beginning, the novel defies contemporary conventions of the romance in its emphasis on Jane as a plain woman, lacking the physical beauty which usually characterized fictional heroines. As mentioned previously, Mr. Rochester is also described as being physically unattractive, dark, and sullen. At one point soon after their meeting, Mr. Rochester asks Jane if she finds him attractive, and she surprises him and the reader with a firm "No." Jane and Mr. Rochester's early conversations also progress in unusual ways; characteristically with his questioning her in terms of her beliefs and opinions, and her honest, if restrained, answers to his unusual questions. As the relationship progresses, Mr. Rochester tests Jane more and more. His first test is with statements desired to provoke a certain response. Then he tests her with his manipulative disguise as the old gypsy woman to try to discover her feelings for him, and with his cruel manner of proposing marriage by first allowing Jane to believe that he intends to marry Blanche Ingram. If Jane is not the typical Victorian heroine, Mr. Rochester is certainly not the typical Victorian hero.
In addition to these unusual conversations, Brontë gives readers a number of glimpses of Jane and Mr. Rochester in various positions that are unusual for literary depictions of Victorian couples. For example, we frequently see her, a small girl, giving physical support to the older and stalwart Mr. Rochester. When he falls off of his horse upon first seeing Jane, it is Jane who helps Mr. Rochester. When Mr. Rochester's bedroom is set aflame, Jane rescues him. Later, when he is shocked to learn of Mr. Mason's arrival at Thornfield after the gypsy incident, Jane is there for him. And at the end, when he is crippled and blind Rochester depends entirely on Jane to guide him. Moreover, when Mr. Rochester finally does propose marriage to her, Jane reacts with restraint and strongly refuses his wishes to give her jewels and fine new clothes.
Jane is able to gain a new perspective on her relationship with Mr. Rochester when she meets her cousin, St. John Rivers. Unlike Mr. Rochester, Rivers is a strikingly attractive man, but Jane finds his piety and coldness very unattractive. As cruel Mr. Brocklehurst tried to control Jane by telling her that bad girls go to hell, Rivers gradually begins to impose his will on Jane by using religion to subdue her, telling her that she will deny God if she does not accept his proposal of marriage and accompany him as a missionary to India. Just as she is about to break under the strain of this latest male oppressor, Jane psychically hears Mr. Rochester's voice calling her back to him.
Another fascinating aspect of Jane Eyre is Mr. Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason Rochester. Some critics, including Sandra Gilbert, interpret Bertha as a double of Jane—representing her "dark side" in psychological terms. Bertha can be said to represent Jane's anger and rage at society's attempts to control her and imprison her in a particular role. Perhaps Bertha's imprisonment at Thornfield can be related to the horrible fear of imprisonment that Jane suffered at being shut up in the terrifying red room at the Reeds' house as a child. Moreover, Bertha appears or is heard laughing at times that mark developments in the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester. She even acts out at least one of Jane's unconscious wishes when she comes into Jane's room on the night before Jane's wedding and rips up the wedding veil that Jane felt uncomfortable about wearing. Many readers feel that the treatment of the pathetic Bertha in the novel undercuts any effort on the author's part to provide an encouraging story for women in presenting Jane as a woman who insists on her own independence. The novelist Jean Rhys reacted to the novel in this way, and responded by writing her own "prequel" to Jane Eyre, entitled Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which she develops Bertha's own personal story, and the story of her relationship with Edward Rochester before the events of Jane Eyre.
All in all, Jane Eyre is the story of an unusual woman who finds a family, who finds a lover, and who finds herself in a world that has not made her growing into adulthood an easy process in any way. Jane progresses from being an unwanted member of a cruel family of cousins who are forced to help her, to finding the ideal family of cousins in the Riverses, who she is able to help when she comes into her inheritance from her uncle John. It is this inheritance that gives Jane the freedom to make her own choices and to choose never to be dependent on anyone again. But the choice she makes is to return to the man she loves, who, chastened by his symbolic injuries in the burning of his old home and freed from his earlier marriage by the death of his first wife, is at last able to enter into the kind of spiritual relationship of equality that Jane desires as an independent woman and a strong woman who has always managed to remain true to herself.
