Study Guide

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre Introduction

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Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about Jane Eyre, with three weeks' worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.

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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.

What is Jane Eyre About and 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?

They could make a reality show out of this; it would be like Supernanny + The Bachelorette + Ghost Hunters.

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.

Jane Eyre Resources

Movie or TV Productions

Jane Eyre, 2006 BBC Mini-Series
Starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, this TV adaptation is up-to-date, well-paced, and has high production values. Definitely our favorite adaptation so far, and pretty good as a study aid, too.

Jane Eyre, 1996 Film
A recent big-budget film version of Jane Eyre, directed by the famous and fantastic Franco Zeffirelli.

Jane Eyre, 1944 Film
This is the "vintage classic" film version, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Not as snazzy and new as some of the other versions, but charming in its own way, if you like that sort of thing.

Jane Eyre, 2011 Film
Okay: Mia Wasikowska is not plain... and Michael Fassbender isn't ugly. But this movie is still awesome.

I Walked With a Zombie, 1943 Film
This classic horror flick is very, very loosely based on Jane Eyre and set in the West Indies. Weird and wacky, it really explores the theme of "Foreignness and 'The Other'" in an interesting way.

Videos

"Money Matters & Flirting"
In this scene from the 2006 BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Eyre, Jane asks to visit her dying aunt and she and Rochester argue over how much he’ll pay her at this point for the work she’s done so far. This is a really useful video because it can be difficult to understand how flirtatious and playful this scene is in the book.

"Jane Eyre: Happily Ever After"
A scene from the 2006 BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Eyre that does exactly what it says in the title! This ending is a bit more sexed up than we think makes sense for the Victorian period, but hey, whatever.

Audios

Free Jane Eyre Audiobook
Complete, unabridged reading of all thirty-eight chapters, available for free online from LibriVox!

Vintage Jane Eyre Radio Adaptation
CBS Radio Mystery Theater version of the story, recorded in 1977. Caution: this is a very loose adaptation, so it’s a lot of fun but might not help you learn all the details of the plot of the novel.

Images

The Governess
An 1844 oil painting of a Victorian governess by Richard Redgrave.

Jane Eyre 1944 Movie Poster
Poster from the classic 1944 film adaptation starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.

Documents

Full Text of Jane Eyre
The entire novel online, complete and unabridged, from Project Gutenberg. Read it on screen or download it to your computer.

Oxford World’s Classics Edition of Jane Eyre on Google Books
This is only a preview—you may not be able to read the whole text of the novel here without paying, and we don’t recommend paying, because you can read the novel at Project Gutenberg for free. But! We do recommend that you check this out, because you will be able to read the introduction to the novel by Sally Shuttleworth, which is really useful.

Penguin Classics Edition of Jane Eyre on Google Books
Again, this is only a preview, but you can read the introduction by Michael Mason.

"Reader, I Shagged Him" by Tanya Gold
An article from the British newspaper The Guardian that explains Charlotte Brontë’s dark imagination and how her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, made her seem more prim and proper. Gold rejects the idea that Jane Eyre is repressed and gets deep into its sexual undertones.

"Jane Eyre Runs for President" by Sean Carman
A parody article in which Jane Eyre is one of the candidates during the 2008 presidential election. (Can you guess who she represents?)

The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
Full text of Gaskell’s famous 1857 biography of Brontë. This work is interesting because Gaskell was a contemporary of Brontë’s, but it is somewhat whitewashed—make sure you read more recent biographies, too.

Other

Charlotte Brontë: An Overview
Commentary and background on Jane Eyre from a variety of eminent scholars. Part of "The Victorian Web," a large scholarly project devoted to creating online archives of academic material related to nineteenth-century British literature and culture.

Jane Eyre Background Info
This is a website created by Lilia Melani, an Associate Professor of English at Brooklyn College. It’s short and to the point, and it has some good information about context.