Volume I, Chapter 1 Summary:
The novel begins with the ten-year-old Jane Eyre narrating from the home of the well-off Reed family in Gateshead Hall. Mr. Reed, Jane’s uncle, took her into his home after both of her parents died of typhus fever, but he soon died himself. Mrs. Reed was particularly resentful of her husband’s favoritism toward Jane and takes every opportunity to neglect and punish her. At the beginning of the narrative, Jane is secluded behind the curtains of a window seat and reading Bewick’s “History of British Birds.” Although she attempted to join the rest of the family, she was refused permission by Mrs. Reed to play with her cousins Eliza, John, and Georgiana. Although the family mistreats her, Jane still wishes that she could have the same attention and love that her cousins receive from her aunt. The bullying John interrupts Jane’s reading and informs her that she has no right to read their books because she is an orphan who is dependent on his family. He strikes her with the book, and Jane surprises him by fighting to defend herself. John is frightened by Jane’s zeal and blames her for the fight. As punishment for Jane’s inappropriate behavior, Mrs. Reed has two servants lock her in the “red-room,” the room in which Mr. Reed died.
From the very beginning of the book, Bronte uses careful novelistic craftsmanship to position the reader on Jane's side. Not only does the narration occur in Jane’s voice, a fact which automatically makes her a more sympathetic character, but Bronte incorporates all of the tragic facts of Jane’s childhood in the first few pages. From the start, Jane is oppressed; she is sent off while her cousins play. We learn through exposition from John that she is a penniless orphan, dependent on the heartless Reed family but never on an equal level with her relatives; indeed, social class will play an important role in the rest of the novel. Although we do not have a clear sense of the extent of Mrs. Reed’s resentful feelings toward Jane, Bronte emphasizes Jane’s loneliness and lack of familial affection. Bronte also emphasizes Jane’s sensitive nature and inner strength. She is given to flights of fancy while reading, but she also displays a great deal of courage and sense of justice in her defense against John. All of the elements are in place for a classic "Bildungsroman," the literary genre originating in the German as "novel of formation" or, as it is generally known, the "coming-of-age" story. In the Bildungsroman, classic examples of which are Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the young protagonist matures through a series of obstacles and defines his or her identity.
Volume I, Chapter 2 Summary:
Jane resists physically and verbally as the servants Bessie and Miss Abbot lead her to the red-room, named for the color of its drapery and furniture. The room also contains a miniature portrait of Mr. Reed, who has been dead nine years; his actual body lies in a vault under the Gateshead church. Before they lock her up, the servants reprimand Jane for her disobedience and warn her against angering God. As Jane considers their reprimands, she becomes angry at the injustice of her family situation, wondering why she is always mistreated while her cousins are pampered and petted. She catches her ghostly reflection in the mirror and, thinking about her miserable condition and about her dead uncle, recalls how he took the orphaned Jane in and made Mrs. Reed promise to take care of her. Suddenly, a ray of light enters the room, and Jane cries out, believing that the light is the ghost of her uncle. Her scream of terror alerts Bessie, Miss Abbot, and Mrs. Reed, but they accuse her of trickery and refuse to free her. After they leave, Jane faints.
The red-room has clear associations with death (red as the color of blood, the room's containing a miniature version of the dead Mr. Reed, and Jane's belief that she sees a ghost in it) but is also a symbol of imprisonment. This is only the first time that Jane will be imprisoned in the novel, though her later imprisonments will generally be more metaphorical, particularly in relation to class, gender, and religion. In this case, John is the root cause of Jane's imprisonment and his word is taken above hers, a fact that parallels the gender relations of the male dominated Victorian society. Ironically, however, the three aggressors that maintain Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room are females, and Jane’s one savior, it appears, was her uncle.
