Charlotte Brontë’s impassioned novel is the love story of Jane Eyre, a plain yet spirited governess, and her employer, the arrogant, brooding Mr. Rochester. Published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell, the book heralded a new kind of heroine—one whose virtuous integrity, keen intellect, and tireless perseverance broke through class barriers to win equal stature with the man she loved. Hailed by William Makepeace Thackeray as “the masterwork of a great genius,” Jane Eyre is still regarded, over a century later, as one of the finest novels in English literature.
About the Author
Emily Jane Brontë was the most solitary member of a unique, tightly-knit, English provincial family. Born in 1818, she shared the parsonage of the town of Haworth, Yorkshire, with her older sister, Charlotte, her brother, Branwell, her younger sister, Anne, and her father, The Reverend Patrick Brontë. All five were poets and writers; all but Branwell would publish at least one book.
Fantasy was the Brontë children’s one relief from the rigors of religion and the bleakness of life in an impoverished region. They invented a series of imaginary kingdoms and constructed a whole library of journals, stories, poems, and plays around their inhabitants. Emily’s special province was a kingdom she called Gondal, whose romantic heroes and exiles owed much to the poems of Byron.
Brief stays at several boarding schools were the sum of her experiences outside Haworth until 1842, when she entered a school in Brussels with her sister Charlotte. After a year of study and teaching there, they felt qualified to announce the opening of a school in their own home, but could not attract a single pupil.
In 1845 Charlotte Brontë came across a manuscript volume of her sister’s poems. She knew at once, she later wrote, that they were “not at all like poetry women generally write…they had a peculiar music–wild, melancholy, and elevating.” At her sister’s urging, Emily’s poems, along with Anne’s and Charlotte’s, were published pseudonymously in 1846. An almost complete silence greeted this volume, but the three sisters, buoyed by the fact of publication, immediately began to write novels. Emily’s effort was Wuthering Heights; appearing in 1847 it was treated at first as a lesser work by Charlotte, whose Jane Eyre had already been published to great acclaim. Emily Brontë’s name did not emerge from behind her pseudonym of Ellis Bell until the second edition of her novel appeared in 1850.
In the meantime, tragedy had struck the Brontë family. In September of 1848 Branwell had succumbed to a life of dissipation. By December, after a brief illness, Emily too was dead; her sister Anne would die the next year. Wuthering Heights, Emily’s only novel, was just beginning to be understood as the wild and singular work of genius that it is. “Stronger than a man,” wrote Charlotte, “Simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”
Date of Birth:April 21, 1816
Date of Death:March 31, 1855
Place of Birth:Thornton, Yorkshire, England
Place of Death:Haworth, West Yorkshire, England
Education:Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire; Miss Wooler's School at Roe Head
Read an Excerpt
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mamma in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group, saying, "She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly mannersomething lighter, franker, more natural, as it wereshe really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children."
"What does Bessie say I have done?" I asked.
"Jane, I don't like cavillers or questioners; besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent."
A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase; I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat crosslegged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves in my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.
I returned to my bookBewick's History of British Birds: the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of "the solitary rocks and promontories" by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape
Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls,
Boils round the naked, melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.
Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with "the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary spacethat reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold." Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.
I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quite solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide.
The two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.
The fiend pinning down the thief's pack behind him, I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.
So was the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows.
Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting: as interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings, when she chanced to be in good humour; and when, having brought her ironing-table to the nursery-hearth, she allowed us to sit about it, and while she got up Mrs. Reed's lace frills, and crimped her nightcap borders, fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales and older ballads; or (as at a later period I discovered) from the pages of Pamela, and Henry, Earl of Moreland.
With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way. I feared nothing but interruption, and that came too soon. The breakfast-room door was opened.
"Boh! Madam Mope!" cried the voice of John Reed; then he paused: he found the room apparently empty.
"Where the dickens is she?" he continued. "Lizzy! Georgy! (calling to his sisters) Jane is not here: tell mamma she is run out into the rainbad animal!"
"It is well I drew the curtain," thought I, and I wished fervently he might not discover my hiding-place: nor would John Reed have found it out himself; he was not quick either of vision or conception; but Eliza just put her head in at the door, and said at once: "She is in the window-seat, to be sure, Jack."
And I came out immediately, for I trembled at the idea of being dragged forth by the said Jack.
"What do you want?" I asked with awkward diffidence.
