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Jane Eyre Chapter Summaries

Explore the plot in detail using these chapter by chapter summaries.

Places in relation to chapters and narrative

The action of the novel is divided between five places:

Gateshead – where Jane is an orphaned child brought up among her unloving aunt’s family.

Lowood – where Jane goes to school, first as pupil, then as teacher.

Thornfield – where she meets and falls in love with Rochester.

Marsh End where she flees after her abortive marriage, and meets the ultra-religious St John Rivers.

Ferndean – where she is ultimately re-united with Rochester.

Chapters 1-4 (Gateshead)

The opening line – “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” – is almost as famous as the line which many suppose closes the novel – “Reader, I married him.” The latter is not in fact the last line, while the former suggests a sense of confinement for a restless spirit, which is very much the dominant theme of the first four chapters.

The subtitle of the book – ‘An Autobiography’ – tells us that this is the adult Jane looking back on her formative experiences. Jane is an orphan who is brought up by Mrs Reed; her uncle’s widow i.e. an aunt by marriage only, amongst her cousins, with whom Jane says she “had nothing in harmony.” John Reed is a particular enemy and bully and it is Jane’s resistance to him that leads to her being shut in the “red room.”

Jane fears this room since it is where her uncle died. Jane screams in terror and passes out. [The red room anticipates Bertha’s cell, where Rochester’s mad wife is imprisoned, later in the novel]. “I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there,” she accurately remarks. Only Bessie the nurse shows her any kindness.

Jane wakes to find herself with Mr Lloyd, a doctor. He treats her with sympathy, but Jane is still “strained with dread.” Her powerful imagination is stimulated by Gulliver’s Travels, but a song about “a poor orphan child” – whose wanderings anticipate what Jane will suffer later – distresses her. Mr Lloyd listens to Jane’s tale, and suggests she go away to school. But the months pass and Jane feels more and more isolated and unloved. Finally, Mr Brocklehurst, whom Jane sees as a “black pillar” interrogates her with a view to attending his school at Lowood. This is the first, but not the last, example in the book of the kind of harsh, doctrinaire Christianity that Jane spiritedly resists. In her final confrontation with Mrs Reed, Jane experiences “a sense of freedom, of if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.”

In these early chapters we see a child craving love, even affection, but one not easily cowed or intimidated. This strength of character and independence of spirit carry Jane through the novel.

Chapters 5-10 (Lowood)

If Gateshead represents the door to Jane’s life, Lowood, as its name suggests, stands for a place from which she will have to emerge if she is to survive. The two elder Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis contracted at the school upon which Charlotte based Lowood. It was believed diseases emanated from low, marshy places, and in this section, Jane’s friend, Helen Burns, will die of consumption [tuberculosis] while other pupils die from typhus.

When Jane arrives at Lowood she finds conditions harsh and discipline severe. Most of the “learning” is based on the Bible. Of the teachers, only Miss Temple (whose surname suggests a place one might aspire to, and whose first name, Maria, was the name of Charlotte Bronte’s mother and elder sister) is admired by Jane, particularly when she replaces burnt inedible porridge with bread and cheese for the girls.

Jane meets Helen Burns, coughing ominously, and asks her many questions about their dismal surroundings. She remains constantly hungry. Helen is beaten for having dirty nails, although the frozen water makes it impossible to wash. She does not complain and Jane cannot “comprehend this doctrine of endurance.”

As winter progresses the roads are impassable. The big girls bully the smaller ones for their scraps of food, and returning from church, Jane says “the bitter winter wind...almost flayed the skin from our faces.” When Mr Brocklehurst arrives, his severe, pseudo-religious attitudes, clash with Miss Temple’s more humane approach. Jane is humiliated when she breaks her slate. Brocklehurst calls her a liar and she is made to stand on a stool. No one may speak to her; only Helen Burns smiles at her. Miss Temple makes it clear she does not think Jane a liar, and she gives both girls some cake! Jane is publicly cleared of the accusation, and she begins to warm to Lowood.

However, even though winter has passed, “semi-starvation and neglected colds” cause many of the girls to contract typhus. Jane remains healthy, and enjoys the greater freedom that others’ illnesses bring. Critics have mentioned that this selfishness, contrasted to the selflessness of Helen Burns, makes Jane a more convincing character. But Helen dies of consumption and Jane finds it hard to accept Helen’s faith in the after-life.

The numerous deaths among the children lead to a public inquiry about conditions at Lowood. Mr Brocklehurst’s power is diminished. Jane, now adult, becomes a teacher at the school but when Miss Temple leaves to get married, Jane becomes restless, and advertises for a post as governess (as Charlotte Bronte herself did). Before she leaves Lowood for Thornfield, where a post is offered to her, she meets Bessie, who tells her of John Reed’s dissipation, and that, seven years before, Jane’s uncle, her father’s brother, had tried to find her. But learning she was 50 miles distant – the story is set, though not written, in the days before the railway – he had to return to Madeira.

Chapters 11-26 (Thornfield)

This is the central part of the novel, and also the longest. The name of the house Jane travels to – Thornfield – suggests difficulties aka, thorns that will cross her path.

