Jane Eyre (Book Review)

[There are significant spoilers for the entire novel in this review. For other book reviews, click HERE.]

Title: Jane Eyre

Author: Charlotte Brontë

Publication Date: October 16, 1846

Producer: Audible Studios

Narrated by: Thandiwe Newton

Recording Time: 19 hours, 11 minutes

THE PLOT

The novel is narrated in the first-person perspective of the title character.

As the novel begins, a young orphan named Jane, aged 10, lives at Gateshead Hall with her uncle’s family, the Reeds, as a result of her uncle’s dying wish. Jane’s parents died of typhus, and Mr. Reed, Jane’s uncle, took her in. He was the only member of the Reed family who treated Jane well. Jane’s aunt Sarah Reed treats Jane poorly, including both physical and mental abuse, and she also encourages her three children – Jane’s cousins- to treat her in a similar way. Bessie, one of the household servants, is Jane’s only friend in the home, though she too sometimes scolds Jane roughly.

One day, after Jane’s older cousin John Reed had bullied her, and Jane defended herself, Sarah Reed is forced to stay in the room within the home where her uncle had died. While there, she thinks she has sees his ghost and faints, leading to the fetching of a doctor. Mr. Lloyd, the doctor, is told by Jane of how badly she is being treated. He recommends to Mrs. Reed that Jane should be sent away to school. Mrs. Reed is happy to be rid of Jane and supports the idea.

Some time later, Mr. Brocklehurst, the director of Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls, arrives at the Reed home to enroll Jane. Mrs. Reed warns Mr. Brocklehurst that Jane has a “tendency for deceit.” Jane is distraught over what she deems to be an unfair characterization. Before Jane leaves for school, she tells off Mrs. Reed for treating her poorly and she also threatens to tell everyone at Lowood how cruelly the Reeds treated her. Mrs. Reed is stung deeply by these words from Jane.

At Lowood Institution, Jane befriends an older girl named Helen Burns. During class, Helen is berated for doing a poor job of organizing her appearance. Helen is publicly punished. After, Jane tells Helen that she believes the punishment was unfair and says she could not have withstood it, but Helen tells her that she earned the punishment and that it was her duty to bear it. Jane at this time tells Helen about her poor treatment from the Reeds and Helen tells her that she would be far happier if she moved on.

Jane has been dreading a visit by Mr. Brocklehurst, to the school, fearing that he will tell her new friends the lies which were told to him by her aunt – thus branding her badly with everyone. When he finally visits, Jane is forced to stand on a stool as Brocklehurst tells her new friends and teachers that she is a liar and not to be trusted. After he leaves, Miss Temple, the kind school administrator, conducts and inquiry into the claims against Jane and publicly clears her of any wrongdoing in front of the entire school.

A typhus epidemic strikes the school. Helen dies in Jane’s arms. When Mr. Brocklehurst’s maltreatment of the students is discovered – this includes among other things giving them too little to eat – several community members build a new building and put in place a committee to reign in Mr. Brocklehurst. Conditions at the school improve a lot thereafter.

Jane remains at Lowood for six years as a student, and two as a teacher, before deciding to pursue a new line of work. Jane advertises her services as a governess, and a housekeeper at Thornfield Hall, Alice Fairfax, replies. Jane takes on the position of teaching Adèle Varens, a young French girl.

One night, while Jane is outside carrying a letter to the post, a man on horse and dog pass by her. The horse then slips on ice and throws the rider. Jane helps the grumpy rider get back onto his horse, but later she learns that this man is Edward Rochester, master of the house where she is the governess. Jane narrates that Adèle, her pupil, was left in his care when the girl’s mother abandoned her.

At Jane’s next meeting with Mr. Rochester, he accuses her of causing his horse to make him fall. Jane stands up for herself, a fact Mr. Rochester enjoys, and the two come to be friends, spending a lot of time together. At this time, around the house, a strange laugh is sometimes heard. One night, a fire is started in Mr. Rochester’s room. Jane manages to save him by throwing water on him to rouse him. Later, a guest of the house, Mr. Mason, is attacked.

After Jane’s rescue of Rochester, she begins to have feelings for him. However, he soon thereafter leaves town for several days to attend a distant party. He eventually returns a few days later, bringing the entire party he had visited with him in town, and included among those with him is Blanche Ingram who is both beautiful and gifted. Jane comes to believe that Blanche and Mr. Rochester will be wed, though she does not like the woman believing her to be heartless – especially toward Adèle.