"Say, 'what do you want, Master Reed,' " was the answer. "I want you to come here"; and seating himself in an arm-chair, he intimated by a gesture that I was to approach and stand before him.
John Reed was a schoolboy of fourteen years old; four years older than I, for I was but ten; large and stout for his age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin; thick lineaments in a spacious visage, heavy limbs and large extremities. He gorged himself habitually at table, which made him bilious, and gave him a dim and bleared eye with flabby cheeks. He ought now to have been at school; but his mamma had taken him home for a month or two, "on account of his delicate health." Mr. Miles, the master, affirmed that he would do very well if he had fewer cakes and sweetmeats sent him from home; but the mother's heart turned from an opinion so harsh, and inclined rather to the more refined idea that John's sallowness was owing to over-application, and, perhaps, to pining after home.
John had not much affection for his mother and sisters, and an antipathy to me. He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in a day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions; the servants did not like to offend their young master by taking my part against him, and Mrs. Reed was blind and deaf on the subject: she never saw him strike or heard him abuse me, though he did both now and then in her very presence; more frequently, however, behind her back.
Habitually obedient to John, I came up to his chair: he spent some three minutes in thrusting out his tongue at me as far as he could without damaging the roots: I knew he would soon strike, and while dreading the blow, I mused on the disgusting and ugly appearance of him who would presently deal it. I wonder if he read that notion in my face; for, all at once, without speaking, he struck suddenly and strongly. I tottered, and on regaining my equilibrium retired back a step or two from his chair.
"That is for your impudence in answering mamma a while since," said he, "and for your sneaking way of getting behind curtains, and for the look you had in your eyes two minutes since, you rat!"
Accustomed to John Reed's abuse, I never had an idea of replying to it: my care was how to endure the blow which would certainly follow the insult.
"What were you doing behind the curtain?" he asked.
"I was reading."
"Show the book."
I returned to the window and fetched it thence.
"You have no business to take our books; you are a dependant, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen's children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma's expense. Now, I'll teach you to rummage my bookshelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows."
I did so, not at first aware what was his intention; but when I saw him lift and poise the book and stand in act to hurl it, I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm: not soon enough, however; the volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it. The cut bled, the pain was sharp: my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded.
"Wicked and cruel boy!" I said. "You are like a murdereryou are like a slave-driveryou are like the Roman emperors!"
I had read Goldsmith's History of Rome, and had formed my opinion of Nero, Caligula, &c. Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud.
"What! what!" he cried. "Did she say that to me? Did you hear her, Eliza and Georgiana? Won't I tell mamma? but first"
He ran headlong at me: I felt him grasp my hair and my shoulder: he had closed with a desperate thing. I really saw in him a tyrant: a murderer. I felt a drop or two of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering: these sensations for the time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort. I don't very well know what I did with my hands, but he called me "Rat! rat!" and bellowed out aloud. Aid was near him: Eliza and Georgiana had run for Mrs. Reed, who was gone upstairs; she now came upon the scene, followed by Bessie and her maid Abbot. We were parted: I heard the words
"Dear! dear! What a fury to fly at Master John!"
"Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!"
Then Mrs. Reed subjoined: "Take her away to the red-room, and lock her in there." Four hands were immediately laid upon me, and I was borne upstairs.
I resisted all the way: a new thing for me, and a circumstance which greatly strengthened the bad opinion Bessie and Miss Abbot were disposed to entertain of me. The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say. I was conscious that a moment's mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.
"Hold her arms, Miss Abbot: she's like a mad cat."
"For shame, for shame!" cried the lady's-maid. "What shocking conduct, Miss Eyre, to strike a young gentleman, your benefactress's son! Your young master."
"Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?"
"No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep. There, sit down, and think over your wickedness."
They had got me by this time into the apartment indicated by Mrs. Reed, and had thrust me upon a stool: my impulse was to rise from it like a spring; their two pair of hands arrested me instantly.
"If you don't sit still, you must be tied down," said Bessie. "Miss Abbot, lend me your garters; she would break mine directly."
Miss Abbot turned to divest a stout leg of the necessary ligature. This preparation for bonds, and the additional ignominy it inferred, took a little of the excitement out of me.
"Don't take them off," I cried; "I will not stir."
In guarantee whereof, I attached myself to my seat by my hands.