On arrival, Jane mistakes Mrs Fairfax, the housekeeper, for the owner of the house. She also at first assumes Mrs Fairfax is the mother of her pupil, Adela Varens. As narrator, Jane frequently addresses the reader directly, and we are aware how little experience she has of the wider world. Jane knows she is not “handsome” in the eyes of the world, but “Quaker-like” in manner and dress. However the reader already knows this demure exterior to be misleading, given Jane’s ability to stand up for herself.

She meets Adela and realises Adela is the “ward” of Mr Rochester, the true owner who is currently absent. Shown around the house Jane sees it as “a home of the past” and she hears a curious laugh, and is told it belonged to Grace Poole, a servant. “Any apparition less romantic or less ghostly could scarcely be conceived,” Jane reflects, not knowing she has in fact heard the laughter of Rochester’s mad wife. It is Grace Poole who is her keeper.

The months pass and Jane yearns for “a power of vision”, troubled by the mysterious laughs and sounds she cannot account for. Finally in the depths of winter, Jane encounters Rochester, who falls from his horse on the ice, and has to lean on Jane – a symbolic anticipation of their final relationship. Returning to the house, Jane realises who she has met when she sees Pilot, Rochester’s dog.

When she formally meets him, he blames her for the accident, but Jane holds her own through all his questions, though he is so “changeful and abrupt.” She is surprised to discover he is rarely at Thornfield. Their relationship develops through conversation, which is not the talk of master and servant, or of landowner to governess. Rochester tells her of his relationship with Adela’s mother, his Parisian mistress, who betrayed him and left him with a child he is not sure is his own. This kind of frank detail about sexual matters is unusual in a Victorian novel, especially in one written by a woman.

Following this conversation – and critics have seen Bertha’s appearances as symbolically timed, whenever Jane and Rochester become closer – Jane is awakened by “a demoniac laugh”, and is just in time to rescue Rochester whose bedroom is on fire. Although Rochester covers up the incident, he is more open with Jane, his “cherished preserver,” – but for all her suspicions, he dare not mention his deranged wife, who has tried to kill him, perhaps sensing his growing attraction towards Jane.

Jane is surprised to learn next day that Rochester has left Thornfield for a great house ten miles away. And she hears about Blanche Ingram, a rich, beautiful woman, far more suitable as prospective wife for Rochester than “plain” Jane, who thinks she has been a “fantastic idiot” to think Rochester could really be interested in her. When the Ingram family come to Thornfield, Jane is treated with contempt as a mere governess, but, observing Rochester, Jane still feels “he is not of their kind. I believe he is of mine...I feel akin to him.” But seeing them enact a wedding in a game of charades, she thinks Rochester will marry Blanche “for family, perhaps political reasons”, even though Blanche “was not original [and] never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own.”

A stranger arrives: Mason, who is in fact Bertha’s brother. He comes from Jamaica and Jane compares him unfavourably with Rochester: “the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon.” Before Rochester is aware of Mason’s presence, he plays a game with all the guests, pretending to be a gypsy fortune-teller! The “gypsy” appears to tell Jane that Rochester will marry Blanche, but when he reveals his true identity, we are not so sure. Rochester is shocked when he hears of Mason’s arrival.

In the night Jane hears a terrible scream, and someone’s cries for help. Rochester persuades the guests that it’s a servant’s nightmare, but he takes Jane to a room she has never seen before. She hears “a snarling, snatching sound, almost like a dog quarrelling”, and finds Mason covered in blood. Rochester clearly trusts Jane in a way that is true of no-one else, but he does not yet reveal what has really happened. Jane can hardly believe that the quiet Grace Poole “uttered the voice, now of a mocking demon, and anon of a carrion-seeking bird of prey.” She is left to guard Mason while whatever it is makes a “snarling, canine noise” on the other side of the door! When Rochester returns with a doctor, it is evident that Mason has been bitten as if by an animal.

After this Rochester comes close to telling Jane the truth, admitting to an “error” in his past. Suddenly Jane’s own past reappears, when Robert, Mrs Reed’s coachman, comes to tell her Mrs Reed is dying and has asked for Jane. Jane leaves Thornfield, assuming Rochester will marry Blanche. Mrs Reed barely recognises Jane, and tells her how she had to promise her husband to bring up Jane as if she were one of her own children. She also admits she hid a letter for Jane from her uncle John, asking her to join him in Madeira. The letter is three years old. Mrs Reed dies. Returning to Thornfield, Rochester still gives the impression he is about to marry, but Jane is puzzled by the lack of preparations.

Rochester teases Jane about finding her a post in Ireland, but finally reveals his love for Jane. He expresses his desire to marry her; “You – poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are” while under the chestnut tree in the orchard. Jane accepts the proposal, but the chapter [23] ends ominously when the tree that Rochester proposed under is split in two by a lightning strike.

Until the wedding Jane insists on things being as normal as possible, continuing as Adela’s governess, and refusing to dine with Rochester. He admits he “feigned courtship of Miss Ingram” to make Jane jealous. He tries to buy her clothes but Jane, saying “I never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr Rochester”, turns down his choices. Jane decides to write to her uncle John in Madeira, wishing to be financially independent; this forewarns Mason and leads to what follows.