Source: Arnold A. Markdey, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Frederick L. Ashe
In the following excerpt, Ashe follows Jane's deprived childhood experiences and connects them to her relationship with Rochester later in life.
Critics have traditionally endowed the heroine and eponym of Charlotte Brontë's romantic masterwork, Jane Eyre, with a prodigious free will. According to various commentators, Jane draws on her knowledge either of good and evil or of her own nature in choosing between a series of conventional literary oppositions—reason and passion, absolute and relative morality, and, finally, love without marriage and marriage without love. Such a reading, however, judges the actions of Jane the young woman without allowing for the extraordinary childhood forces that largely determine her adult personality, thus essentially ignoring the first quarter of the novel. While many have celebrated Brontë's carefully wrought description of her protagonist's first eighteen years for its vivid pathos, no one has as yet accorded this childhood its deserved weight in the novel's ultimate resolution. When viewed from the vantage of modern child psychology, Jane's background—ten years spent at Gateshead barren of affection or adult encouragement, and eight years at Lowood School marked by severe physical privations, public humiliations, and exposure to the cheerless philosophy of Helen Burns—can only exempt Brontë's heroine from common standards of morality or human incentive. The Jane Eyre who emerges from this past of injustice and mental depression is an odd mixture of pride and insecurity. She is saddled with a tenacious pessimism concerning her prospects for happiness, and it is this mentality against which she must struggle, and this over which she triumphs in the end.
It is hard to imagine anyone learned enough to read Jane Eyre who would consider her first ten years emotionally healthful ones. Orphaned in her first year, Jane is given up to her resentful Aunt Reed, whose husband (Jane's mother's brother) also dies within the year. Jane's life to age ten is one of ostracism by the Reed family and unrelenting anxiety over the chidings of the servants, the violence of her cousin John Reed, and the punishments and beratings of Mrs. Reed. Though we as readers do not meet Jane until her tenth year, we may deduce from Mrs. Reed's deathbed admission that Jane's situation has been destitute since infancy—"I hated it the first time I set my eyes on it—a sickly, whining, pining thing"—and her declaration that her children could never bear to be friendly to Jane. The older Jane, who narrates the novel, makes a characteristically self-deprecating excuse for the Reeds' behavior, claiming, "I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child—though equally dependent and friendless—Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently." But we cannot admit this statement as "the more sober judgment of the mature Jane, that as a child she brought much of her punishment upon herself." For a child in such circumstances as Jane's at Gateshead to develop the traits that the "mature Jane" enumerates would be unimaginable.
Susan D. Bernstein, in ["Madam Mope: The Bereaved Child in Brontë's Jane Eyre], uses Brontë's depiction of childhood in Jane Eyre to illustrate the effects of grief and loss on children. Bernstein concentrates or the novel's first few chapters, which describe a typical afternoon of melancholy and exclusion for the ten-year-old Jane, culminating in her traumatic banishment to the Red Room—which Jane has supposed to be haunted since her uncle died there years earlier—for defending herself against an attack by her John. The medical implications of the Red Room incident run perhaps even deeper than Bernstein allows, as Jane's emotional reaction provides a textbook example of mental depression. Jane in this scene quite clearly demonstrates five of the eight identifiable symptoms of adult or child depression cited by the American Psychiatric Association. First, she manifests a loss of appetite in her inability to eat either the night she is locked in the Red Room or the following day. Secondly, she is unable to sleep: "For me, the watches of that long night passed in ghastly wakefulness." Third, she displays a lack of interest in usual activities, as she is unable to muster enthusiasm over her favorite engraved dinner plate or over Gulliver's Travels. Fourth, Jane experiences feelings of guilt and worthlessness: "All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so." Finally, Jane indulges in suicidal fantasy in her thoughts of forsaking food or drink. It is now widely agreed that most childhood disorders can be traced to either a faulty relationship with the child's parents or to anxiety-provoking experiences that the child cannot understand. Aside from the antagonistic relationship with her guardian, the ghost in the Red Room constitutes for Jane a frightening experience, and as an older narrator she attributes to the incident "some fearful pangs of mental suffering."
