91 pages 3 hours read

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1847

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Summary and Study Guide


Jane Eyre: An Autobiography is a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel, written by Charlotte Brontë and originally published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Currer Bell by Smith, Elder & Co. of London. Through Jane’s life and experiences, Brontë examines social issues including religious hypocrisy, class discrimination, and sexism. Many literary theorists and biographers—including Brontë’s friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell—have also noted numerous similarities between the novel’s events and Brontë’s personal history.

The novel has been widely adapted into plays, operas, films, and television series. Jane Eyre has also been the subject of significant feminist theoretical texts, such as The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and literary reinterpretations, such as Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. This guide refers to the Project Gutenberg eBook edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

When Jane Eyre opens, its narrator, a 10-year-old orphan named Jane, is living with the Reeds, her maternal uncle’s family, in a manor called Gateshead. Jane’s embittered Aunt Reed sees her as a burden, encouraging her children to mistreat and exclude Jane. When Jane retaliates against her particularly cruel, tyrannical cousin John Reed, her Aunt punishes her by locking her in the “red-room”—the room where Jane’s Uncle Reed died—and then sends her to a nearby boarding school called Lowood. Before Jane departs, she confronts her aunt about her cruel mistreatment.

Led by its vicious and hypocritical headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst, Lowood treats its students even more harshly, with punishments meted out for even the slightest perceived infractions. Only Jane’s new friend Helen and her kind teacher Miss Temple offer Jane any consolation. Lowood’s students lack basic needs like nourishing food, clean water, and insulation from the winter cold—ostensibly to build their Christian character, though Mr. Brocklehurst profits from these cutbacks. When a typhus epidemic strikes, many of the girls become gravely ill, having been made susceptible by the school’s poor conditions. Helen tragically dies in Jane’s arms.

After the typhus epidemic, new leadership takes over Lowood and makes it into a much better institution. Jane stays on as a student and then a teacher for eight years, until she accepts a post as a governess at a country manor called Thornfield.

There, Jane teaches a young French girl named Adèle, the ward of Thornfield’s mysterious owner, Mr. Edward Rochester. Jane meets Mr. Rochester when he is thrown from his horse. As he summons Jane for evening conversations, the two quickly learn that they share many interests and eccentricities, and they establish themselves as intellectual equals. Jane struggles with her romantic feelings for Mr. Rochester, since he intends to marry a beautiful woman named Blanche Ingram. As time passes and the two grow increasingly close, Mr. Rochester abandons the idea of marrying Blanche and offers an impassioned proposal to Jane.

A man named Mr. Mason interrupts their wedding: Mr. Rochester cannot legally marry Jane because he is already married. Mr. Rochester confesses: His father tricked him into marrying the wealthy Bertha Mason, ignoring her incipient mental illness and violent outbursts. To protect both the community and himself from her, Mr. Rochester has kept Bertha locked in the attic for 15 years, in the care of a woman named Grace Poole. Mr. Rochester begs Jane to run away with him, but despite her love for him, Jane staunchly refuses becoming his mistress. She flees Thornfield.

She wanders until she reaches the house of governesses Diana and Mary and their brother, a clergyman named St. John Rivers. The cold and severe St. John learns Jane’s identity and tells her that her uncle, John Eyre, recently passed away and left her 20,000 pounds. He also reveals that John Eyre was his own uncle, making him and Jane cousins. Jane is delighted to learn that she has living relatives and insists on dividing the inheritance equally between herself, Diana, Mary, and St. John.

St. John feels called to serve as a missionary in India and asks Jane to join him. He does not love Jane, but feels that her hardworking, steadfast demeanor would make her an ideal missionary’s wife. Jane tells St. John that she will go to India with him, but she cannot marry him because they are not in love.

Soon after, Jane mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester’s voice calling her from a great distance. She swiftly returns to Thornfield, now a charred ruin. At a local inn, she learns that Bertha set Thornfield on fire before jumping from the roof. Badly burned, Mr. Rochester lost his eyesight in the fire. Jane finds Mr. Rochester living at a remote cottage in the woods. Jane affirms that she loves him and is content to remain by his side for the rest of their lives. They marry, and Mr. Rochester eventually recovers some of his eyesight. He is thus able to see the face of his newborn son. 

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