"Mind you don't," said Bessie; and when she had ascertained that I was really subsiding, she loosened her hold of me; then she and Miss Abbot stood with folded arms, looking darkly and doubtfully on my face, as incredulous of my sanity.
"She never did so before," at last said Bessie, turning to the Abigail.
"But it was always in her," was the reply. "I've told missis often my opinion about the child, and missis agreed with me. She's an underhand little thing: I never saw a girl of her age with so much cover."
Bessie answered not; but ere long, addressing me, she said:
"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 poorhouse."
I had nothing to say to these words: they were not new to me: my very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind. This reproach of my dependence had become a vague singsong in my ear; very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible. Miss Abbot joined in:
"And you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed, because missis kindly allows you to be brought up with them. They will have a great deal of money and you will have none: it is your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them."
"What we tell you is for your good," added Bessie, in no harsh voice: "you should try to be useful and pleasant, then, perhaps, you would have a home here; but if you become passionate and rude, missis will send you away, I am sure."
"Besides," said Miss Abbot, "God will punish her: He might strike her dead in the midst of her tantrums, and then where would she go? Come, Bessie, we will leave her: I wouldn't have her heart for anything. Say your prayers, Miss Eyre, when you are by yourself; for if you don't repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney and fetch you away."
Table of Contents
Note on the text
A Chronology of Charlotte BrontÃ«
Appendix A: Opinions of the Press (as printed at the end of the third edition)
Appendix B: Charlotte BrontÃ«âs Punctuation
Explanatory Notes and Selected Variants
What People are Saying About This
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Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Charlotte Brontë’s beloved classic novel Jane Eyre. We hope that they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to consider this novel that is simultaneously mysterious, poetic, and romantic.
1. How does the stormy weather in the opening scene reflect Jane’s state of mind? What do we learn about Jane’s position in the household? Why is the scene of her punishment in the red room so emotional (Chapter II)? How does the narration secure the reader’s sympathy for Jane?
2. At the Lowood School, Jane’s most beloved friend is Helen Burns, who with great dignity endures frequent punishment and humiliation by Miss Scatcherd. Jane admires Helen, but realizes that she cannot emulate her (Chapters VII–IX). Why not? What aspect of Jane’s character doesn’t allow her to be as saintly as Helen?
3. When Jane takes in the view from the roof of Rochester’s house, she dreams of freedom and travel. Is it significant that this is the place where she first hears a strange and frightening laughter (1:135, 139)? Many readers and critics have sought to understand the connection between Jane and Bertha Mason. Are they similar in their anger toward their perceived and actual imprisonments? Are they similar in other ways?
4. In three famous paragraphs beginning “Anybody may blame me who likes . . .” Jane Eyre contains a passionate argument for women’s need for learning, satisfying work, and more freedom than the domestic sphere allowed during the Victorian time period. Read and discuss this passage as it relates to Jane’s character and her life story (1:138–39). Would you consider Jane Eyre a satisfying story from a feminist perspective?
5. Jane is taking a walk when she meets Mr. Rochester (1:140–47). What is noteworthy about this first meeting? What is the atmosphere? What is the power dynamic? How does he treat her when they meet back at the house? What is Rochester attracted to in Jane? What is she attracted to in him?
6. Why does Rochester deceive Jane by openly courting Blanche Ingram? What motivates him to masquerade as a fortune-teller? Is he too manipulative and self-indulgent to deserve the honest Jane Eyre as his wife?
7. At a critical moment in the novel, Jane proclaims herself Rochester’s equal: “It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both of us had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal—as we are!” Rochester responds, “As we are!” (2:17–18). Why is Jane so passionately outspoken? Is her self-valuation exceptional and true? Is she more noble and impressive here than Rochester is? Why is this long scene (Chapter XXIII) so important for the novel as a whole?
8. Reread Rochester’s tale of his marriage to Bertha Mason in Jamaica, noting particularly the terms he uses. How does he characterize his wife? Does his description of his ill luck in marrying Bertha—“a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw, was associated with mine, and called by the law and by society a part of me” (2:88)—provoke sympathy? Who is responsible for the monstrous person Bertha has become—heredity, her own vice and depravity, fate, or perhaps Rochester himself?
9. Jane refuses to go live with Rochester in the south of France as his mistress, choosing instead to lose him forever. Do her reasons have to do with her Christian morality, or with the lack of equality and respect she foresees in such an arrangement? He is older than she, and a member of the landed aristocracy, while she is young, penniless, and has no friends or family in the world. Discuss the complicated chapter in which he tries to explain himself for attempting to lure her into a bigamous marriage, and the scene in which she takes leave of him (Chapter XXVII).
