In 1847, Charlotte Bronte published ‘Jane Eyre’ under the pseudonym of Currer Bell. Clearly, this was not the era of female writers but Bronte sisters brought strong female characters outside the purview of matrimony into the literary scenario. In ‘Jane Eyre’, Bronte told the story of a young spirited girl, her hardships, social isolation, and endeavors to stay on the morally right path.
‘Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do…’
I would divide the story into three parts – Jane’s childhood, her stepping into the world with an employment and a final reconciliation of love and principles.
The story begins with the ten-year-old Jane living with her Aunt, Mrs. Reed and her three children – John, Eliza, and Georgiana at Gateshead. Jane’s mother had married a poor man against her father’s will and was subsequently denounced of any claim to his property. Within a year of their marriage, both die of typhus leaving behind the infant Jane. Uncle Reed is the only family member who takes charge of Jane, much against the will of his wife. Aunt Reed and the children dislike Jane from the beginning and constantly harass her. Except for Bessie, the help at the Reed household, nobody cared for Jane.
Young Jane’s love for books
Jane is interested in reading books. Reading gives her the vent to break free of the tormenting times at the Reed household. With restricted access to the home library, Jane reads and re-reads ‘Gulliver’s Travel’ and imagines to set a course just like Gulliver when she grows up. One day, while trying to get a book to read, John nastily hits Jane.
“Mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma’s expense.”
Ghosts and Spirits
At John’s bidding, Aunt Reed banishes Jane to late Uncle Reed’s room. Young Jane is scared in the dark, inside the locked room and drops unconscious with a high fever.
Ghosts, spirits, and hallucinations come back to Jane at a later point in the story. It is a device that Bronte uses so that Bertha Mason’s hidden identity is blurred in suspicion as that of either the housemaid Grace Poole or some illusion of Jane’s mind.
Jane has a keen sense of imagination who loved listening to Bessie’s stories of spirits and magical creatures. When Jane sees Mr.Rochester for the first time on one of her walks by the woods at Thornfield, she believes the figure riding on the horse with a dog by its side as some sort of goblin.
Jane’s ability to confront
Jane’s state after Aunt Reed’s punishment brings no succor rather she is sent to Lowood Charity School, a strict disciplinarian institution. Jane is glad to leave Gateshead but on hearing Aunt Reed speak ill about her to Mr.Brocklehurst, the treasurer at Lowood, she retorts, “I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you.”
Jane’s courage and individualism is brought out at Lowood when Mr. Brocklehurst makes false claims about her and forces her to sit in shame before her teachers and classmates in the classroom. Jane bears it, then tells the truth to Miss Temple, the teacher at Lowood rather than remain silent as was expected of a student.
Lowood Charity School for Orphans – Helen and Miss Temple
Helen is Jane’s only friend at Lowood. She is so different from Jane, embodying tolerance, and forgiveness instead of anger or confrontation. Then, there is Miss Temple, the kind-hearted Superintendent at Lowood who leaves a lifelong impression on Jane. And, I realized how important it is to find that one teacher who can influence and sculpt you in becoming a good human being.
Lowood is run on meager resources and under strict discipline as Mr.Brocklehurst envisions is apt for young girls of poor background. When an epidemic breaks out, mismanagement of funds and lack of amenities come to the forefront. Bronte reveals to the readers how misplaced the value systems were, devoid of empathy and belittling the economically poor.
Thornfield – Making of an Independent woman and finding Love
On completion of her studies, Jane teaches the young at Lowood but she aspires to know the outside world and sends applications for employment as a governess.
Jane sets off to Thornfield as a ‘new chapter’ in her life as she accepts the position of a Governess. Jane is glad to have Mrs.Fairfax, the caretaker at Thornfield as her companion and Adele as her student, the ward of her employer.
Edward Rochester is unlike any other male protagonist that one would find in fiction. The wealthy owner of the Thornfield mansion is ‘very changeful and abrupt’ and almost twenty-years older to Jane.
On many levels, you find the relationship between Jane and Mr.Rochester too platonic as both seek each other to have conversations centered on various subjects. At one point, after being coaxed by Mr.Rochester, Jane says, ‘I don’t think, sir, you have the right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experiences’.
Physical Beauty – Jane Eyre versus Blanche Ingram
Jane describes herself as ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.’ On the other end of the spectrum is Blanche Ingram, Mr. Rochester’s fiancée – beautiful, charming and competent at horse riding, playing music, and singing. What separates the two women is their inner beauty.
Bronte had placed Georgiana, Aunt Reed’s daughter as the beauty of the family, ‘as if she were painted’ though she came across as selfish and self-centered. We are brutally told how one is drawn towards physical beauty. Love and care is showered upon someone simply because they possess the charm with little attention for seeking qualities in them.
Adversities in Jane’s life do not turn her sour rather it makes her a strong and compassionate human being. Something we learn early on with Jane and Helen’s friendship at Lowood.
Aunt Reed had been arrogant and deceitful but in her last moments, she seeks Jane. Jane could have refused but she takes a leave from Mr.Rochester to be by her Aunt’s side. As Aunt Reed slips in and out of consciousness, there continues to be a cold vibe but Jane says, ‘If you had let me love you’.
Jane had wanted a loving family, a place to be called home and her worth as an industrious person. She searches for these qualities at Aunt Reed’s home, Lowood and Thornfield but life isn’t so easy, there are trials and tribulations.
Is the narrative too didactic?
‘Jane Eyre’ could seem preachy, too idealistic in line with her hardships when acquiescence seems normal. Not just Jane but even Mr.Rochester is tied to his morality with an obligation towards Bertha and Adele.
The characters are put in watertight compartments of black and white; the conservative strict characters that cannot budge for emotions and, Jane in her morally upright position.
The beginning with Mr.Brocklehurst is concluded with St.John’s character. I think St.John could have been Helen’s male counterpart but completely devoid of passion. When he sought a life partner, it was for an ardent labourer to further God’s cause in India. (John as young handsome Greek face with an intelligent mind pitted against an older Mr. Rochester)
But then, this is not a spiritual journey. ‘Jane Eyre’ is a girl’s story of becoming independent, making decisions based on her understanding of life which is hugely drawn from two morally devout female characters – Helen and Miss Temple.
Charlotte Bronte wrote ‘Jane Eyre’ in an autobiographical style addressing us as the ‘reader’ or ‘Here an illustration, reader’. And, I have loved Jane’s character from the very first chapter. Rarely a story comes where a plain Jane is not given the physical transformation to become the female protagonist.
You can read about Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte HERE!