Only hope enables human beings to endure such adverse conditions as those Jane endures at Gateshead, and it is the hope of leaving the Reeds that revives Jane's spirits following her fright in the Red Room. This initial experience with hope, however, proves a negative one; the young Jane is learning early the futility of optimism. The change that delivers her from Gateshead is a move to Lowood School, where onto her life of emotional privation is grafted one of physical hardship. At a critical stage in her development Jane is subjected to severe cold and near starvation, conditions that claim the lives of many of her classmates. Her bad luck with adults remains constant as well, as she is almost immediately singled out in front of her classmates by Mr. Brocklehurst, the school's headmaster. Brocklehurst christens Jane a deceitful child, and warns her classmates to "shun her example: if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse." Lowood school can be seen as Brocklehurst's project for infusing orphan girls with an ascetic abhorrence of worldly pleasures, and the fire-and-brimstone religion he imposes proves ideal for instilling in his pupils a sense of fear and guilt about happiness on earth.
At Lowood Jane also meets Helen Burns, a character whose acceptance of fate has led critics to read her as a positive model for Jane. But while Helen's calm stoicism later helps Jane to accept hardship, it does little to prepare her for human happiness. Helen lives only for death and the reunion it will bring with her savior. Her reliance on "an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits" may signify a venerable religious faith, but it also serves as a defense mechanism against the sufferings she has found life to hold for an orphan child. Jane finds "an alloy of inexpressible sadness" in Helen's stance—only as Helen dies does Jane see her happy. To Jane, Helen's death represents yet another defeat of hope, as it cuts short what would have been Jane's first real friendship. Jane longs for happiness in this life, and Helen Burns provides one more affirmation that such longing is for naught.
Although Jane does finally find friendship and encouragement at Lowood in the person of Miss Temple, it is not enough to counteract the effects of her gloomy childhood. Miss Temple is rarely able to abate the physical severity of the school, and nothing can erase the damage wrought by Jane's miserable first decade. The Jane of Lowood is the product of an absolute lack of love and affection, qualities critical to the healthy development of a growing child. While Brontë seemed to sense this truth, modern child psychology has codified it. A loving family atmosphere and a favorable emotional climate in the home are today widely held to be the most important factors in the healthy mental development of the growing child. Parents or adult guardians who deprive their children of warmth or affection risk having their child become withdrawn and depressed, and, like Jane, devoid of any sense of optimism or security. Moreover, such overstrictness as Jane suffers at the hands of Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst is today seen as a major source of childhood anxiety and low self-esteem, qualities which well describe the Jane Eyre of Gateshead and Lowood.
Not only does Jane's early life provide an accurate portrayal of childhood depression, but the subsequent emotional development of Brontë's character possesses astonishing psychological verisimilitude as the natural extension of a rocky youth. John Bowlby has done extensive work in the area of childhood loss of or separation from the mother, and has determined such events to have a profound effect in later life. Bowlby claims that the most important factor in the development of mental health is the infant or young child's "warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother or a permanent mother-substitute—one who steadily 'mothers' him." The effects of an unsatisfactory maternal relation, such as Jane's with her Aunt Reed, may extend to the child's later capacity to make and sustain relationships with others. Jane's pessimism is, moreover, a natural result of her maltreatment by the Reeds, who reinforced in her the notion of her own inadequacy and unlovability, a notion, says Bowlby, that may lead the child when grown to develop "a model of attachment figures as likely to be unavailable, or rejecting," and will likely "confirm in [her] the belief that any effort [she] might make to remedy [her] situation would be doomed to failure." Jane Eyre bears out this observation. The mature Jane's need for romantic love is matched by her assurance that such love does not exist for her.
