Even after nearly seventeen decades of its first publication, Jane Eyre remains adored all around the world. The fictional autobiography and love story was published in 1847 and adapted into numerous film, television and theatre versions. It is as enjoyable and engrossing as holiday reading and as layered as a school/college textbook. The novel that secured Charlotte Brontë (or Currer Bell, the name she adopted to author this) a spot in the revered canon of English literature is noted for its memorable titular character and her stirring life story, the passionate love between Jane and the mysterious-and-attractive Mr Rochester, its intellectual and religious debates, and the dark, Gothic undertones.
For the uninitiated, Jane Eyre is, as the title suggests, the story of Jane, a plain, shy orphan born in 19th century England, who is unloved and abused by the relatives she lives with at Gateshead, and is sent off to a charitable institution called Lowood School. The school is hardly an improvement for it can only provide poor living conditions to the wards, and many die of disease, including Jane’s only friend, Helen. Jane is also initially ill-treated and vilified by the despicable schoolmaster Mr Brocklehurst, but once he is discovered for his negligent and dishonest ways and sacked, the school improves considerably. After completing her education and spending a few years teaching, Jane gets a job as a governess to a little girl called Adele living at the imposing Thornfield Hall. She falls in love with her employer and Adele’s guardian, the jaded Mr Edward Rochester, and despite their considerable age and social differences, Mr Rochester proposes to her. However, there is a secret that lurks the corridors of both Thornfield and Mr Rochester’s past which tears the couple apart, and Jane flees Thornfield, destitute and heartbroken. What follows is a tale of hope, strength, courage, conviction, and undying love, as Jane traverses a path from near-death starvation to a fortune, from abandonment to familial love, and from heartbreak to hope and commitment, finally reaching where she truly wishes to be.
Jane Eyre is a heartrending, haunting read that seems oddly familiar even though it is set in an unfamiliar era. One of the first to explore the human consciousness to this extent, Brontë is sometimes considered the literary ancestor of Modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who later perfected this art. Jane’s dilemmas and troubles, and her struggle to strike a balance between religious duty and passion, ring very close to the reader’s heart. Moreover, her determination to find acceptability, equality and unfettered freedom amongst the men who try to restrain or subordinate her in a world that only seems to value rich and/or beautiful women, suggest the beginnings of literary feminism. The other characters too, especially the Byronic Mr Rochester, the quiet and stoic St John, and the angelic Helen Burns, stay with one forever.
The book is an antecedent to many modern individual-centric, coming-of-age and romance novels, and is a must-read classic even today.
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