Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre Study Guide

Published to widespread success in 1847 under the androgynous pseudonym of "Currer Bell," the novel "Jane Eyre" catapulted 31-year-old Charlotte Brontë into the upper echelon of Victorian writers. With the novel's success, Brontë was able to reveal her true identity to her publisher, and it soon became widely known that the author of the popular novel was a woman. This revelation allowed "Jane Eyre" to achieve an additional level of interest in contemporary society by forcing the public to redefine sexist notions of female authorship. Although the text presumably relates events from the first decade of the 19th century, contemporary Victorians, particularly women, identified with Brontë's critique of Victorian class and gender mores. In particular, Brontë's commentary on the difficult position of a governess during the time period was one with which many woman could relate and empathize.

Written as a first-person narrative, the novel follows the plain but intelligent Jane Eyre in her development as an individual from her traumatic childhood. Brontë describes five specific stages of Jane's growth over the course of the novel: first, her childhood among oppressive relatives; second, her time as a student at Lowood School; third, her months as a governess at Thornfield Manor; fourth, her time with her cousins at Marsh's End; and finally, her return to Thornfield Manor and marriage to Mr. Rochester. As a classic example of the Germanic Bildungsroman, or novel of formation, the text demonstrates Jane's attempts to define her identity against forces of opposition in each of these five stages.

Bronte also employs many elements of the Gothic novel, another classic literary tool from the period, in order to provide a more tragic bent to Jane's struggles. Mr. Rochester's characterization as a stereotypical Byronic hero, the ominously gothic nature of Thornfield Manor, Jane's unrequited love for Mr. Rochester, and the concept of the Madwoman in the Attic--each of these aspects of the novel relate directly to understandings of the Gothic tradition.

Many aspects of the novel are modeled on Brontë's own life. She wrote of the novel, "I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself," and, indeed, the characterization of the protagonist as unattractive was largely unheard of in Victorian literature. Like Jane, Bronte was forced to rely on her intellect in order to achieve economic independence and worked a governess with several different families. She attended the harsh evangelical Cowan Bridge School, on which she modeled Lowood. Moreover, the death of Helen Burns at Lowood is a clear reference to the deaths of Brontë's two sisters during their time at the Cowan Bridge School. John Reed's descent into gambling and alcoholism also parallels the behavior of Brontë's beloved brother, Patrick Branwell, who took to opium and alcohol and died the year after "Jane Eyre" was published.

The tragic and subdued tone of the novel also speaks to Brontë's personal experiences in a more general way. With the death of her mother and two elder sisters during her childhood, Brontë was forced to cope with a strict and severe father and grow up on the desolate moors of Yorkshire (which appear in all their bleakness in Emily Brontë's novel "Wuthering Heights"). The deaths of her three remaining siblings came in the midst of her literary successes, and Brontë was forced to live in a loveless marriage for the few years before her death. Although "Jane Eyre" ends happily--Jane marries Mr. Rochester--there is still a pervasive sense of darkness and depression in the text as a reflection of Brontë's personal state of mind.

Since its publication, "Jane Eyre" has become a staple of British literature; Brontë's characterization of the honest Jane Eyre, tortured Mr. Rochester, and tragically insane Bertha Mason continue to spur the imagination of readers even today. The novel has inspired several films, as well as numerous literary sequels and prequels (the most famous of which is Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea," which describes Mr. Rochester's courtship and marriage to Bertha Mason).