Critical Overview

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When it was published in October, 1847, Jane Eyre attracted much attention, and the novel became an almost instant commercial success. So high was demand for the book that the publisher issued a second edition within three months, followed by a third edition in April, 1848. The influential novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was one of Jane Eyre's earliest admirers. He wrote to the publisher, saying that he was "exceedingly moved & pleased" by the novel. He also asked the publisher to express his admiration to the author. Bronte subsequently dedicated the second edition of the book to Thackeray.

Jane Eyre was reviewed in some of Britain's leading newspapers and literary journals. Most early reviewers were enthusiastic. The Edinburgh Review pronounced it "a book of singular fascination." The critic for the London Times newspaper called it "a remarkable production" and noted that the story "stand[s] boldly out from the mass." The Westminster Review noted that the book's characters were astonishingly lifelike (However, a reviewer in Spectator took the opposite view, saying that the characters did not behave like people in real life.) Fraser's Magazine gave a resounding endorsement and helped to spur sales by encouraging readers to "lose not a day in sending for it."

Contrary to this general praise, a handful of reviewers professed to be shocked by the passions expressed in the novel. A writer in the Christian Remembrancer regarded the book as an attack on Christianity and an example of "moral Jacobinism." Elizabeth Rigby (Lady Eastlake) denounced it in her unsigned notice in the Quarterly Review, calling it "pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition" and an attack on the the English class system. Perhaps unconsciously echoing Mrs. Reed, she condemned the title character as "the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit." The identity of Jane Eyre's author was still unknown, but Rigby commented that if it was a woman, she "had forfeited the society of her sex." However, unknown to Bronte and to the public, the book received the ultimate Victorian seal of approval: Queen Victoria privately referred to Jane Eyre as "that intensely interesting novel" and read it to Prince Albert.

Of Bronte's four novels, Jane Eyre has continued to be the most popular and has received the most attention of critics and scholars. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, the critic M. H. Scargill noted in the University of Toronto Quarterly that Jane Eyre marked a turning point in the English novel, away from external concerns and toward personal experience. Scargill called the novel "a profound, spiritual experience" in which fiction approaches the condition of poetry. Modern feminists see Jane Eyre as one of the first feminist novels. In her biography of Bronte, entitled The Brontes: Charlotte Bronte and Her Family, Rebecca Fraser remarks that it was "Charlotte's protest against the stifling convention society imposed, which never allowed true feeling to be voiced." However, Scargill notes that "Jane Eyre may speak for women, but it speaks also for all humanity. . . ."

Much discussion centers on just what makes Jane Eyre such a compelling work. Critics have noted that the book succeeds in spite of some obvious weaknesses, particularly its episodic structure and a plot that in places defies credibility. In the hands of a less talented author than Bronte, the story might have amounted to little more than a conventional Gothic romance. What makes the work so memorable, say most modern critics, is the sharp delineation of the characters, the vivid realization of the settings, and the powerful theme of redemption through love. Mark Schorer is one critic who takes the book to task. "The action is pitted with implausibilities, indeed, absurdities," notes Shorer, yet "somehow the whole of the novel is compelling and strong even though so much of it is composed of . . . silly, feeble parts." Ultimately, however, Schorer finds that this novel has a "visionary quality" that makes it more akin to dramatic poetry than to conventional realistic fiction. Similarly, Margaret Lane, in her Introduction to "Jane Eyre", remarks that "It is . . . this rare capacity for emotional feeling, expressed in a singularly musical, pure, and moving prose, which gives [Bronte] her unique place as a writer. Her prose is so compelling that it has at times an almost hypnotic quality; we lose touch with our surroundings and are swept along on the strong current of her imagination." In a similar vein, Rebecca Fraser has argued that while Bronte lacked the creative scope of Dickens George Eliot and Tolstoy, "the incandescent power of her writing gives Jane Eyre . . . a uniquely flavoured niche in the affections of the reading public." The novel's grip on the imagination is further confirmed by the numerous film, television, and stage adaptations that have been produced over the years. A century and a half after it was written, many readers of all ages continue to name Jane Eyre as one of their favorite novels.

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Jane Eyre


Essays and Criticism