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Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

Jane Eyre is the story of a poor, orphaned girl's search for love. In the first part of the novel, Jane is ten years old and living, none too happily, at Gateshead House with Mrs. Reed, her uncle's widow, and the three Reed children- Eliza, Georgiana, and John. John is a bully, and when Jane fights back after he throws a book at her head, Mrs. Reed blames her for starting the fight and lying about it. As punishment, Jane is shut up in an empty bedroom- called the red-room, where she has a terrifying experience that she interprets as a visitation from the ghost of her dead Uncle Reed. A few months later, Mrs. Reed turns Jane over to a gloomy death-obsessed clergyman, Mr. Brocklehurst, who runs a charity school for the daughters of poor churchmen. She tells him to watch Jane carefully, because the girl is a liar.

Lowood, the charity boarding school, is a dismal place. There is never enough to eat, and the girls are forbidden even the smallest pleasures in the name of teaching them Christian humility. Jane makes friends with a sweet-natured, pious girl named Helen Burns, who tells her that they ought to bear their sufferings at the school with patience. Helen never shows resentment, even when she becomes the favorite target of the school's nastiest teacher, Miss Scatcherd. But when Mr. Brocklehurst humiliates Jane by repeating Mrs. Reed's charge against her in front of the whole school, she rebels. She talks the school superintendent into getting a letter from the Reed family apothecary (who treated Jane after her ordeal in the red-room), which clears her name.

When spring comes, the school is swept by a typhus epidemic. About half the girls fall ill, and some even die. Helen, too, is ill, but from consumption (tuberculosis). When Jane sneaks into Helen's room for a visit, she is shocked to find her friend has only a few hours to live. Helen dies in Jane's arms, proclaiming her steadfast faith in God.

As a result of the epidemic, Lowood comes under investigation, and conditions at the school are improved. Jane stays on, as a pupil and later as a teacher, until she is nineteen years old. Jane has become a dear friend of Miss Temple, the school superintendent, and when she leaves her job to get married, Jane decides that the time has come for her to leave as well.

Jane is hired as a governess by a Mrs. Fairfax, who lives in a substantial but rather gloomy country manor-house, Thornfield Hall. Only after she has moved in does Jane realize that Mrs. Fairfax is only the housekeeper. Jane becomes quite fond of her only pupil, a saucy little French girl named Adele Varens. Yet there is an aura of mystery about the house- the master, Mr. Edward Rochester, is seldom at home, and from time to time Jane hears eerie laughter coming from one of the locked rooms on the third story of the house. Mrs. Fairfax tells her that this is Grace Poole, an otherwise taciturn servant who spends much of her time sewing in that part of the house.

One wintry night, Mr. Rochester returns unexpectedly to Thornfield. He is a dark, brooding man in his late thirties, with an abrupt, imperious manner. Jane first meets him on the road, after he's been thrown from his horse, and offers him help without realizing who he is. Later, back at Thornfield, when Rochester asks her if she thinks he's handsome, Jane is outspoken enough to say, truthfully, "No, sir." Instead of being offended, Rochester is intrigued and charmed by the boldness of the new governess. There is already a rapport developing between the two of them when, one night, Jane awakens to the sound of the eerie laugh just outside her bedroom door, smells smoke, and discovers that someone has set fire to the hangings around Mr. Rochester's bed. She douses the flames with a pitcher of water. The way Rochester holds Jane's hand after he awakens suggests feelings that go beyond mere gratitude, but she slips away and returns to her room.

The next day, Rochester is gone. He stays away two weeks, and when he does return he brings with him a party of house guests for an extended stay. Among the guests is a Mrs. Ingram and her two daughters, Blanche and Mary. Its obvious that the handsome Blanche is doing her best to snare the affections of Mr. Rochester, but Jane can only suffer her jealousy in silence. One day during the house party, two strange things happen:

1. Mr. Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy woman, and pretending to tell her fortune, tries to find out whether Jane cares for him. She is wary, however, and doesn't reveal her true feelings.

2. Jane is awakened in the middle of the night by calls for help coming from the third floor of the house. The calls are from Mr. Richard Mason, an unexpected visitor who had arrived from Jamaica earlier that day. Mr. Rochester asks Jane to stay with Mr. Mason while he rides to town for the doctor. Jane observes in horror that Mason is bleeding heavily from stab and bite wounds. Judging by his frantic cry- "She sucked my blood!"- he's been attacked by Grace Poole.

