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Understanding Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is a Bildungsroman novel, following orphaned Jane from youth into adulthood. Opening with a troubled childhood with her remaining family (the Reeds), Jane is mistreated and then sent away to Lowood School. The hardships continue, with Jane still facing injustice – and showing episodes of trying to fight it. A friendship develops with a character named Helen Burns, and one teacher guides Jane towards a better future.

Jane becomes a governess when she leaves school. A close bond forms between Jane and her employer, Mr Rochester. This leads to a dark secret being revealed on their wedding day when it is uncovered that Mr Rochester is already married. His wife, Bertha Mason, has been contained and hidden inside the house, believed by Rochester to be ‘insane’.

Being very distraught, Jane flees, nearly dies, and is then found by a character called St John Rivers. Jane ends up rejecting his proposal for marriage as she longs for true love (like the feelings she had for Rochester). In the end, Jane returns to Thornfield Hall, where Bertha Mason has set fire to the building. Rochester is left in the aftermath, having gone blind and left with nothing. Jane and Rochester reunite with love and equality now in their relationship.

Character List

  • Jane Eyre: The protagonist and narrator of the novel. An orphaned girl who faces adversity throughout her life. She evolves from a mistreated child to a principled and morally resilient young woman.
  • Edward Rochester: The mysterious master of Thornfield Hall. He becomes Jane’s employer and later, her lover.
  • St John (Sinjin) Rivers: A clergyman who helps Jane after she flees Thornfield. He later proposes marriage to Jane, but for practical rather than romantic reasons.
  • Mrs Reed: Jane’s cruel aunt, with whom Jane is forced to live after her parents’ deaths.
  • Bertha Mason: Rochester’s first wife, who is mentally ill and kept locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall.
  • Richard Mason: Bertha’s brother, who visits Thornfield from the West Indies and is attacked during his stay.
  • Adele Varens: A young French girl under Rochester’s care. Jane is employed as her governess.
  • Helen Burns: Jane’s close friend at Lowood School. She endures her hardships with a passive dignity, and her death deeply affects Jane.
  • Mr Brocklehurst: The hypocritical and cruel headmaster of Lowood School, which Jane attends as a girl.
  • Miss Temple: A kind teacher at Lowood who offers Jane protection and instruction.
  • Blanche Ingram: A beautiful but snobbish woman who tries to marry Rochester for his wealth.

Chapters 1 to 10: Jane’s Early Life

In Jane’s early life, she recalls (as an adult narrator) the turbulent hardships of living with her cousins and Aunt Reed. One of the most traumatic moments recorded in Jane’s first-person narrative is being shut inside “the red room” for punishment.

Jane is continually seeking justice in a world where she is offered none. When Jane is accepted into Lowood School by Mr Brocklehurst, she thinks she is offered an escape from the Reeds. However, Jane still faces prejudice and hypocrisy there. This is mainly due to the headteacher’s archaic Old Testament beliefs: children who are ‘wicked’ will go to ‘hell’.

Accused unjustly of being a “liar” whilst at the school, and facing public humiliation on a stool, Jane finds solace in the characters of Helen Burns and Miss Temple, who show kindness and fairness to Jane. Helen also represents a more evangelical view of benevolence in Christianity. However, this momentary period of happiness is interrupted by illness, reflecting the reality of Victorian disease, when Helen dies of tuberculosis.

Eight years later, narrator Jane records witnessing some improvements at Lowood School.

Chapters 11 to 27: Jane’s time at Thornfield

Now as a young adult, Jane Eyre becomes a governess at Thornfield and is responsible for teaching Adele, who is under the care of Mr. Rochester. After settling in as Adele’s governess, Jane meets a stranger on horseback. A budding romance emerges between Mr Rochester and Jane, and Jane saves Mr Rochester when his bedroom mysteriously catches fire.

When wealthy neighbours visit Thornfield, Jane is disappointed in the potential romance between Mr Rochester and Blanche Ingram, who is of similar social status to Mr Rochester. In chapter 20, Mason’s mysterious injury introduces gothic elements to the novel and hints to readers that something is wrong in the household.

Rochester thinks he can change “plain Jane” and offers her a marriage proposal. However, Jane faces further tragedy when finding out (on her wedding day) that her husband-to-be already has a wife. Chapter 25 introduces Bertha Mason, whom Rochester has hidden away in his attic. Her anguished character is the cause of the ‘mysterious’ happenings.

Even though Rochester confesses, Jane is not willing to submit or entertain his apology. In her despair, she flees Thornfield.

Chapter 28 to 39: Jane’s Escape

Running yet again from another dire situation, Jane finds herself on the Yorkshire moors, where she nearly dies. She is picked up and taken to the home of St John Rivers and his two sisters. Jane seems to settle in here; the protagonist is able to get her own cottage and teach at the local school. It is here that Jane sees St John’s romantic feelings for the local beauty, Miss Rosamund Oliver.

Jane becomes an heiress when Aunt Reed dies and the inheritance from her uncle finds its way back to Jane. At this point, the protagonist learns she has some relatives (cousins) with whom she shares the fortune.

Rosamund does not receive a marriage proposal from St John, because he does not feel she will make for a good “missionary’s wife”. Whilst St John detaches himself from this potential match, he decides to propose to Jane instead, because he thinks that she would make a better “missionary’s wife”. However, Jane is hurt at the suggestion, determined that she would never marry without love. St John cannot even fathom this concept.

It is significant that at this point, Jane hears Rochester calling out for her across the moors. She returns to Thornfield and discovers it has burnt to the ground and is now in ruins. Jane uncovers Mr Rochester there, where he is now blind and stripped of his social standing and wealth. Jane now believes that she can truly be loved by him. She playfully reminds Rochester of his proposal, showcasing her independence and strength as a character.

The novel’s final line concludes: “Reader, I married him.”

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