The beloved character of Jane Eyre has taken on historic significance in English literature today. Charlotte Bronte's sensitive portrayal of Jane's persona reflects the endurance of a passionate yet humble beauty in astonishing defiance of the tyrannically oppressive Victorian era of the 1800’s. The autobiographic story is told from the protagonist's point of view in first person, and traces Jane's experience from her early traumatic days as a child in the care of Mrs. Reed, a wealthy but cruel aunt, to adolescence under the harshest of circumstances at Lowood orphanage where she is sent to live; and finally, to her ultimate destination at Thornfield castle as governess to the ward of her future husband to be, Edward Rochester, a then powerful man representing the tragically flawed establishment of the day. The novel's striking portrayal of Jane’s perseverance to survive reveals a seemingly miraculous spiritual strength that ultimately enables her to overcome the nearly impossible obstacles in her life.
As the story opens, the image of a candle light illuminates a door to a dark closet where Jane is locked for purportedly starting a fight with her cousin, John Reed, a punishment significant in its implication of a severe societal class division. The terrified, screaming girl awaits in the dark space like a wounded bird yearning for life, eager to escape from the confines of her existence until she is retrieved by Bessie, a servant whose fondness for the orphan means the world to her. Interestingly, the candle light serves as a motif through the novel, shedding light to the thematically pivotal scenes that follow. Soon thereafter, Jane is sent to the Lowood orphanage where she meets the cruel and terrible Mr. Brocklehurst. Nevertheless she is relieved to depart in hopes for a better life, though her dreams are shattered at the orphanage when she is forced to stand at attention on a stool, as the schoolmaster austerely degrades this new arrival in a clever disguise of patriarchal conformity. He concludes his speech by calling Jane a liar in front of everyone and she is left to stand in isolation for the remainder of the day without moving at all, under strict instruction that no one speak to her.
One can decipher the influence of the expressionist era in this scene, particularly in the 1943 motion picture variation of the book starring Orson Welles, where a shot of Jane's solemn and petrified stance accentuates beams of the setting sun that spill through over sized windows, casting a larger than life shadow of imaginary bars across the room. At that moment, a girl named Helen played by a young Elizabeth Taylor silently appears at the top of the stairs above Jane, her shadow looming tall as she slowly descends holding a piece of bread in her hand. The kind features of her face resemble an angelic presence in Jane's life, there to give her nourishment and the secret hope of a new friendship; Helen slips away like a mirage as gracefully as she arrived.
It is this new companion that brings Jane consolation, and the two girls become very close. But unfortunately, Helen falls deathly ill from mistreatment and purposeful neglect under Mr. Brocklehurst’s watch and Jane is quite devastated when she discovers that her friend has passed away from tuberculosis in her sleep; in the film version, the sense of abandonment and despair in Jane's sobs at the burial site is suggestive that she may never have blossomed were it not for the appearance of a certain kind doctor at Helen's grave...with what seems like supernatural energy he infuses the girl with the will to live so that she may in his own words do God’s work, perhaps as a matter of principle to him in the disappointment of once again losing another young patient at the orphanage.
A passage of time is indicated at the turn of a page, and Jane is now a young woman in her early twenties... she is offered the position of teacher at the orphanage which she promptly rejects much to Mr. Brocklehurst’s dismay, in favor of an opportunity to become governess at the not too distant Thornfield castle. Her carriage arrives with the intense backdrop of dark clouds that literally divide the sky from day into night, and she is welcomed into a dim and very gothic, opulent atmosphere by one of Mr. Rochester’s servants at the massive estate, who proceeds to show her to her room by candlelight. The following morning Jane is pleasantly awakened by the gentle sound of a miniature bride and groom music box in the presence of a dainty child by the name of Adell. The little girl smiles sweetly at the governess and a maternal bond instantly develops between teacher and pupil, as Jane’s unconscious desire is to give Adell the affection she was so sadly deprived of in her formative years.