Before the house party ends, Jane is called back to Gateshead to the bedside of the dying Mrs. Reed. Mrs. Reed confesses that three years ago the brother of Jane's dead mother had written from Madeira saying that he wanted to adopt Jane and make her his heir. Out of spite, Mrs. Reed wrote back to the uncle, John Eyre, telling him that Jane died of typhus at Lowood School.

Jane returns to Thornfield, where it is expected that Mr. Rochester will soon marry Blanche Ingram. On Midsummer Eve, however, when Rochester tells Jane that he will have to find her another job after his marriage, she breaks down and reveals her love for him. Then he admits that it's she whom he's loved all along and asks her to marry him.

Two nights before the wedding, Jane awakes to find a strange woman standing over her bed- not Grace Poole, but someone far more frightening, with a swollen, blotchy face and wearing a shapeless white shift. The strange woman tears Jane's bridal veil in two and stomps on it. Rochester assures Jane that the stranger must have been Grace Poole and that her hideous appearance was only a nightmare.

It's the day of the wedding. The ceremony has already begun when it is interrupted by two men- Richard Mason and a lawyer from London, Mr. Briggs. Briggs announces that Rochester already has a wife, Bertha Mason, who is already living at Thornfield! Rochester confesses that his wife, hopelessly and violently insane, lives in the locked rooms on the third floor of the house. Mr. Briggs then reveals that he works for Jane's uncle, Mr. John Eyre, who knew the Mason family and was determined to keep his niece from making a bigamous marriage. (Jane had written to tell him she was getting married.)

Rochester tells Jane that he never loved Bertha and only married her at the urging of his father, who wanted his son to have a rich wife. Because the symptoms of Bertha's insanity were concealed from him before the wedding, he feels that the marriage was never morally valid. (Under the laws of England he cannot obtain a divorce.) He asks Jane to run away to France with him and live as his mistress. She refuses.

Early the next morning, Jane flees Thornfield, traveling as far away as she can on the little money she has. Hungry and destitute, she is taken in by two sisters, Diana and Mary Rivers. Their brother, St. John (sin'jun) Rivers, gets Jane work teaching at a charity school in the parish where he is a clergyman.

Fearful of scandal, Jane has not told her new friends her correct last name. Some months later, when St. John discovers her true identity by accident, he realizes that she is his missing cousin, Miss Eyre! What's more, he tells Jane that her uncle John Eyre has died and left her a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Jane decides to share the money with St. John, Diana, and Mary, who have been so kind to her and who are the family she has always yearned for.

St. John is a pale, cold man who brags to Jane that he is overcoming the tendencies of his earthly nature in order to prepare himself for a life of missionary service in India. Among the temptations he overcomes is his love for Rosamund Oliver, a beautiful and wealthy girl who wants to marry him. Because he thinks that Jane, plain and used to hardship as she is, would make a better missionary's wife, St. John proposes to her. Jane, after much inner struggle, rejects this offer of a cold, loveless marriage and decides that the time has come for her to find out what has become of Rochester.

But when Jane returns to Thornfield, she discovers that the house has been destroyed in a fire. Mad Bertha, who started the conflagration, leaped to her death from the burning roof of the house and Rochester, who was trying to rescue her, lost his left hand, one eye, and the sight in his remaining eye.

Jane seeks out Rochester at Ferndean, the isolated hunting lodge where he has been living a hermit's life. Reunited, they realize that they are still deeply in love and decide to marry. In the concluding chapter of the story, we learn that Jane and Rochester have been married for ten years and are idyllically happy.

THE CHARACTERS

MAJOR CHARACTERS

 

  • JANE EYRE

    In creating the character of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte did something that was very daring at the time: She presented her readers with a heroine who was not beautiful! In the first half of the 19th century, readers took it for granted that the heroines of novels were supposed to be beautiful, just as we assume that a high fashion model will be slender and glamorous. But Jane Eyre is described as small and plain, a rather mousy-looking young woman who will never be transformed into a femme fatale or a romantic beauty and has no interest in trying to become one.

