Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre traces the personal development of a young woman who must struggle to maintain a separate identity and independence in the suffocating pressures of her culture. She grapples with the societal expectations of her gender, which frequently conflict with her intuitive sense of self. Each setting and situation that Jane encounters denotes a phase in her personal progress, teaching her and preparing her for the next experience.
The linear organization of Jane’s maturation process is attributable to the viewpoint of the narrator. The narrator is not the child, teenager, or young woman that Jane is during the course of the narrative, but the adult wife and mother who is recounting her story. With hindsight and from a mature perspective, Jane can recognize the pivotal, shaping events of her life. She takes account of her life, selecting events so that a pattern of personal development becomes apparent, what all people do in making sense of their past. The reader also senses Brontë’s voice. Although the novel is not an autobiography, it contains autobiographical elements—Brontë’s experience at the Clergy Daughter’s School is similar to Jane’s years at Lowood, for example. Certainly Brontë draws from her own experience as a maturing young woman in describing the life of Jane Eyre.
Each setting indicates a stage of growth for Jane. Under the cruel treatment of her aunt, Sarah Reed, at Gateshead Hall, Jane learns as a child to rely on her own inner strength. The strong self-reliance that she develops as a protective mechanism in this brutal environment sustains her throughout her life. At Lowood, Jane finds sincere friendship in Helen Burns and a compassionate mother-figure in Maria Temple. Jane learns from Helen’s religious stoicism, but realizes that she is too much in need of human companionship to accept such a solitary existence completely. When Miss Temple leaves to get married, Jane believes that she also must leave, having matured enough to break free from this surrogate mother.
As governess in Thornfield Hall, Jane finds in Edward Fairfax Rochester a kindred spirit equal to her in passion and strong individualism, but also suffering from a faltering sense of identity in regard to what he is and what is expected of him. Bertha, Rochester’s insane wife, who lives in the attic, haunts them both as a symbol of their still-unresolved identities. They cannot truly be united until each has worked out these inner problems.
Jane finally finds real family support with her three cousins at Moor House. She attains self-confidence from her success with the school and financial independence from her uncle’s inheritance. From her unemotional relationship with her cousin St. John Rivers, a zealous minister, she realizes that she needs a passionate love, and her inner standard of religious morals is further solidified in contrast to his frigid piety.
Jane Eyre contains gothic, Romantic, and Victorian elements. Elements of these styles do not simply exist for their own sake, but underscore the major theme of Jane’s personal progress. The gothic and Romantic elements—Bertha’s ghostlike haunting, Thornfield’s dark and castlelike image, the spiritual connection between Rochester and Jane, nature’s sympathetic response to Jane’s emotions with storms and sunshine—are symbolic of Jane’s dark struggles with her identity and her romantic tendency to follow her intuition. The Victorian emphasis on realism, on domestic concerns of marriage and family, and the reconciliation of feeling with reason also pervade the novel.