Study Guide

Jane Eyre Themes

By Charlotte Brontë

  • Marriage

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    In Jane Eyre, marriage is about a combination of three things: the dynamic trio of compatibility, passion, and ethics.

    This novels shows us that marriage only works between like-minded individuals with similar attitudes and outlooks on life. Inequalities of class background or financial situation are no biggie, but characters who marry solely for wealth or status are totally doomed. But a marriage has to have more than common ground; it has to have passion. Characters who try to match themselves up based on rational criteria sin against their own natures... as do characters who try to claim that marriage and love are the same thing.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. What are the different marriages that Jane Eyre, as a novel, explores as possibilities? What makes each of these pairings likely or unlikely?
    2. Are any of Rochester’s arguments that his relationship with Bertha isn’t really a "marriage" persuasive? Why or why not?
    3. At what point in the novel does it become clear that a marriage between Jane and Rochester is possible? Why? At what point in the novel does their marriage become desirable? Why? What’s the difference?
    4. Why does Jane refuse to marry St. John Rivers?
    5. How would Jane, as a character, be different if she did marry St. John and go with him to India?

    Chew on This

    Rochester’s relationship with Bertha Mason is no longer really a marriage, and he should not be considered ethically bound to her as a husband.

    Rochester’s attempt to convince Jane to elope with him while Bertha is still living results from his redefinition of marriage in terms of interpersonal sympathy rather than a social contract.

  • Education

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    You won't ever find Jane Eyre chanting "We don't need no education." She not only needs it; she wants it.

    In Jane Eyre, education provides the only route for someone who isn’t independently wealthy to improve their character and prospects—it allows social mobility. The "education" we’re talking about in this novel, however, is mostly aesthetic; characters learn basic music performance, basic artistic skills, and a little bit of foreign language. It’s enough to make them seem cultured, but not to make them actually useful for anything except teaching music, art, and foreign language. Education is also a safe haven, something that provides emotional satisfaction in a protected space separate from the hardships of the world.

    Questions About Education

    1. Why does Jane want to go to school or learn anything in the first place? Why does education become such an important issue for her as a child?
    2. What does Jane’s formal education at Lowood prepare her to do?
    3. What does Jane's informal education at Lowood consist of, and what does it prepare her for?
    4. At what points in the novel does Jane value learning for its own sake, and why? At what points does she value learning for other reasons—and what are they?
    5. Does education replace something else in Jane’s life? If so, what?
    6. Jane makes her living as an educator—a teacher or a governess. Is there a sense in which Jane’s most important relationships—with Rochester, St. John, Mrs. Reed, and others—are all related to her profession somehow?

    Chew on This

    In Jane’s childhood, education takes the place of every single one of her emotional and physical needs—food, shelter, family, and friendship.

    Because Jane initially learns to understand the world in terms of a teacher-student relationship, all her friendships have some master-pupil tinge to them.

  • Appearances

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    Appearances are almost always inversely related to the actual nature of the characters in Jane Eyre. Beautiful women turn out to be scheming harpies or selfish idiots; plain women turn out to have hidden depths of passion; ugly men aren’t actually ugly, but excitingly masculine in a harsh, craggy way.

    Virtuous characters resist having their appearances radically changed or improved because doing so seems like pretending to be something they aren't. In contrast, characters who let themselves get obsessed with keeping external appearances plain and modest are distracted from deeper spiritual truths and often turn out to be hypocritical anyway.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Is Jane actually plain-looking? Think about this for a moment. Which characters claim that Jane is plain or ugly? Which characters describe her as beautiful, and when? (Think especially about Jane’s time at Moor House in Volume 3.)
    2. Why does the novel need to show us the plainly-dressed girls at Lowood and the dolled-up Brocklehurst women in Volume 1? What is the reader being prepared to understand later on?
    3. What does Bertha Mason actually look like? Whom does she look like—to which other character does Rochester compare her?
    4. Are appearances deceptive in Jane Eyre?
    5. Are there clear correspondences between moral nature and appearance in this novel or not?

