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Charlotte Brontë was born on April 21, 1816, in Thornton, Yorkshire, England. The third of six children, she spent much of her childhood at her father’s parsonage in Haworth, England. Curiously, though their early life in Haworth seemed stern and somewhat deprived, Charlotte and her sisters and brother all found adventure and happiness exploring the moors near the parsonage and recounting their lives in spirited discussions and writings. Their father, Patrick Brontë, had risen from extreme poverty in Northern Ireland to become an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and then an Anglican priest in 1897. He passed his love of learning and vigorous discussion on to his children.
Charlotte briefly attended Cowan Bridge, a finishing school in Lancashire, with her sisters, Maria, Elizabeth, and Emily. A typhoid outbreak at Cowan Bridge soon claimed the lives of her older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, and provided Charlotte with the background for a similar incident in the beginning of Jane Eyre. When Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth because of their sisters’ untimely deaths, Patrick Brontë decided to educate them—as well as their brother Branwell and sister Anne—himself, with the help of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, and the parsonage servant, Tabitha Ackroyd.
The children delved into literary works by William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Dryden, Sir Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth, as well as politically affiliated Whig and Tory newspapers and popular magazines such as Blackwood’s Edinburgh and Keepsake. Early in the children’s lives, their eldest sister, Maria, had coached them in the writing and production of original short plays, and upon her return to the parsonage Charlotte assumed this role. This collaboration with her siblings was interrupted in January 1831, when tuition provided by her godparents allowed Charlotte to attend another private school, Miss Woolner’s school at Roe Head. Here, as at Cowan Bridge, Charlotte gleaned background information for her future as a teacher and writer. Also while at Roe Head, Charlotte made the acquaintance of Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, whose friendship would shape much of Jane Eyre and her later works.
As a student and, later, an assistant teacher at Roe Head, Charlotte resolved the shortcomings in her formal education and concurrently developed a sense of resentment about her servitude to inferior-minded people. Both the confidence and the resentment were incorporated in Jane Eyre’s personality.
At the age of sixteen, Charlotte returned to Haworth to tutor her sisters and brother for three years. She then taught at Roe Head again and then at the Dewsbury School before serving as a governess to earn money for her family and offset the loss of funds squandered by Branwell in his attempt to establish himself as a painter. Although two marriage proposals—the first from Ellen Nussey’s brother Henry and the second from a young Irish curate—boosted her confidence, Charlotte refused both men, believing that she would follow the dictum made at age twelve to remain single. Throughout this period, Charlotte and her sisters continued to write fiction and poetry.
In preparation for opening their own school near Haworth, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels in 1842 to complete their education, a venture funded by Aunt Branwell. While at the Pensionnat Heger, the sisters polished their understanding of European literature, manners, and customs; Charlotte drew many lessons of prose style—later to be used in Jane Eyre and other novels—from her study of the French language. As the year progressed, Charlotte found herself attracted to Constantin Heger, her teacher and the husband of the school’s owner. The emotional tension created by her apparently unreciprocated affection became integral to the dramatic structure of Jane Eyre’s relationship with Rochester.
Upon their return from Belgium, the Brontës failed in several attempts to establish their own school. Frustrated by this failure and by their brother Branwell’s degenerate life, the Brontë sisters strove, under Charlotte’s direction, to compensate themselves by publishing their own books. They paid the publication costs for their first effort, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), and sold only two copies. In 1847 Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were published. Charlotte did not publish Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell until a few months later. She subsequently earned 500 pounds for Jane Eyre, a sum that marked her work a financial success.
She and her sisters visited their publisher, George Smith, in London a short time later to declare themselves as the true identities behind the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. From the time of this first meeting in 1847 to her death seven years later, Charlotte benefited from her contact with Smith. He and his mother established a network for Charlotte in London, introducing her to the sophisticated circles of society, including most of the major literary celebrities of the day.
Smith also aimed to promote Charlotte’s career by publishing her second novel, Shirley, an extensive three-volume work. Between 1848 and 1849, however, Charlotte was buffeted by personal tragedies that drew her attention away from her writing. With the death of Branwell in September 1848, Charlotte sunk into a depression triggered, perhaps, by guilt over having judged her brother’s degeneracy so harshly. Charlotte was further shaken by the sudden decline and death of her sister Emily, who was overcome by tuberculosis in December 1848, and by Anne’s death in May 1849.
Darkened and hardened by these emotional traumas, Charlotte immersed herself in the writing of Shirley and published the novel in October 1849. Villette, her third novel, was published four years later.
