Jane Eyre is nothing more than a burden in the eyes of the cruel Mrs. Reed. The orphaned Jane is the niece of the late Mr. Reed. At his urging, Mrs. Reed grudgingly agrees to takes her in and then keeps her, not out of pity but out of a sense of obligation to abide by her vow to Mr. Reed his deathbed that she would care for Jane.
Mrs. Reed despises Jane, and she tells herself that it this because of Jane's personality and appearance. Jane is a quiet, serious, studious child, very unlike Mrs. Reed's own children. Mrs. Reed tells Jane that she must “acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner – something lighter, franker, more natural.” She refuses to accept Jane for who she is (or even attempt to get to know her); instead, she torments her continually, punishes her unfairly, lies about her, and shows her no love or kindness at all.
Only later in the novel do we find out Mrs. Reed's real reason for hating Jane. When Jane goes to see Mrs. Reed, now on her deathbed, the woman, not realizing who Jane is speaks to her frankly, mostly out of guilt: “Such a burden to be left on my hands,” she complains, “and so much annoyance as she caused me, daily and hourly, with her incomprehensible disposition, and her sudden starts of temper, and her continual, unnatural watchings of one's movements!”
At Jane's question, “why do you hate her so?” Mrs. Reed responds that she first disliked Jane's mother, her husband's only sister, who was “a great favourite with him.” Jane's mother married beneath her social class, and her family disowned her for it. Her brother, Mr. Reed, however, continued to love her and insisted on bringing the orphaned Jane into his own home after her mother and father died.
Mrs. Reed says she would have preferred to “put it out to nurse and pay for its maintenance” if anything. She couldn't stand the child from the beginning, she proclaims, yet her husband doted on the baby and loved little Jane dearly. Herein lies the real reason for Mrs. Reed's hatred: she was jealous, both of Jane's mother and Jane herself, for their place in her husband's affections and heart. She wanted that place for herself and their children alone. She sees Jane as only an intruder and a threat who steals part of her husband's love, and Mrs. Reed cannot abide by that. Even years after her husband's death, she holds tight to her grudge and refuses to remedy her relationship with Jane.