Summary of the Novel
Jane Eyre, an orphan, lives with her abusive aunt, Sarah Reed, and her mean-spirited cousins, John, Eliza, and Georgiana, at Gateshead Hall.
She is sent away to the Lowood School where the conditions are very harsh. Jane befriends a fellow student, Helen Burns, and Miss Temple, a teacher. When Helen Burns dies, and Miss Temple marries, Jane decides to leave Lowood, and secures a job as a governess at Thornfield.
At Thornfield, Jane’s duties are to teach the master’s foster child Adele Varens. Although he has a brusque manner, Jane finds the master, Edward Fairfax Rochester, attractive and fascinating.
One night Jane is awakened by strange noises. Seeing smoke coming from Mr. Rochester’s room, she runs in and throws water on the fire, awakening him. He leads Jane to believe that it is Grace Poole, a servant, who caused the damage.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rochester apparently pursues Blanche Ingram, a local beauty, while Jane’s love for him continues to grow.
Jane leaves Thornfield to visit the dying Mrs. Reed, who tells her that John Eyre, her father’s brother, is trying to contact her.
When Jane returns to Thornfield, Mr. Rochester switches his affections from Blanche to Jane, and proposes marriage. The wedding ceremony is interrupted by Mr. Briggs, who claims that Mr. Rochester is already married. The mad Bertha Rochester, who is locked away on the third floor of Thornfield, is exposed to Jane. Jane flees, and arrives at Moor House where she is taken in by St. John Rivers, a minister. Jane receives an inheritance from her uncle, John Eyre. St. John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane, but she declines since she still has Mr. Rochester on her mind.
Jane returns to Thornfield and discovers it has burned to the ground. It seems that Bertha Rochester set the fire and died in it, while Mr. Rochester suffered a mangled hand that had to be amputated and has been left blind. Jane reunites with Mr. Rochester at Ferndean, his current home, and they marry. Ten years pass, and Jane tells us how contented she is with married life, Mr. Rochester has regained partial vision in one eye, and they have a newborn son.
As an orphan, Jane’s status is the lowest in the social class system. Because of her status (of which she is constantly reminded as a child) she strives to better herself through education and employment. During her struggles, Jane observes the other classes, including the religious zealots, with great insight and comes to recognize the many hypocrisies of the characters.
Emotionally, Jane is a lonely and ostracized child who recognizes her need for love and actively searches for it throughout her life, eventually finding her home with Mr. Rochester. Her search not only teaches her the true essence of love, but also enables her to raise her social position through hard work and the financial inheritance she receives.
Estimated Reading Time
Jane Eyre is divided into 38 chapters of varying length. It should take approximately 15 hours to read Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre appealed to the Victorian reading public on both sides of the Atlantic. Published under a pseudonym, the novel had its London enthusiasts at first speculating about the real author, then marveling at the achievement of a little-known, isolated vicar’s daughter from Yorkshire. In America, the plot and narrative technique of Jane Eyre were quickly imitated by women writers hoping to capitalize on the novel’s popularity. The plot contains many elements to capture and maintain the reader’s attention: an abused orphan who rebels successfully against her oppressors, a mystery involving screams in the attic and a burning bed, a marriage stopped at the altar, sensual temptation and moral victory, and the reformation of a good man gone wrong.
The appeal of the book is not dependent solely on a lively plot; Jane Eyre herself is an engaging character. Unwilling to accept others’ definitions of her as an unattractive, dependent relation, Jane asserts herself against those who treat her badly. Faced with unpleasant cousins and oppressive schoolteachers, Jane fights for what she thinks is right. She is made to feel that her passionate responses are a character flaw, but the reader is made to see that her rebelliousness is appropriate.
In a book that explores the conflict between individual and society, it is not surprising that there are a number of structural oppositions as well. Jane’s worldly cousins, the Reeds, are countered by her intellectual cousins, the Riverses. The tyrannical schoolmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, is paired with the soothing headmistress, Miss Temple. Most important is the contrast between the two proposals of marriage that Jane receives, and the men who make them: Mr. Rochester recognizes Jane’s true character, but he would pamper and oppress her with riches; St. John Rivers respects Jane’s intellectual capabilities and self-control, but he would withhold true love and expect Jane to destroy her health doing difficult missionary work in India. Jane is able to resist both of them because she has developed a healthy sense of self-worth and has risen above the abuse she received as a child. Her emotional independence is matched by an unexpected inheritance, which alleviates Jane’s need to work in subservient positions. Thus strengthened, Jane can return to Rochester after his first wife dies. The physical mutilation he has undergone—blinding and loss of an arm—makes him dependent on Jane for more than amusement. In a marriage of mutual respect and support, Jane’s self-image can continue to prosper.