This is not to suggest that Charlotte Brontë was versed in psychological literature, or that Jane Eyre is a calculated illustration of how an abnormal childhood might affect one's later development. Brontë's understanding of the Bowlby pattern was an experiential one, and, literature being the outgrowth of an author's imagination and experience, it is not surprising that Jane Eyre should follow that pattern. While the critic is well-advised to retain a degree of skepticism towards the narrative patterns necessarily imposed by biographers on the retrievable facts of their subjects' lives, and while one must be careful when using biographical evidence not to reduce imaginative art to mere mimesis, readers cannot ignore the verifiable pattern of Brontë's life in interpreting Jane Eyre, which was originally subtitled An Autobiography and was published under a pseudonym. The most basic facts of Brontë's life reveal a history of loss quite similar to Jane's, and it is safe to assume from her later correspondence that Brontë responded to her experience by developing a pessimistic attitude towards her own prospects, an attitude her biographers have characterized variously as a "lack of hope" and a "skeptical incredulity about good fortune." …
Jane's habitual mistrust of good fortune manifests itself perhaps most strongly when she finds herself developing amorous feelings toward Rochester. She refuses to succumb to her will because she cannot imagine his returning the love—she cannot allow for a happy ending. In her conviction that "sense would resist delirium: judgment would warn passion," Jane endeavors to punish her own presumptuousness by juxtaposing an idealized bust of Blanche Ingram with an unflattering portrait of herself—a constant reminder that Rochester could never love "a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain." In this poignant scene Jane berates herself violently for her own giddy idealism. A more optimistic character with a more realistic self-image could not but read Rochester's many signs of affection, and accept his inability to love the haughty Blanche. But Jane refuses any insight that favors herself, and as a result she suffers greatly before Rochester's proposal.
The proposal again piques Jane's mistrust. After her characteristic initial response—'I was silent: I thought he mocked me"—she tempers her bliss by insisting on casting the future in the most unflattering light. Her response upon hearing pronounced for the first time the name "Jane Rochester" is consistent with her refusal to accept joy: "The feeling, the announcement sent through me, was something stronger than was consistent with joy—something that smote and stunned: it was, I think, almost fear." It is the pessimist—the product of Gateshead, where human attention meant criticism, and of Lowood, where life was taught as a struggle and where Jane's first friend died only months after they met—who says to Rochester:
"It can never be, sir; it does not sound likely. Human beings never enjoy complete happiness in this world. I was not born for a different destiny to the rest of my species: to imagine such a lot befalling me is a fairy tale—a daydream … for a little while you will perhaps be as you are now,—a very little while; and then you will turn cool; and then you will be capricious; and then you will be stern, and I shall have much ado to please you: but when you get well used to me, you will perhaps like me again,—like me, I say, not love me. I suppose your love will effervesce in six months, or less." It is fitting that a Brontë character will not view even her opportunity to marry the man she loves as more than a new servitude.
Jane's refusal during the courtship to be pampered or flattered does not betoken pride, but instead a belief that she does not deserve to be treated well. Her incredulity is stoked both by Bertha Rochester's mysterious pre-nuptial antics and by her own portentous dreams. As she awaits Rochester's return on the night before the wedding, she muses, "I feared my hopes were too bright to be realized; and I had enjoyed so much bliss lately that I imagined my fortune had passed its meridian, and must now decline." Jane still sees happiness as a fluke, which will always be ephemeral. In this instance such does indeed prove to be the case, and when Rochester's first marriage and his technically bigamous intent are exposed, Jane is patently unsurprised. She blames herself for her shattered hopes, and instantly forgives Rochester. "Real affection, it seemed, he could not have for me; it had only been fitful passion, that was balked; he would want me no more. I should fear even to cross his path now: my view must be hateful to him. Oh, how blind had been my eyes! How weak my conduct." Her pithy declaration as she leaves Rochester, "we are born to strive and endure," sums up the philosophy that Gateshead and Lowood have fostered. Jane's every adult decision has been biased by the belief that the happiest alternative always is the least realistic.