Charlotte traded the literary life for domestic duties upon her marriage in June 1854 to Arthur Bell Nicholls, curate of the parsonage where Charlotte’s father had been pastor. Debilitated by illness, Patrick Brontë became the focus of Charlotte and Arthur’s daily routine. Charlotte also helped her husband run the parsonage, but, at the turn of year in 1855, she began suffering the side effects of an ill-fated pregnancy. Because of her fragile condition, she succumbed to illness and died on March 31, 1855, at the age of thirty-eight.
Whether viewed as a richly woven tapestry of feminine imagination, as a tableau of romanticism in the Victorian era, or as an early treatise on women’s rights, Jane Eyre stands as a classic work of literature in the English-speaking world. As a romance, Jane Eyre extends the tradition of sentimental concern for common folk and harsh judgment of those who exploit them within an industrialized or class-stratified social order. Condescension and mean-spiritedness on the part of landed or wealthy aristocrats causes alienation between them and the lower-middle or peasant classes. Orphaned and relegated to the foster family of her deceased uncle, Jane is badly abused by Mrs. Reed, her foster aunt. Edward Rochester retains the arrogance of his social class until his blindness causes him to turn inward and to revitalize his humble sensibilities. The love Jane maintains for Rochester results in a virtuous union between the two, a testament to perseverance and perfectibility in the romanticist view of human nature.
In many ways an early feminist, Jane Eyre staunchly confronts a variety of constraints imposed on her freedom but frequently worries about the excess passion she allows in making her case. Her desire to maintain self-control conflicts with her unspoken sense of righteousness. Jane’s narration lends intensity to the story; her personality serves as both catalyst and prism, and it is through her singular point of view that most of the novel’s major issues are explored.
Set in early nineteenth-century England, Jane Eyre moves through various locations, all informed by autobiographical detail from Brontë’s life. As a child living in Mrs. Reed’s house, Gateshead Hall, Jane experiences overt class subordination. After her altercation with Mrs. Reed’s bully son, John, Jane is forcibly removed to an isolated room where she senses a presence, “a rushing of wings”; this ephemeral visitation recurs throughout the novel, each time signaling a major change in Jane’s life.
At Lowood school, more than six dozen girls ranging in age from nine to twenty years are constantly reminded that they are beholden to the charitable donors who pay partial costs for their schooling. The building is bleak, sparely furnished, and underheated, and the stern and spartan conditions severely test Jane’s resolve. Jane remains at Lowood as a teacher after completing her studies, but following the urging of a disembodied voice, she soon advertises for a governess position and is solicited by Mrs. Fairfax of Thornfield. At Thornfield Manor, a gothic three-story mansion, Jane serves as governess to Adele Varens, a ward of Edward Rochester, owner of the estate.
After a year at Thornfield, Jane is summoned to Gateshead to attend to the dying Mrs. Reed, and it is against this backdrop that the tempestuous scene of Rochester’s marriage proposal and Jane’s acceptance is played.
Her wedding ceremony dramatically interrupted by a shocking revelation, Jane travels to Whitcross, located two days away from Thornfield in the moors of the north Midlands. Lacking food and money, Jane eats and sleeps in the heather until she is welcomed into Moor House, the rustic home of St. John Rivers, a sincere parson. She is offered employment by St. John as mistress of a new girls’ school and moves into a simple cottage, but a premonition of Rochester’s voice calling her back to Thornfield finally prompts her departure from Whitcross.
Upon returning to Thornfield, Jane finds only a fire-blackened shell, the site of her earlier happiness and security gutted by a fire set off by Rochester’s insane wife, now dead. Jane reunites with Rochester, now blind and living at Ferndean, an isolated manor house 30 miles distant. They marry, and the simple, virtuous life of Ferndean restores Rochester’s sight.
Jane, the main character of Jane Eyre, is sensitive and passionate, intelligent and reflective. As a child, she is keenly aware of her status as an orphan and an outsider. She learns to observe others quietly and takes refuge from her loneliness in books. When pushed beyond the limits of her tolerance for pain and injustice, Jane reacts impetuously. At Gateshead, she rebukes both John Reed and his mother for their cruelty toward her; later, at Thornfield, provoked by Rochester’s emotional manipulation, she hotly declares herself his equal and soulmate. Though she is often described as a small, plain “sprite,” and though she attempts to curb her self-righteousness with an attitude of stoic acceptance, Jane shows flashes of spirit and temper that make her a compelling character.
