Jane, the main character of Jane Eyre, is sensitive and passionate, intelligent and reflective. As a child, she is keenly aware of her status as an orphan and an outsider. She learns to observe others quietly and takes refuge from her loneliness in books. When pushed beyond the limits of her tolerance for pain and injustice, Jane reacts impetuously. At Gateshead, she rebukes both John Reed and his mother for their cruelty toward her; later, at Thornfield, provoked by Rochester’s emotional manipulation, she hotly declares herself his equal and soulmate. Though she is often described as a small, plain “sprite,” and though she attempts to curb her self-righteousness with an attitude of stoic acceptance, Jane shows flashes of spirit and temper that make her a compelling character.
When the novel begins, Jane, a ten-year-old, lives with her imperious Aunt Reed and her cousins John, a spoiled, sadistic fourteen-year-old, Georgiana, plump, primped, and shallow, and Eliza, sour and sharp-tongued. Both her aunt and her cousins revile her as an ingrate, but years later, on her deathbed, Mrs. Reed reveals to Jane that her husband-Jane’s uncle-had forced Mrs. Reed to promise that Jane would be raised as a member of the family. Only Bessie Lee, a maidservant at Gateshead, treats Jane with some degree of kindness and respect.
When Jane arrives at the Lowood boarding school, she learns to contend with Mr. Brocklehurst, a hypocritical trustee of the church that runs the school and a religious zealot, and Miss Scatcherd, a history and grammar teacher who persecutes Jane’s best friend, Helen Burns. Helen’s stoicism, thoughtfulness, and intelligence touch Jane deeply, and the two become close friends. Maria Temple, the young and beautiful superintendent of Lowood, acts as a sort of fairy godmother to both Helen and Jane, offering them solace and encouragement.
Edward Rochester, almost twenty years older than Jane (who is eighteen when she arrives at Thornfield), is first portrayed as a dark, brooding, and arrogant man. His often harsh manner belying his vulnerability, Rochester owes his moodiness to the fact that he keeps his insane wife, Bertha Mason, locked up in the attic. The master of Thornfield, he also has responsibility for his pesky French ward, eight-year-old Adele Varens. Although Adele’s mother, a French opera dancer, was his mistress for an extended period of time, Rochester doubts that he is truly Adele’s father. Despite his irresolute past, Rochester is portrayed as a charismatic man who becomes an acceptable mate for Jane only after he has symbolically atoned for his past transgressions.
Aside from Rochester, most of the characters associated with Thornfield Hall seem one-dimensional. Mrs. Fairfax is a kind, efficient, elderly housekeeper. Adele is a flighty non-character; she lilts about chirping French phrases about flowers in her hair and pretty women. Technically she serves as a plot device, providing a reason for Jane’s employment at Thornfield. Blanche Ingram, Rochester’s apparent love interest, is a similarly shallow character; exceedingly beautiful, she is also haughty and manipulative. Blanche’s presence in the plot intensifies Jane’s consternation and confusion over her feelings for Rochester.
After her abrupt departure from Thornfield, Jane finds refuge in Whitcross, at the home of St. John Rivers, a young minister, and his sisters, Diana and Mary. Though he is kind and intelligent, St. John chooses to narrowly and rigidly interpret his religious vocation, thus denying himself the love of Rosamond Oliver, yet another beautiful, angelic woman who befriends Jane.
Jane Eyre stresses the virtues of self-reliance and perseverance in a world of adversity. Jane’s impassioned resilience allows her to overcome the injustices heaped on her by Mrs. Reed, John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Miss Scatcherd, and Blanche Ingram. A sensitive young woman who refuses to be calloused by her hard life, Jane pursues an independent, self-governing existence, making her in a sense a prototype of champions for women’s rights.
The novel also addresses the theme of children victimized by corrupt parent figures. Like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Jane is a pariah, stigmatized simply because she is an orphan, and denied the protection of the law. The plight of Jane and the other orphaned girls at Lowood demonstrates the warped and alienated values of Victorian social welfare schemes, which implicitly presumed a spiritual and intellectual depravity on the part of orphans equal to the children’s social deprivation. In a sense, the comfortable classes shut away the offspring of the less fortunate classes as a means of avoiding emotional entanglements; they rationalized their actions with protestations of charitable intentions and moral righteousness.
The Brocklehurst family and Blanche Ingram reflect still another theme, that of hypocrisy in conflict with virtue. From the New Testament parable of the Pharisee who comforts himself with the outward signs of his earthly elitism, the theme of the self-deceived bigot has recurred in Western literature. When a great chasm in the social order separates the “haves” from the “have-nots,” the “haves” believe that they are better because of what they have amassed materially. A false sense of security-stemming from material acquisitions-frequently causes the former to make scathing value judgments about the latter. The Brocklehursts and Blanche Ingram are Jane’s inferiors in character, but they belittle and persecute her to show the power of their status.
His judgment clouded by excessive pride, Rochester is a literary descendant of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles’ Oedipus and embodies the theme of figurative versus actual blindness. While sighted, Rochester fails to comprehend the extent of Jane’s commitment to him, choosing instead to hide from her the demon of his private life, his insane wife, Bertha. Only after he is blinded during an attempt to rescue Bertha from the burning Thornfield does Rochester come to see the value of what he has lost.
Much has been noted about Bronte’s use of romantic themes in Jane Eyre. Belief in the perfectibility of persons belonging to the lower socioeconomic classes, the mystic unity of human emotions with similar natural conditions (like the thunderstrike at Thornfield after Rochester’s proposal), and above all the curative power of love, are all themes commonly associated with the romantic period that preceded this novel.