FamilyThe main quest in Jane Eyre is Jane's search for family, for a sense of belonging and love. However, this search is constantly tempered by Jane’s need for independence. She begins the novel as an unloved orphan who is almost obsessed with finding love as a way to establish her own identity and achieve happiness. Although she does not receive any parental love from Mrs. Reed, Jane finds surrogate maternal figures throughout the rest of the novel. Bessie, Miss Temple, and even Mrs. Fairfax care for Jane and give her the love and guidance that she needs, and she returns the favor by caring for Adèle and the students at her school. Still, Jane does not feel as though she has found her true family until she falls in love with Mr. Rochester at Thornfield; he becomes more of a kindred spirit to her than any of her biological relatives could be. However, she is unable to accept Mr. Rochester’s first marriage proposal because she realizes that their marriage - one based on unequal social standing - would compromise her autonomy. Jane similarly denies St. John's marriage proposal, as it would be one of duty, not of passion. Only when she gains financial and emotional autonomy, after having received her inheritance and the familial love of her cousins, can Jane accept Rochester's offer. In fact, the blinded Rochester is more dependent on her (at least until he regains his sight). Within her marriage to Rochester, Jane finally feels completely liberated, bringing her dual quests for family and independence to a satisfying conclusion.
Jane receives three different models of Christianity throughout the novel, all of which she rejects either partly or completely before finding her own way. Mr. Brocklehurst's Evangelicalism is full of hypocrisy: he spouts off on the benefits of privation and humility while he indulges in a life of luxury and emotionally abuses the students at Lowood. Also at Lowood, Helen Burns's Christianity of absolute forgiveness and tolerance is too meek for Jane's tastes; Helen constantly suffers her punishments silently and eventually dies. St. John, on the other hand, practices a Christianity of utter piousness, righteousness, and principle to the exclusion of any passion. Jane rejects his marriage proposal as much for his detached brand of spirituality as for its certain intrusion on her independence.
However, Jane frequently looks to God in her own way throughout the book, particularly after she learns of Mr. Rochester's previous marriage and before St. John takes her in to Moor House. She also learns to adapt Helen’s doctrine of forgiveness without becoming complete passive and returns to Mr. Rochester when she feels that she is ready to accept him again. The culmination of the book is Jane’s mystical experience with Mr. Rochester that brings them together through a spirituality of profound love.
Social positionBrontë uses the novel to express her critique of Victorian class differences. Jane is consistently a poor individual within a wealthy environment, particularly with the Reeds and at Thornfield. Her poverty creates numerous obstacles for her and her pursuit of happiness, including personal insecurity and the denial of opportunities. The beautiful Miss Ingram's higher social standing, for instance, makes her Jane's main competitor for Mr. Rochester’s love, even though Jane is far superior in terms of intellect and character. Moreover, Jane’s refusal to marry Mr. Rochester because of their difference in social stations demonstrates her morality and belief in the importance of personal independence, especially in comparison to Miss Ingram’s gold-digging inclinations. Although Jane asserts that her poverty does not make her an inferior person, her eventual ascent out of poverty does help her overcome her personal obstacles. Not only does she generously divide her inheritance with her cousins, but her financial independence solves her difficulty with low self-esteem and allows her to fulfill her desire to be Mr. Rochester’s wife.
Alongside Brontë's critique of Victorian class hierarchy is a subtler condemnation of the gender inequalities during the time period. The novel begins with Jane's imprisonment in the "red-room" at Gateshead, and later in the book Bertha's imprisonment in the attic at Thornfield is revealed. The connection implies that Jane's imprisonment is symbolic of her lower social class, while Bertha's containment is symbolic of Victorian marriage: all women, if they marry under unequal circumstances as Bertha did, will eventually be confined and oppressed by their husbands in some manner. Significantly, Jane is consciously aware of the problems associated with unequal marriages. Thus, even though she loves Mr. Rochester, she refuses to marry him until she has her own fortune and can enter into the marriage contract as his equal.