Jane receives word that her aunt, Mrs. Reed, has suffered a stroke, and is calling for her to visit. Jane returns to Gateshead Hall and stays for a month taking care of her dying aunt. Before she dies, Mrs. Reed confesses to Jane that she received word from Jane’s paternal uncle, Mr. John Eyre, wherein he requests that she come to live with him and be his heir. Mrs. Reed tells Jane that she responded to the letter by writing to Mr. Eyre that Jane had died of fever at Lowood. Mrs. Reed dies a short time after this confession. After the funeral Jane returns to Thornfield.

At Thornfield, Rochester tells Jane that she will soon be forgetting him after he is married. Jane tells him that she has feelings for him. Rochester proposes marriage and Jane accepts. She then writes to her Uncle John, telling him of her existence and her news.

Jane prepares for her wedding, but with a sense of foreboding. The strange events at Thornfield continue, including therein one night that a woman sneaked into Jane’s room and ripped Jane’s wedding veil in two. Rochester attributes the strangeness to a servant named Grace Poole. During the wedding ceremony, Mr. Mason and a lawyer object to the wedding and announce that Mr. Rochester cannot marry because he is already married to Mr. Mason’s sister, Bertha. Mr. Rochester confesses to Jane and everyone close enough to hear that their claim true. He explains that his father tricked him into marrying Bertha her family’s money. Only after they were married did Rochester discovered that Bertha was rapidly going mad. Rochester locked Bertha away in Thornfield, and he hired Grace Poole to look after her. Jane then narrates the explanation that when Grace Poole becomes drunk, Bertha sometimes escapes from her confinement and causes the strange things that sometimes occur around Thornfield. We also learn that Jane’s uncle, Mr. John Eyre, is a friend of Mr. Mason and was visited by him soon after Mr. Eyre received Jane’s letter about her impending marriage.

Rochester asks Jane to move with him to France and live with him as husband and wife, even though they cannot be married. Jane considers the offer but ultimately rejects it, believing that she must not become a mistress. Jane decides to leave Thornfield Hall very early one morning before anyone is awake to know she is going.

Jane, who has almost no money, uses what little she has to travel as far from Thornfield Hall as she can. After disembarking, she accidentally leaves her bundle of possessions in the coach. She searches in vain for four days in her in her locale to find food, shelter, or work. Starving and destitute, she arrives at the home of Diana and Mary Rivers where she is turned away by the housekeeper. She then collapses on the doorstep believing she will be dead by morning. A clergyman, St. John Rivers, Diana and Mary’s brother, finds her there and brings her inside where his sisters then nurse Jane back to health. After Jane has recovered, St. John offers to her a teaching position at a nearby village school. Jane takes the job and becomes close with Diana and Mary.

After some time, Diana and Mary leave for governess jobs. When this happens, St. John becomes closer to Jane. One night, St. John learns Jane’s true identity (she has been using the alias Jane Elliot) and he shocks her informing her that her uncle, John Eyre, has died and left her his entire fortune of 20,000 pounds – a vast sum of money. Jane then learns from St. John that John Eyre is also his and his sisters’ uncle. St. John, Diana, and Mary had hoped to receive some of their uncle’s inheritance but he left everything to Jane. Jane is joyous to discover that she not only has relatives, but that she already knows them and likes them as well, insists on sharing the inheritance equally with her cousins. Some time later, now wealthy in their own right, Diana and Mary come back to live at Moor House.

St. John decides that Jane would make a good wife for a Christian missionary, so he proposes to her. He asks her to marry him and to go with him to India. Jane, knowing that they do not love each other, tells him that she will go – but not as his wife. St. John presses her on the matter, and as she starts to genuinely consider going, she mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester’s voice calling her name. Jane decides to return to Thornfield Hall to check on Rochester, and to help herself decide on India. Whenshe arrives, she finds that the place has burned down. At a nearby inn, Jane learns that Rochester sent Mrs. Fairfax into retirement and Adèle to school. Shortly after he had done this, his mad wife set the house on fire and died after jumping from the roof. Rochester lost a hand, an eye, and his vision in the other eye, while trying to save the lives of his servants and Bertha..

Jane learns from the man at the inn where Rochester has gone. She goes to meet him and shortly after they decide to marry. We learn from Jane the narrator that they lived happily ever after and that Rochester eventually got much of his sight back in his one remaining eyes, enabling him to even see a newborn son. The couple remains close with Adèle, Diana and Mary, who each are also now married visit them once a year, and St. John ended up as a successful missionary in India, though a recent letter implies he is now ill and will soon die.

My Review:

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. A significant part of that enjoyment was the audio narration of Thandiwe Newton. Sometimes it can be difficult to put myself into the emotional headspace of a young and passionate woman, particularly as I am myself a man who is middle-aged and often dispassionate in the extreme. Jane Eyre requires from its readers the ability to connect with a young woman filled with conviction, feeling, and life. Because of this, I am glad I read the novel via the audiobook format. There is a magical power which accompanies the spoken word and said power is not always present within my own head’s narration. In this instance, that magic aided the transference and translation of Charlotte Brontë’s emotional prose into something I can feel.