    According to Charlotte Bronte's friend and biographer Mrs. Gaskell, even Charlotte's own sister Emily had her doubts about this decision. Who'd want to read about the adventures of an ordinary- looking heroine? What could possibly happen to such a character that would be interesting to anyone?

    A few early readers of the novel did react in exactly the way Emily predicted. One famous critic obviously had Jane Eyre in mind when he complained that the reader who purchased a novel only to find that its heroine was "an ugly lady" was the "victim" of a fraud. For the most part, however, Charlotte Bronte's gamble was successful. She had guessed correctly that her readers, whatever their own situation, would find it easy to identify with a character who had doubts about her looks and her attractiveness to others. Today we aren't surprised by a novel whose heroine is not only an outsider, but also a young woman who can't count on beauty to make life easier for her. In fact, the "small, plain" heroine of Jane Eyre has been copied so often that she has almost become a cliche. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Jane is the original of the character that we meet so often in romance novels.

    Jane Eyre's physical appearance wasn't the only feature that made her an unusual heroine in her day. Charlotte Bronte also broke with custom in insisting that a female character could be the emotional equal of a man. Writing in an era when many people seriously doubted that women were capable of strong emotions, Charlotte Bronte created a heroine who was deeply passionate and felt a need for adventure, excitement, and even a desire for work that matters in the larger scale of human accomplishment. For this reason, even though Jane Eyre is a love story told from a woman's point of view, it also appeals to many male readers.

    Jane's vivid imagination and strong emotions are the basis of her strength as a character, but we're also told that Jane's being "too passionate" is also a fault. How can this be? You'll find different answers to this question: Jane finds it hard to forgive people who treat her unjustly; she's carried away by her love for Mr. Rochester- even to the point of making him her "idol"- before she knows very much about his past or his true character; and even with St. John, whom she doesn't love, Jane is so susceptible to his influence that she almost makes a decision she knows to be wrong for her.

    There are always a few readers who feel disappointed when Jane, the rebel, ends up as a conventional wife and mother, totally devoted to her much older husband. You will have to read the story carefully in order to decide for yourself how much Jane's character changes over time. Is the mature woman, Jane Eyre, still basically the same personality as the child we meet in Chapter 1? Does becoming a wife mean that Jane has given up her emotional independence? Or has she found a new and more meaningful way of expressing herself in her relationship with Mr. Rochester?

    Most readers agree that Jane Eyre is a strong, compelling character. There is much more disagreement about the other characters in the novel. How believable are they? Can you accept them as real people in their own right? Or are they two-dimensional figures, who have no life of their own outside of Jane's perceptions of them?

     

  • MR. EDWARD ROCHESTER

    There are two main areas of controversy over the character of Mr. Rochester.

    The first argument has to do with his morals. Under English law at the time, a man whose wife became insane could not get a divorce. Mr. Rochester deals with this problem by hiding his mad wife away in the attic and trying to trick Jane into a bigamous marriage. When he is found out, and the wedding canceled at the last minute, he then asks Jane to run away to France with him and live as his mistress.

    Some readers are shocked by Rochester's actions. How could Jane ever love such a person? they ask. How could she ever forgive him for deceiving her?

    On the other hand, Rochester has his champions. These readers agree with Rochester when he argues that his first marriage was not a "real" marriage at all; it's just a legal technicality that he can't get a divorce. From this point of view, Jane should have agreed to go off to France with him. If she had done so, Rochester would never have been horribly wounded in the fire at Thornfield- and, incidentally, there would have been no story!

    How you feel about Rochester's action will depend on your views on personal responsibility. Even though Rochester didn't know his wife was insane, was he partly to blame for marrying a woman he hardly knew, just because she had money and the match was favored by his own father? Was Rochester justified in believing he had a right to happiness, even if it meant deceiving the woman he loved?

    Another controversy has nothing to do with Mr. Rochester's morals. Good or bad, is he believable? Some readers find Rochester quite realistic. They point out that many writers of Charlotte Bronte's day, men as well as women, would have been tempted to turn Mr. Rochester into a cardboard villain. Instead, Rochester is a man who has human weaknesses, but who is still worthy of love and forgiveness. However, there is another group of readers which does not find this view convincing in the least. One critic, David Cecil, complained that Rochester is "no flesh and blood man," but merely a fantasy lover as seen through the eyes of a naive and inexperienced young girl.