    Chew on This

    Jane’s claim that she is a "plain, Quakerish governess" is actually somewhat misleading; her attempt to hide her beauty from the reader demonstrates her belief that beauty and morality are mutually exclusive.

    Although other characters occasionally claim that Jane is beautiful, her beauty is always related to her mood or her character; it’s an "inner beauty" that the reader can only understand because Jane is a "plain, Quakerish governess" on the outside.

  • Society and Class

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    Jane Eyre (the novel, not the character) looks down its nose in disgust at the existing Victorian class hierarchy. The characters who are most interested in the trappings of wealth and status are hypocritical or morally misguided, but characters who take poverty on themselves to demonstrate their great moral natures are also mocked.

    Instead of the normal class structures, Jane Eyre implies that poverty can be thoroughly respectable, as long as it’s accompanied by an earnest desire to better oneself—or at least to earn one’s keep. Of course, it’s easy to value poverty and hard work when, in the end, all the right people get the money.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Where does Jane seem to stand in the social hierarchy? Does she have social mobility, or does her class status remain relatively constant?
    2. As a novel, how does Jane Eyre depict high society and wealthy aristocrats? What are their virtues? What are their flaws?
    3. How do Jane’s attitudes toward poverty and the poor change over the course of the novel? How does religion factor into this attitude change?
    4. Why does Jane have to become destitute before she can become wealthy?
    5. Why is it important for Jane to inherit wealth of her own before she marries Rochester?

    Chew on This

    In Jane Eyre, it is easier for characters to be morally pure if they are poor or if they refuse or renounce possible wealth.

    Jane’s inheritance brings with it financial freedom and personal independence; without these, she would not be able to bring herself to marry Rochester, because in doing so she would become his dependent.

  • The Supernatural

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    There are very few things in Jane Eyre that are actually supernatural, but the supernatural is still a major theme in this novel. How can that be? Over and over, events that seem eerie, uncanny, Gothic, or supernatural will be explained away by rational circumstances.

    But here’s the kicker: those rational explanations will turn out to be far more sinister than anything otherworldly. We’d tell you more, but we don’t want to spoil it. Oh, and those few things that are actually supernatural? Well, they add an interesting layer of ambiguity to the novel at the very beginning and the very end.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Are there any supernatural elements in Jane Eyre that don’t get explained away with rational facts? This is a source of some debate among critics, but we’ll give you a hint: there are two things, one toward the beginning of the novel and one toward the end, that could be genuinely supernatural. What are they and why are they important?
    2. Why does the novel explain away most of its seemingly supernatural elements? To think of it another way, why couldn’t Jane Eyre actually have the ghost of Mr. Reed appear and speak to Jane, or have Bertha Mason really be Dracula’s cousin one bite removed?
    3. If Jane Eyre explains away almost all of the things that seem supernatural in the novel, then why are there supernatural things in it at all? Why does the novel tease us by making us think there might be ghosts or vampires or haunted houses when it turns out there aren’t any?
    4. Why is Rochester always calling Jane a fairy or an elf or a sprite? Is there anything about her that actually seems uncanny or otherworldly? Is he just being ironic because she’s so plain and down-to-earth?

    Chew on This

    Jane Eyre uses supernatural imagery, but not actual supernatural elements, in order to create a mood and tone of Gothic horror in the context of social realism.

    Jane’s characterization in terms of elfin or fairy-like qualities creates a dark, eerie undertone to her usually staid and proper exterior.

  • Morality and Ethics

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    In the strictest sense, Jane Eyre is all about morality—in fact, it’s close to being didactic (it's as if Brontë was trying to teach her readers about ethics). Characters seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong, and it isn’t difficult to tell what decision to make in an ethical crisis.

