The story of Jane Eyre begins with the heroine as an unruly and miserable little orphan living with her mother’s sister, Aunt Reed. Nothing can be done to control Jane when she is in one of her rages and one day the fearsome pillar of evangelical rectitude Mr Brocklehurst appears, making a show of only wanting to serve Jane’s best interests, to take her off to the orphanage at Lowood. Her introduction to this strange new world is a terrifying ordeal, but when Jane has come through it she eventually settles down to several years of steady progress, blossoming into a serious – minded and accomplished girl in her late teens. It shows Jane being transformed from an unruly child into a serious young woman on the verge of adult life.
The second part of her story shows her going out into the wider world in a a new way, when she takes up her first employment at the great house of Thornfield, as governess to the daughter of the rich and mysterious Mr Rochester. She conceives a deep but seemingly hopeless love for Rochester. She can hardly dare think she would ever be fortunate enough to marry him. Indeed for a long time it seems certain that he will marry someone else, a well – born, arrogant neighbour Blanche Ingram. But eventually, to Jane’s astonishment, Rochester declares his love for his ‘plain little governess’ and asks her to marry him. It might seem an unthinkable happy ending was imminent, except that there are now abundant ominous signs that, behind the scenes, all is not well. The truth is that, even as preparations are going ahead for the wedding and Rochester is buying fine clothes to deck out his bride, she is inwardly not ready for this over-hasty transformation in her life and status. She is still an immature, undeveloped girl, who knows little of the dark side of life and the world: and then, even as she approaches the altar to be married, the central crisis of the story erupts.
A voice calls out from the back of the church that the wedding cannot take place because Rochester is already married. It turns out that for years he has been concealing his crazed first wife in an upstairs room at Thornfield Hall. Jane’s seemingly glorious new world is in ruins. In despair she runs away from Thornfield, to wander distractedly over the bleak, inhospitable moors. After three days, cold, weak and starving, she falls down on a cottage doorstep to die – when, in the nick of time, she is rescued by the seemingly kindly clergyman St John Rivers. Under the care of River’s sisters, Jane gradually recovers her strength and we then see a very significant new phase in her story. We see Jane setting up house on her own, opening a successful little school, and for the first time in her life learning to stand on her own feet, developing an inner strength and independence of spirit she has never known before: until, as a mark of her newly – won autonomy, she learns that she has mysteriously inherited a modest fortune, making her outwardly as well as inwardly independent.
Jane has to face one last terrifying ordeal, more nearly deadly than anything she has had to contend with before. The ordeal, more nearly deadly than anything she has had to contend with before. The iron-willed, evangelical and hypocritical St John Rivers – a ‘false Holy Man’ – uses all his powers to force her to marry him, and to accompany him as a missionary to India, which Jane knows would certainly be fatal to her health. Although she tries to resist, she feels her powers of resistance slipping away and is on the verge on succumbing, when she hears a distant, mysterious voice calling her name, as if from half across the world. It is the voice of Rochester. An extraordinary new strength wells up in her (at last, as she puts it, ‘my powers were in play’). She flees the house in the middle of the night and rushes across the countryside to Thornfield, where she finds that the house has recently burned down. The shadowy first Mrs Rochester has died in the fire. Her dark rival has gone. Jane finds Rochester, alone and blind, in the middle of the forest. She lovingly nurses him back to health and sight. They are at last married and completely united. They end up presiding over their little kingdom and, as nearly as a novel will allow, living ‘happily ever after’.
What we thus see in Jane Eyre is a fundamental structure to the story: the process whereby a young central figure emerges step by step from an initial state of dependent, unformed childhood to a final state of complete self-realization and wholeness. Obviously one of the most significant features of this type of story is the way it divides into two ‘halves’, punctuated by the ‘central crisis’. In the first half we see the hero or heroine emerging from childhood to a state where they may seem outwardly successful, except that they are by no means yet fully mature. They then encounter a crisis which leads them on to the harder task of becoming much more fully developed and self reliant. This leads up to the ordeal which provides the story’s climax where they have a final confrontation with the dark figures and powers who, in one way or another, have overshadowed them through the story. Only when they have come through this test are they finally liberated to enjoy the state of wholeness and fulfillment which marks the conclusion of the tale.