Jane's departure from Thornfield marks a new stage in her psychic development. She exhibits a sustaining pride during her destitute wanderings on the way to Moor House, and even allows herself to believe that the horrible fate of wandering penniless and friendless through the countryside is not for her. In Diana and Mary Rivers she finally meets two people whose company she can enjoy. When a genealogical quirk brings her a large inheritance, she views it as something that will have only positive effects. It is during this year that Jane begins psychologically to outgrow the effects of her childhood—to realize that life can be at least pleasant, even for her. But she still has one obstacle to overcome.
Though Jane learns at Moor House that life can be bearable, she also realizes that it cannot be happy unless she spends it with Rochester. St. John Rivers' pragmatic proposal to marry Jane and take her along for missionary work in India awakens in the heroine a struggle between her natural pessimism and her deep-rooted desire for Rochester and happiness in England. We never believe that Jane would be happy in India, but her guilty sense of religious duty coupled with her doubts about happiness in England come quite close to making her accept Rivers' proposal. Towards the novel's end Jane's inner battle gathers in narrative intensity, climaxing in her famous discernment of Rochester's mystical voice in the night. This voice represents a triumph of Jane's true desires. She truly wants to be with Rochester, and she truly believes that "the best things the world has" are the "domestic endearments and household joys" that she might enjoy as Mrs. Rochester. The voice she hears convinces Jane to reject Rivers and a pessimistic sacrifice of future happiness, and to gamble on recovering Rochester and bliss. The voice represents the defeat of the pessimist in Jane Eyre.
By ignoring the deterministic role of Jane's childhood and her adult struggle against it, traditional criticism has in essence reduced Jane Eyre to the status of a clever vehicle for the restatement of conventional literary formulas. To see the adult Jane as the crippled but determined product of an unhealthy childhood is to re-establish the novel as the very plausible portrait of a full human life. Jane's happy ending must not be viewed merely as a proper or improper choice between right and wrong, but as the resolution of an intense psychological drama, wherein the degree of free will needed to make such a happy choice is finally attained.
Source: Frederick L. Ashe, "Jane Eyre: The Quest for Optimism," in Studies in the Novel, Summer, 1988, pp. 121-30.
In the following excerpt, Yuen demonstrates how Jane refuses to accept that she is socially and sexually inferior to Rochester and others because of her class situation and gender.
When Jane is emancipated from the thraldom of her aunt's family, she moves on to a larger social unit, the community of Lowood, exchanging moral oppression for the religious oppression of Mr. Brocklehurst. But Jane has by now built up her defenses: "I stood lonely enough, but to that feeling of isolation I was accustomed: it did not oppress me much." By nature antipathic to Brocklehurst's hypocritical Evangelicalism, Jane is nevertheless drawn towards two other representatives of religion at Lowood. Helen Burns represents a Christian ideal that Jane admires but does not aspire to. Jane, with her intense awareness of self and her fierce sense of justice, could never adopt Helen's attitude of resignation and forgiveness. Again, with her passionate longing for life, Jane could not subscribe to Helen's calm acceptance of death. Miss Temple, on a more human level, embodies the religion of love, goodness and kindness which provides the inspiration and motivation for Jane through her eight years at Lowood. But with the departure of Miss Temple, all Jane's old hunger for life, for experience returns in force: "I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped … For change, stimulus." "I longed to go where there was life and movement." Jane is formed not for religion, but for love. Her repressed nature now reasserts itself as she prepares to embark on a new adventure in life.