    It is, however, super difficult for these characters to make ethical choices in a world where morality and passion seem to be mutually exclusive. Characters must choose between being right and being happy. Luckily, in the end, circumstances will conspire to get all the ethical obstacles out of the way so that we can have the happy ending we’ve been craving.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Does Jane learn her morality from Helen Burns at Lowood, or does she have an innate moral sense of her own that exists before she meets Helen?
    2. Does Helen change Jane’s mind about what ethical behavior really is, or do Helen and Jane disagree about ethics?
    3. Is Rochester an immoral person or was he just completely screwed by his circumstances?
    4. What is the reader’s relationship to the central moral issue of Jane Eyre, Rochester’s attempt to marry Jane while he is already married to Bertha? Where and with whom do our sympathies lie?
    5. Is Jane Eyre a preachy moral tale that teaches us to respect the rules, or does it make us feel uncomfortable with the rules and think that moral principles could vary, relative to different situations?
    6. When Jane returns to Rochester at the end of the novel, is her decision a moral one, or is it an emotional one? If it is a moral decision (and it might not be!), then is the moral issue her relationship with Mr. Rochester, or her relationship with St. John Rivers?

    Chew on This

    Jane’s decision to abandon Rochester when she discovers that Bertha is living in the attic creates a separation between her and the reader; while Jane chooses ethics over passion, the reader is caught up in the romantic plot, rooting for love to triumph over everything, even morality.

    The true "moral lesson" for Jane is not that it would be unethical for her to be Rochester’s mistress, but that it would be unethical for her to be St. John Rivers’ wife.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

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    Foreignness and "The Other" are uber-complex themes in Jane Eyre. The novel depends heavily on the relationship between England, at the center, and a variety of other places and groups: colonial holdings, continental nations, missionary outposts, and even Asian stereotypes.

    England and Englishness are both strengthened and threatened by each of these factors, and the ability to move between the foreign and the domestic is an opportunity for financial and personal gain—but also a chance for contamination, threats, fear, or prejudice. Even characters who seem to be at the very center of England and the very center of the novel can easily be made to seem foreign and out of place.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. There are a lot of different countries outside England that play important roles in Jane Eyre, especially France, India, and Jamaica. What is the novel’s tone or attitude toward each of these places? What do they represent or get stereotyped as representing?
    2. How can we, as twenty-first-century readers, think critically and productively about the racism and prejudice that are obvious in a nineteenth-century novel like Jane Eyre? Is it enough to say that historical context explains these attitudes, or do we need to delve deeper into them to understand how they work?
    3. How does Bertha’s Creole heritage relate to other aspects of her characterization?
    4. How would the novel be different if Bertha were a white Englishwoman or if Jane were Creole?
    5. Does Jane herself get "othered" in the context of Jane Eyre? In what settings does she seem like an outsider or a foreigner?

    Chew on This

    Bertha Mason embodies all the things that threaten the landed Victorian gentry: feminine sexuality, racial otherness, irrational behavior, and overseas wealth.

    Jane’s outsider status at Gateshead is similar to Bertha’s outsider status at Thornfield.

  • The Home

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    In one sense, Jane Eyre is about the quest of an orphan girl for a home. In this novel, home isn’t just where you hang your hat—it has to be somewhere that you not only feel comfortable and safe, but also have loving relationships with other people.

    It’s even possible for characters to be metaphorically homeless here even though they’ve lived in the same place their whole lives. It’s also possible for characters to have more than one home because they have different family and romantic relationships that create several comfortable refuges for them.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What is a "home" in this novel?
    2. When and where does Jane feel "at home," and why? (Hint: there’s more than one place that Jane calls home in the course of the novel.)
    3. What does Jane mean when she says to Rochester that he is her home? What about Rochester makes her feel this way? (Hint: think about where Jane and Rochester are in the scene where she makes this comment.)
    4. Why might it be important for Jane to have a time, however brief, when she lives alone in a house of her own?
    5. Why is it important for Jane to have a period of literal homelessness?
    6. Why does Jane tend to seek refuge outside—either in the garden, in the woods, or on the moor—rather than inside? (Hint: this is relevant to all of the places she lives.)

    Chew on This

    Jane conceives of "home" as an emotional place created by interpersonal relationships, not as a physical shelter.

    Jane tends to feel more at home outside than inside because the natural world has provided her with more of a refuge than any human habitation.