10. After Jane lives for some time at Moor House, St. John Rivers discovers her real name and that she is his cousin. She is, in fact, the missing heir of their uncle, who in leaving his fortune to Jane Eyre, has disinherited St. John, Mary, and Diana (2:185–98). At one stroke, Jane becomes a wealthy woman and acquires three beloved cousins (with whom she shares her fortune). How do you respond to such a bold departure in tone from the beginning of the novel?
11. St. John Rivers is a stern, ambitious man. He is also extremely handsome—far more handsome than Mr. Rochester. How does Jane feel about St. John? Do you think that as readers, we are meant to like him, to admire him, or to distrust him? Why doe she deny himself a marriage to Rosamond Oliver (2:178–79)?
12. Is the theme of Christian salvation in Jane Eyre at odds with Jane’s desire for emancipation and self-realization? Is she submissive or rebellious? How do Jane’s efforts toward self-fulfillment relate to her desire to be good? Why does she end her narrative with St. John Rivers’s prayer, instead of with the conclusion of her own tale?
13. Jane is about to yield to St. John’s urging that she marry him and go to India, when she hears a disembodied cry (2:240). How does Jane react to this strange phenomenon, and how is it later explained (2:276–77)? What do you think of Brontë’s decision to use this plot device?
14. Jane’s life takes the form of a quest or journey, and with each phase of her life she finds herself in a new place. What would you say the ultimate goal of her quest is? When she ends her story, married to Mr. Rochester and the mother of a young son, is she finally at rest in her true home?
15. How do you interpret the tone of Jane’s famous statement, “Reader, I married him” (2:279)? Some readers have long been troubled by what happens to Rochester after Jane leaves Thornfield, and even more so by the fact that his maiming and blinding—his severe diminishment of power and virility and pride—seem to be the harsh conditions necessary for their reunion and marriage. What sort of ending does Brontë offer: a logically and romantically satisfying one, or an obscurely disturbing and punitive one?
16. Comparing the Novel and the Movie/Screenplay:
• Had you read the novel before seeing the film? If so, how did knowing the story beforehand affect your experience of the film?
• The eBook of Jane Eyre includes Moira Buffini’s screenplay forthe new film. After reading the original novel and the screenplay(or having seen the film), can you see why Buffini made thechoices she did? How did she simplify the plot? What changesdid you find most effective?
• How do the physical settings (houses, landscapes, etc.) in the film compare with what you had imagined in reading the novel? How would you describe the visual atmosphere that the film brings to the novel?
• Have you seen other filmed adaptations of Jane Eyre? What is different in director Cary Fukunaga’s version? Fukunaga has said he loved the 1944 Jane Eyre directed by Robert Stevenson, but “the Orson Welles–Joan Fontaine version was of an era. You wouldn’t make a film like that anymore. I’m a stickler for raw authenticity, so I’ve spent a lot of time rereading the book and trying to feel out what Charlotte Brontë was feeling when she was writing it. That sort of spookiness that plagues the entire story . . . there’s been something like twenty-four adaptations, and it’s very rare that you see those sorts of darker sides.” If you’ve seen the Stevenson’s Jane Eyre, discuss the ways Fukunaga has been influenced by it, and the ways he has created a totally new vision of the novel as well. [To read the entire interview with Fukunaga by Kyle Buckman, please go to movieline.com: “Director Cary Fukunaga on the ‘Darker Sides’ of His Upcoming Jane Eyre” (March 10, 2010).]
• Compare the film’s depiction of Bertha Mason (“Antoinetta”) with the descriptions in novel. Note that the film leaves out Bertha’s visit to Jane’s bedroom, and Bertha’s destruction of Jane’s wedding veil. What is the effect of these differences?
• How effective do you find the use of flashback in the film, as opposed to the linear chronological plotline of the novel?
• Compare the character of Rochester in the novel and the film. How does the film present Rochester? He is not physically maimed in the collapse of Thornfield, and though he is blind, he is not deformed. No mention is made of the child Jane and Rochester later have together, nor of his new spiritual insight. How do these adaptations change the overall impact of the story?
• What did you think of the actors’ performances in the film? How did they reshape your impressions of the characters they portray?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)