As all human beings in their journeys of life make daily choices and important decisions, their destinies acquire a definite direction that guides their histories and shapes their future lives. While no person can control all the circumstances of his life, the behavior of other people, or the vicissitudes of fickle Fortune, he can control himself, determine his moral character, and deal with life’s afflictions and injustices with a magnanimous heart, a good conscience, and heroic perseverance—the story of Jane Eyre that culminates in a classic but unconventional love story.
Orphaned and raised at Gateshead in the home of her aunt, Mrs. Reed, Jane suffers the bullying intimidation of the fourteen-year-old son John who treats her with contempt, throwing a book at the ten-year-old child that causes bleeding and then insulting her: “you ought to beg, and not live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mama’s expense.” Retaliating wildly with her hands as John Reed pulls her hair and calling him a murderer, slave driver, and a Nero, Jane, the innocent victim, suffers punishment by isolation in her room for attacking Master John and showing no gratitude to Mrs. Reed. Alone in the room and seeing a strange light at night that causes a screaming fit, Jane is then accused of “artifice” and “tricks,” Mrs. Reed claiming “I was a precocious actress in her eyes.” Crying constantly, falling seriously ill, needing a physician, and complaining always “I cry because I am miserable,” Jane soon learns that the doctor recommends a change of scenery and advises Jane to attend Lowood Academy.
This opening soon in the novel gives a glimpse into the fiery, spirited, strong-willed heroine who rebels against cruelty, speaks her mind with passion, and never passively tolerates mistreatment or injustice. When the headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst arrives at the Reed home to meet Jane as a prospective student, she defends herself from false reports that malign her, unleashing her anger at Mrs. Reed: “I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you: I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world except John Reed,” adding “send me to school soon, Mrs. Reed, for I hate to live here.” Jane minces no words, calls evil by its ugly name, and truckles to no one—a sense of integrity and moral courage that abides with her throughout the whole novel. For at Lowood Academy Jane’s suffering continues, changing from verbal abuse and insult to physical deprivation.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Undernourished, improperly dressed for winter weather and frigid temperatures in unheated rooms, and subject to corporal punishments, the girls at Lowood receive indoctrination on the virtue of endurance, “to evince fortitude under temporary privation.” Calvinistic and puritanical in its disdain for the pleasurable and the beautiful, Lowood instills in the young only the mortification of the flesh and a contempt for comforts of the body. Believing Mrs. Reed’s judgment of Jane as a “liar” rather than trusting Jane’s honest account of her life with the Reeds, Brocklehurst humiliates Jane before the school by reciting the litany of faults ascribed to her by her aunt. While Jane’s otherworldly friend Helen Burns takes comfort in the life after death as the ultimate source of human joy (“life is soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness”), Jane—always down-to-earth and in touch with material and physical reality—demands justice here and now. She needs to know and feel the tangible goodness of human love in this world: “If others don’t love me I would rather die than live—I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen.” Jane remains honest, straightforward, and realistic, never unnaturally spiritual or prematurely otherworldly.
Again Jane vows to overcome the hardships that afflict her. Determined to prove her innocence from false accusations and “to pioneer my way through every difficulty,” she excels at the school and earns a reputation for scholarship and sterling character. Jane’s love of life, delight in natural beauty, and appreciation for the goodness of creation all increase during her years at Lowood. She feels no attraction for the idea of death as an escape from the valley of tears when she witnesses the death of many students infected with typhus: “This world is pleasant—it would be dreary to be called from it, and to have to go who knows where?” After eight years at Lowood, a narrow and monotonous existence in an isolated, uninspiring environment, Jane longs to participate in a wider world that exposes her to the fullness and variety of life in its abundance. Once again a surge of powerful feelings moves her to find a position as a governess: “I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer.” Craving life, movement, activity, and change, Jane accepts a position as governess at the estate of Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall to educate his ward Adele Varens.
Finding her new life a great improvement over her days at Gateshead and Lowood, Jane enjoys a new serenity and sense of fulfillment, wins the praise and appreciation of Mr. Rochester and the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, and gains a sense of belonging in a home. Cherishing the goodness of the people she serves, Jane aspires for even greater heights of goodness. Gazing out the door of the third storey and looking at the vistas in the horizon, her imagination thrills with “all the incident, life, fire, fine feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual experience.” Tranquility of existence does not quench her desire for a life of romance, fulfillment, and expansion: “I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.” As her life settles into a routine of security and comfort, long days and evenings in the company of Mrs. Fairfax and Adele, the prospects of this uniform existence do not satisfy the deepest longings in her heart.
