The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Charlotte Brontë’s beloved classic novel Jane Eyre
. We hope that they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to consider this novel that is simultaneously mysterious, poetic, and romantic.
First published in 1847, Jane Eyre
is the fictional autobiography of an orphaned girl, small and plain but keenly intelligent, who lives with her aunt and cousins in a fine country house. They treat her scornfully, and when she begs to be sent away, she finds herself in a charity school where the girls are nearly starved and frozen to death in the name of Christian forbearance. Hardworking and eager to please, Jane becomes a teacher there herself. But when her mentor and friend Miss Temple leaves the school to be married, Jane decides to send out letters seeking a post as a governess. Now eighteen, she secures a situation at Thornfield as teacher and companion to Adèle, the ward of the mansion’s owner, Edward Fairfax Rochester. Jane finds herself attracted to the mercurial Mr. Rochester who also takes a strong interest in Jane, and in acknowledgment of their growing bond, he asks her to marry him.
But, Rochester is hiding a secret, his wife, Bertha Mason, who emerges dramatically as the two stand at the altar, forcing Jane to leave Thornfield, penniless and alone. After days of traveling on foot, starving and exposed to the elements, she is taken in by a young preacher, St. John Rivers, and his two sisters, Diana and Mary. Jane becomes a teacher at the local school and reconciles herself to her changed destiny and a life without Mr. Rochester. Meanwhile, St. John tries to persuade Jane to accompany him on a missionary posting to India, but in order to go together they must be married. As Jane is about to accept St. John’s offer she senses Mr. Rochester calling her and decides she must return to Thornfield. When she reaches Thornfield, it has been burned to the ground in a fire set by Mr. Rochester’s wife. Gravely injured, Mr. Rochester is blind and maimed from his failed attempt to rescue her. Now that Bertha is dead, Mr. Rochester and Jane are free to marry.
In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf wrote that upon opening Jane Eyre,
“We cannot stifle the suspicion that we shall find [Brontë’s] world of imagination as antiquated, mid-Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor. . . . So we open Jane Eyre;
and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds.” Jane Eyre,
as Woolf attests, remains one of the most romantic and satisfying novels ever written.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. How does the stormy weather in the opening scene reflect Jane’s state of mind? What do we learn about Jane’s position in the household? Why is the scene of her punishment in the red room so emotional (Chapter II)? How does the narration secure the reader’s sympathy for Jane?
2. At the Lowood School, Jane’s most beloved friend is Helen Burns, who with great dignity endures frequent punishment and humiliation by Miss Scatcherd. Jane admires Helen, but realizes that she cannot emulate her (Chapters VII–IX). Why not? What aspect of Jane’s character doesn’t allow her to be as saintly as Helen?
3. When Jane takes in the view from the roof of Rochester’s house, she dreams of freedom and travel. Is it significant that this is the place where she first hears a strange and frightening laughter (1:135, 139)? Many readers and critics have sought to understand the connection between Jane and Bertha Mason. Are they similar in their anger toward their perceived and actual imprisonments? Are they similar in other ways?
4. In three famous paragraphs beginning “Anybody may blame me who likes . . .” Jane Eyre contains a passionate argument for women’s need for learning, satisfying work, and more freedom than the domestic sphere allowed during the Victorian time period. Read and discuss this passage as it relates to Jane’s character and her life story (1:138–39). Would you consider Jane Eyre a satisfying story from a feminist perspective?
5. Jane is taking a walk when she meets Mr. Rochester (1:140–47). What is noteworthy about this first meeting? What is the atmosphere? What is the power dynamic? How does he treat her when they meet back at the house? What is Rochester attracted to in Jane? What is she attracted to in him?
6. Why does Rochester deceive Jane by openly courting Blanche Ingram? What motivates him to masquerade as a fortune-teller? Is he too manipulative and self-indulgent to deserve the honest Jane Eyre as his wife?
7. At a critical moment in the novel, Jane proclaims herself Rochester’s equal: “It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both of us had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal—as we are!” Rochester responds, “As we are!” (2:17–18). Why is Jane so passionately outspoken? Is her self-valuation exceptional and true? Is she more noble and impressive here than Rochester is? Why is this long scene (Chapter XXIII) so important for the novel as a whole?
8. Reread Rochester’s tale of his marriage to Bertha Mason in Jamaica, noting particularly the terms he uses. How does he characterize his wife? Does his description of his ill luck in marrying Bertha—“a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw, was associated with mine, and called by the law and by society a part of me” (2:88)—provoke sympathy? Who is responsible for the monstrous person Bertha has become—heredity, her own vice and depravity, fate, or perhaps Rochester himself?
9. Jane refuses to go live with Rochester in the south of France as his mistress, choosing instead to lose him forever. Do her reasons have to do with her Christian morality, or with the lack of equality and respect she foresees in such an arrangement? He is older than she, and a member of the landed aristocracy, while she is young, penniless, and has no friends or family in the world. Discuss the complicated chapter in which he tries to explain himself for attempting to lure her into a bigamous marriage, and the scene in which she takes leave of him (Chapter XXVII).
10. After Jane lives for some time at Moor House, St. John Rivers discovers her real name and that she is his cousin. She is, in fact, the missing heir of their uncle, who in leaving his fortune to Jane Eyre, has disinherited St. John, Mary, and Diana (2:185–98). At one stroke, Jane becomes a wealthy woman and acquires three beloved cousins (with whom she shares her fortune). How do you respond to such a bold departure in tone from the beginning of the novel?
