Jane Eyre begins at Gateshead Hall, where a young orphan named Jane Eyre lives with her aunt, Mrs. Reed, and three cousins. Though Jane’s relations are wealthy, they are incredibly cruel and never let her forget that she only avoids poverty through their charity. As the relationship between Jane and the Reeds deteriorates, Mrs. Reed decides to send Jane away to Lowood school. Before Jane leaves, Mrs. Reed warns Mr. Brocklehurst (the manager of Lowood) that Jane is a liar, and he promises not to forget it. Offended by her aunt’s deceit, Jane vows never to forgive her.
The conditions at Lowood are very harsh. Mr. Brocklehurst is cruel and hypocritical, forcing the students to remain humble by making their own clothes and sharing beds while his own daughters live in luxury. The girls are given meager portions of often inedible food, and the school itself is freezing. Despite these difficulties, Jane manages to find a friend in Helen Burns, a fellow student. When Helen later dies during a typhus outbreak at the school, Jane is devastated. After the typhus epidemic, the unsanitary and grim condition of the school is publicly revealed, and Lowood is put under new management. Jane stays at the school for six more years as a student and two years as a teacher before setting off for a new job as a governess at Thornfield Hall.
At Thornfield, Jane’s pupil is a young French girl named Adèle. Adèle is the ward of Mr. Edward Rochester, the often-absent owner of Thornfield. When Jane finally meets Mr. Rochester, she is intrigued by his quirky personality and blunt way of speaking. Likewise, Mr. Rochester is fascinated by Jane’s honesty and strong convictions. Strange events occur during Jane’s stay at Thornfield: eerie laughs can be heard at night, a mysterious fire is started, and a guest is even stabbed. Mr. Rochester begins to court a local beauty named Blanche Ingram, upsetting Jane, who now recognizes that she has feelings for him. Jane briefly returns to Gateshead to visit the dying Mrs. Reed and learns that she has an uncle, John Eyre, who is looking for her. To Jane’s surprise, shortly after she returns to Thornfield, Mr. Rochester proposes to her rather than Miss Ingram. Their wedding is interrupted, however, by a man who claims that Mr. Rochester is already married. Jane is horrified to learn that Mr. Rochester’s wife, Bertha, is mad and kept locked up in the attic of Thornfield. Despite Mr. Rochester’s pleas for her to stay, Jane secretly flees Thornfield in the night.
Jane wanders for several days until, nearly starving, she is taken in by St. John Rivers and his two sisters. Jane gets along well with the sisters and is slightly intimidated by St. John. Soon, it is revealed that Jane’s uncle has died and left Jane a fortune. She splits this evenly between herself and the Rivers family—who she has recently discovered are her cousins. St. John urges Jane to marry him and come to India as a missionary’s wife, but Jane, knowing he does not actually love her, refuses. After hearing Mr. Rochester’s voice on the wind, Jane takes it as a sign and decides to visit Thornfield.
When Jane arrives at Thornfield, she is shocked to see that the hall is merely a charred ruin. A local innkeeper tells her that Bertha Rochester got loose one evening and set the hall on fire before leaping from the roof to her death. Mr. Rochester took great pains to rescue everyone in the house and, as a result, lost his hand and his eyesight. Jane goes to visit Mr. Rochester and they reconcile. Jane and Mr. Rochester marry, and his eyesight gradually recovers enough that he can see their firstborn son.
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.