Jane Eyre Summary
Charlotte Bronte wrote the novel Jane Eyre and detailed the journey of a young girl as she develops into a mature individual. The author shows keen insight into the spirit of the women of her time and the spirit that these women share with their counterparts in modern times. The author develops the character arc of the protagonist and title character through the struggles that begin when she is a young orphan to her struggle to cope with decisions she makes when older. Bronte adds fascinating depth to the novel with her deft use of symbolism to represent abstract ideas throughout the plot.
The novel begins with Jane Eyre in the care of Mrs. Reed, a severe, wealthy aunt, because the death of her parents has left her an orphan. Mrs. Reed tries to indoctrinate Jane with a feeling of inferiority through her words and actions. She keeps Jane apart from her cousins including one who reminds Jane of her lowly and unfortunate position. Even some in the household who are compassionate remind her that she is indebted to Mrs. Reed. Bessie, a servant in the house, says the following to her to remind Jane of her debt to her aunt. “You ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you: if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poor-house. Other evidence of the malevolence of her aunt appears early in the plot when she locks Jane in a room known as the red room where Mr. Reed died. This room is a symbol of Jane’s isolation from the rest of the world and her struggle to survive although she has no allies in her family to help her. Jane describes this room of her exile in the following words which show her isolation. “This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchens; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered”. Jane imagines the ghost of her uncle. This causes her to faint and leads her aunt to send her away from the family. Throughout the novel, memories of this room return to Jane as a symbol of the progress she makes after the isolation she suffers as a young girl. The moon is also a symbol that recurs throughout the novel. As she prepares to leave her aunt’s home with Bessie, Jane notes the absence of the moonlight as she prepares to venture into the dark of the unknown. “The moon was set, and it was very dark; Bessie carried a lantern, whose light glanced on wet steps and gravel road soddened by a recent thaw”.
Jane welcomes the chance at a reprieve from the isolation but ends up at a school with a cruel headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, to replace her aunt. Jane finds a good friend, Helen Burns, who helps her through the bad times until her untimely death. Fortunately, the epidemic that takes her friend also forces the departure of Mr. Brocklehurst. Here, Jane experiences a man who espouses the virtues of Christianity but treats others with none of these virtues. Jane takes a position as a teacher at the school which leads to the next stage of her life as a governess at Thornfield for Mr. Edward Rochester. Eventually, Jane falls in love with Rochester, but then she discovers that she cannot marry him for he is already married to a maniacal woman. Jane shows her true character as she makes the decision that she cannot accept a relationship with Rochester because this would compromise her integrity. Morally and intellectually, Jane knows that her decision to leave the man she loves is the right one. The symbolism of the isolation and imprisonment she suffered as a child in the care of her aunt enters her mind as images of her punishment in the red-room. “I was transported in thought to the scenes of childhood: I dreamt I lay in the red-room at Gateshead; that the night was dark, and my mind impressed with strange fears”. At this time of difficult decisions and transitions, Jane describes the moon as a maternal figure who encourages her decision to leave Rochester. “She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earth- ward”. Jane responds to the image of her mother and assures her that she will escape this untenable situation.
Bertha Mason, the wife of Edward Rochester, is a character in the novel, but she also serves as a symbol in Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte wrote this novel in the Victorian Age when women were expected to take a subservient role to men and behave demurely. As Jane falls in love with Rochester and contemplates marriage, she has some doubts about entering into this relationship. Bertha represents many of the qualities that Jane yearns for in order to have a more equal relationship with Rochester.
- First of all, Rochester married Bertha for money and social status. Jane’s marriage to Rochester will put her in a position similar to that of her prospective husband when he married Bertha. “I have not yet said anything condemnatory of Mr. Rochester's project of marrying for interest and connections. It surprised me when I first discovered that such was his intention……”.
- Secondly, Bertha has a larger build than Jane which puts her on a more equal footing physically with Rochester. The creation of a female character with such physical attributes makes Bertha a symbol of a female equal to a male in a rigid society. In conclusion on this point, Jane follows the dictates of the Victorian society which restrains her from showing her passion and feelings as Bertha does. In this regard, Bertha is a symbol of the behavior exactly the opposite of the perfect Victorian woman. The consequences to Bertha include ostracism from this polite society.
Charlotte Bronte possessed keen insight into the struggles of women as she demonstrates through the story of Jane Eyre. Although the heroine of Bronte’s novel is orphaned and troubled at a young age, Jane lives according to her principles without strong support from family and friends. She makes difficult life choices with a unique moral compass that guides her through life. The journey she makes in the course of the novel is relevant to modern women as it was to the women of the historical period of Charlotte Bronte.