11. St. John Rivers is a stern, ambitious man. He is also extremely handsome—far more handsome than Mr. Rochester. How does Jane feel about St. John? Do you think that as readers, we are meant to like him, to admire him, or to distrust him? Why doe she deny himself a marriage to Rosamond Oliver (2:178–79)?
12. Is the theme of Christian salvation in Jane Eyre at odds with Jane’s desire for emancipation and self-realization? Is she submissive or rebellious? How do Jane’s efforts toward self-fulfillment relate to her desire to be good? Why does she end her narrative with St. John Rivers’s prayer, instead of with the conclusion of her own tale?
13. Jane is about to yield to St. John’s urging that she marry him and go to India, when she hears a disembodied cry (2:240). How does Jane react to this strange phenomenon, and how is it later explained (2:276–77)? What do you think of Brontë’s decision to use this plot device?
14. Jane’s life takes the form of a quest or journey, and with each phase of her life she finds herself in a new place. What would you say the ultimate goal of her quest is? When she ends her story, married to Mr. Rochester and the mother of a young son, is she finally at rest in her true home?
15. How do you interpret the tone of Jane’s famous statement, “Reader, I married him” (2:279)? Some readers have long been troubled by what happens to Rochester after Jane leaves Thornfield, and even more so by the fact that his maiming and blinding—his severe diminishment of power and virility and pride—seem to be the harsh conditions necessary for their reunion and marriage. What sort of ending does Brontë offer: a logically and romantically satisfying one, or an obscurely disturbing and punitive one?
16. Comparing the Novel and the Movie/Screenplay:
• Had you read the novel before seeing the film? If so, how did knowing the story beforehand affect your experience of the film?
• The eBook of Jane Eyre includes Moira Buffini’s screenplay forthe new film. After reading the original novel and the screenplay(or having seen the film), can you see why Buffini made thechoices she did? How did she simplify the plot? What changesdid you find most effective?
• How do the physical settings (houses, landscapes, etc.) in the film compare with what you had imagined in reading the novel? How would you describe the visual atmosphere that the film brings to the novel?
• Have you seen other filmed adaptations of Jane Eyre? What is different in director Cary Fukunaga’s version? Fukunaga has said he loved the 1944 Jane Eyre directed by Robert Stevenson, but “the Orson Welles–Joan Fontaine version was of an era. You wouldn’t make a film like that anymore. I’m a stickler for raw authenticity, so I’ve spent a lot of time rereading the book and trying to feel out what Charlotte Brontë was feeling when she was writing it. That sort of spookiness that plagues the entire story . . . there’s been something like twenty-four adaptations, and it’s very rare that you see those sorts of darker sides.” If you’ve seen the Stevenson’s Jane Eyre, discuss the ways Fukunaga has been influenced by it, and the ways he has created a totally new vision of the novel as well. [To read the entire interview with Fukunaga by Kyle Buckman, please go to movieline.com: “Director Cary Fukunaga on the ‘Darker Sides’ of His Upcoming Jane Eyre” (March 10, 2010).]
• Compare the film’s depiction of Bertha Mason (“Antoinetta”) with the descriptions in novel. Note that the film leaves out Bertha’s visit to Jane’s bedroom, and Bertha’s destruction of Jane’s wedding veil. What is the effect of these differences?
• How effective do you find the use of flashback in the film, as opposed to the linear chronological plotline of the novel?
• Compare the character of Rochester in the novel and the film. How does the film present Rochester? He is not physically maimed in the collapse of Thornfield, and though he is blind, he is not deformed. No mention is made of the child Jane and Rochester later have together, nor of his new spiritual insight. How do these adaptations change the overall impact of the story?
• What did you think of the actors’ performances in the film? How did they reshape your impressions of the characters they portray?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)
About this Author
was born in 1821 in Yorkshire, England, to Patrick Brontë, a Cambridge-educated, Irish-born Anglican clergyman, and his English wife, Maria. Family life was marked by frequent death and misfortune. Maria died, apparently of uterine cancer, soon after the birth of their sixth child. Charlotte’s two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption they contracted at a school for clergymen’s daughters, much like Lowood in Jane Eyre.
The surviving children passed their time at Haworth Parsonage in reading, writing poetry, publishing their shared fantasy tales in tiny hand-illustrated volumes. Because there was not enough money for the sisters to marry well, Charlotte prepared to work as a teacher and governess, two of the very few professions considered respectable for single women at the time. She and her sister Emily worked at a girls’ boarding school in Brussels, hoping to gain the experience to have a school of their own, although neither of them enjoyed teaching. There Charlotte developed a strong attachment to the married headmaster, Constantin Heger; she later based her novel Villette
on some aspects of her difficult time in Brussels. After returning home, Charlotte encouraged her two sisters to join her in publishing their poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë), but the volume sold only two copies. Undeterred, Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre—
again under the pseudonym Currer Bell—and it became a huge sensation. Her carefully veiled identity was soon revealed and she became a shy and unwilling literary celebrity. In the same year, her sister Emily published Wuthering Heights,
also a great classic novel, and her sister Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Their triumph was short-lived, as misfortune continued to stalk the family. Their brother Branwell, who had become addicted to opium and alcohol, died in 1848; Emily and Anne died of tuberculosis within months of each other in 1848 and 1849. Charlotte was left as her father’s sole remaining child. Living in the parsonage with Reverend Brontë, Charlotte wrote two more novels, Shirley
before marrying William Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, in 1854. She died nine months after her marriage; the cause of death was noted as tuberculosis, but some scholars now believe that she died from pregnancy complications.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
and Northanger Abbey
; Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall;
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
; Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
and David Copperfield
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius;
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination
Lyndall Gordon, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life;
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton
Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.