Orphaned shortly after her birth, Jane Eyre is unloved and unwanted by the only family she knows — her aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead, and Mrs. Reed's three children, John, Eliza and Georgiana. Emotionally and physically abused at home, Jane leaps at the opportunity to attend Lowood boarding school, a charitable institution designed to provide an education for poor and orphaned girls. Although Jane quickly begins to enjoy her studies and makes friends and acquaintances among staff and students, all the girls are subjected to scant, ill-prepared food, harsh discipline and unhealthy living conditions. One spring, many of the students, including Jane's best friend, Helen, die. After this tragedy, public attention focuses on the school, and conditions improve. Jane eventually becomes a teacher and is reasonably content to continue living the adequate, but Spartan, lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.
When Jane is 18, her favorite teacher, Miss Temple, gets married and leaves the school. She takes with her the sense of peace Jane experienced at Lowood. Feeling restless and curious about the outside world, Jane decides to leave as well and advertises in the newspaper for the position of governess. At Thornfield Hall, she finds a position as the governess to Adele, a young French girl who is the ward of an absentee master, Mr. Rochester. His housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, is kind and pleasant, and Jane's life settles into a comfortable, though not exciting, routine. She still longs to see more of the world.
That changes when Mr. Rochester returns home from abroad. Jane enjoys engaging in witty, enigmatic conversation with him in the evening firelight. She even thinks she may be falling in love with him — and sometimes dares to hope that her feelings might be reciprocated.
When Mr. Rochester begins to court Blanche Ingram, a beautiful heiress from a nearby estate, Jane resigns herself to his imminent marriage and makes plans to quit Thornfield. She leaves earlier than expected when a summons comes from Mrs. Reed of Gateshead. Jane's cousin John has committed suicide, and Mrs. Reed is on the brink of death.
Jane travels to Gateshead, stays with her cousins until her aunt's death and learns that she has a wealthy relative, John Eyre of Madeira, who would like to adopt her and bequeath her his fortune. She plans to write to him upon her brief return to Thornfield, but when she arrives, she is immediately distracted. Mr. Rochester, it seems, was courting Blanche only to stoke the flames of jealously in Jane. He declares his love for her and asks Jane to marry him. During their month-long engagement, Jane acts particularly peevish, disdaining the well-meaning gifts of clothing and jewelry given to her by Mr. Rochester so that he will think twice before marrying a poor governess like herself. Her joy is also marred by the odd behavior of the seamstress, Grace Poole, whose creepy laughter and penchant for setting fires and attacking guests has her nerves on edge. Two nights before her wedding, Jane dreams of a dark figure that hovers over her bed and rips her wedding veil in two. When she wakes up, the veil is torn in half on the floor.
At the church, just as the couple are about to say their vows, Mr. Mason, a former houseguest of Mr. Rochester, interrupts. He says that Mr. Rochester has a wife still living, his sister Bertha Mason. Mr. Rochester doesn't deny it. He leads the small wedding party back to Thornfield and into a windowless room where Grace Poole spends most of her time. But Grace is not the only woman in the room. Jane recognizes the second woman, huge and dark, as the woman from her dream. Bertha attacks Mr. Rochester, but he subdues her as gently as possible and introduces her as his wife. He tries to convince the minister that he should be allowed to take another wife, since his first is violent and insane. The minister doesn't agree. Mr. Rochester attempts to convince Jane to live with him as his wife, but she refuses and flees Thornfield in secret. Mr. Rochester attempts to find her in vain.
Jane is homeless and has little money or food. She hires passage on a carriage for as far away as her limited funds will allow, then walks over the moors to a small town, but she is repeatedly denied food and shelter. Close to death, she knocks on the door of a small house in the middle of a field. The housekeeper turns her away, but the house belongs to St. John, the minister, and he lets her in. He and his sisters nurse Jane back to health, and St. John finds her a teaching position in the village. Jane attempts to conceal her true identity, but when St. John discovers who she is, she learns that she and her rescuers are in fact cousins, and that her uncle in Madeira has died and left her a fortune of 20,000 pounds. She splits it evenly among the four of them and delights in having a home and a family at last. St. John plans to be a missionary, and he tries to convince Jane to go with him to India, believing that her submissive, helpful spirit will make her a great missionary's wife. Jane knows that he doesn't love her, and she refuses. He persists in asking her, and she is almost ready to accept, when she hears Mr. Rochester crying out for her.
Jane leaves immediately for Thornfield, but when she arrives, she finds only the burnt and empty shell of a building. She learns that a few months after she left, Mr. Rochester's wife escaped from her room and set the house on fire. Mr. Rochester managed to save all of the servants and was trying to save his wife, but she jumped off the burning roof, which then fell on him. He lost one eye and was blinded in the other, and he had to get one hand amputated. He now lives the life of a hermit, with only two servants to care for him.
Jane seeks him out. Reunited, the lovers are more in love than ever. They marry within the week. Their relationship, built on mutual need and respect and adherence to God's will, is stronger than it has ever been. They have a son, and Mr. Rochester gets some sight back in one eye. They live happily together and are visited frequently by Jane's cousins Mary and Diana, who also marry good men. St. John fulfills his dream of becoming a missionary and looks forward to dying and seeing Christ.