While it is difficult to separate Jane's economic and gender obstacles, it is clear that her position as a woman also prevents her from venturing out into the world as many of the male characters do – Mr. Rochester, her Uncle John, and St. John, for instance. Indeed, her desire for worldly experience makes her last name ironic, as "Eyre" derives from an Old French word meaning "to travel." If Jane were a man, Brontë suggests, she would not be forced to submit to so much economic hardship; she could actively attempt to make her fortune. As it is, however, Jane must work as a governess, the only legitimate position open for a woman of her station, and simply wait for her uncle to leave her his fortune.
Fire and IceThe motifs of fire and ice permeate the novel from start to finish. Fire is presented as positive, creative, and loving, while ice is seen as destructive, negative, and hateful. Brontë highlights this dichotomy by associating these distinct elements with particular characters: the cruel or detached characters, such as Mrs. Reed and St. John, are associated with ice, while the warmer characters, such as Jane, Miss Temple, and Mr. Rochester, are linked with fire. Interestingly, fire serves as a positive force even when it is destructive, as when Jane burns Helen's humiliating "Slattern" crown, and when Bertha sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed curtains and then to Thornfield Manor. The first of Bertha’s fires brings Jane and Mr. Rochester into a more intimate relationship, while the second destroys Thornfield and leads to Bertha's death, thus liberating Rochester from his shackled past. Although the fire also blinds Rochester, this incident helps Jane see that he is now dependent on her and erases any misgivings she may have about inequality in their marriage. Although Brontë does not suggest that the characters associated with ice are wholly malignant or unsympathetic, she emphasizes the importance of fiery love as the key to personal happiness.
Gothic elementsBrontë uses many elements of the Gothic literary tradition to create a sense of suspense and drama in the novel. First of all, she employs Gothic techniques in order to set the stage for the narrative. The majority of the events in the novel take place within a gloomy mansion (Thornfield Manor) with secret chambers and a mysterious demonic laugh belonging to the Madwoman in the Attic. Brontë also evokes a sense of the supernatural, incorporating the terrifying ghost of Mr. Reed in the red-room and creating a sort of telepathic connection between Jane and Mr. Rochester. More importantly, however, Brontë uses the Gothic stereotype of the Byronic hero to formulate the primary conflict of the text. Brooding and tortured, while simultaneously passionate and charismatic, Mr. Rochester is the focal point of the passionate romance in the novel and ultimately directs Jane’s behavior beginning at her time at Thornfield. At the same time, his dark past and unhappy marriage to Bertha Mason set the stage for the dramatic conclusion of the novel.
External beauty versus internal beautyThroughout the novel, Brontë plays with the dichotomy between external beauty and internal beauty. Both Bertha Mason and Blanche Ingram are described as stunningly beautiful, but, in each case, the external beauty obscures an internal ugliness. Bertha’s beauty and sensuality blinded Mr. Rochester to her hereditary madness, and it was only after their marriage that he gradually recognized her true nature. Blanche’s beauty hides her haughtiness and pride, as well as her desire to marry Mr. Rochester only for his money. Yet, in Blanche’s case, Mr. Rochester seems to have learned not to judge by appearances, and he eventually rejects her, despite her beauty. Only Jane, who lacks the external beauty of typical Victorian heroines, has the inner beauty that appeals to Mr. Rochester. Her intelligence, wit, and calm morality express a far greater personal beauty than that of any other character in the novel, and Brontë clearly intends to highlight the importance of personal development and growth rather than superficial appearances. Once Mr. Rochester loses his hand and eyesight, they are also on equal footing in terms of appearance: both must look beyond superficial qualities in order to love each other.
Jane Eyre Essays and Related Content
- Jane Eyre: Major Themes
- Jane Eyre: Essays
- Jane Eyre: E-Text
- Jane Eyre: Questions
- Jane Eyre: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Charlotte Bronte: Biography
- Jane Eyre Summary
- About Jane Eyre
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Volume I, Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Volume I, Chapters 6-10
- Summary and Analysis of Volume I, Chapters 11-15
- Summary and Analysis of Volume II, Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Volume II, Chapters 6-11
- Summary and Analysis of Volume III, Chapters 1-6
- Summary and Analysis of Volume III, Chapters 7-12
- The Madwoman in the Attic: Angel or Monster?
- Related Links on Jane Eyre
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources