Plot summary of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre (1847) is Charlotte Brontë’s best known novel, the story of the title heroine’s love for the mysterious and reclusive Mr. Rochester and her quest for independence. Though it has been considered a feminist work, it also fits into the genre of the gothic novel due to that pesky little detail of Rochester’s mad wife locked away in an attic. Through the concise plot summary of Jane Eyre that follows, the reader will get an overview of the book that made Charlotte Brontë famous.

Jane, a young woman of unassuming background and appearance, searches for love and a sense of belonging while preserving her independence. The book sparked a fair amount of controversy when first published, which was fueled by critics and the public suspecting that “Currer Bell” (the author’s ambiguous pseudonym) was a woman. Still, the novel was an immediate success, securing for Charlotte a place in the literary world of her time and for generations to come.

Be sure to read this excellent late 19th-century analysis of Jane Eyre by Mary A. Ward for deeper insight into this iconic novel. The following plot summary is excerpted from a 1919 article which ran in the McClure’s Publishing Syndicate authored by T L. Hood, an early 20th century English instructor at Harvard University:

 

Plot summary of Jane Eyre

From her very birth, Jane Eyre was left in the cold lap of charity. Her aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Hall, wealthy and unfeeling, kept the orphan Jane for ten years, during which she was subjected to such fixed hatred that she was glad to be packed off to Lowood School, a semi-charitable institution for girls.

Life at Lowood School

Life at Lowood School was no picnic for Jane. The school’s headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, was cruel and hypocritical.  He kept the students in a state of poverty, preaching self-sacrifice while funding a life of comfort for himself and his own family with the students’ tuition. Lowood School was said to have been modeled after the school that Charlotte and her sisters attended. While there, her two older sisters contracted illnesses that killed them before adolescence. Jane’s friend Helen Burns, who dies of consumption, is thought to be inspired by Charlotte’s sister Maria.

After the school is taken over by a more ethical group of leaders, Jane’s lot improves. She stays at Lowood for six years as a student, followed by two more years as a teacher.

Encountering the mysterious Mr. Rochester

Seeking a change, Jane left the position to become the governess of Adela Varens, the ward of Mr Edward Rochester, at Thornfield Manor. There, she was pleased with her situation: The grand old house; the quiet library; her little chamber; the garden with its huge chestnut tree; and the great meadow with its array of knotty thorn-trees.

If Mr. Rochester had been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, Jane could never have felt at ease with him. But he was a somber, moody man, with broad jutting brow and grim, square mouth and jawline; yet, in his presence, the plain little governess felt somehow content. His character, however was beyond her penetration.

Mr. Rochester confided to her that Adela Varens was not his child; but the daughter of a Parisian dancer, who had deceived him, and deserted the little girl. So much he told her, but of the strange shadow that passed over his happiest moments, of his apparent affection for Jane, along with his withholding from her some secret grief, she could make nothing.

Strange happenings at the manor

Then came the most mysterious happenings to Thornfield. One night, Jane found the door of Mr. Rochester’s room open, and his bed on fire. She managed with great difficulty to quench the flames, and rouse him from the stupor into which the smoke had plunged him. He advised her to remain silent about the ordeal.

Later, a Mr. Mason from Spanish Town in Jamaica arrived at Thornfield while Mr. Rochester was entertaining a large party. That night, Jane was awakened by a cry for help. When she reached the hall, the guests were aroused.

Mr. Rochester, candle in hand, was descending the stairs from the third floor. “A servant has had a nightmare,” he said, and persuaded the guests back into their rooms.

But all that night, Jane was obliged to attend to Mr. Mason, who lay in a bed on the third floor, badly wounded in the arm and shoulder. From scattered hints, Jane gathered that a woman had inflicted the wounds. A doctor was summoned, and before morning, Mr. Rochester had spirited the wounded man away in a coach, with the doctor to watch over him.

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre: A Late 19th-Century Analyisis
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Jane is may be an heiress

Jane is suddenly summoned to Gateshead to her aunt, Mrs. Reed, who lays dying. Mrs. Reed gives her a letter from John Eyre, in Madeira, asking that his niece, Jane, communicate with him. He might adopt her, he conveyed, as he was unmarried and childless. It was dated three years back. Mrs. Reed had never attempted to deliver it to Jane, having disliked her too thoroughly to lend a hand in lifting her to prosperity.

