“In the end, we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Brontë.”
― Virginia Woolf
“I would always rather be happy than dignified.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
Surrounded by Jealous Relatives
Orphaned at an early age, Jane Eyre grows up with her mother’s brother and his family on the Gateshead Hall estate. When her uncle dies, he makes his wife promise to raise and love Jane like one of her own children, but the heartless Mrs. Reed can’t bring herself to treat the inquisitive, bright Jane as her own flesh and blood. In her eyes Jane is a treacherous, devious and dishonest child, and she treats her accordingly. Her cousins Eliza, Georgina and John are condescending toward her, particularly the rough brute John who tortures her mentally and physically.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
After yet another one of his violent abuses, she puts up a fight and strikes back. As a punishment for her “brazen, violent temper” Mrs. Reed locks her in the red-room, which is rumored to be haunted. Alone in the dreadful room, Jane panics and begs her aunt for mercy – but Mrs. Reed only keeps her locked up longer in response. When Jane faints, the local apothecary diagnoses a nervous breakdown and prescribes a change of air and scene – advice that her aunt readily complies with when she arranges for the ten-year-old to live at the Lowood orphanage.
In the Orphanage
Jane is glad to have escaped her aunt and Gateshead at last, but she soon realizes that her new environment is hardly much better. Mr. Brocklehurst, a clergyman with a heavy hand oversees the Lowood orphanage. The many girls receive a scanty supply of ruined and inedible food, the living quarters are cold and drafty and the rules draconian. Jane decides to start a new life and make friends. The first girl she befriends is Helen Burns, who teaches Jane about love and forgiveness.
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”-Helen Burns, Jane Eyre: Summary by Make Me Read
Thanks to her robust constituency, Jane survives the hard winter in Lowood. Despite the lack of all physical and material comfort she flourishes due to her friendship with Helen – who will die of consumption soon thereafter – and the affection the principle Miss Temple shows her. The wise and fair teacher treats her with the love and respect she had sought for so long. Thanks to that support the girl survives both the callous humiliations from the bigoted Mr. Brocklehurst and a typhus epidemic that more than half of her semi-starved fellow pupils die from. Following public concern at the high mortality rate, conditions at Lowood improve. Jane stays in the orphanage for eight years, the last two as a teacher.
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
When the beloved Miss Temple marries and leaves Lowood, Jane no longer feels at home at Lowood and decides it’s time to move on. The 18-year-old advertises for a position in the newspaper and finds work as a governess soon thereafter.
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
Governess in Thornfield Hall
Upon her arrival at Thornfield Hall, Jane is pleasantly surprised. The housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax gives her a warm and kind welcome and she gets along well with her pupil Adele right from the start. Adele is the ward of the proprietor Edward Rochester, who has taken the eight-year-old girl from France to his Thornfield manor house. Rochester spends little time at Thornfield.
He is rumored to be generous and just, but also a slightly peculiar gentleman. When they first meet, he asks the new governess intrusive questions and seems lacking in basic manners. To Jane, he appears erratic and gruff, yet she changes her mind once she gets to know him better. Rochester, too, comes to appreciate the clever and quick-witted Jane, who doesn’t shy away from standing her ground in conversation. He forms the habit of talking to her at night.
“Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life.”-Mr. Rochester to Jane, Jane Eyre: Summary by Make Me Read
Jane is an excellent listener, and Rochester opens up to her – telling her about his restless and immoral wanderings that he would prefer to forget. Rochester’s turbulent past doesn’t deter Jane, on the contrary: She’s attracted to him; she discerns a noble and good-natured man behind his rough manners.
“If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved of you and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
Jane is happy at Thornfield, with only the most mysterious servant Grace Poole troubling her. Jane continues to hear beastly laughter from Grace’s sewing chamber and she can’t help but feel that something is wrong in the house. When strange noises awaken Jane one night she realizes that there is smoke coming out of Mr. Rochester’s bedroom, located directly above her own. Courageously, she extinguishes the fire at his bedside and saves him from certain death.
“Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
She waits in vain for an explanation, but he departs the next day, only to return weeks later in illustrious company. Even though she maintains her decorum and tries to suppress her nascent feelings for Mr. Rochester, it pains her that he treats her like a mere servant in front of his guests. The haughty Miss Ingram publicly scorns Jane for her lower-class background. Jane is devastated to see that Rochester has taken a liking to Miss Ingram – a beautiful but thoughtless and loveless woman – and is openly courting her.
“Flirting is a woman’s trade, one must keep in practice.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
When another guest arrives unexpectedly at Thornfield, Jane experiences something frightening yet again: She is startled from her sleep to hear one of the guests, a certain Mr. Mason, cry for Rochester in panic. When Rochester seeks her help, Jane sees Mason lying bloodied in his bed. After receiving treatment from a doctor, Rochester hastily sends the guest away before dawn. Rochester dissembles when Jane asks him for an explanation. He admits that Mason has some connection to his previous life, a life that he would like to rid himself of – by way of marrying Miss Ingram.
“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons, because her rank and connections suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill-adapted to win from him that treasure.”-Jane on Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Miss Ingram, Jane Eyre: Summary by Make Me Read
While Jane is digesting this bad news, she receives yet more: Her cousin John has committed suicide in London, after having frittered away his family’s fortune with his debauched and dissolute lifestyle. Her aunt has suffered a stroke because of the shock and the dying woman now demands to see her niece. Jane immediately departs for Gateshead.