In Rochester’s absence, Jane dreams prophetically of Thornfield as “a dreary ruin”, but much more terrifying is what she seemed to see when she awoke. She saw a woman in her room she had never seen before with a “discoloured face”, vampire-like with a “lurid visage”, who took her wedding veil and tore it in two. As in the red room, Jane passes out with terror. Rochester still insists this was Grace Poole.

The wedding day follows. Briggs (Mason’s solicitor, who turns up at the church) brings proceedings to a halt claiming “the existence of a previous marriage [and] a wife now living.” Rochester, under terrible strain, admits the truth, that “the mysterious lunatic kept there under watch and ward” is his mad wife, Bertha Mason. The reader now understands all that has happened in the story which has been attributed to Grace Poole, was in fact the crazed actions of Rochester’s still-living wife, and that he would have married Jane bigamously.

Holding Jane fast, Rochester takes all of them to the secret room in Thornfield where Bertha, under the often-careless guard of Grace Poole, is confined: “...a figure ran backwards and forwards...whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell”. Jane recognises the figure from her nightmare. Bertha grapples with Rochester: “the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek.” Bertha is seen as animal-like, dehumanised like a vampire her insanity springing from, we assume, syphilis, contracted through her licentious behaviour. Charlotte Bronte later regretted her dehumanization of Bertha –“profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such moral degradation.” But Jane does tell Rochester “she cannot help being mad.”

Jane knows she must leave, but she has to face Rochester’s force of will. He offers to make her his mistress, and treat her as Mrs Rochester. He tells her that his father and deceased brother had married him off for money even though they were aware of of the congenital insanity in Bertha’s family. Since divorce on grounds of madness was not permitted at that time, he is “bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.” Jane is tempted, but fears she will become another in a succession of Rochester’s mistresses. A voice warns her to “flee temptation” and she leaves Thornfield with almost nothing.

Chapters 27-35 (Marsh End)

This next section of the novel lacks the passion and high drama of the Thornfield chapters, but it is crucial to the spiritual development of Jane as a character.

Jane leaves Thornfield, she has no real goal or aim and is “absolutely destitute.” Wandering on the moors “like a lost and starving dog” [now it’s Jane to whom the animal metaphors apply], reduced to asking for cold porridge which is about to be fed to a pig, Jane is taken in by St John [pronounced Sinjon] Rivers and his two sisters.

Jane keeps the truth about herself secret. We are perhaps shocked to realise she is not yet 19 years old. Hearing Rivers preach – he is a clergyman – Jane sees “a strange bitterness” in the sermon and “stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines.” But Rivers arranges for Jane to work as a teacher in the village school for girls, which he is opening. Rivers aspires to be a missionary in India, and seems oblivious to Miss Oliver, the local heiress. Jane, meanwhile, feels she made the right choice but is sure “no man besides will ever be...” what Rochester was to her.

Jane discovers (through one of those coincidences beloved of Victorian novelists) that she is in fact related to the Rivers’ family, they are her cousins, and that her uncle- John Eyre- has died and left her £20,000 which was a vast fortune in those days. She determines to divide the money amongst her new family – Rivers and his two sisters.

Jane learns that Miss Oliver is to marry another. Rivers asks her to accompany him to India as a missionary, but also as his wife. Jane knows she does not love Rivers, and his feelings for her do not have the passion of Rochester, but he will expect her to “endure all the forms of love,” i.e. to consummate the marriage sexually. She has no sexual feelings for Rivers at all, but would be “forced to keep the fire of [her] nature continually low...this would be unendurable.” She agrees to go with Rivers, but only as his assistant. However, under intense moral pressure Jane almost gives in, when she hears Rochester’s voice calling her name.

Chapter 36-38 (Ferndean)

Jane, who has written in vain to Mrs Fairfax, sets out to find what has happened to Rochester. When she gets to Thornfield she discovers, as in her dream before the “wedding”, that the house is a ruin. Jane hears that Rochester had continually tried to find her and “grew savage...on his disappointment.” Bertha went to Jane’s old room, set the bed on fire and the fire spread to the whole house. Rochester tried to rescue her but “she yelled and gave a spring, and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement.” As a result of the fire, Rochester is alive, but blinded and crippled.

Finding that he is at his other house, Ferndean, Jane, in a powerful and moving scene, pretends to be the servant, is recognised (like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey) by Pilot, the dog, and finally reveals herself to Rochester. She tells him of all that has happened since she left Thornfield, and that she is now a rich woman, on an equal footing with Rochester. He tells her he called her name aloud; she does not tell him she heard it!

The final chapter of the novel begins famously: “Reader, I married him.” In the ten years of their marriage (we are now moved on to the present time in which the story is being told) a son is born and Rochester recovers the sight of one eye.

The novel in fact ends on a curiously religious note. Rivers never marries and goes to India. Jane anticipates that he will go cheerfully to his maker.