A thwarted wedding ceremony

When Jane returns to Thornfield, Mr. Rochester proposes to her; and because she loves him and believes in him, she accepts. A month later, at the ceremony in an ancient house of God, the clergyman asks, “Wilt thou have this woman for thy wedded wife?” A distinct voice broke out in the silence of the empty church:

“The marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment.” 

Asked to explain, the speaker, a solicitor from London named Mr. Briggs, shows a document to prove that Mr. Rochester had married Bertha Mason fifteen years earlier in Spanish Town, Jamaica. And he produces Mr. Mason to witness that the woman is still alive and at Thornfield.

Edward Rochester confesses hardily and recklessly that he had married, as the lawyer asserted; that his wife was still living; that he had kept her secretly at Thornfield for years. She was mad, and she came from a mad family — idiots and maniacs for three generations He had been inveigled into the marriage by his family, with the connivance of his father and brother, who had desired him to marry into a fortune.

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte Norton Critical edition

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë on Amazon
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The madwoman in the attic

Rochester invites the clergyman, the lawyer, and Mr. Mason to come up to Thornfield and see what sort of being he had been cheated into espousing and judge whether or not he had a right to break the vows.

Once back at Thornfield, he takes them to the third story. In a room without a window, there burnt a fire guarded by a high and strong fender, and a lamp suspended from the ceiling by a chain. A trusted maidservant bent over the fire, apparently cooking something. In the deep shade at the further end of the room, a figure ran back and forth.

What it was, at first sight, one could not tell. It groveled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal. But it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.

“That is my wife,” said Mr. Rochester. Then all withdrew.

St. John Rivers and his sisters

That night, Jane stole away from Thornfield. The few shillings she possessed she gave to the driver of the first coach she saw, to take her as far as he could for the money. Thirty-six hours later he let her off at a crossroads in the moorlands. Into the heather she walked. That night she ate bilberries and slept under a crag.

Two days later, famished and drenched, she was taken into Marsh End, the house of the Reverend St. John Rivers, a young and ambitious clergyman in the neighboring village of Morton. His two sisters, Mary and Diana, were more than kind to Jane. They were soon to return to their work as governesses in a large city in the south of England.

St. John secured employment for Jane as mistress of the school for girls in Morton. His plan was to become a missionary in India. He asked Jane to become his wife and go with him. But something kept her from consenting; he felt the call to missionary work, but she did not. 

Then he discovered for her that her uncle had died, leaving her twenty thousand pounds. This was confirmed by Mr. Briggs, the solicitor in London. Jane discovered, too, that the mother of St. John, Mary, and Diana had been her father’s sisters, so that they should have been heirs to her uncle in Madeira. She insisted on division of the legacy with them.

The destruction of Thornfield and the death of Bertha 

One night, St. John was pressing Jane for her final decision. Though she doesn’t love him, she nearly gives in to his pressure. The single candle was dying out, but the room was full of moonlight. She hears a voice from across the moors a cry — “Jane! Jane!” — and realizes that she can’t abandon the man she truly loves.

The next day she was on her way to Thornfield. In thirty-six hours she arrived at The Rochester Arms, two miles away. With much misgiving, she walked to Thornfield — only to find a blackened ruin.

Back at the inn, she learned that Thornfield Hall had burned down at about harvest time the previous year. The fire had broken out in the dead of night. Rochester had tried to rescue his wife. She had climbed to the roof, where she had stood waving her arms, and shouting until they could hear her a mile away.

Rochester had ascended through the skylight. The crowd heard him call to her — “Bertha!” He approached her, she gave a yell and then sprang off. The next minute she was lying dead on the pavement.

Rochester had been taken from the ruins, alive but badly hurt: one eye had been knocked out, and one hand so badly crushed that a surgeon had to amputate it directly. The other eye was also inflamed and losing sight. He was now at Ferndean, a manor house on a farm he owned about thirty miles from where Thornfield Hall had stood, a desolate spot indeed.

“Reader, I married him”

There Jane found him — sad, helpless, and crippled. Now he was free, and with that, Jane is able to convey the iconic line, “Reader, I married him.”

Eventually, the sight returned to Edward Rochester’s eye, so that when his firstborn is put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they had once been — large, brilliant, and black. On that occasion, with a full heart, he acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with Mercy.


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