Even people who have never read Jane Eyre usually know its general outline. Like Frankenstein and Dracula, it is a Victorian novel that has passed into common consciousness and proved remarkably adaptable, generating several film and stage versions. That Jane Eyre shares this fate with the two greatest horror novels of the nineteenth century is instructive. Like them, it speaks to deep, timeless human urges and fears, using the conventions of Gothic literature to chart the mind's recesses.
The detailed exploration of a strong female character's consciousness has made Jane Eyre an influential feminist text. The novel works both as the absorbing story of an individual woman's quest and as a narrative of the universal dilemmas that confront women. Its mythic quality is enhanced by the fact that at the time of its writing its author was, like her heroine, unmarried and unremarked, and considered unattractive. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë created a fully imagined character defined by her strength of will. Though Jane is nothing more than an impoverished governess, she can retort to her haughty employer Rochester: "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?You think wrong!" (p. 284). Jane's willfulness scandalized many contemporary critics, who called her (and the novel) "coarse" and "unfeminine." Such criticisms were powerless against the novel's popularity, and Jane's indomitable voice continues to enthrall readers more than 150 years after the novel's original publication.
In its first-person narration and autobiographical structure, which follows the title character from childhood to adulthood, Jane Eyre has much in common with another durable Victorian novel, David Copperfield. Like Dickens' novel, some of the scenes readers are most likely to remember are those in which the child narrator is nearly overwhelmed by cruelty. Jane Eyre famously opens with orphaned, ten-year-old Jane's forcible eviction from her window-seat refuge by her vicious and pampered cousin, John Reed. When Mrs. Reed promptly takes John's side and locks Jane in the redroom, the pattern of Jane's oppression by authority figures is set. At Lowood School Jane is singled out for abuse by the tyrannical and self-righteous headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Though her outward status defines powerlessnesssince she is young, female, virtually without family, and poorshe defies the humiliations Brocklehurst imposes on her. Jane presents the soft-spoken, forgiving Helen Burns as an example of moral perfection, but Jane's outraged resistance threatens to be more appealing.
Through the adult Jane, Brontë explores the romantic prospects of a young woman lacking the social advantages of family, money, and beauty, and therefore especially vulnerable to the allure of admiration and security. By creating two suitors who exemplify opposing threats to Jane's selfhood, Brontë is able to dramatize Jane's internal struggles against competing temptations. Because we have access to Jane's innermost thoughts and feelings, her efforts to resist both the ascetic St. John Rivers and the sybaritic Rochester provide the most powerful drama in the book. In Jane, Brontë gives us a character able to withstand St. John's missionary call to self-immolation in a marriage to serve humanity and Rochester's attempts to persuade her to indulge her sexual and romantic desires at the expense of violating her own moral code.
Central to the novel as Jane's conflicted relationship to Rochester is, her connection with his mad, despised first wife Bertha Mason Rochester is at least as intriguing, though the two women hardly meet and never converse. The revelation of Bertha's existence, which Rochester has concealed from Jane, saves her from the bigamous marriage that Rochester has planned. Though Brontë's characterization of the animalistic, insane Bertha, locked away on a top floor, plays into many nineteenth-century stereotypes of the "native" or "primitive" woman, it also suggests a close kinship between Bertha and Jane. Both women are attracted to Rochester; both live in his house; and both are mistreated by him. Critics and readers have sharply differed about how best to understand this connection. To what extent is Bertha a double for Jane, acting on her behalf? To what extent is she a figure for the fateinarticulate, imprisoned, hopelessthat awaits Jane if she surrenders to the corrupt Rochester?
A similar ambiguity pervades the novel's ending. While Jane's "Reader, I married him" (p. 498) carries a note of relief and triumph, the path to this ending is so convoluted and disturbing as to raise questions about how we are to understand it. If Jane and Rochester's marriage as equals requires not only Rochester's moral regeneration, blinding, and partial crippling, but also Jane's inheriting a small fortune, what is the novel saying about the real-life prospects of a woman like Jane enjoying such a union? Throughout the novel, Brontë asks how a woman in her society can have passion and integrity, love and independence. Jane Eyre does not so much suggest definitive answers as pose the questions with an urgency and a depth of imagination that challenge readers to think them through for themselves.
Marked by grief, obscurity, and determination, Charlotte Brontë's life closely resembles that of her most famous heroine. Left motherless at an early age, Charlotte, her brother, and her four sisters were raised in the Yorkshire village of Haworth, where their father was curate. Charlotte's two older sisters died of illnesses contracted at the Cowan Bridge boarding school, which Charlotte used as the basis for Lowood in Jane Eyre. At nine, she became the eldest of the four surviving siblings.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, along with their brother, Branwell, read voraciously and created elaborate shared fantasy worlds. The four wrote a huge amount of material, which served as an apprenticeship for the later literary efforts of the three sisters. Charlotte attended school, worked for a time as a teacher, and had a brief career as a governess. In 1842, she and Emily went to Brussels to study languages. Charlotte's teacher there was the charismatic M. Heger, a married man with whom she fell in love. Her emotionally fraught, though celibate, relationship with him served as the basis for her first novel, The Professor. Written in 1846, it was not published until after her death.
In 1845, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne published Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Though it sold virtually no copies, the sisters continued to write, and, in 1847, Charlotte published Jane Eyre, which was a resounding popular success. Both Branwell and Emily died in 1848, with Anne following the next year. Charlotte went on to publish Shirley (1849) and Vilette (1853). In 1854, she married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate, but died soon after during pregnancy.