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Jane Eyre

Term Definition
Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre was written in 1847 by Charlotte Bronte and was originally published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. The book was published under the name of Currer Bell by Smith, Elder & Co. in London, England. The next year, the book was published in America by Harper & Brothers of New York. In the genre of bildungsroman, or a book that focuses on the moral and psychological growth of the young protagonist, the story follows Jane in her growth into adulthood. Jane is in love with the mysterious Mr. Rochester, and the story focuses on the unfolding of her spiritual and moral sensibility. 

The book is seen as revolutionary to the art of fiction. Charlotte Bronte is often considered the first historian of the private consciousness and inspired writers like Proust and Joyce. With elements of social criticism, the book also contains a strong sense of ethics and morality. Due to its deep exploration of classism, religion, sexuality, and proto-feminism, many think of Jane Eyre as a work ahead of its time.

Morality and social class as themes

The main theme of Jane Eyre is morality. Jane will not become Mr. Rochester’s lover because she has too much respect for herself and too much moral conviction. However, she rejects religious fervor just as much as she opposes Mr. Rochester’s libertine character. Rather, she uses independence, forgiveness, and love to create her own gauge of morality.

Another theme present in Jane Eyre is the theme of social position. Jane is a penniless orphan, but she comes from a good family and is reasonably educated. She is a governess, a paid employee with middle class status, and is relatively powerless. She must defer to the upper class, such as Mr. Rochester and the guests of his manor, but has a servant during her time as a school mistress and asks the housemaid to do simple things for her that she can certainly do herself. She understands her place on the social ladder, but considers herself to be Mr. Rochester’s equal. 

Charlotte Bronte's background as an influence in Jane Eyre

During the story, Jane is sent to a boarding school where the students are treated harshly. This derives from Charlotte Bronte’s own experiences at boarding school. When a character dies from tuberculosis, it is reminiscent of the deaths of Charlotte’s own sisters, who succumbed to the disease due to the conditions of their school. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst is based off of the minister who ran the aforementioned school and John Reed’s steady decline into alcoholism is based on the life of Charlotte’s real life brother, who was addicted to alcohol and opium in the years leading up to his death. In addition, Charlotte worked as a governess like Jane did.

The story of Jane Eyre combines romanticism with Gothicism to produce a characteristically Victorian novel (read more about Victorian authors). Jane is attracted to Mr. Rochester, and he is to her, but there are things that are getting in the way of their love. Their personalities are particularly conflicting and the societal norms of the time prevent them from being together as they want to be, which is a common occurrence in romantic novels. 

The story also contains many elements of Gothic fiction (much like the works of Edgar Allan Poe). The Gothic manor of Thornfield Hall, Mr. Rochester’s Byronic persona, and the madwoman who lives in the attic are all things commonly found in Gothic fiction. The mysterious Hall, containing its dark secrets creates a Gothic, suspenseful experience. There is an underlying theme of madness in the story, too, as two characters commit suicide, in addition to supernatural happenings, like Jane’s prophetic dreams, the appearance of her uncle’s ghost, and the instance of lightning striking a tree as soon as she agrees to marry Mr. Rochester. These are common elements of Gothic fiction.

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