Story Skeleton: Jane Eyre
By Michelle Barker
A Classic Structural Mashup
Jane Eyre is an important novel in the English literature canon for several reasons. At the time it was written, it was groundbreaking in terms of challenging the female norm, which was to be submissive and quiet. Jane Austen’s novels were all about marrying well, and then here comes Jane Eyre: outspoken, headstrong, and defiant. Her desire for independence is a significant aspect of her personality. Throughout the novel, she struggles to maintain her integrity while repeatedly coming up against people in positions of power who make her feel inferior.
For a novel that features one of the few strong female protagonists in Victorian literature, it’s ironic that the author, Charlotte Brontë, had to publish it under a male pseudonym.
The book is divided into three volumes, which was a common way to publish a novel in the nineteenth century. But its structure is surprisingly complex. In terms of genre, it straddles both bildungsroman (coming of age) and Gothic romance. Written in first person as a fictional autobiography, it traces Jane’s development from childhood through to adulthood, from innocence to maturity. But Jane’s romance with Mr. Rochester dominates three quarters of the novel, which skews the typically episodic bildungsroman structure.
Several critics contend that the entire first quarter of the novel is “unnecessary” and that the real story only begins when Jane goes to work for Mr. Rochester. If the novel were purely a Gothic romance, this would be a valid point. But the first part of the novel also establishes Jane’s core misbelief—that she is unworthy of love—and underscores the coming-of-age aspect of the book. Jane wants independence, which is typical of a bildungsroman protagonist. But what she needs is love—thus fulfilling the goal of the romance genre.
It might be more helpful to divide the novel into five sections, each with its own arc.
Setting as Structure
Setting is the key organizational tool in Jane Eyre. There are five main settings: Gateshead Hall, Lowood School, Thornfield Hall, Moor House, and Ferndean. Each one corresponds to a different stage of Jane’s maturity: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, and married life. Each one gives physicality to her struggle for independence.
Gateshead Hall: coming-of-age stage one
Jane, an orphan, is sent to live with the Reeds at Gateshead Hall, wealthy relatives who never let her forget she’s the poor relation who will never amount to anything (stasis).
When the Reeds’ son, John, physically mistreats Jane yet again (inciting incident), she fights back and is locked in the Red Room—the room where her beloved uncle was laid out after he passed away. Despondent and afraid, she has a vision of his ghost and is severely traumatized (rising action). Even though this moment cements the realization of her powerlessness as an orphan, it also turns out to be the path away from the Reeds.
Mr. Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood School, arranges for Jane to attend a girls’ boarding school (climax). Before leaving, Jane tells Mrs. Reed what she thinks of her, cementing both her outspoken personality and the family’s rejection of her (semi-resolution).
Lowood School: coming-of-age stage two
Lowood School turns out to be dismal and poorly funded, with not enough food or heat (inciting incident). Several girls fall ill with typhus and some die, including Jane’s dear friend Helen (rising action), but Jane perseveres and survives.
Jane graduates and becomes a teacher at the school but when her favorite teacher leaves to get married, she realizes it’s time for a change (climax). In a significant move toward independence, she accepts a position as governess at Thornfield Manor to a young girl named Adele (semi-resolution).
Thornfield Hall: love, but not independence
Jane meets Mr. Rochester when his horse slips on some ice (inciting incident). At first, he seems cold and pretentious, but they soon warm to each other and spend many evenings together talking. When Jane saves Mr. Rochester from a mysterious fire in his bedroom, it becomes clear that they’re falling in love.
This relationship is challenged by the arrival of Blanche Ingram who is haughty, beautiful, and shallow (rising action). It seems Mr. Rochester and Blanche will get married even though they don’t seem to be in love. Once again, Jane is reminded of her powerlessness as a member of the lower class. Blanche treats her exactly the way Mrs. Reed treated her—like trash.
When Mrs. Reed takes ill, Jane returns to Gateshead Hall to see her. There is resolution of this storyline and a certain poetic justice in discovering the members of the Reed family have not fared well. On her deathbed, Mrs. Reed reveals that Jane has an uncle in Madeira who wanted to adopt her and bequeath her money, but Mrs. Reed told him Jane was dead. While Jane’s aunt still can’t get over her enmity toward Jane, Jane shows admirable mercy and forgiveness toward her aunt.
Jane returns to Thornfield expecting to learn of Mr. Rochester’s marriage to Blanche. Instead, he proposes to her, and she accepts. While Mr. Rochester does not treat Jane like trash, the reader can’t help but wonder about the power and class differential between them. Mr. Rochester offers love, but Jane would have to compromise her independence to accept it.
At the wedding ceremony, a man announces that Mr. Rochester cannot marry Jane because he’s already married… to a madwoman named Bertha (climax). Mr. Rochester offers to whisk Jane away to the mainland where they can live in sin, but Jane refuses to compromise her principles. Early the next morning, she steals away, breaking both her own heart and Rochester’s (semi-resolution).
Moor House: the final obstacle
Jane wanders without food or shelter for several days and is finally taken in at Moor House by apparent strangers: St. John Rivers and his sisters (inciting incident). After recuperating, Jane accepts a position as teacher in the village school and while she grieves the loss of Mr. Rochester, she makes peace with her new position—and her total loss of independence.
Jane learns that Mr. Rivers and his sisters have an uncle who has just died and has cut them out of a large inheritance in favor of some mysterious other child. Yes, this is the uncle in Madeira and the mysterious child is Jane herself (rising action). Suddenly Jane has both independence and social position. But she has never wanted a position in society. She wants kin, family, and she now has that, too. She divides the inheritance between the four of them and makes a home out of Moor House.
It soon becomes clear that the frosty and unremittingly dour Mr. Rivers views Jane as more than a cousin. But in order to please him, Jane must compromise herself. There’s no joy or vivacity around Mr. Rivers. Even when he proposes to her (climax), he speaks of the marriage as more like a labor than love. She will be a missionary’s wife in India and live a life of duty. She will have independence but no love.
She refuses (semi-resolution).
Ferndean: the final resolution
There are a few Gothic moments in this novel, and one comes when Jane believes she hears Mr. Rochester calling to her (inciting incident). She decides she must go to Thornfield to find out what happened to him. Upon arrival, she discovers the house burned to the ground and learns that Bertha both set the fire and died in it (rising action). In attempting to save its inhabitants, Mr. Rochester lost his eyesight and the use of one hand. He went to live in an isolated home in the woods called Ferndean with some caretakers.
Jane rushes over and is reunited with her true love (climax). Both of them are changed: Jane is now a wealthy woman in her own right and Mr. Rochester is no longer her superior. But his love for her has endured. They come together as equals, which is significant in a society where social standing is so important. She gets what she wants and what she needs.
Contrary to popular belief, one of the most famous ‘last lines’ of literature (“Reader, I married him”) is not the last line of the novel. But it’s still pretty great. Mr. Rochester eventually regains sight in one eye and sees the birth of his first child (final resolution).
Jane Eyre has stood the test of time not only because of Jane’s character, which demonstrates the power of persistence and thinking for oneself, but also because of the important statement it makes about women’s independence. Regardless of the hard circumstances in which Jane finds herself, she never sees herself as a victim; she pursues independence at any cost. She may not be equal to the people around her in terms of social class, but in terms of emotional maturity and intelligence, she holds her own.
The novel’s dual nature as a coming-of-age and romance allows Brontë to demonstrate that independence is possible for a woman at every stage of her life, including when she marries.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.