“The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
There she realizes that her cousins have changed. Her aunt, though mortally ill and barely in control of her senses, openly displays her disgust for Jane. Jane, at peace with herself and her past, feels nothing but mercy for her aunt. One month passes until Mrs. Reed confesses, just hours before her demise, that Jane has an uncle who would have liked to take care of her when she was a child. Mrs. Reed sent the man away because she begrudged Jane a comfortable life.
“There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow-creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
A Glimpse of Happiness
“Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
Jane returns to Thornfield believing that she will soon have to leave the beloved house and her adored Mr. Rochester. But to her great surprise he reveals that the planned marriage with Miss Ingram was just a ruse to make Jane jealous and awaken her feelings for him. He proposes to her, and, after some hesitation, she accepts. Jane is happy, but she can’t help feeling doubtful. She tries to tone down Rochester’s emotional exuberance and demonstrations of love. She refuses to tolerate being showered with jewelry and frills, for fear of failing to remain true to herself.
“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”-Jane to Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre: Summary by Make Me Read
On the eve of their marriage she dreams of Thornfield in ruins and suffers another unpleasant experience: In the middle of the night she wakes up to the sight of an unknown and eerie creature beside her bed, tearing apart her wedding veil. Rochester admits that something uncanny is going on in the house, but refuses to explain himself until one year has passed.
“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
During the wedding ceremony, a lawyer representing Jane’s long-lost uncle appears and accuses Rochester of preparation bigamy. He produces Mr. Mason who testifies that Rochester’s wife is his sister. Rochester admits that he is indeed married already, but since his wife is a dangerous woman afflicted by madness, he keeps her in the attic of Thornfield. This also explains the uncanny incidents: The lunatic has repeatedly tricked her guardian Grace Pool and wreaked havoc at the expense of Rochester, Mason, and Jane.
Rochester thought himself exempt from the marriage contract because of his first wife’s insanity and the machinations of his family and hers to trick him into the match. Yet it’s out of the question for Jane to marry a man who is tied to another. Although she loves him and can see his dilemma, she cannot imagine living any longer under Rochester’s sway. As he threatens to keep her, she steals away in the night.
“Her coming was my hope each day,-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
Her parting was my pain;
The chance that did her steps delay
Was ice in every vein.”
After her hurried departure, Jane takes a coach to get as far away from Thornfield as possible. She cries the whole way and even forgets her few personal belongings when she disembarks. In this state, she arrives in Whitcross – a tiny, inconspicuous hamlet – where she wanders, searching for work and a roof over her head. She finds neither one nor the other, and must beg for bread and shelter.
It takes but a few days until Jane is entirely exhausted, trudging through the deserted and bleak area. She is ready to die when she sees a light in the distance. Jane spots a cottage in the remote moorland and observes its inhabitants, an elderly woman and two young ladies, through the window. Jane knocks on the door, asks for a piece of bread and a place to sleep for the night, but the elderly woman turns her away.
“Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.”-Jane to the elderly woman who turns her away, Jane Eyre: Summary by Make Me Read
Utterly spent, she breaks down in front of the door. Shortly thereafter, a young man picks her up, carries her into the house, and feeds her. St. John Rivers and his sisters Mary and Diana host and take care of the sick Jane.
After her recovery, Jane continues to stay in Marsh End with the sisters, who become dear to her. With St. John, however, she has a harder time. The young pastor is reserved and treats her coolly. He finds Jane a position as a teacher at a poor village school, and so she stays in the area.
“It is not violence that best overcomes hate — nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
Her destitute situation changes dramatically when her uncle – the same man who searched for her when she was a child – dies and appoints her as his sole heir. To top off her good luck it turns out that Mary, Diana and St. John are also children of the Eyre family and therefore Jane’s relatives. The second twist of fate causes her the greatest happiness, since she is finally no longer alone, having found her family.
Jane decides to divide her inheritance between all four Eyres, so that Mary and Diana can stop working as governesses and St. John may realize his dream: The tireless clergyman feels called to do missionary work in India. He asks Jane to follow him as his wife and dedicate her life fully to God. Jane agrees to accompany St. John as a missionary, yet she refuses to marry him, fully aware that he isn’t in love with her.
“I would always rather be happy than dignified.”-Jane to St. John, Jane Eyre: Summary by Make Me Read
In her view, to marry for duty is out of the question. But St. John doesn’t relent and tries to persuade her by all available means. He has nearly succeeded when she hears a spectral voice calling her name. It’s Edward Rochester’s voice, which she has never forgotten. Drawn back to Rochester by the summons, Jane immediately sets out to Thornfield.
“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour … If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Summary by Make Me Read
A Happy Ending?
When Jane arrives, she makes the horrifying discovery that the vision in her nightmare has come true: Thornfield Hall lies in ruins. The villagers tell her that the house burned down some time ago. Rochester’s mad wife set the fire and then flung herself to her death from the roof. Rochester himself was badly injured while rescuing the inhabitants. Jane then travels to Ferndean, where Rochester is now living, and finds her beloved a cripple: He has but one hand left and has lost his sight. When she reveals herself to him, the broken man is overjoyed. Finally, his Jane is back and relieves him from guilt and grief. Jane vows she’ll never leave him again.
“Reader, I married him.”-Jane, Jane Eyre: Summary by Make Me Read
Since the death of his first wife has cleared the way for matrimony, they marry. Rochester’s sight slowly improves, so that he is even able to see his first-born son.
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