    Here's something that might help you in making up your own mind about him: Mr. Rochester belongs to a definite fictional type- the Byronic hero. This type, based on the work and life of the poet Lord Byron, is a proud, cynical rebel who refuses to submit to the rules of society. A true Byronic hero always labors under some sort of a curse. Often there is a taint of sin or scandal in his past which becomes forgivable only when we understand the true circumstances, which have been hidden from the rest of the world. Byronic heroes are usually handsome, but like Lord Byron himself, who was lame, they may have a physical handicap that only increases their sex appeal. Also, though outwardly he's a cynic, the Byronic hero is secretly an idealist. His sensitivity can only be revealed, however, when he manages to find a superior woman who can understand his true nature.

    As you read the book, or when you're thinking back over it, try to find some of the ways in which Mr. Rochester fits this description. For instance, he tells Jane that his various mistresses were only distractions from his ten-year search for his "ideal of a woman" (Chapter 27). On the other hand, also look for ways in which Charlotte Bronte tried to go against the type. Mr. Rochester is not at all handsome (or, at least, her heroine doesn't think so). And we often see him in very un-Byronic, and even ludicrous situations- falling off his horse, for example (and that's the first time we see him!), or dressing up in a silly gypsy's costume in order to try to find out whether Jane loves him. In the beginning, Rochester is the worldly older man who teases Jane Eyre about her elflike nature. But soon enough, he admits that her influence over him is very real. "You master me," he tells Jane in Chapter 24. And by the end of the story, he has come around to accepting her view of morality and her belief in God.

    Charlotte Bronte certainly seems to have intended Mr. Rochester to be a realistic character. In a letter to her publisher, Bronte wrote: "Mr. Rochester has a thoughtful nature and a very feeling heart; he is neither selfish nor self-indulgent... [he] errs, when he does err, through rashness and inexperience.... He is taught the severe lessons of experience and has the sense to learn wisdom from them. Years improve him.... Such, at least, is the character I meant to portray."

    You'll have to decide for yourself whether this description fits the character you meet in the pages of Jane Eyre.

     

  • MR. BROCKLEHURST

    When Jane Eyre was first published, the obvious resemblance of the character of Mr. Brocklehurst to the real Rev. Carus Wilson, whose school Charlotte and her sisters attended, created a sensation. Many of Mr. Wilson's friends and former pupils rushed to his defense, accusing Charlotte Bronte of exaggerating the hardships at the school and unfairly accusing Mr. Wilson of hypocrisy (particularly since, unlike the character of Brocklehurst, Mr. Wilson did not have a wife and daughters who lived in luxury).

    Whether or not Charlotte Bronte was fair to Mr. Wilson,- it would be hard to argue that Mr. Brocklehurst is a well-rounded creation. However, it is interesting to know that Bronte was being entirely realistic in the scene where Mr. Brocklehurst threatens ten-year-old Jane with hellfire for her childish misbehavior. In real life, the Reverend Mr. Wilson not only forbade his pupils to read novels, he expected them to read stories he wrote himself about the horrible things that happen to little boys and girls who disobey. In one typical story, a little boy violates the Sabbath by going ice skating on Sunday. What happens? He promptly falls through a patch of thin ice, drowns, and goes to hell. And in a true account of an eleven-year-old who died while a student at his school, Mr. Wilson wrote that his reaction was one of rejoicing that God had taken one of the best-behaved children in school- "the one for whose salvation we have the best hope"- since her death may "be the means of rousing many of her schoolfellows to seek the Lord while he may still be found."

     

  • HELEN BURNS

    Unlike Mr. Brocklehurst, who is a "a harsh man; at once pompous and meddling"- the very picture of a religious hypocrite- Helen Burns is meant to be sympathetic. Not everyone finds her so. For every reader who admires Helen's saintliness and weeps at her death, there will be another who decides that Helen is too good to be true.

    Before you jump to the conclusion that the episodes involving Helen are sentimental and unconvincing, you should remember that in those days the death of children was a fairly common fact of life. People in general were much more aware of the possibility that they might die at any time. Not everyone was as gloomy as Mr. Brocklehurst, by any means, but both adults and children talked openly and often about death to a degree we might find almost morbid. We know that Charlotte Bronte had a real-life model for Helen in her own sister Maria, who fell ill at Cowan Bridge school and died a few days after being sent home. And, ironically, at the very time that Charlotte Bronte was writing about Jane Eyre's failure to see the seriousness of Helen's consumption, she was ignoring the early symptoms of the disease in herself, her brother, and her two sisters.