The plot thickens until suddenly one strange afternoon, while making her way through a picturesque scene in the dense foggy atmosphere, Jane is nearly run over by Edward Rochester’s hound as he arrives home and accidentally falls off his horse, as though struck by an invisible force. He tries mightily to disregard this by quickly re-asserting his authority, though a strong mutual attraction between the two inevitably develops... then one night, a distant knock awakens Jane from her sleep and she is startled to find a burning candle tossed outside her door; she peaks down the hall at an impending blaze and frantically runs to save Edward from the burning flames in his room.
This alarming incident brings the two much closer, ultimately enabling Edward to share his deep dark secret that a madwoman as he refers to her, resides in another part of the estate! He subsequently summons the governess to tend to a wound the captive woman has inflicted upon Edward's brother-in-law, Mason, who has come to visit unannounced. Since Mason is unable to speak from a bite wound to the throat, Jane presumes that he had come to visit the deranged woman heard sobbing behind a heavy locked door as she desperately attempts to free herself. The following day Edward storms off, leaving Jane confused and bewildered as she watches him disappear in the distance....
Several weeks pass until one fine day Edward returns with an aristocratic lady in tow by the name of Blanche, introducing her as his new bride to be. This news crushes Jane’s feelings and prompts her difficult decision to leave Edward, an action that both stuns and amazes him. But upon Edward’s realization that his beautiful Jane intends to find another life, he devises a subtle way to thwart Blanche’s fragile ego and promptly dismisses her... the wind rises with Edward’s proposal to Jane in marriage, and in another classic movie moment their passionate kiss is accompanied by a stroke of lightning that shatters a chestnut tree nearby, almost as an act of God forewarning her of a serious impending error. The revelation is later signified when Mason appears at the nuptials to vehemently dispute their union, attesting that the madwoman in the attic is none other than his living sister and Edward's tragically shunned wife, Bertha.
In the memorable film also starring Joan Fontaine, we see Jane in her wedding dress as Rochester opens the door for everyone to bear witness of his insane wife, providing a vivid image of the middle space Jane occupies in the mise-en-scene. The rationale of Edward’s explanation as to the reason why he chose to re-marry forces the deeply wounded Jane Eyre to leave him again, this time unable to respond to Rochester’s heartfelt plea for her to stay... instead, she returns to her aunt's home and finds Bessie in the kitchen as if nothing had changed, now tending to a gravely ill Mrs. Reed. The kind servant welcomes her back as though Jane were her own child. And as she visits her dying aunt for the last time, a visitor who had consoled Jane at the time of Helen's death at the orphanage arrives with correspondence from Edward inquiring as to her whereabouts, which Jane immediately tries to forget, discarding the letter in a fire... however, she experiences a telepathic communication from her unrequited love, this time his voice calling her in a soulful sound that she cannot ignore, and thus compelling her return to Thornfield so that she could be with him again.
In Bronte's literary masterpiece, soon after Jane's departure from Edward's estate she finds herself hungry and begging for food until she is fortunately taken in by three siblings, one of whom is a clergy man who finds her a teaching job at a charity school. In events to follow, it turns out that they are all cousins and Jane is surprisingly informed that she has come into a substantial inheritance by her deceased uncle, John Eyre. And though she carefully considers her cousin's proposal to wed, the echoes of Edward's voice in her subconscious compel Jane to refuse, though she gratefully acknowledges her relatives by sharing her wealth for their kindness.
The final sequence opens with Jane's arrival to the remnants of the Thornfield castle, now damaged by a devastating fire that was set by the mad wife as a last act of revenge before falling to her death from her bedroom window. As the roof caves in, Edward's desperate attempt to save her consequently blinds him, leaving him with the loss of one of his hands. A faithful servant explains all this to Jane before she approaches Edward, and as he senses her overwhelming presence they embrace in a compassionate moment of love and forgiveness. The story has a hopeful, fairy tale ending as the two rebuild their lives and marry. Edward's sight is also restored in one eye and the couple give birth to a beautiful child, bringing them much joy and happiness. A superbly well conceived novel, Jane Eyre is available online and in Chicago area bookstores/libraries.