“Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised as in that hour left my lips: for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love.”
We begin with Jane as a child, with her parents deceased, living in the unhappy household of her aunt and cousins. This side of her family is rich, while she is dirt poor. These figures torment her for her poverty, until she gets sent off to a Christian school for women called Lowood run by a man named Mr. Brocklehurst. There she is forced to live an ascetic lifestyle, but with the payoff of a fabulous education. At the school, she meets her friend Helen Burns who accepts the miseries of this world as a given; her friend soon dies of a sickness spreading throughout Lowood. After a stint of teaching at Lowood, Jane Eyre is hired to teach and be the governess for Mr. Rochester’s illegitimate daughter at Thornfield. In her tenure there she falls in love with Mr. Rochester, seemingly competing with the attentions of other haughty ladies of his social class. She believes she stands no chance at winning his affections being poor and of a lower class, but it turns out that he reciprocates her feelings. However, a terrible secret keeps them apart—a madwoman lives in the attic who happens to be Mr. Rochester’s first wife. When Jane finds out about this secret on her wedding day, she runs off from Thornfield and ends up meeting her impoverished cousins from the other side of the family a few towns over who give her food and shelter. She soon inherits money from an uncle, and almost marries her cousin, St. John Rivers, a demanding and tyrannical preacher who wants to perform missionary work in India. She turns him down multiple times because he doesn’t love her. One night she seriously decides to consider his offer of marriage, until a premonition sends her back to Mr. Rochester. She returns to a broken man, blind, and full of hatred for life, until her love heals him.
Although it’s a great book, it’s important to remember that the Great Works were written by human beings and are not flawless. This novel has one too many coincidences as part of its plot structure. Only Bronte’s interesting characters, elegant prose, and liberal and intelligent use of foreshadowing saves the structure from falling apart. When Jane returns to the burnt down ruins of Mr. Rochester’s home at the end, we practically expect this destruction due to earlier foreshadowing in the form of a dream that Jane has about these events. When Jane just happens to meet her cousins later on in the narrative we accept this rather implausible coincidence as inevitable because a maid working for the rich cousins at the beginning of the novel mentions to Jane about the other side of her family, opening up the possibility of living with them if Jane so chooses, and sowing the seeds into the reader of the likelihood that Jane will eventually meet them somewhere in the novel. Nevertheless, no one would mistake this for a realistic novel. It pays homage to the atmosphere and tropes of the Gothic novel with its creepy mysteries and deranged woman hidden in the attic, while its buoyancy of spirit, symbolic use of nature, and larger than life heroine and hero (Jane and Mr. Rochester) fit into the Romantic tradition.
The interplay between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester provides the narrative center of the story. Jane must negotiate a relationship based on love and equality in a patriarchal world where poor women are the playthings of rich men, and easily cast aside on a whim. Poverty is one of Jane’s central problems. Jane’s aunt and cousins mistreat her and view her as belligerent and malcontent because of her poverty. Jane experiences worse poverty than before at Lowood where meals are sparse and the students starve. She fears Mr. Rochester will never love her back because they are not social equals. She suffers from starvation, the worst effect of poverty, when she flees from Mr. Rochester after learning the truth about his first wife, proving to be the harshest depiction of poverty in the novel. And then she finds her impoverished cousins. Even Jane who grows used to the good life at Thornfield witnesses firsthand how money can transform a person’s viewpoint. She makes these observations about her new students in town:
“Some time elapsed before, with all my efforts, I could comprehend my scholars and their nature. Wholly untaught, with faculties quite torpid, they seemed to me hopelessly dull; and, at first sight, all dull alike: but I soon found I was mistaken. There was a difference amongst them as amongst the educated; and when I got to know them, and they me, this difference rapidly developed itself. Their amazement at me, my language, my rules, and ways, once subsided, I found some of these heavy-looking, gaping rustics wake up into sharp-witted girls enough. . . . and I discovered amongst them not a few examples of natural politeness, and innate self-respect, as well as of excellent capacity, that won my goodwill and my admiration.”
She assumes wrongly that her rustic impoverished students will be rude, selfish, self-loathing, dim-witted, stupid, and disrespectful, even though, she herself has experienced the pain such assumptions about money and class can create. These class-oriented stereotypes manage to fool her even though she has experienced such stereotypes directed at her.
The gender element is also significant in the novel. Jane Eyre is a proto-feminist, struggling to maintain her personal identity against her genuine love for Mr. Rochester. At first, he tries to change her, demanding she wear pretty silks and dresses and give up being a governess. She struggles at first with these demands, but finds her voice and challenges him. Ironically, it is her nature to challenge authority, her independent spirit, and lack of ceremony that initially attracts Mr. Rochester to her. If she had allowed him to change her it would’ve destroyed the very thing that attracted him to her in the first place. Still, after Jane leaves him she ends up in an even more restrictive situation with her cousin St. John Rivers. This little demagogue of a preacher tries to change her into a subservient and obedient wife, and almost succeeds. What is interesting about these depictions is that the type of woman Mr. Rivers tries to make Jane is the complete opposite of Mr. Rochester’s attempt to transform her. Mr. Rochester’s Jane would’ve been a gaudy, spoiled, lazy wife of a gentleman whose every whim would’ve been doted upon, while Mr. River’s Jane would’ve been a work-horse, laboring and sweating and obeying her husband for the sake of his work as a Christian missionary in India. She almost does marry her cousin, but true love wins in the end. She listens to her own heart and returns to Mr. Rochester, which is a statement of female agency. She chose who she will marry on her own terms. She finds him a broken and crippled man. It is through her that Mr. Rochester heals and regains his former life and happiness. Their love exists on the basis of equality.
“I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.”
Another theme that is explored throughout the book is Christianity and religious belief. Jane seems to oscillate between different positions of religious belief, finding the whole idea of God to be incredulous at times, but also too frightened to violate the moral boundaries of Christian belief. Helen Burns, her friend at Lowood school, accepts her punishments meekly at the hands of her tormentors, but nevertheless believes a paradise awaits her after death. She goes to her death without any fear, but seems too submissive to Jane when turning the other cheek and accepting the rebuke of others. St. John Rivers sacrifices his own love for a minor character named Mrs. Oliver and wants to marry Jane instead because she would be the better wife for a preacher, even though he doesn’t love Jane. He believes one should forsake all their own happiness to labor in the name of the Lord. Mr Brocklehurst, a minister and the master of Lowood School, practices extreme hypocrisy by demanding an ascetic existence from his charges at the school, but living a life of luxury for himself and his family. Too much submissiveness, sacrificing of one’s own happiness for the sake of duty, and hypocrisy color this relatively negative portrait of Christianity as it appears in this novel. However, Jane hears the voice of Mr. Rochester calling for her in the form of a premonition shortly asking for a sign from God to answer whether she should marry St. John Rivers or not. This is the moment when Jane seems to come to terms with God; miracles sometimes do happen. So one needs to be careful in assuming the book is anti-religion or anti-Christianity, instead the book criticizes extreme forms of Christian practices when it gets in the way of achieving true happiness.
Bronte’s point in this novel then seems to be exploring the ways a person can negotiate through all the hindrances and expectations of one’s own culture and society in order to find their own little slice of happiness. Jane wants an existence where she can live comfortably, morally, independently, but with the man she loves, while overcoming poverty, class, gender, and religious restrictions that threaten to prevent her from achieving those goals.