Five-Minute Summary of the Novel “Jane Eyre”
by Professor Jack
Here is a summary of the novel “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, 1847
Jane Eyre is the name of the heroine of the novel by that name, authored by Charlotte Bronte when in her early thirties. Jane appears in the beginning of the book at age ten, living with her cruel aunt, Sarah Reed. Mrs. Reed, whose husband had died, has three children who torment and physically abuse Jane. Jane, like so many characters in nineteenth century novels, is an orphan. We will encounter more orphans. Her parents are both dead of typhus, and she seems to be without any other relatives.
A kind Mr. Lloyd makes it possible for Jane to move out of Gateshead (the Reed home) and go to Lowood School. When the headmaster, Rev. Brocklehurst, comes to interview her, things start off on the wrong foot immediately. “Do you read your Bible?” he asks. “Sometimes,” Jane answers. Do you like the Psalms, he asks. “No sir. Psalms are not interesting,” she says. “That proves you have a wicked heart; and you must pray to God to change it.”
Jane and Mrs. Reed have an epic confrontation before the girl heads off to Lowood, and Jane is the winner of the battle. She relishes her having put Sarah Reed in her place. She soon sets off for her boarding school. It’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, however, as she encounters a level of misery worse than at home with the Reeds. The food is especially disgusting, and the rooms are cold. Rev. Brocklehurst believes the girls should be toughened up, but some end up dying. One is a poignant loss to Jane, Helen Burns. Helen had befriended Jane when others treated her unfairly, and the two girls have a sweet and deep relationship. Helen is saintly and patient, whereas Jane is somewhat skeptical and passionate. Helen exercises a great influence on Jane, but Helen has tuberculosis and soon dies. “I am going to God,” Helen tells Jane on her deathbed. “Who is God?, Jane asks. “My maker and yours,” Helen answers. “God is my Father; God is my Friend. I love Him. I believe He loves me.”
Jane says later in the novel that some years later someone had returned to Helen’s unmarked grave and placed a tombstone there with the inscription “Resurgam” (“I will rise again”). It is generally understood that Jane herself had placed the headstone.
Helen’s death marks Jane tremendously. Gone is the willful girl. The book is a tale of Jane Eyre’s spiritual and moral progress, and after she leaves the school at age nineteen, she goes to an estate called Thornfield where she is the tutor of a younger girl. Soon a rugged and handsome man about fifteen years her senior shows up. He is Edward Fairfax Rochester, the master of the house. A somewhat enigmatic figure, slightly cruel in some ways and not above playing with Jane’s emotions, Mr. Rochester is a quintessential nineteenth-century Byronic Hero. In addition to his hauteur, he carries a secret to which the servants allude but do not share with Jane.
Incidentally, the novel will be the story of Rochester’s spiritual progress too, as the later chapters show.
Jane’s initial conversations with Mr. Rochester are rich and pointed, and Rochester soon learns that he has something of an intellectual peer in his home. “Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life,” he pontificates. She replies, simply: “Repentance is said to the its cure, sir.”
As time goes on in her stay at Thornfield, Jane is drawn to Mr. Rochester, first by infatuation and then by love. She is perhaps 19, he 35. Mr. Rochester disappears for days, weeks at a time, and would return home suddenly. He has soirees in his estate’s ball room, and it is obvious that other women from neighboring estates see him as an eligible bachelor. Another mysterious person, Grace Poole, inhabits Thornfield Hall. Her role is not easily apparent, but she is paid well. It is thought by Jane that some strange noises and occurrences in the home are the doings of Miss Poole.
One night, while a party is taking place in Rochester’s home, Jane comes upon a macabre character in the library. This person, who does not show her face, questions Jane about her inmost intentions, and tells her fortune. This is indeed a fortune teller. Finally, Jane realizes that this has been Mr. Rochester all along. Later that night, strange noises occur on the third floor over Jane’s room. She assumes it is the strange Grace Poole, and goes on with her life.
Jane hears from a visitor that Mrs. Reed, her cruel aunt, is dying, and makes the trip back to Gateshead to visit. Jane has already forgiven her aunt for her behavior and hopes that the old woman will have softened and will admit her errors. The woman wants no reconciliation, however, and insults Jane as she has always done. Something troubles her conscience, however, and she admits that she has lied to keep a sizeable inheritance from Jane. Jane considers that a bad deed has been done, but has never been desirous of worldly wealth, and lets the matter go.
Upon her return to Thornfield following the aunt’s death, Jane and Mr. Rochester confess their love for one another in the garden. Once having done this, a storm quickly comes up and lightning splits a nearby chestnut tree. The lovers do not make much of this, but hasten to get indoors where they both go to their rooms. Later they plan their wedding, but during the night Jane is visited by a terrifying presence in her room. A large woman hovers over her in the dark, and then enters her closet and removes her wedding veil, which she proceeds to tear in half. It must have been Grace Poole, Mr. Rochester tells Jane the next day, but Jane is unconvinced.