Jane's world is an even smaller one than Maggie's [Tulliver's in George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss]—she progresses from a barely tolerated dependent in a household of unloving relatives, through a charity child in a charity institution among similarly deprived children, to a governess of a foreign born child of questionable birth in a strange environment, Thornfield. The first two main phases of Jane's life are spent almost exclusively in the two houses or establishments—Gateshead Hall and Lowood—which form the background for her early development. Through these experiences and vicissitudes Jane's personality becomes more and more withdrawn, so that from the solitary child she grows into the "quaint, quiet, grave" young woman whose cool exterior nevertheless conceals "a heart hungering for affection [suggests Kathleen Tillotson in her book Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, 1956]." It is [as Eliot writes in, The Mill on the Floss] "this need of love, this hunger of the heart" that precipitates the emotional and moral crisis in the novel.
Jane Eyre's dilemma is very much like George Eliot's own—whether to live with Rochester as his unmarried wife or sever all relations with him—and George Eliot's strong condemnation of Jane's renunciation is understandable. Perhaps a quotation from George Eliot's own novel will throw light on her reaction to Jane's decision. Near the end of The Mill on the Floss, in a passage that comes nearest to George Eliot's own conception of the moral problem at the heart of the novel, we find this authorial comment: "Moral judgements must remain false and hollow unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot." This is central to George Eliot's notion of morality and explains in large measure her censure of Jane Eyre. George Eliot obviously thinks that Jane's "special circumstances" justify a defiance of conventional morality and social laws. Her dissatisfaction arises from what she interprets as Jane's misplaced good faith and good intentions. What George Eliot fails to see is that Jane's renunciation of Rochester is made not in the interests of a law, diabolical or not, but in self-interest. And the motivation of Jane's action is not self-sacrifice, but rather self-protection.
Rochester tries to appeal to Jane's judgement of the balance of consequences:
Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach?—for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.
Jane is almost convinced as she tries to reason within herself:
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?
And then comes the reply from the depths of Jane's soul: Jane is almost convinced as she tries to reason within herself:
I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.
In the crisis, she can only fall back on herself, on her sense of self-protection, on her instinct for self-survival.… If Jane is adhering to a principle, it is the principle of self-respecting personal integrity. As she said: "I still possessed my soul." Rochester in his saner moments would have understood the motivation of her decision, as is shown by his penetrating analysis of Jane's character in the guise of a gypsy woman on an earlier occasion:
That brow professes to say—'I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss.… Reason sits firm and holds the reins, … judgement shall have the casting vote in every decision.… I shall follow the guiding of that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience."
This is of course ironic in the light of later events, for it is precisely these same self-respect, reason, judgement, and conscience that combine to frustrate Rochester.
Jane Eyre's painful decision to leave Rochester is in line with her magnificent outburst in the moonlit garden on Midsummer's eve:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal—as we are!
In a further demonstration of spirit before she understands Rochester's intentions, she declares proudly: "I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you." She might have said the same at the later crisis of emotion and event in which she actually leaves him. In this outburst of pent-up emotions, Jane is assuming for herself and her sex a position and an attitude never before granted to heroines in English fiction—equality in love. Charlotte Brontë believes that love between man and woman is an all-consuming passion shared not only physically, but mentally and spiritually—"to the finest fibre of my nature," as Jane says. What Charlotte Brontë is asking for is a recognition of the emotional needs of a woman—the right to feel, to love unreservedly. In a way, Jane is an … unconventional heroine. She claims independence and rejects subservience. She will consent only to a marriage which is the union of equals in independence. Charlotte Brontë sees the relationship between man and woman as one of mutual need, a kind of equal partnership in which the woman is not just the object of pursuit or desire, but is recognized as an active contributor—unafraid to love with all-consuming passion, willing to devote herself to the man, and yet exacting respect and a recognition of her rights as an individual. Charlotte Brontë does not advocate an absolute union, a complete merging of man and woman—this would mean the dissolution of the self. Unlike Catherine Earnshaw who declares: "I am Heathcliff," Jane asserts: "I care for myself." Instead of losing herself in some "otherness," Jane fights to preserve her own identity. The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff involves a fusion of personalities and leads towards mutual annihilation. The relationship [as suggested by Ruth Bernard Yeazell in her essay "More True Than Real: Jane Eyre's 'Mysterious Summons'," Nineteenth-Century Fictions, 1974] between Jane and Rochester is grounded on the equality and integrity of two independent selves and leads towards life. In the "Eden-like" garden of Thornfield, Jane appears to have secured both love and independence (of spirit, at least); but when it turns out to be a Paradise Lost, Jane must flee temptation and her lover, in order to preserve the integrity of her self against an overwhelming passion.
