It is a cold, wet November afternoon when the novel opens at Gateshead, the home of Jane Eyre's relatives, the Reeds. Jane and the Reed children, Eliza, John, and Georgiana sit in the drawing room. Jane's aunt is angry with her, purposely excluding her from the rest of the family, so Jane sits alone in a window seat, reading Bewick's History of British Birds.
As she quietly reads, her cousin John torments her, reminding her of her precarious position within the household. As orphaned niece of Mrs. Reed, she should not be allowed to live with gentlemen's children. John throws a book at Jane and she calls him a "murderer" and "slave-driver." The two children fight, and Jane is blamed for the quarrel. As punishment, she is banished to the red-room.
This opening chapter sets up two of the primary themes in the novel: class conflict and gender difference. As a poor orphan living with relatives, Jane feels alienated from the rest of the Reed family, and they certainly do nothing to make her feel more comfortable. John Reed says to Jane: "You have no business to take our books; you are a dependant, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentleman's children like us . . . ." John claims the rights of the gentleman, implying that Jane's family was from a lower class. She appears to exist in a no-man's land between the upper and servant classes. By calling John a "murderer," "slave-driver" and "Roman emperor," Jane emphasizes the corruption that is inherent in the ruling classes. Her class difference translates into physical difference, and Jane believes that she is physically inferior to the Reed children.
Jane's argument with John also points to the potential gender conflicts within the text. Not only is Jane at a disadvantage because of her class status, but her position as female leaves her vulnerable to the rules of a patriarchal tyrant. John is an over-indulged only son, described by Jane as "unwholesome" and "thick," someone who habitually gorges himself. Contrasting with Jane's thin, modest appearance, John Reed is a picture of excess: his gluttony feeds his violent emotions, such as constant bullying and punishing of Jane. One of Jane's goals throughout the book will be to create an individual place for herself, free of the tyrannies of her aunt's class superiority and her cousin's gender dominance. By fighting back when John and his mother torment her, Jane refuses the passivity that was expected for a woman in her class position.
Jane's situation as she sits reading Bewick's History of Birds provides significant imagery. The red curtains that enclose Jane in her isolated window seat connect with the imagery of the red-room to which Jane is banished at the end of the chapter. The color red is symbolic. Connoting fire and passion, red offers vitality, but also the potential to burn everything that comes in its way to ash. The symbolic energy of the red curtains contrast with the dreary November day that Jane watches outside her window: "a pale blank of mist and cloud." Throughout the book, passion and fire will contrast with paleness and ice. Jane's choice of books is also significant in this scene. Like a bird, she would like the freedom of flying away from the alienation she feels at the Reed's house. The situation of the sea fowl that inhabit "solitary rocks and promontories," is similar to Jane's: Like them, she lives in isolation. The extreme climate of the birds' homes in the Arctic, "that reservoir of frost and snow," the "death-white realms," again creates a contrast with the fire that explodes later in the chapter during John and Jane's violent encounter.
Books provide Jane with an escape from her unhappy domestic situation. For Jane, each picture in Bewick's tale offers a story that sparks her keen imagination. But Jane also says that the book reminds her of the tales that Bessie, one of the Reeds' servants, sometimes tells on winter evenings. Books feed Jane's imagination, offering her a vast world beyond the claustrophobia of Gateshead; they fill her with visions of how rich life could be, rather than how stagnant it actually is. Not a complacent little girl, Jane longs for love and adventure.