    Even knowing this, maybe you still find yourself wondering whether any real child ever talked the way Helen Burns does in the story. The way Helen is described, she is by no means without faults: she has dirty fingernails, breaks the school rules by reading novels in secret, and so on. Yet you may feel, as some readers do, that in the conversations between Jane and Helen about religion, the author has lost touch with her characters and is setting up an artificial debate between two different philosophical view-points.

     

  • BERTHA MASON ROCHESTER

    Mr. Rochester's first wife is hardly a full-fledged character at all. We see her only as a ghostly figure, who roams the halls of Thornfield house in the middle of the night, setting fire to her husband's bed and frightening Jane. In this sense, Bertha is nothing more than an unusually realistic and effective horror story monster. Jane actually sees Bertha only twice: once when Bertha invades her bedroom in the middle of the night, and once in Chapter 27 where Bertha is described as follows: "What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal..." In support of the view that Bertha is nothing more than a device for moving the plot along, notice that even Mr. Rochester's description of her earlier life is curiously vague and unsympathetic. Also, once the time comes for Jane and Rochester to be reunited, Bertha conveniently commits suicide in the fire she starts at Thornfield Hall.

    In recent years, feminist critics have become more interested in what the person Bertha Mason means in the story of Jane Eyre. In their view, Helen Burns represents the spiritual side of Jane Eyre's nature while Bertha Mason symbolizes her uncontrolled passion. Note that in Chapter I, when Jane resists John Reed's bullying, he calls her a "bad animal." And in Chapter 2, Jane is locked in the red-room bedroom because her behaviour has been so "passionate."

    Bertha Mason has also fascinated modern women novelists. Jean Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea is an entire novel written about the youth and early marriage of Rochester's mad wife. Another contemporary novel, Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, while not explicitly based on Jane Eyre, concerns a modern housekeeper, romantically involved with her employer, who discovers that his mentally ill wife lives in the basement of the house. You might find it interesting to compare 20th-century views of the mad wife in these novels with the Bertha Mason we meet in Jane Eyre.

     

  • ST. JOHN RIVERS

    Just as Edward Rochester is the foil and object of Jane Eyre's passion, St. John (sin'jun) is the character who reflects Jane's sometimes contradictory ideas about duty and spirituality. St. John is constantly described in terms of images of coldness: He is called cold-hearted and frigid. "His reserve was again frozen over, and my frankness was congealed beneath it... he continually made little chilling differences between us..." Jane says (Chapter 34). At times St. John seems to take a perverse pleasure in torturing himself. He ignores the inner voices that tell him he's made a wrong decision in entering the ministry. Although "wildly" in love with the beautiful, rich Rosamond Oliver, he finds an excuse to reject her. He seems to relish the prospect of dying young in the tropical heat of India. On the other hand, Jane cannot help admiring St. John for his dedication. While she is planning to spend her new fortune in leisure at Moor House, St. John is preparing to renounce everything to go out into the world and do good works.

    Notice that St. John is often described in a way that recalls characters we've met earlier in the story. St. John reminds Jane of a "cold, cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place." Mr. Brocklehurst is described as "a black pillar" (Chapter 4). Like Brocklehurst, St. John subscribes to a grim view of religion, which he seeks to impose on others. But is St. John also a hypocrite? Some readers say no. Unlike Brocklehurst, he is prepared to follow the same harsh rules he would prescribe for others. Others disagree. Who but a hypocrite, they say, would try to convince a woman to marry him by telling her that it is the will of God? St. John wants Jane's total devotion, but is willing to give nothing in return.

    St. John is also frequently compared to Helen Burns. "Burn" is a Scottish word meaning "stream" or "brook"; St. John's last name is Rivers. According to this interpretation, Helen, a child, is able to submit to God's will directly and simply. St. John, an adult, cannot submit to God's call except through an intense struggle, which destroys a part of himself.