In a curious passage earlier on, Charlotte Brontë expresses what could well be taken as the manifesto of the Women's Liberation Movement:
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.
Charlotte Brontë's concern with the "condition of women" question in her day is revealed here. She herself has struggled for independence and equality not as an exhilaration dreamed of but as a necessity, and the feminist attitude expressed here is assumed by her heroine.… Charlotte Brontë really prepares the way for … other "rebel" heroines by showing her heroine overcoming social and sexual inferiority with moral, emotional, and intellectual superiority. Jane first encounters Rochester not as his equal but as his subordinate. She escapes the confines of Lowood to enter into a "new servitude," a servitude not just in terms of work but also in terms of love. The relationship between Rochester and Jane is that of master and servant, just as the relationship between hero and heroine in all the other Charlotte Brontë novels is that of teacher and pupil. But the master-servant relationship between Rochester and Jane is essentially one of mutual admiration and respect. Rochester loves Jane for her superiority of mind and heart, and Jane feels "akin" to Rochester and has, in her own words, "something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilate me mentally to him." F. A. C. Wilson [in an essay "The Primrose Wreath: the Heroes of the Brontë Novels," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 1974] suggests that for Charlotte Brontë, the ideal relationship between man and woman is an extremely flexible one "by which both partners freely alternate between 'masculine,' or controlling, and 'feminine,' or responsive roles" and that "Jane, for her part, enjoys her sexual status as a subordinate, but this is only insofar as it is a role in a game." Jane has no feeling of inferiority at all: she is only conforming outwardly to the Victorian concept of the prescribed roles for men and women, while in reality she believes in equality between the sexes, as evidenced in her vehement assertion of equality in the garden of Thornfield, and Rochester's response "My bride is here, … because my equal is here, and my likeness" testifies to his agreement. Her sexual status as a subordinate may be more apparent than real, but her social status as an employee makes her dependent on her master for her livelihood. Jane's sensitive feelings about her position and her strong sense of individuality and independence make her resent any attempt to encroach on her personality. Just before their marriage, when Rochester wants to shower her with fineries and to deck her out in jewels and satin and lace, Jane feels "a sense of annoyance and degradation," partly because her aesthetic sense tells her she looks better as "plain Jane," partly because her moral taste finds such extravagance abhorrent, but mainly because she feels this is a violation of her sense of self and a reflection on her essential dependence. Refusing to play the pampered slave to Rochester's benevolent despot of a sultan, she tells him: "I will be myself and "I only want an easy mind, sir; not crushed by crowded obligations." She prefers to be herself and to be loved for what she is. It is in a state of reaction against what she construes as Rochester's attempted violation of her sense of self that immediately after this Jane writes to inform her wealthy Uncle John in Madeira of her impending marriage with the underlying motive of perhaps obtaining what she terms an "independency," thereby bringing about the chain of events that leads to the interrupted wedding. So Jane unwittingly incurs her own unhappiness through her desire for independence, which means more than just economic and social status—independence means personal identity and self-esteem.
