Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre opens with Jane, an orphaned, isolated ten-year-old, living with a family that dislikes her. She grows in strength, excels at school, becomes a governess, and falls in love with Edward Rochester. After being deceived by him, Jane goes to Marsh End, where she regains her spirituality and discovers her own strength. By novel's end, Jane is a strong, independent woman. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre still raises relevant questions to readers today.
Written by: Charlotte Brontë
Type of Work: novel
Genres: gothic; Victorian; romance; bildungsroman (coming of age novel)
First Published: 1847
Setting: English countryside, 1800s
Main Characters: Jane Eyre; Edward Fairfax Rochester; St. John Rivers
Major Thematic Topics: class conflict; gender conflict; courtship; mythic; spirituality; family
Motifs: rebellion; substitute mothers; Byronic hero
Major Symbols: Thornfield burning; the red room
Here are eight important things to remember about Jane Eyre:
- Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Other examples of this form include Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Jane Eyre is a typical coming-of-age novel in that its main character, Jane, is young, brave, and resourceful in the face of difficulty and even danger. As a result, she is easy for readers to sympathize with. The phrase "coming-of-age" literally means the character is maturing and coming closer to adulthood.
- Jane Eyre is a gothic novel. Gothic novels focus on the mysterious; take place in dark, sometimes exotic, settings (often houses that appear to be haunted); but still entail an element of romance. The double is a frequent feature of the Gothic novel, and in a sense Jane and the madwoman in Rochester's attic are doubles — two wives, one of sound mind and the other insane.
- The most famous line in Jane Eyre is "Reader, I married him." This line is significant not only in that it provides the novel with a happy ending, but also because of its active quality, which was probably shocking at the time of the novel's publication. The line "Reader, he married me." would have been more conventional.
- St. John Rivers and Mr. Rochester are foils — meaning opposites — of one another, especially in relation to Jane. St. John is cold and dispassionate, while Mr. Rochester is wildly indulgent and passionate. Even their physiques are a foil. Mr. Rochester is not handsome, but he does have extremely masculine features. On the other hand, St. John is classically beautiful. At one point he's described as Athenian, which recalls a grandiose statue to mind.
- Jane Eyre is rebellious in a world demanding obedient women. In her own way, Jane rebels against Mrs. Reed, St. John Rivers, and even Mr. Rochester, the man she marries at the end of the book. Jane's personality contains many qualities that would be considered desirable in an English woman; she's frank, sincere, and lacks personal vanity. But the rebel streak she has is targeted at "inequalities of society." Jane reacts strongly when she is discredited due to her class and/or gender.
- One primary theme is class conflict. Although English society has a very strict hierarchy, moments throughout Jane Eyre reveal those lines being blurred.
- Gender conflict is a theme that threads throughout Jane Eyre. Time and again, Jane is vulnerable to a patriarchal class system that doesn't always have her best interest in mind.
- A major symbol in Jane Eyre is that of Thornfield burning. Prior to meeting Jane, Mr. Rochester is impulsive and wild. He wants to change and tries to use Jane's purity to help motivate his transformation. Even with Jane's influence, Mr. Rochester can't change. It's not until Thornfield burns down and Mr. Rochester loses his hand and sight that he is able to change. Symbolically, it's as if his lies and passions have finally exploded. Now, Mr. Rochester can change, with the help of Jane, and be the perfect husband.