    Some readers even see certain likenesses between St. John and Mr. Rochester. Although opposites in temperament, both men do try to trick Jane into marriage- Rochester by hiding the existence of his wife and St. John by convincing Jane that she must marry him for the sake of duty. Both are also described as frequently moody and withdrawn. Are these similarities purposeful? Probably so, although a few readers have suggested that Charlotte Bronte simply did not have a wide repertoire when it came to male characters on account of her own narrow experience with men. (Bronte was so sensitive to this particular criticism that she began her next novel, Shirley, with a scene in which all of the characters are male.)

    There is no one correct judgment on St. John. If you are religious, you'll probably admire his struggle to turn himself into an instrument of God's will. If you are interested in psychology, you're probably more likely to conclude that he hasn't really conquered his earthly desires, just rechanneled them in another direction. Jane Eyre's own judgment of St. John swings dramatically from one scene to the next. In rejecting St. John's proposal of marriage she tells him angrily, "You almost hate me. If I were to marry you, you would kill me. You are killing me now." Yet not long after, in a calmer mood, she tells Diana Rivers, "He is a good and great man: but he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuing his own large views."

    The final paragraphs of the novel present yet a third view of St. John, comparing him favorably to Greatheart, the Christian warrior in Pilgrim's Progress: "Firm, faithful, and devoted; full of energy and zeal, and truth, he labours for his race.... He may be stern; he may be exacting: he may be ambitious yet; but his is the sternness of Greatheart.... His is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks for Christ when he says- 'Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.'"

SOME MINOR CHARACTERS

 

  • MISS MARIA TEMPLE

    The superintendent of Mr. Brocklehurst's school. Miss Temple befriends Jane, yet you may ask yourself whether she does all she can to stand up to Mr. Brocklehurst's stern edicts, She is a sympathetic character but perhaps not a strong one.

     

  • THE REED FAMILY

    John Reed, the bully who attacks Jane in Chapter 1, grows up to lead an immoral life and commits suicide while still in his twenties. As for the unloving Mrs. Reed and her two unattractive daughters, Eliza and Georgiana, some readers have noticed that they resemble the wicked stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella. If so, then it's interesting to see that by Chapter 21, when Jane returns to visit Gateshead, the Reeds have already lost their power to make her miserable. Why? Has falling in love transformed Jane into a Cinderella after the ball? Or is some other change in Jane's character responsible?

     

  • MRS. FAIRFAX

    The housekeeper at Thornfield is a reassuring figure- neat, sensible, and cheerful. Some readers have also noted, however, that Mrs. Fairfax is also a weak link in the plot. Although she runs the mansion and supervises the servants, Mrs. Fairfax is supposedly unaware that Mr. Rochester is keeping his insane wife on the third floor of the house. Do you find this believable? The novel is vague about how much Mrs. Fairfax may have suspected, and you will notice that, after the truth about Bertha Mason is revealed, Mrs. Fairfax drops out of sight. It would be interesting to hear how she might explain her ignorance of the secret of the house, but we never get the chance.

     

  • BLANCHE INGRAM

    No characterization in Jane Eyre has been the target of as much negative criticism as that of Blanche Ingram. Blanche is an elegant young lady from a titled family who flirts outrageously with Mr. Rochester and, for a time, hopes to marry him. You will notice that Blanche is described as being tall, with an excellent figure and a complexion "as dark as a Spaniard." This might sound to you like the description of a beautiful woman, but you will find that Charlotte Bronte, who was as tiny and pale as Jane Eyre herself, rarely has a good word to say about women who are either large or dark-skinned, or both. Blanche sprinkles her conversation with affected French phrases; she makes fun of another houseguest, Mrs. Dent, who knows less than she does about botany; and she pouts openly after Rochester, dressed as a gypsy, leads her to believe that he's not rich after all.

    Some readers, including many who read Jane Eyre at the time of its publication, have considered Blanche a fair representative of the spoiled, aristocratic belles of her day. Others can't help suspecting that the portrait of Blanche has been distorted by Jane's- and perhaps even the author's own- feelings of jealousy.

 

OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

In the 1840s, when Jane Eyre was written, there were very few ways in which an educated woman could earn her own living. Poor girls might go to work as a house servant or in a factory, but the conditions in these jobs were so bad, and their status so low, that no young woman from a "good" family would consider these alternatives except in extreme desperation. That left teaching, usually as a governess with a wealthy family, as just about the only respectable occupation.