I highly recommend the audiobook format to anyone who struggles with this type of literary work. In particular, I now recommend any work narrated by Thandiwe Newton. She was wonderful.

Despite my description of the novel as one filled with passion, its protagonist is almost nun-like in her calm self-possession. Brontë succeeds in filling her novel to the brim with emotional inference. Jane and Rochester fall in love slowly and subtly, but obviously, to the Reader. I enjoyed this approach as it felt relatable. They banter. The manner of their banter reveals subtext which is only stated aloud after it has been given time to fully blossom. This is really effective and excellent writing.

Themes:

  • The search for love and acceptance.

    When we meet Jane, she is alone in the world. She is an orphan with no relations who care for her. As a young ten year old girl, that void fills her with a desperation to belong and it eventually leads to her rebellion against her aunt.

    Early in the novel, Jane tells Helen Burns that she would allow her own arm to be broken, or to take a kick to the chest from a horse, if it meant affection from her or Miss Temple. A lot of the rest of the novel involves Jane’s journey to find what she wants without that type of sacrifice.
  • Independence.

    Jane is relatively happy and content at Lowood but she decides to put out an advertisement because she hopes for more, for herself. She thus charts her destiny by boldly exerting her own autonomy.

    Jane refuses to be Rochester’s mistress because she fears she would lose herself if she makes the choice to give up her beliefs.

    Jane refuses to be St. John’s wife because she refuses to lose herself in a loveless service to him – despite greatly admiring him. She wants to be more than a tool. She wants to be true to herself.
  • Christianity’s balance between love and obedience.

    Mr. Brocklehurst is presented as an example of the dangers present in the pursuit of loveless piety. He is deceived – dangerously so – in the belief that the extremes through which he put the girls in his charge are for their own good. Sometimes the worst villains are those who are not hindered by their conscience because said conscience is egging their behavior onward.

    Brocklehurst is contrasted with both Miss Temple and Helen, who exemplify what piety looks like when blended with love. They meet his exacting behavioral standards but are also charitable and kind. Temple and Helen Burns are heroic and saintly and end up serving as Jane’s chief role models for the rest of her life.

    Jane’s relationship with the still-married Rochester challenges and tempts her to embrace love and forsake piety. She decides that she cannot do this as piety is an important part of who she is and who she wants to remain. This is presented as a strong temptation though (and for a modern reader this dilemma is probably more relatable than the other Christian dilemmas which are presented.) Ultimately, love is not love, for Jane, if it lacks piety. She is rewarded – richly – within the narrative for her choice. Beyond not losing herself, by leaving Rochester temporarily, Jane comes into possession of both a fortune and a long yearned for family.

    St. John is another example of imperfect Christianity due to his elevation of personal piety over love. In his case, though, unlike with Brocklehurst, this character flaw does not make him a villain. St. John is charitable and kind with Jane – both saving her life and giving her a job and place to live. He demonstrates wisdom with Rosamond Oliver, a woman for whom he has strong emotional feeling but who he correctly recognizes would make a poor wife for him.  However, in all that he does, he acts without love. If Brocklehurst is piety-without-love at its worst, then St. John is that at its best. St. John is not wholly without love or passion – it’s just that he does not allow those things to rule his decision-making with other people. Hs passion is for God. We get a sense then that remaining single was a good outcome for him, even if he incorrectly believed that God wanted Jane to be his wife. Assuming a divine ordinance when one does not exist is a common flaw among the zealous – particularly when young. After his rejection, and perhaps realizing his mistake, St. John returns to being kind to Jane through his letters.
  • Gender Roles.

    Jane struggles against the chafing bonds of gender expectation throughout the novel. We see this first, as a child, when she retaliates against her older cousin after he bullied her. We see it in the way that she reviles Mr. Brocklehurst and cannot abide the way that Miss Temple and Helen Burns accept his loveless rule over their school. We see it in the way that both Rochester and St. John react to her way of speaking directly and plainly (an unusual trait in Victorian women.) Both men are in parts delighted by talking to her (so much so that it factors into both wanting to marry her) but both also work at times to force her into self-disowning submissiveness that she continually rejects. Rochester wants her to disown her own morality and to live as his mistress in France. She rejects this. St. John wants her to forsake her own need for love and he works hard to override her wishes, with respect to his marriage proposal, and she must work hard to hold her ground.

I am quite happy to have read Jane Eyre and I fully recommend it to others – particularly the audiobook. Brontë’s prose is beautiful, the pacing of the story is well-constructed, and the emotional beats are effective.

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