Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is a complex novel which embodies the characteristics of many types of novels, and of course it is still read today because it has something important to say.
While it is not an actual autobiography, it is certainly autobiographical. The protagonist, Jane Eyre, spends most of her life as an orphan at Lowood, a very strict girls’ boarding school. While there she develops a friendship with a gentle friend, Helen Burns, who soon dies of tuberculosis. Jane becomes a teacher at Lowood and then becomes a governess. Jane’s cousin John Reed becomes an alcoholic.
These elements of the story are remarkably similar to Charlotte’s own upbringing. Her mother died when she was young, and Charlotte and her three sisters were sent away to a boarding school where she was miserable. Two of her sisters die of tuberculosis while there, and Charlotte becomes both a teacher and a governess. Her brother, Branwell, also suffers from chronic substance abuse (opium). The author's rather unflattering depiction of Lowood might even qualify this novel as a Roman à clef (fictional work which contains factual or historical elements which are rather "hidden") because it is a kind of secret “dig” at the school Brontë attended and hated.
This novel is also a kind of bildingsroman, a coming-of-age novel. The stories in this genre generally contain the following structural elements: a child growing into an adult, a loss of some kind forces her from her home and/or family which prompts a journey, resulting in some kind of growth or self-realization. Of course this is exactly what happens to Jane in this story, and she experiences a moral growth, among other things. When she tells Mr. Rochester she cannot live with him while he is still married, for example, she says:
I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?
Jane Eyre is also a romance novel, as the primary undercurrent in the story is the passionate love Jane and Edward Rochester have for one another. It is true that, for much of the novel, they are not together in any romantic way; however, their strong love relationship is the basis for nearly everything that happens once Jane leaves Lowood and begins her adult life. From the beginning, Rochester is there.
There are certainly some Gothic elements in this novel, as well. All sinister, dark, mysterious, and secretive aspects of the story—and there are plenty of them, from the red room in the beginning to Rochester’s grand secret to the burnt shell of a mansion at the end—would be considered Gothic.
This is also a novel of social criticism and it features an anti-Victorian heroine in Jane. A Victorian woman would simply have accepted Rochester’s offer and lived a docile and domestic life, something Jane refuses to do. This does not make her uncaring or heartless; it simply displays her independence and her ability to love on her own terms instead of being subservient to a man.
All of these elements contribute to the popularity and success of this novel over time, which is one way to define a classic.