Governesses lived with the families they worked for, so they lived in fairly comfortable surroundings. However, their cash wages were very low, so their work gave them no real financial independence. For the most part, they led lonely and unsatisfying lives. Their status was higher than that of the other servants- and too much mixing with the help was frowned on!- yet they weren't accepted as part of the family either. Unless a governess happened to be unusually attractive, her chances of finding a husband were slim. Most marriages at the time were based on family connections or financial considerations, and an educated woman with no dowry had almost no chance of getting married. Since they didn't have much hope of saving money out of their low salaries, all that most governesses could look forward to was a lonely and uncertain old age, dependent on the kindness of the families they had served.

There had been governess-heroines before Jane Eyre, but they were portrayed as plucky and beautiful- an outsider's fantasy of the independent woman. Jane Eyre was the first successful look at the reality of the governess's life. It's not really necessary to know much about the 19th century in order to enjoy the story of Jane Eyre, but you'll understand some of Jane's actions a little better if you keep in mind that she's a governess. Jane Eyre is a plain-looking young woman who has been in an all-girl school since she was ten years old. She hasn't had any chance to learn about the ways of gentlemen like Mr. Rochester or about the male sex in general. By the standards of the time, Jane is quite bold in talking to Mr. Rochester as an equal. But when she realizes that his interest in her is romantic, she has to assume that it's not marriage he has in mind. This explains why she is very cautious about revealing her feelings for him. Also, although she works for Mr. Rochester for some months, Jane has very little cash of her own. When she goes to visit the Reeds, Rochester gives her extra money for the trip. And when she decides that she must leave Thornfield rather than become his mistress, Jane has only twenty shillings to her name- just enough money to pay her fare for a two-day trip to a distant part of England.

Governesses were working women. But their security and freedom were very precarious. This is why Jane Eyre is powerfully drawn to the possibility of becoming dependent on a man- either through becoming Mr. Rochester's mistress or St. John Rivers' wife. Yet at the same time, she is also afraid, because her decision, once made, will be forever.

THEMES

How can I find someone to love me? And how can I tell whether the person who loves me is worthy of being loved in return? All of us ask ourselves these questions. For Jane Eyre, the heroine of this story, the prospects of finding happiness in love don't seem very good. At the beginning of the novel, Jane is a poor orphan. Her only known relatives, the Reeds, do not want her. She isn't a pretty girl, and perhaps more important, she doesn't have the knack for pleasing people. As a child, Jane is starved for affection. "If others don't love me, I would rather die than live!" she tells Helen, her only true friend. Yet part of her problem in winning the love of others is that she is "too passionate"- that is, angry, rebellious, and prone to retreat into her own richly imaginative inner world for solace.

Even though circumstances are against Jane, she isn't ready to settle for a man's love on any terms that are offered. She's deeply skeptical of organized religion, but she believes in God. She also has a strong sense of pride and self-respect. So she can only be happy with a man if she can reconcile that love with her love of God and her love for herself. That's a tall order! To fill it, Jane must be prepared to struggle, both against external circumstances and with her own failings and weaknesses.

All readers agree that Jane Eyre is a love story. However, they often disagree about just what kind of a love story it is. Many readers are impressed by Jane Eyre's insistence on emotional equality with her lover and see a feminist message in the story. They point to the strong feminist views expressed by Jane in Chapter 12, where she says, "Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do..." Other readers feel that Jane's search for a way to reconcile her need for love with her search for a way of life acceptable to God is the most important idea in the story. And still others find it hard to take either the social or religious aspects of the story very seriously. For them, the elements of mystery, horror, and thrilling emotional extremes make the book a romantic fantasy. A fourth point of view is that Jane Eyre is a story about the problems of growing up as an outsider without the support of family or a recognized place in society- a story rather like Dickens' David Copperfield, except that the main character happens to be female.

In reading Jane Eyre, you may find that just one of these views matches your own reactions to the story. Or you may find yourself deciding that Jane Eyre fits more than one of these categories. Jane Eyre is a very personal book, and it affects different readers in different ways.

One thing is certain: Jane Eyre is a novel that's meant to be enjoyed, not just picked apart to search for hidden meanings. For well over a century, readers of both sexes, all ages, and widely different educational backgrounds have been entertained by the novel's gripping story. An understanding of the themes and literary artistry of the novel can deepen your pleasure. However, you don't need any special kind of knowledge in order to understand and identify with the story of Jane Eyre's search for love.

