Jane Eyre is an orphan whose parents died when she was a baby, at which time she passed into the care of Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Hall. Mrs. Reed’s husband, now dead, was the brother of Jane Eyre’s mother; on his deathbed, he directed his wife to look after the orphan as after her own three children. At Gateshead Hall, Jane experiences ten years of neglect and abuse. One day, a cousin knocks her to the floor. When she fights back, Mrs. Reed punishes her by sending her to the gloomy room where Mr. Reed died. There Jane loses consciousness, and the conflict causes a dangerous illness from which she is nursed slowly back to health by sympathetic Bessie Leaven, the Gateshead Hall nurse.
No longer wishing to keep her unwanted charge in the house, Mrs. Reed makes arrangements for Jane’s admission to Lowood School. Early one morning, Jane leaves Gateshead Hall without farewells and is driven fifty miles by stage to Lowood, her humble possessions in a trunk beside her.
At Lowood, Jane is a diligent student and well liked by her superiors, especially by Miss Temple, one of the teachers, who refuses to accept without proof Mrs. Reed’s low estimate of Jane’s character. During the period of Jane’s schooldays at Lowood, an epidemic of fever that causes many deaths among the girls leads to an investigation, after which there are improvements at the institution. At the end of her studies, Jane is retained as a teacher but she grows weary of her life at Lowood and advertises for a position as a governess. She is engaged by Mrs. Fairfax, housekeeper at Thornfield, near Millcote.
At Thornfield, the new governess has only one pupil, Adele Varens, a ward of Jane’s employer, Mr. Edward Rochester. From Mrs. Fairfax, Jane learns that Mr. Rochester travels much and seldom comes to Thornfield. Jane is pleased with the quiet country life, with the beautiful old house and gardens, the book-filled library, and her own comfortable room.
While she is out walking one afternoon, Jane meets Mr. Rochester for the first time, going to his aid after his horse throws him. She finds her employer a somber, moody man, quick to change in his manner and brusque in his speech. He commends her work with Adele, however, and confides that the girl is the daughter of a French dancer who deceived him and deserted her daughter. Jane feels that this experience alone cannot account for Mr. Rochester’s moody nature.
Mysterious happenings at Thornfield puzzle Jane. Alarmed by a strange noise one night, she finds Mr. Rochester’s door open and his bed on fire. When she attempts to arouse the household, he commands her to keep quiet about the whole affair. She learns that Thornfield has a strange tenant, a woman who laughs like a maniac and stays in rooms on the third floor of the house. Jane believes that this woman is Grace Poole, a seamstress employed by Mr. Rochester.
Mr. Rochester attends many parties in the neighborhood, where he is obviously paying court to Blanche Ingram, daughter of Lady Ingram. One day, the inhabitants of Thornfield are informed that Mr. Rochester is bringing a party of house guests home with him. The fashionable Miss Ingram is among the party. During the house party, Mr. Rochester calls Jane to the drawing room, where the guests treat her with the disdain they think her humble position deserves. To herself, Jane already confessed her interest in her employer, but it seems to her that he is interested only in Blanche. One evening, while Mr. Rochester is away from home, the guests play charades. At the conclusion of the game, a Gypsy fortune-teller appears to read the palms of the lady guests. During her interview with the Gypsy, Jane discovers that the so-called fortune-teller is Mr. Rochester in disguise. While the guests are still at Thornfield, a stranger named Mason arrives to see Mr. Rochester on business. That night, Mason is mysteriously wounded by the inhabitant of the third floor. The injured man is taken away secretly before daylight.
One day, Robert Leaven comes from Gateshead to tell Jane that Mrs. Reed, now on her deathbed, asks to see her former ward. Jane returns to her aunt’s home. The dying woman gives Jane a letter, dated three years earlier, from John Eyre in Madeira, who asked that his niece be sent to him for adoption. Mrs. Reed confesses that she wrote back informing him that Jane died in the epidemic at Lowood. The sin of keeping the news of her relatives from Jane—news that would have meant relatives, adoption, and an inheritance—becomes a burden on the conscience of the dying woman.
Jane goes back to Thornfield, which she now looks on as her home. One night in the garden, Rochester embraces her and proposes marriage. Jane accepts and makes plans for a quiet ceremony in the village church. She also writes to her uncle in Madeira, explaining Mrs. Reed’s deception and telling him she is to marry Rochester. Shortly before the date set for the wedding, Jane has a harrowing experience, awakening to find a strange, repulsive-looking woman in her room. The intruder tries on Jane’s wedding veil and then rips it to shreds. Rochester tries to persuade Jane that the whole incident is in her imagination, but in the morning she finds the torn veil in her room. When she and Mr. Rochester are saying their vows at the church, a stranger speaks up and declares the existence of an impediment to the marriage. He presents a document, signed by the Mr. Mason who was wounded during his visit to Thornfield, which states that Edward Fairfax Rochester married Bertha Mason, Mr. Mason’s sister, in Spanish Town, Jamaica, fifteen years earlier. Rochester admits the fact and then conducts the party to the third-story chamber at Thornfield. There they find the attendant Grace Poole and her charge, Bertha Rochester, a raving maniac. Bertha was the woman Jane saw in her room.
Jane feels that she must leave Thornfield at once. She notifies Rochester and leaves early the next morning, using all of her small store of money for the coach fare. Two days later, she sets down on the north midland moors. Starving, she begs for food. Finally, she is befriended by the Reverend St. John Rivers and his sisters, Mary and Diana, who take Jane in and nurse her back to health. Assuming the name of Jane Elliot, she refuses to divulge any of her history except her connection with the Lowood institution. St. John Rivers eventually finds a place for her as mistress in a girls’ school.
Shortly afterward, St. John Rivers receives word from his family solicitor that John Eyre died in Madeira, leaving Jane a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Because Jane disappeared under mysterious circumstances, the lawyer is trying to locate her through the next of kin, St. John Rivers. Jane’s identity is revealed through her connection with Lowood School, and she learns, to her surprise, that St. John Rivers and his sisters are really her cousins. She insists on sharing her inheritance with them.
When St. John Rivers decides to go to India as a missionary, he asks Jane to go with him as his wife—not because he loves her, as he frankly admits, but because he admires her and wants her services as his assistant. Jane feels indebted to him for his kindness and aid, but she hesitates and asks for time to reflect.
One night, while St. John Rivers is awaiting her decision, she dreams that Rochester is calling her name. The next day, she returns to Thornfield by coach. She finds the mansion gutted—a burned and blackened ruin. Neighbors tell her that the fire broke out one stormy night, set by the madwoman, who died while Rochester was trying to rescue her from the roof of the blazing house. Rochester was blinded during the fire and now lives at Ferndean, a lonely farm some miles away. Jane goes to him at once and shortly after marries him. Two years later, Rochester regains the sight of one eye, so that he is able to see his new child when it is placed in his arms.