Source: Maria Yuen, "Two Crises of Decision in Jane Eyre, in English Studies, June, 1976, pp. 215-26.
Phyllis Bentley, The Brontës, Thames & Hudson, 1969.
Rebecca Fraser, The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family, Crown Publishers, 1988.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979.
Margaret Lane, Introduction to Jane Eyre, Dent/Dutton, 1969.
M. H. Scargill, "All Passion Spent: A Revaluation of 'Jane Eyre'," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 2, January, 1950, pp. 120-25.
Mark Schorer, "Jane Eyre," in The World We Imagine: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1969, pp. 80-96.
Miriam Allott, editor, The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1974.
An excellent resource for studying contemporary reviews and critiques of Charlotte Brontë's works.
Juliet Barker, The Brontës, St. Martin's Press, 1994.
An unusually detailed and comprehensive biography with a wealth of information on Charlotte Brontë, her parents, and her brother and sisters and their writings.
Margaret Howard Blom, Charlotte Brontë, Twayne, 1977.
Includes sections on Brontë' s life and on Jane Eyre, and assesses Brontë's achievement in the novel.
Miriam Allen deFord, "Charlotte Brontë" in British Authors of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, H. W. Wilson, 1936, pp. 74-6.
An overview survey of Brontë and her work, written in a somewhat dated prose style.
Richard J. Dunn, editor, Jane Eyre, Norton, 1971; updated, 1987.
Includes important background information, contemporary criticism, and useful interpretive articles on a variety of aspects of the novel.
Barbara and Gareth Lloyd Evans, Everyman's Companion to the Brontës, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982.
Includes both commentaries and synopses of the Brontës' novels, including Jane Eyre.
Barbara Timm Gates, editor, Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë, G. K. Hall, 1990.
Includes a collection of both contemporary and modern reviews of and critical responses to Brontë's novels.
Lyndall Gordon, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life, W. W. Norton, 1995.
The definitive biography of Charlotte Brontë.
Q. D. Leavis, Introduction, in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Penguin Books, 1966, pp. 7-29.
An exceptionally insightful discussion of the novel, and an important source for understanding how the novel breaks with Victorian literary tradition.
Pat MacPherson, Reflecting on "Jane Eyre", Routledge, 1989.
Provides some useful background for a study of the novel, including a discussion of Jane as a governess and a discussion of Jane's personal progress from one stage in her life to another.
Pauline Nestor, Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre", St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Includes material on the historical and cultural context of the novel and an interpretation of its themes of motherhood, sexuality, and identity.
Beth Newman, editor, "Jane Eyre", by Charlotte Brontë, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Contains the text of the novel, an essay on its critical history, and a collection of five insightful critical essays from the perspectives of psychoanalytic, feminist, deconstruction, Marxist, and cultural critics. Includes the article by Sandra Gilbert mentioned in the essay.
Francine Prose, "The Brilliance of the Brontës," in Victoria, Vol. 11, No. 3, March, 1997.
Prose discusses the enduring appeal of Jane Eyre in the context of a general consideration of the Brontës' particular genius. Prose points out that although readers remember the vivid, melodramatic aspects of the novel, much more of the book is devoted to describing the sufferings of children and the poor.
Herbert J. Rosengarten, "Charlotte Brontë," in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 21: Victorian Novelists Before 1885, edited by Ira B. Nadel and William E. Fredeman, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 24-54.
A comprehensive overview of Brontë's life and works.
Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, Princeton University Press, 1977.
Interprets the novel as an important document for providing a view of the female experience in the mid-nineteenth century.
Cathy Smith, "Moors and Mansions: Jane Eyre Country," in Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1996, p. L13.
Smith identifies real places in Derbyshire, England, believed to be models for some of the locations depicted in Jane Eyre. She also discusses the origin of the name "Eyre" and identifies a historical precedent for Bertha Mason.