Once Jane and Mr. Rochester become acquainted, their relationship blossoms into friendship, admiration, attraction, and love. Twenty years older than Jane with a peremptory manner, the unhandsome gentleman who relies “on the power of other qualities … to atone for the lack of mere personal attractiveness” intrigues Jane who in turn fascinates him by her unabashed directness: “I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have.” As they speak more confidentially to one another about their past lives, Rochester admits, “believe me, you are not naturally austere any more than I am vicious,” adding “it is impossible to be conventional with you.” Confessing his great passion for Adele’s mother, his duel with a rival for her love, and the revelation of his alleged fatherhood of Adele which he denies, Rochester nevertheless cares for the orphaned illegitimate child out of pity for the poor girl. These confidential exchanges that provide Jane with a glimpse of Rochester’s generous heart and large soul awaken a new interest in her uneventful life as she welcomes his delightful presence, “more cheering than the brightest fire.” In each other’s company both Rochester and Jane glow with an emotional ardor that makes them passionately vibrant.
After a period of absence when Rochester returns to Thornfield Hall, Jane, overjoyed at seeing him again, confesses, “I had not intended to love him; … I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the gems of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, green and strong. He made me love him without looking at him.” Struggling to conceal her feelings, Jane cannot suppress the love she feels: “and yet, while I breathe and think, I must love him.” As she keeps this secret in her heart and observes Rochester’s lukewarm conventional courtship with Mary Ingram approaching the marriage date, Jane announces that she will seek another position. As she prepares to part, Jane bursts with heartfelt sorrow: “I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield…. I have known you, Mr. Rochester, and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you for ever … it is like looking on the necessity of death.” But no marriage with Mary Ingram occurs because Rochester has decided Jane, his “likeness” and his “equal,” will be his bride: “Jane, will you marry me?”
Exuberant with the joy of a dream come true comparable to the happy ending of a fairy tale—a gentleman marrying his governess in the manner of a prince choosing Cinderella to be his bride—she and Rochester happily await the day of their wedding until the dark secret of Rochester’s first marriage comes to light. The strange lunatic woman living in the attic of Thornfield Hall in the custody of a faithful servant comes to be finally identified: “Mr. Rochester has a wife now living.” On the day of the wedding a gentleman arrives at the church with the stark news: “The marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment.” Jane grieves to discover that Rochester has betrayed her trust in him as “a pillar of truth.” Desperate and desolate, Jane resolves to leave immediately and abruptly end another sad chapter of her life, shocked by inconsolable grief: “I lay faint, longing to be dead.”
Horrified at the thought Rochester had “nearly made me his mistress,” Jane speaks plainly: “Sir, your wife is living…. If I lived with you as you desire, I should then be your mistress: to say otherwise is sophistical—is false.” Confessing that she loves Rochester but cannot marry him, Jane and Rochester agonize over their plight, Rochester protesting that his legal marriage is invalid and Jane lamenting that she must renounce the one person she “absolutely worshipped.” While Rochester insists, “it would not be wicked to love me,” Jane’s clear conscience and strict integrity rule her decision: “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.” Always a woman of strong convictions and prudent judgment and never the emotional sentimentalist, Jane upholds moral law over erotic love.
This same dilemma presents itself again later in the novel. When she receives a proposal from the clergyman St. John to accompany him as a missionary—an offer of marriage presented to her as a religious duty of Christian evangelization (“and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God”), Jane remains true to her nature and in touch with her heart and conscience. Reducing love to a dour obligation, St. John imposes the weight of guilt upon Jane if she refuses the heroic vocation he proposes: “Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself for ever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity.” Once again ruled by passionate convictions and moral principles, Jane does not violate her conscience to accommodate St. John’s sublime otherworldly visions of piety. Jane scorns this distorted abstract idea of love that ignores the sentiments of the heart. She feels no obligation to go to India: “God did not give me my life to throw away, and to do as you wish me would … be equivalent to committing suicide.” Jane refuses to settle for imitations of love either in the form of unbridled passion or unnatural self-denial.
Again frustrated, embittered, and alone in the world, Jane, uncertain of her future, feels the urge to return to Thornfield Hall when she mysteriously hears a voice at night—Rochester calling her “Jane! Jane! Jane!” Discovering upon her return to Thornfield Hall the ruins caused by a fire lit by the lunatic wife, Jane also learns of the woman’s death and the injuries suffered by Rochester, a man blind and crippled. Reunited as lovers who can marry without legal or moral impediments, Rochester assures Jane that he did indeed cry aloud “Jane! Jane! Jane!” in his desperation and longing—an amazing event in which Jane sees the hand of God’s Divine Providence: “The coincidence struck me as too awful and inexplicable to be communicated or discussed.” The happy ending to Jane Eyre’s life testifies to Christ’s words, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well,” and it illustrates C.S. Lewis’ distinction between first and second things: “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”