by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre Introduction
In A Nutshell
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You can't get much more romantic than Jane Eyre: a poor, unloved, and unattractive orphan uses her awesome personality to win over a wealthy sort-of-aristocrat and live happily ever after.
Oh, and by "awesome personality" we mean "blunt and somewhat annoyingly obsessed with duty." And let's not forget to mention that the sort-of-aristocrat is (1) mean, (2) ugly, and (3) comes with more baggage than an Airbus. And "happily ever after"? Ha. That comes in the last few pages of a very long (and very messed-up—think "psychopathic mind games" and "imprisoned people in the attic") courtship.
What we're saying is, Jane Eyre isn't exactly the harlequin romance novel that a movie poster like this might suggest. But don't worry: it's still a crowd-pleaser. Madness, disability, missionaries, and a tasty sprinkle of the gothic make Jane Eyre a pretty compelling read for a book that was published (under the pseudonym Currer Bell) in the wayback days of 1847.
Still, there's a lot more going on than the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster... even though Jane Eyre has graced the screen a whopping thirty-three times. At the heart of Jane Eyre is a struggle that's almost certainly close to your heart: the struggle to grow up and live a life that's authentic and meaningful.
So does living an authentic life mean following your cousin across the world to convert the "heathens"? Does it mean living as a wealthy spinster and teaching the rural poor how to knit? Or does it mean marrying your brooding, crippled landlord who has a sordid, secret past?
It's Choose Your Own Adventure, nineteenth-century style: if you choose wisely you'll gain everlasting love and a swanky mansion; if you choose poorly... well, we just hope you like spending a lot of time in attics.
Why Should I Care?
When you look at Jane Eyre, you might just see a long novel about a gal in an ugly gray dress whose life—a lot of the time—totally sucks. Whether she’s gagging on burned porridge at her horrible boarding school or discovering that her fiancé is already married to someone else or wandering around on the moor starving to death, life is often painful for Jane.
The thing is, it’s not painful to read about it. In fact, we start to get kind of obsessed with all the gory details after a while. Did Jane and Rochester's wedding really get interrupted at the altar just now? Why did Rochester decide to keep his wife locked in the attic? How many mistresses did he have? Is he Adèle's dad or not? Will Jane marry her cousin or agree to bigamy? Is there a ghost at Thornfield Hall... or is it a vampire?
Of course, apart from the whole thirst-for-voyeurism thing that we all have, Jane Eyre also offers something else: a tale about The Man getting you down. Over and over, Jane’s put into situations where she’s too young, too poor, or too powerless to win, but she has to try anyway. And we all know about that.
We’ve all been the kid who was picked on by some random adult like Mrs. Reed or Mr. Brocklehurst or your fourth-grade math teacher just because that person has a stick up their you-know-what.
We’ve all had to accept that everyone would believe the adults just because they are adults, so they get away with it. Maybe some of us have also been the young employee who gets pressured to do something immoral or just to work late again by our boss.
Or the girlfriend who finds out that her boyfriend’s taking someone else out on Friday night. That "someone else" might not be an insane vampiric arsonist—but hey, parallels only go so far.
What we’re trying to say is: half of Jane Eyre is pure get-the-popcorn, omigawd-she-didn’t spectacle, and the other half looks pretty familiar. Even if you've never spent time as a governess in a moldering mansion—hey, even if you're a dude—you've likely felt "puny and insignificant" (2.9.23) at some point in your life.
And there is nothing more relatable than watching the underdog get kicked around... and nothing more satisfying than watching her triumph.