The chapter also introduces some of the Gothic literary tradition that inform much of the narrative structure of the text. The Gothic novel, popularized in the 18th-century, utilizes supernatural, suspenseful, and mysterious settings and events to create an atmosphere of horror and morbidity. With that in mind, the ominous quality of the red-room, the ghost that Jane thinks she sees and the revelation that Mr. Reed's body lies beneath the church each contribute to the horror that Jane feels at her imprisonment. The Gothic novel is also characterized by damsels in distress (and women are frequently the protagonists); though Jane faints here, common for Gothic women, she proves herself to be strong-willed and determined to fight back against her oppressors.
Volume I, Chapter 3 Summary:
Jane wakes up, dimly aware of voices and of someone supporting her. She soon realizes that she is in her bed and sees Bessie and Mr. Lloyd, the apothecary. He gives instructions for Jane's care and departs, and Bessie, more concerned than before over Jane's health, sleeps in the neighboring room in case Jane needs anything during the night. Jane sleeps and awakens the next day feeling terrible. The Reed family is away, and Bessie brings Jane a fruit tart and her favorite book, “Gulliver's Travels.” Yet, Jane still feels so distressed from her experience in the red-room that she is unable to eat the tart or even enjoy the fantastical tales of “Gulliver’s Travels” as she normally does. She cries after Bessie sings her a sad song (a popular one composed by Edward Ransford, c. 1840) about an orphan.
Mr. Lloyd returns and, once Bessie is gone, Jane tries to tell him about the ghost of Mr. Reed that she saw. He does not believe her, and whenever she brings up the abuses she suffers at Gateshead, he observes that she is lucky to live in such a beautiful house. Jane thinks that she has some poor relatives, but, after Mr. Lloyd’s prompting, admits that she would not like to live with them, even if they were kind. Mr. Lloyd then asks her if she would like to go to school. After some contemplation, Jane concludes that school would be an improvement over Gateshead, and she begins to be excited about the possibility.
The family returns, and Mr. Lloyd speaks with Mrs. Reed with the recommendation of sending Jane to school. Later, while pretending to be asleep, Jane overhears Miss Abbot and Bessie discussing her parent's history. Jane’s mother was a member of the wealthy Reed family but was cut off financially when she married a poor clergyman against the wishes of her father. Soon after Jane’s birth, her parents died of typhus while visiting poor people in a manufacturing town. Miss Abbot and Bessie admit that Jane’s background is a tragic one, but admit that it would be easier to pity her if she were a pretty, likable child.
The conflicts of social class that were suggested in Chapter 1 become even more prominent in this chapter. Jane is trapped in the odd situation of being poor within a rich family. Moreover, her mother was once a member of a wealthy family, but her choice of husband resulted in her financial ruin and indirectly led to both of their deaths. As such, Jane’s notions of poverty are fundamentally skewed; as she admits, children "have not much idea of industrious, working, respectable poverty - poverty for me was synonymous with degradation." Even though she is unhappy at Gateshead, she freely admits to Mr. Lloyd that she would rather be mistreated in a wealthy home than treated kindly among poor people.
Adding insult to injury, Bessie's song, well-meaning though it may have been, emphasizes Jane's status as a "poor orphan child" and isolation in the Reed family. Jane, of course, is poor in both pitiable and pecuniary terms, without anyone to love her and without any money for self-sufficiency. However, Mr. Lloyd’s suggestion about going to school is intriguing, particularly because an education was the one thing that could help a woman strive for financial independence in the Victorian era.
Volume I, Chapter 4 Summary:
Time passes, and Jane regains her strength, but the subject of her unhappiness is never broached, and the Reed family treats her even more poorly than before. One day, Jane challenges Mrs. Reed, questioning what her late husband would think of her behavior. Mrs. Reed punishes Jane for the impertinent question, boxing her ears and ordering Bessie to lecture her, but Jane is interested in the sudden look of fear that she detected in her aunt’s eyes. When the holidays arrive, Jane continues to be excluded from family celebrations and finds solace only in the doll with which she sleeps and in Bessie's kindly goodnight kisses. In mid-January, Mr. Brocklehurst, whose Lowood School Jane learns she will attend, visits Gateshead and interrogates Jane about her religious beliefs. When Jane informs him that she finds the Psalms to be uninteresting, Mr. Brocklehurst warns her that such beliefs are a sign of wickedness, and she must repent and cleanse her "wicked heart." Mrs. Reed tells Mr. Brocklehurst that she hopes that Jane’s time at Lowood will reform her, particularly her tendency to lie, an accusation that stings Jane. After Mr. Brocklehurst leaves, Jane defends her honesty to her aunt and launches a series of recriminations. Mrs. Reed seems stunned and leaves the room, but Jane's victorious feelings soon give way to remorse. She feels better later when Bessie confides in her that she prefers Jane to the other children.
