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Jane Eyre


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Book Review

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

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.

Christian Beliefs

Biblical references and Christian beliefs and principles appear frequently throughout the book. Jane’s childhood friend Helen encourages Jane to become like Christ, who loved His enemies. She looks forward to spending eternity with God, whom she describes as her Father and her friend. Later, Jane’s character bears witness to Helen’s influence, as she grows from a restless, bitter child into a selfless, forgiving young adult who would rather deny herself love and joy than break any of God’s commands. Jane reads her Bible and prays regularly, even as a child. She asks God for help in difficult situations.

Several of the characters use Christian beliefs to manipulate and terrify others, particularly children. A maid at Gateshead insinuates that God might strike Jane dead if she has a temper tantrum. Lowood is a Christian institution, and the pupils attend church every Sunday, recite Scripture, listen to sermons and pray before and after meals. Mr. Brocklehurst, the clergyman who runs Lowood, is strict and hypocritical. When he first meets Jane, he tells her that she is wicked and that she will go to hell. Later, after she breaks a slate, he calls her a liar and a servant of Satan. While his wife and daughters are dressed in the most expensive clothes and latest fashions, he demands that the Lowood students be given only the barest necessities, be subjected to the strictest discipline and that any trace of vanity be removed — to the extent of cutting off the hair of any girl who has arranged it too pleasingly.

Several references to Catholicism appear, most notably that Adele says her mother has gone to the Holy Virgin and that Mr. Rochester is raising Adele to expiate various sins. Eliza Reed, Jane’s cousin, becomes a nun.

When she first arrives at Thornfield, Jane thinks Grace may be demon-possessed.

Mr. Rochester becomes an idol to Jane. In the beginning stages of their relationship, her love for him makes her forget to think about God. Later, Mr. Rochester apologizes for sinning against Jane by trying to make her wed him illegally. He thanks God for His mercy and asks for divine aid to live a better and purer life.

St. John is a selfless, devoted Christian, but Jane senses that he is bitter and not at peace. He looks forward to the afterlife as his reward for the sacrifices he is making on earth.

Other Belief Systems

Bessie, Jane’s childhood nursemaid, tells the children stories about fairies and imps. Jane imagines that Mr. Reed’s ghost rises from the dead, and the servants wonder if she really did see something. As a child, Jane thinks that Gulliver’s travels are factual. She also believes that elves exist but that they have left England and gone to a savage country.

Jane mistakes Mr. Rochester’s Newfoundland dog for a gytrash, a mythical spirit that haunts solitary spaces. She thinks that goblins could live in animal bodies. Mr. Rochester jokingly calls Jane a sorceress.

References to pagan mythology smatter the banter between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Mr. Rochester disguises himself as a Gypsy and tells people their fortunes.

Jane thinks Bertha Mason looks like a vampire.

Authority Roles

Mrs. Reed is lenient with her own children but deliberately abusive toward Jane. She keeps her isolated from her own children as much as possible. She tells Mr. Brocklehurst that Jane is a liar. Before she leaves for Lowood, Jane stands up to Mrs. Reed in a fit of temper.

Mr. Brocklehurst uses Christianity as an excuse for privations, hypocrisy, abuse and threats. When he visits Lowood, Mr. Brocklehurst orders a girl’s hair cut off because it is naturally curly and is therefore “vain.” While he continues to berate Miss Temple for granting the students the most meager of luxuries and allowing the girls to display the smallest of vanities, his wife and daughters, sumptuously attired and with their hair arranged according to the latest fashions, look on. The students and teachers of Lowood dislike him intensely. Miss Temple, the superintendent of Lowood, is kind, good and generous. Some of the teachers are kind; others are harsh.

Bessie, a nursemaid at Gateshead, sometimes shows genuine affection for Jane. They meet happily years later; Bessie has named her daughter after Jane.

Mr. Rochester is a good man, fair with his tenants and servants, but he is also eccentric, proud and willful. He has a quick temper. He lies to Jane about Bertha because he’s afraid of losing her love. Although he despises his connection with Bertha, he does everything in his power to keep his wife alive.

St. John, much like Mr. Brocklehurst, tries to use Christianity, specifically the threat of hell, to manipulate Jane and convince her to join him as his wife.

Profanity & Violence

There are several misuses of God’s name, as well as h— and d–n.

John Reed continually bullies Jane while Mrs. Reed and the servants look the other way. He punches her and throws books at her, causing her to hit her head against a door so hard that she begins to bleed. He physically attacks her and pulls her hair. Jane retaliates by punching John in the nose. Mrs. Reed shakes Jane and boxes her ears. Bessie, the maid, threatens to tie Jane to a chair.

Helen is whipped for not paying attention in school. The students at Lowood are not fed enough, and the big girls steal food from the little ones. Helen dies while Jane sleeps beside her.

John Reed kills and tortures animals for fun. Mr. Rochester duels a rival and leaves a bullet in his arm. Bertha Mason stabs and bites her brother, leaving him soaked in blood. She tries to bite Mr. Rochester’s neck. She sets fires and ultimately succeeds in burning down Thornfield Hall. John Reed commits suicide.

Jane dreams of falling off a wall with a child in her arms. Mr. Rochester plans to shoot himself. Bertha jumps off Thornfield’s roof, spattering brains and blood on the rocks below. Mr. Rochester loses an eye, becomes blind and has a hand amputated.

Sexual Content

Family members and friends of both genders kiss and hug each other in nonsexual gestures of friendship. Adele sings a song about a woman whose lover betrayed her.

Adele is the daughter of Mr. Rochester and his former mistress, Celine Varens. He left her after he found out she didn’t really love him and was cheating on him with another man. Unable to find a wife he could love, he had two other mistresses besides her.

Mr. Rochester and Jane kiss and embrace. He pinches Jane and tweaks her ear as rough gestures of love. After Jane learns about Bertha, she refuses all further gestures of affection and refuses to stay with him, even though he promises to be faithful to her for life.

St. John kisses Jane.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Alcohol and tobacco: Mr. Loyd, the apothecary, uses snuff. Bertha’s mother was an alcoholic. Grace Poole occasionally overindulges in gin. Jane sips wine to revive herself after a time of fasting.

Racism: An undertone of racism, consistent with the beliefs of the period, appears occasionally throughout the book. Slavery is mentioned, but not endorsed.

Movie tie-in: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare the book review with Plugged In’s movie review for Jane Eyre.

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