When the novel begins, Jane, a ten-year-old, lives with her imperious Aunt Reed and her cousins John, a spoiled, sadistic fourteen-year-old, Georgiana, plump, primped, and shallow, and Eliza, sour and sharp-tongued. Both her aunt and her cousins revile her as an ingrate, but years later, on her deathbed, Mrs. Reed reveals to Jane that her husband—Jane’s uncle—had forced Mrs. Reed to promise that Jane would be raised as a member of the family. Only Bessie Lee, a maidservant at Gateshead, treats Jane with some degree of kindness and respect.
When Jane arrives at the Lowood boarding school, she learns to contend with Mr. Brocklehurst, a hypocritical trustee of the church that runs the school and a religious zealot, and Miss Scatcherd, a history and grammar teacher who persecutes Jane’s best friend, Helen Burns. Helen’s stoicism, thoughtfulness, and intelligence touch Jane deeply, and the two become close friends. Maria Temple, the young and beautiful superintendent of Lowood, acts as a sort of fairy godmother to both Helen and Jane, offering them solace and encouragement.
Edward Rochester, almost twenty years older than Jane (who is eighteen when she arrives at Thornfield), is first portrayed as a dark, brooding, and arrogant man. His often harsh manner belying his vulnerability, Rochester owes his moodiness to the fact that he keeps his insane wife, Bertha Mason, locked up in the attic. The master of Thornfield, he also has responsibility for his pesky French ward, eight-year-old Adele Varens. Although Adele’s mother, a French opera dancer, was his mistress for an extended period of time, Rochester doubts that he is truly Adele’s father. Despite his irresolute past, Rochester is portrayed as a charismatic man who becomes an acceptable mate for Jane only after he has symbolically atoned for his past transgressions.
Aside from Rochester, most of the characters associated with Thornfield Hall seem one-dimensional. Mrs. Fairfax is a kind, efficient, elderly housekeeper. Adele is a flighty non-character; she lilts about chirping French phrases about flowers in her hair and pretty women. Technically she serves as a plot device, providing a reason for Jane’s employment at Thornfield. Blanche Ingram, Rochester’s apparent love interest, is a similarly shallow character; exceedingly beautiful, she is also haughty and manipulative. Blanche’s presence in the plot intensifies Jane’s consternation and confusion over her feelings for Rochester.
After her abrupt departure from Thornfield, Jane finds refuge in Whitcross, at the home of St. John Rivers, a young minister, and his sisters, Diana and Mary. Though he is kind and intelligent, St. John chooses to narrowly and rigidly interpret his religious vocation, thus denying himself the love of Rosamond Oliver, yet another beautiful, angelic woman who befriends Jane.
Jane Eyre stresses the virtues of self-reliance and perseverance in a world of adversity. Jane’s impassioned resilience allows her to overcome the injustices heaped on her by Mrs. Reed, John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Miss Scatcherd, and Blanche Ingram. A sensitive young woman who refuses to be calloused by her hard life, Jane pursues an independent, self-governing existence, making her in a sense a prototype of champions for women’s rights.
The novel also addresses the theme of children victimized by corrupt parent figures. Like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Jane is a pariah, stigmatized simply because she is an orphan, and denied the protection of the law. The plight of Jane and the other orphaned girls at Lowood demonstrates the warped and alienated values of Victorian social welfare schemes, which implicitly presumed a spiritual and intellectual depravity on the part of orphans equal to the children’s social deprivation. In a sense, the comfortable classes shut away the offspring of the less fortunate classes as a means of avoiding emotional entanglements; they rationalized their actions with protestations of charitable intentions and moral righteousness.
The Brocklehurst family and Blanche Ingram reflect still another theme, that of hypocrisy in conflict with virtue. From the New Testament parable of the Pharisee who comforts himself with the outward signs of his earthly elitism, the theme of the self-deceived bigot has recurred in Western literature. When a great chasm in the social order separates the “haves” from the “have-nots,” the “haves” believe that they are better because of what they have amassed materially. A false sense of security—stemming from material acquisitions—frequently causes the former to make scathing value judgments about the latter. The Brocklehursts and Blanche Ingram are Jane’s inferiors in character, but they belittle and persecute her to show the power of their status.
