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Jane Eyre is one of the foundational feminist novels of the early 19th century, written by Charlotte Bronte. The title character, Jane Eyre, is a young orphan at the start of the novel, living with her cruel aunt and siblings. After Eyre is repeatedly abused at the hands of her aunt and male cousin, Jane is sent to Lowood School, modeled on a charity school that Charlotte Bronte and her sisters attended.
The first year at Lowood is full of humiliation for Eyre as she is frequently starved, humiliated by teachers, and treated with cruelty by older students. She forms an early friendship with Helen Burns who will die from tuberculosis. Helen’s death at least, transforms the school into a more habitable place, and Jane learns the skills needed for becoming a governess and supporting herself.
Jane Eyre early resists convention and claims the necessity of her ability to speak and think freely. As a new governess, she carries on a repartee with her new employer, Mr. Rochester, that will lead to the two falling in love. Jane is also an avid painter, and many feel her described painting represent masterful foreshadowing on Bronte’s part.
Through dialogue with Rochester, Eyre clearly establishes that her marriage with him will not make her subject to him. In fact much of their dialogue after their engagement references brothels, seraglios, and the like, which foreshadow the coming action, as well as give Bronte a way to discuss the state of the Victorian woman in marriage.
Unfortunately, Mr. Rochester is actually married to an insane woman, as discovered on the morning of Eyre’s intended marriage. Eyre flees the house rather than be in any way involved in a licentious relationship with Rochester, much in keeping with the classic Gothic novels of the time.
Eyre makes her way to a family that serendipitously turns out to be her relatives on her father’s side. There she finds great companionship in her two female cousins, and great frustration in her male cousin, St. John. St. John wishes her to marry him and carry on missionary work with him in India.
Eyre refuses the marriage despite St. John’s enormous pressure because she still loves Mr. Rochester, and she feels it is wrong to marry without love. Again, she keeps her own moral compass. A chance inheritance falls to Jane, which she willingly shares with her cousins.
At last Eyre determines to find out what has happened to Mr. Rochester, and does find him. He is blind, after his insane wife attempted to burn down his house, and killed herself. Rochester is now free to marry and Jane will not take no for an answer.
Throughout Jane Eyre, one has the portrait of an independent and determined female. Unlike many classic heroines, Jane is admittedly “plain.” However it is her mind and her spirit, which attracts Mr. Rochester and ultimately brings her to a happy marriage at the novel’s end.
Bronte’s novel was somewhat popular during her lifetime, but most preferred Wuthering Heights, her sister Emily’s work. Over time, however, the importance of Jane Eyre has eclipsed Wuthering Heights. While both novels are suitably Gothic, Jane Eyre is in part treatise on the intellectual and emotional equality of women to men. Most feminist critics tend to feel that Jane Eyre is a more important novel in the canon of women’s literature.