Religion makes its first formal appearance in the novel in the form of Mr. Brocklehurst. Already, we can see the religious hypocrisies that Bronte exposes; Mr. Brocklehurst believes the deceitful Mrs. Reed’s accusations about Jane and relishes the seemingly heartless reformations that take place at school. He also displays an abhorrence for any form of creative thinking; although Jane enjoys Revelations, the book of Daniel, Genesis, and other parts of the Bible, she is accused of being “wicked” because she does not approve of the Psalms. The extent of Mr. Brocklehurst’s hypocrisy in his beliefs about Christianity will become more apparent in later chapters of the novel.
After the night in the red-room, Jane’s position in the Reed family seems to have fallen even further. Instead of being tormented by Georgiana, Eliza, and John, as she was before, Jane is now simply ignored; she no longer even exists in the context of the family. However, Jane does find comfort in Bessie, who begins to act as a surrogate mother figure and is Jane’s only source of consolation and affection. Although Bessie seemed to be harsh at earlier points in the novel, her sole support of Jane during this time (and acknowledgement that she prefers Jane over the other children), make Mrs. Reed’s antipathy toward Jane seem increasingly callous. Bessie’s behavior toward Jane and Jane’s love for her doll both constitute one of the major themes of the novel, the idea that “human beings must love something.”
In this chapter, Bronte also introduces the motif of fire and ice, a theme that will appear frequently throughout the novel. Fire is associated with Jane and with positive creation, while ice is associated with Jane’s antagonists and with negative destruction. Bronte is often subtle with these symbolic attachments; for example, Mrs. Reed’s eyes are twice compared to ice in this chapter: “her cold, composed grey eyes” and “her eye of ice continued to dwell freezingly on mine.”
Volume I, Chapter 5 Summary:
Four days after meeting Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane leaves Gateshead by the 6am coach for Lowood School. When she arrives at the school, she is taken into a dull, grey room for supper and then put to bed in a room filled with other girls. The next day, Jane is introduced to some of the school's daily routines, which consist of Bible recitations, regular academic lessons, and abominable meals. She also meets the kindly, beautiful superintendent, Miss Temple, and another girl, Helen Burns, who informs Jane that all the student are "charity-children" - orphans whose tuition is largely made up for by benefactors. Jane realizes that Mrs. Reed has not paid anything to support her at Lowood, and she is truly without any family. Jane also observes one of the nastier teachers, Miss Scatcherd, mistreating Helen in class. Much to her surprise, the stoic Helen impressively bears her punishment without complaint.
Immediately we see that Lowood's religious education does not necessarily mean that the orphans are treated well. Their food is often inedible and served in small portions, their lodgings are cramped, and some of the teachers are extremely cruel. Although Jane is adjusting to the change in surroundings, she is still taken aback by the conditions of the school, particularly the food, and the fact that the Reed family did not pay anything to maintain her keep. Bronte hints at the suspicious nature of the school’s poor conditions when Helen reveals that "benevolent-minded ladies and gentlemen" make up the tuition and that Mr. Brocklehurst is the treasurer of the house.
Another possible surrogate mother figure for Jane arrives in the form of the beautiful Miss Temple. Her name, with its religious overtones, indicates that she is the only teacher at Lowood who truly upholds the Christian ethic. Bronte also introduces Helen as a confidante and friend for Jane, as well as model of another type of Christianity. Jane is already intrigued and even confused by Helen’s calm acceptance of her mistreatment at the school and will soon learn much about patience and emotional control from Helen’s example.