Chapters 1–3 Summary and Analysis
The novel opens at Gateshead Hall, the stately home of Mrs. Reed and her three children: Eliza, John, and Georgiana. While the three siblings and their mother sit comfortably by the fire, ten-year-old Jane Eyre, the protagonist and narrator of the story, is made to sit at a distance. Jane is the poor, orphaned niece of Mrs. Reed’s late husband, and—as her relations and the servants frequently remind her—it is only Mrs. Reed’s charity that saves Jane from the poorhouse. Banished from the company of her aunt and cousins, Jane grabs a book, Bewick’s History of British Birds, and retreats to an adjoining room to read. She is interrupted, however, by the entrance of her fourteen-year-old cousin, John Reed, who berates her for reading “his” books and cruelly reminds her of her lowly status in the household. He proceeds to hit her before throwing the book at her head, causing her to bleed. Unable to stand his abuse any longer, Jane yells at John and they begin to fight. Mrs. Reed walks in on their scuffle and, blaming Jane, orders the maids to lock her up in the red-room.
Mrs. Reed’s maids, Bessie and Miss Abbot, force a struggling Jane into the red-room, chastising her for striking John and upsetting Mrs. Reed. After threatening to tie Jane to a chair, the maids leave the room, locking the door behind them. Jane describes the red-room, revealing that most of the household avoids it after her uncle, Mr. Reed, died in it several years ago. Jane spies her reflection in a mirror and is startled by her frail, ghostly appearance. Feeling sorry for herself, Jane begins to reflect upon the injustices that have been done to her by Mrs. Reed and her cousins. Jane reveals that after her parents died, Mr. Reed took her in and beseeched Mrs. Reed to raise Jane as her own after his death. She imagines that Mr. Reed—who she has always believed would have shown her kindness—might be stirred from the grave by the unjust behavior of his wife and children. Suddenly fearful that Mr. Reed’s ghost might appear to comfort her, Jane cries out, causing the maids to come back. Believing that she is only trying to avoid punishment, the maids and Mrs. Reed tell her that she will be confined to the room even longer. Soon after, Jane’s terror and anguish cause her to faint.
When Jane wakes up, she has been moved out of the red-room and is being examined by Mr. Lloyd, the local apothecary. He tells Bessie to keep Jane in bed, and Bessie treats Jane with unusual kindness throughout the next day, revealing that she believes Mrs. Reed has been too harsh with Jane. When Mr. Lloyd returns, he speaks with Jane about her life at Gateshead. Jane, sensing that Mr. Lloyd (unlike those residing at Gateshead) might take pity on her, admits how unhappy she is. After their conversation, Mr. Lloyd speaks with Mrs. Reed and suggests that Jane might be sent to school. Later, Jane overhears that her aunt supports the idea of sending her away to school. She also learns more about her parents when she overhears the maids say that her father was a poor clergyman and her wealthy mother was disinherited for marrying him. Shortly after Jane was born, both her parents contracted typhus and died.
These initial chapters introduce the nature of the protagonist, Jane, as well as several of the novel’s major themes. Jane’s life at Gateshead is one of isolation. As a poor orphan being raised alongside her wealthy cousins, Jane’s unique and ambiguous social position prevents her from fitting in with both the servants and her upper-class relations. This social isolation is only deepened by the cruel treatment Jane suffers at the hands of the residents of Gateshead. That Jane is drawn to the passages in her book that describe bleak and forlorn places, such as a solitary rock “standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray,” speaks to her own profound loneliness and unhappiness. Though the young Jane professes that she would rather...
(The entire section is 1,073 words.)