Charlotte Brontë was always concerned that her work be judged on its own merits and not because of her gender. She continued to use her pseudonym even after her authorship was revealed, and in her letters she often referred to herself as Currer Bell. Jane Eyre, her first published novel, has been called feminine because of the Romanticism and deeply felt emotions of the heroine-narrator. It would probably be more correct to point to the feminist qualities of the novel, as reflected in a heroine who refuses to be placed in the traditional female position of subservience and who disagrees with her superiors, stands up for her rights, and ventures creative thoughts. More important, Jane is a narrator who comments on the role of women in society and the greater constraint imposed on them. Those feminine emotions often ascribed to in the character of Jane are found as well in Rochester, and the continued popularity of this work must suggest the enduring human quality of these emotions.
Brontë often discusses the lack of passion in her contemporaries’ work and especially in that of Jane Austen, about whom she said, “Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet.” Coldness, detachment, excessive analysis, and critical distance were not valued by Brontë. The artist must be involved in her subject, she believed, and must have a degree of inspiration not to be rationally explained. Such a theory of art is similar to that of the Romantic poets, an attitude no longer entirely popular by the mid-nineteenth century.
In Jane Eyre, Brontë chose the point of view of a first-person narrator, which suited both her subject matter and her artistic theory, The story is told entirely through the eyes of the heroine, a technique that enabled Brontë to deliver the events with an intensity that involves the reader in the passions, feelings, and thoughts of the heroine. A passionate directness characterizes Jane’s narration: Conversations are rendered in direct dialogue, and actions are given just as they occur, with little analysis of event or character. In a half dozen key scenes, Brontë shifts to present tense instead of the immediate past, so that Jane narrates the event as if it were happening at the very moment. After Jane flees Thornfield and Rochester, when the coachman puts her out at Whitcross where her fare runs out, she narrates to the moment: “I am alone . . . I am absolutely destitute.” After a long description of the scene around her and her analysis of her situation, also narrated in the present tense, she reverts to the more usual past tense in the next paragraph: “I struck straight into the heath.” Such a technique adds to the immediacy of the novel and further draws the reader into the situation.
Like all of Brontë’s heroines, Jane has no parents and no family that accepts or is aware of her. She, like Lucy Snowe in Villette (1853) and Caroline Helstone in Shirley (1849), leads a life cut off from society, since family is the means for a woman to participate in society and community. Lacking such support, Jane has to face her problems alone. Whenever she forms a close friendship (Bessie at Gateshead, Helen Burns and Miss Temple at Lowood, Mrs. Fairfax at Thornfield), she discovers that nonkinship ties can be broken easily by higher authority, death, or marriage. Cutting her heroines off so radically from family and community gave Brontë the opportunity to make her women independent and to explore the Romantic ideal of individualism.
Jane Eyre is a moral tale, akin to a folk or fairy tale, with hardly any ambiguities of society, character, or situation. Almost all of Jane’s choices are morally straightforward, and her character—though she grows and matures—does not change significantly. Her one difficult choice is to refuse to become Rochester’s mistress and leave Thornfield. That choice is difficult precisely because she has no family or friends to influence her with their disapproval. No one will be hurt if she consents; that is, no one but Jane herself, and it is her own self-love that helps her to refuse.
Like a fairy tale, Jane Eyre is full of myth and superstition. Rochester often calls Jane his “elf,” “changeling,” or “witch”; there are mysterious happenings at Thornfield; Jane is inclined to believe the Gypsy fortune-teller (until Rochester reveals himself) and often thinks of the superstitions she has heard; the weather often presages mysterious or disastrous events. Most important, at the climax of the story, when Jane is about to consent to be the unloved wife of St. John Rivers, she hears Rochester calling her—at precisely the time, readers learn later, that he had in fact called to her. This event is never explained rationally and readers must accept Jane’s judgment that it was a supernatural intervention.
Many symbolic elements pervade the novel. Often something in nature symbolizes an event or person in Jane’s life. The most obvious example is the chestnut tree, which is split in two by lightning on the night that Jane accepts Rochester’s marriage proposal, signifying the rupture of their relationship. The two parts of the tree, however, remain bound, as do Jane and Rochester despite their physical separation.
The novel is also full of character foils and parallel situations. Aunt Reed at Gateshead is contrasted with Miss Temple at Lowood; the Reed sisters at the beginning are contrasted with the Rivers sisters—cousins all—at the end; Rochester’s impassioned proposal of love is followed by St. John’s pragmatic proposition. Foreshadowing is everywhere in the book, so that seemingly chance happenings gain added significance as the novel unfolds, and previous events are echoed in those that follow. Because of the novel’s artful structure and carefully chosen point of view, as well as the strong and fascinating character of Jane herself, Jane Eyre, if not a typical Victorian novel, remains a classic among English novels.