Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
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 keeps 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 has avoided it since 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 either the servants or 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 live with her unkind relatives than live in poverty among those who would be kind to her, readers will see her values change as she is exposed to more individuals from all social stations.
While Jane’s childhood at Gateshead is bleak, her spirit remains unbroken. She questions her aunt, fights back against her bullying cousin, and dares to confide in Mr. Lloyd about her mistreatment. She even calls herself a “rebel slave” compared to the “slave-driver” that is John Reed. Indeed, Jane’s spirit is noticed by a servant who, upon observing her fight with John, remarks, “Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion?” Jane keenly feels the injustices committed against her, and though she knows she is despised at Gateshead, she believes she is worthy of affection. However, Jane’s desire for love is complicated by her insecurities, and she worries that her plain, frail appearance makes her less easy to love. Her superficial fears are confirmed by Bessie and Miss Abbot, who say that Jane would receive much more sympathy if she were beautiful like her cousin Georgiana. Outer beauty, however, often masks an inner ugliness, a theme that will reappear throughout the book. Though Jane is outwardly plain, she possesses an inner goodness that sharply contrasts with the behavior of her cruel and selfish cousins.
Young Jane is utterly dependent on the Reeds—a fact of which she is frequently reminded by both the Reeds and their servants. This dependence rankles Jane, making her long for freedom and independence. It is telling that the primary conflict of these chapters revolves around Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room. Jane is locked away, both literally and figuratively, by her life at Gateshead, and it is in large part her desire for freedom that leads her to tell Mr. Lloyd that she wishes to attend school. Unfortunately, Jane's wish for true independence is hindered by the Victorian morality of her time, and young Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room at Gateshead foreshadows how she will feel trapped by her gender and social status as an adult.
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