Did I mention that this novel has many Gothic aspects? There are more.
The day of the wedding comes, and while Jane and Edward are at the altar, the ceremony is disrupted by a mysterious man who announces that Mr. Rochester is already a married man. He claims that the wraith-like being on the third floor is Rochester’s wife. Rochester admits that he is technically married but that his wife Bertha, whom he was tricked into marrying, is mad and dangerous. He leads the wedding party and guests up to her room to see her. Grace Poole, it is revealed, is the beast’s caretaker.
The vicious animal attacks Rochester as he positions himself between it and Jane. A fierce struggle ensues and the beast is finally subdued. “This,” Edward says to the gathered witnesses, “is my wife. Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know… And this,” he continues, laying his hand on Jane’s shoulder, “is what I wished to have… Off with you now. I must shut up my prize!”
The identity of Jane’s nocturnal visitor is revealed. Bertha, the vampire-like beast, had escaped when Grace Poole had become drunk.
Jane is in shock. “I lay faint, longing to be dead… One idea only still throbbed life-like within me—a remembrance of God. It begot an unuttered prayer: these words went up and down my rayless mind, as something that should be whispered; but no energy was found to express them: ‘Be not far from me; for trouble is near; there is none to help’” (Psalms 22:11). The schoolgirl who did not like the Psalms when questioned by Rev. Brocklehurst years before turns now to the words of David in her distress.
Rochester promises to put Bertha away and take Jane to the south of France, where she will be mistress and lover. Jane refuses these desperate and reprobate pleas. Her sense of duty and morality is too strong for such a solution. “It would not be wicket to love me,” Rochester protests. “It would to obey you,” she tearfully replies. “What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?” “Do as I do,” she replies. “Trust in God and yourself. Believe in Heaven; hope to meet there again.”
One of the most important statements of the book occurs at this juncture: “While he spoke, my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery. Who in the world cares for you?’ Still indomitable was my reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad, as I am now. 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 rigor… Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.’”
Jane flees in the early morning, and sets out on a harrowing journey on which she nearly dies of hunger and exposure. She finally collapses, destitute and malnourished, at the door of the home of Mr. St. John Rivers. Rivers is a Calvinist clergyman, and lives on the moor with his two sisters Diana and Mary. After several days of care, Jane revives and begins to delight herself in the piety and kindness of the two sisters. Mr. Rivers is a different story; he is severe, distant, and lives out his Calvinism to the last full measure. For all his froideur, however, Rivers is attracted to Jane. He proposes, wanting her not so much for herself as for a ‘helpmeet’ on his planned missionary journey to India. Jane refuses his insistent entreaties.
One snowy night, St. John Rivers returns with a letter from a Mr. Briggs, an attorney. The letter is a circular, and asks if the reader knows the whereabouts of a young woman with the description, name and history of Jane Eyre. Our heroine had changed her name to Jane Elliott to avoid Rochester’s attempts to pursue her. Rivers, who has figured out who she really is, tells Jane that her sole remaining relative, an uncle on the island of Madeira, has died and left her a fortune of 20K pounds. And then he follows with a real shocker: he and his sisters are Jane’s cousins by another family line. His own middle name is “Eyre.”
Jane eventually divides her inheritance with them, leaving herself 5K pounds, a still considerable fortune.
Jane leaves Moor House, the name of the Rivers’ home after she hears a mysterious voice saying: “Jane,! Jane! Jane!” She recognizes the voice as Rochester’s. “Once more on the road to Thornfield, I felt like a messenger pigeon flying home,” she thinks. But when she returns to Thornfield, she finds the house a burnt-out ruin and imagines the worst. Asking around, she learns that Rochester’s wife had set it ablaze and run to the roof to die in the flames. Rochester had attempted to rescue her, but could not and was badly injured and blinded when the house collapsed. He now lived thirty miles away in a wooded house in a much more remote region.
I will not spoil the book by telling you the conclusion. It is one of the most moving episodes in literature. Suffice it to say that Rochester is a different man. He has repented of his former libertine ways and has had a religious conversion. Jane is much matured herself. Author Bronte structures the final chapter as a postscript, written some years later by Jane, to give an update of some of the major characters. St. John Rivers is most interesting. He has gone, unmarried, to India. “He may be ambitious yet,” she writes. “But his is the sternness of the warrior Great Heart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon.” When you read Part II of the Pilgrim’s Progress, you will meet Mr. Greatheart, who leads Christian’s wife and children to the Celestial City, and who also does battle with Apollyon.
Jane closes the novel with the words: “Amen: even so come Lord Jesus.”