STYLE

Many readers think that Charlotte Bronte's writing style is her greatest weakness. The style of Jane Eyre is highly charged with emotion, almost feverish in its intensity. You'll find sentence after sentence stuffed with lush adjectives and sensual images. Sometimes the words almost seem to have spilled out onto the page in a headlong, uncontrolled rush of feeling. From time to time, you may even feel that the author has lost track of what she means to say. One sentence often mentioned as an example of this occurs in Chapter 15, where we read of Mr. Rochester: "Pain, shame, ire- impatience, disgust, detestation- seemed momentarily to hold a quivering conflict in the large pupil dilating under his ebony eyebrow." If all this is going on in just one of Rochester's eyes, what can possibly be happening to the other?

If you are the sort of person who prefers writers who are always in control of their prose, and who can describe subtle shadings of emotion, you may find that you become impatient with Charlotte Bronte's style. Bronte is often compared negatively with Jane Austen, whose writing is more restrained, allowing for sharp and witty observations of character and social mores.

On the other hand, most readers agree that the prose style of the novel fits very well with the headstrong, emotional character of the narrator, Jane Eyre. Would you find it easy to believe that Jane was a "passionate" person if she told her story in cool, elegant language? Wouldn't you be more skeptical about some of her frightening experiences at Thornfield if they were told that way? It's possible to be critical of some aspects of Charlotte Bronte's writing and still feel that, on the whole, it's her style that draws readers into the conflicts of the story. Because the language is emotionally powerful, we're able to identify with Jane Eyre, instead of simply pronouncing judgments on her personality.

POINT OF VIEW

Jane Eyre is a first-person narrative, related in the voice of the protagonist, or heroine. Jane Eyre is the "I" of the story, the person whose voice we hear as we read, and everything that happens is seen from her point of view. Nowhere in the novel does the author break the flow of the narrator's voice to give us an objective view of her main character. However, she does remind us once in a while that the story is being told by Jane as a mature woman, looking back on events that happened some years earlier. The mature Jane occasionally comments on the younger Jane's reactions to those events, and sometimes she even addresses you, the Reader, directly. You'll also find occasions where her narrative includes long stories told to Jane by other characters (such as Rochester's accounts of his past), conversations that Jane overhears between other characters, and even accounts of Jane's dreams. These not only add variety to the style but give the reader a chance to check up on the truthfulness of the narrator.

It's important to remember that in a first-person narrative like Jane Eyre we know only what the main character tells us. You may well suspect as you read that Jane's opinions aren't always entirely objective- another sort of person might see the events of the story and the personalities of the various characters in an entirely different light. This isn't necessarily a weakness in the novel; in fact, it may be one of its strengths.

But you'll truly enjoy Jane Eyre only if you feel a basic trust in the narrator. For the novel to be a success for you, you must be able to imagine that, in Jane's shoes, you might well have felt and acted as she did.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Jane Eyre is the story of one young woman, told in her own voice and in chronological order, as it happened. In this sense, the structure of the novel is very simple. One critic, Robert Bernard Martin, has gone a step farther in analyzing the form of Jane Eyre. He compares the novel to a five-act play, divided according to the five different places where Jane lives during the course of her life- the Reeds' house, Gateshead; Lowood school; Thornfield; Moor House; and Ferndean. Each time Jane Journeys to a new locale she's ready to begin another stage in her emotional life, and her journeys are described in a way that builds the reader's suspense.

On another level, however, the plot of Jane Eyre is very complicated. Suspense plays a large role in the story. In chapter after chapter, Jane finds an answer to one question that has been bothering her only to be confronted with yet another mystery or dilemma. In the end, some of these questions are resolved through melodramatic and highly improbable coincidences. Many of these coincidences are set in motion by Jane's long-lost uncle, John Eyre- a character we're never told about in the beginning of the story, and who never actually appears in person. Some readers feel that an author who constructs a plot in this way is not quite playing fair with them; they feel cheated. Other readers don't mind at all. And a third group argues that since Jane Eyre is a novel that deals with horror, the supernatural, and the secrets of the human heart, we shouldn't hold the plot to the same standard of probability we might demand in a more realistic story. You'll have to decide for yourself which view you agree with.

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