The novel, initially set in Jamaica, opens a short while after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834. The protagonist Antoinette relates the story of her life from childhood to her arranged marriage to an unnamed Englishman.
The novel is in three parts:
Part One takes place in Coulibri, Jamaica, and is narrated by Antoinette as a child. Since the abolition of slavery caused her family to become very poor, Antoinette's mother, Annette, must remarry to wealthy Englishman Mr. Mason. Angry at the returning prosperity of their oppressors, freed slaves living in Coulibri burn down Annette's house, killing Antoinette's mentally disabled younger brother. As Annette had been struggling with her mental health up until this point, the grief of losing her son weakens her sanity. Mr. Mason sends her to live with a couple who torment her until she dies, and Antoinette does not see her again.
Part Two alternates between the points of view of Antoinette and her husband during their honeymoon excursion to Granbois, Dominica. Likely catalysts for Antoinette's downfall are the mutual suspicions that develop between the couple, and the machinations of Daniel, who claims he is Antoinette's illegitimate half-brother; he impugns Antoinette's reputation and mental state and demands money to keep quiet. Antoinette's old nurse Christophine openly distrusts the Englishman. His apparent belief in the stories about Antoinette's family and past aggravate the situation; her husband is unfaithful and emotionally abusive. He begins to call her Bertha rather than her real name and flaunts his affairs in front of her to cause her pain. Antoinette's increased sense of paranoia and the bitter disappointment of her failing marriage unbalance her already precarious mental and emotional state. She flees to the house of Christophine, the servant woman who raised her. Antoinette pleads with Christophine for an obeah potion to attempt to reignite her husband's love, which Christophine reluctantly gives her. Antoinette returns home but the love potion acts like a poison on her husband. Subsequently he refuses Christophine's offer of help for his wife and takes her to England.
Part Three is the shortest part of the novel; it is from the perspective of Antoinette, renamed by her husband as Bertha. She is largely confined to "the attic" of Thornfield Hall, the mansion she calls the "Great House". The story traces her relationship with Grace Poole, the servant who is tasked with guarding her, as well as her disintegrating life with the Englishman, as he hides her from the world. He makes empty promises to come to her more but sees less of her. He ventures away to pursue relationships with other women—and eventually with the young governess. Antoinette is clearly mad and has little understanding of how much time she has been confined. She fixates on options of freedom including her stepbrother Richard who, however, will not interfere with her husband, so she attacks him with a stolen knife. Expressing her thoughts in stream of consciousness, Antoinette dreams of flames engulfing the house and her freedom from the life she has there, and believes it is her destiny to fulfill the vision. Waking from her dream she escapes her room, and sets the fire.