When Jane Eyre was first published in 1847, it was an immediate popular and critical success. George Lewes, a famous Victorian literary critic declared it "the best novel of the season." It also, however, met with criticism. In a famous attack in the Quarterly Review of December 1848, Elizabeth Rigby called Jane a "personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit" and the novel as a whole, "anti-Christian." Rigby's critique perhaps accounts for some of the novel's continuing popularity: the rebelliousness of its tone. Jane Eyre calls into question most of society's major institutions, including education, family, social class, and Christianity. The novel asks the reader to consider a variety of contemporary social and political issues: What is women's position in society, what is the relation between Britain and its colonies, how important is artistic endeavor in human life, what is the relationship of dreams and fantasy to reality, and what is the basis of an effective marriage? Although the novel poses all of these questions, it doesn't didactically offer a single answer to any of them. Readers can construct their own answers, based on their unique and personal analyses of the book. This multidimensionality makes Jane Eyre a novel that rewards multiple readings.
While the novel's longevity resides partially in its social message, posing questions still relevant to modern readers, its combination of literary genre keeps the story entertaining and enjoyable. Not just the story of the romance between Rochester and Jane, the novel also employs the conventions of the bildungsroman (a novel that shows the psychological or moral development of its main character), the gothic and the spiritual quest. As bildungsroman, the first-person narration plots Jane's growth from an isolated and unloved orphan into a happily married, independent woman. Jane's appeals to the reader directly involve us in this journey of self-knowledge; the reader becomes her accomplice, learning and changing along with the heroine. The novel's gothic element emphasizes the supernatural, the visionary, and the horrific. Mr. Reed's ghostly presence in the red-room, Bertha's strange laughter at Thornfield, and Rochester's dark and brooding persona are all examples of gothic conventions, which add to the novel's suspense, entangling the reader in Jane's attempt to solve the mystery at Thornfield. Finally, the novel could also be read as a spiritual quest, as Jane tries to position herself in relationship to religion at each stop on her journey. Although she paints a negative picture of the established religious community through her characterizations of Mr. Brocklehurst, St. John Rivers, and Eliza Reed, Jane finds an effective, personal perspective on religion following her night on the moors. For her, when one is closest to nature, one is also closest to God: "We read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence." God and nature are both sources of bounty, compassion and forgiveness.
In reading this novel, consider keeping a reading journal, writing down quotes that spark your interest. When you've finished the book, return to these notes and group your quotes under specific categories. For example, you may list all quotes related to governesses. Based on these quotes, what seems to be the novel's overall message about governesses? Do different characters have conflicting perceptions of governesses? Which character's ideas does the novel seem to sympathize with and why? Do you agree with the novel's message? By looking at the novel closely and reading it with a critical focus, you will enrich your own reading experience, joining the readers over the last century who've been excited by plain Jane's journey of self-discovery.