His judgment clouded by excessive pride, Rochester is a literary descendant of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles’ Oedipus and embodies the theme of figurative versus actual blindness. While sighted, Rochester fails to comprehend the extent of Jane’s commitment to him, choosing instead to hide from her the demon of his private life, his insane wife, Bertha. Only after he is blinded during an attempt to rescue Bertha from the burning Thornfield does Rochester come to see the value of what he has lost.
Much has been noted about Brontë’s use of romantic themes in Jane Eyre. Belief in the perfectibility of persons belonging to the lower socioeconomic classes, the mystic unity of human emotions with similar natural conditions (like the thunderstrike at Thornfield after Rochester’s proposal), and above all the curative power of love, are all themes commonly associated with the romantic period that preceded this novel.
Critics agree that Jane Eyre offers a fine example of the author-as-narrator; narrative credibility follows from an intimate knowledge of the speaker. The novel is also an excellent fusion of the pious moral tone of Victorian literature and the Gothic elements of earlier romanticism. Thornfield and its bizarre third-floor inhabitant combine with Jane’s telepathic messages from the beyond and with awesome happenings in nature to produce scintillating ghostly touches.
Brontë uses foreshadowing and symbolic character- or place-naming to leave hints for the reader about plot development. At Lowood, Miss Scatcherd is as hard and abrasive as her name, and Maria Temple acts as the sanctified refuge for Jane that her surname signifies. Overall, the plot is rich with memorable characters acting within a predictable range of psychological and social motivations. Their actions and dialogue are well documented, and the settings are described adequately enough to provide appropriate context.
Jane Eyre explores the predicaments of those bound by law, conventions, and social status to lives not of their own choosing. Like Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre resents being controlled by inferiors but uses this resentment to generate energy necessary for her survival and rise to independence. The power of religion to enlighten or to corrupt finds expression in Jane’s reliance on heartfelt prayer and in the diametrically opposed vocations of Brocklehurst and St. John Rivers. In each case the social value of religion is depicted as part of the individual’s motives.
Perhaps the most socially sensitive issue in this novel is its implicit argument for women’s rights. In a parallel to Charlotte Brontë’s own life, Jane struggles for minimal recognition even though her artistic, social, and professional skills exceed those of most of her antagonists. It may be difficult for contemporary readers to understand the unjust predicament of women in the nineteenth century.
1. Examine the behavior of Georgiana Reed, Blanche Ingram, and Rosamond Oliver to determine their ultimate goals. What are they? Do you think these goals are worthwhile?
2. Contrast Georgiana Reed, Blanche Ingram, and Rosamond Oliver with Maria Temple, Helen Burns, Bessie Lee, and the Rivers sisters. What qualities distinguish the latter women?
3. In what ways are Edward Rochester and John Reed different as sons? As men of the world? How do the causes of their erratic lives differ?
4. Compare Gateshead, Thornfield, and Moor House. What factors make these places either warm and welcoming or cold and foreboding? Is one more neutral than the others?
5. In what ways does Brontë’s characterization of St. John Rivers restore dignity to ministry after her portrayal of Mr. Brocklehurst? In what ways is Rivers flawed in his religious vocation, particularly as it concerns Jane?
6. Summarize Jane Eyre’s philosophy of life and standard of values. How would she fit in today’s society?
7. Choose any three characters in Jane Eyre and examine them as “victims.” Are their victimizations real or imagined? Can they change them? What must others do to help?
1. How are Jane, Edward, and Bertha all imprisoned in different ways by different circumstances? What liberates them? How do these different processes indicate individual responsibilities in pursuing freedom?
2. Make a comparative survey of the idea of beauty in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre. How important was beauty then? Now? What has changed, if anything, about the value of beauty versus brains?
3. How have ideas about child behavior changed from Jane’s time to the present day? Do children have the same status today as then? If there is “extended childhood” today, what factors have brought it about? What effects does the phenomenon of “extended childhood” have on society? The economy? Character?
4. Compare the views of God as presented in this book by Jane, Helen Burns, St. John Rivers, and Rochester.
5. Describe at least three inversions, or turnarounds, of plot, character, or setting in which apparent good turns bad or vice versa. What do these inversions contribute to the story?
Brontë’s novel The Professor recalls her experiences at the Pensionnat Heger and explores the effects of ambition and authoritarianism on family relationships. Shirley: A Tale involves a much broader spectrum of society than does Jane Eyre. The book depicts the plight of Yorkshire people coping with industrialization and attendant problems. Romantic relationships and tortuous plot twists underlie the major social themes. In the somewhat autobiographical Villette, Brontë focuses on one character named Lucy Snowe.