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Jane Eyre | Study Guide

Charlotte Brontë

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Jane Eyre | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why might Charlotte Brontë have chosen to use her male pseudonym for the preface she wrote for the second edition of Jane Eyre?

Perhaps, in addition to her other reasons for writing under a false name, Brontë thought her social critiques would be more effective coming from what seemed to be a male voice. Her critiques were strongly worded. She uses part of the preface to respond to critics who claim that the novel insults piety, morality, and religion and counters by saying, "Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last." She defends herself by saying that, in distinguishing between these false ideals and the enduring values of piety, morality,and religion, she is rendering a service. Her explanation of why she has dedicated the second edition to William Thackeray, whom she calls a "social regenerator," is also strongly worded and might have been better received by readers who thought she was a man. Thackeray's Vanity Fair explores themes of society, ambition, love, and morality. Its two principal female characters are the virtuous Amelia Sedley and the amoral social climber Becky Sharp, though Becky reforms by the end of the book. In associating her novel with Vanity Fair and its powerful critique of what she calls "the warped system of things," Brontë hopes to strengthen her own claim to be writing a fundamental moral work.

What is significant about the narrative voice in Jane Eyre?

Jane Eyre is told by a first-person narrator, as indicated by the subtitle "An Autobiography." Readers see everything through the eyes of the story's protagonist, Jane, who looks back on her life from a vantage point of nearly 20 years. First-person narration has the advantage of allowing the reader to closely identify with the narrator, in this case the protagonist. Because the reader can only view the story through the narrator's eyes, the more trustworthy or reliable the narrator seems, the more the reader can identify with that character. Jane is established fairly early as a reliable narrator. At the beginning of Chapter 2, she says that resisting punishment is a "new thing" for her, a statement soon backed up by Bessie's comment that "she never did so before." The trustworthiness of Jane as narrator is reinforced by her frank criticism of her own behavior—she hardly goes easy on herself. The reader's willingness to identify with her is strengthened by her frequent use of direct address. Jane wins readers by taking them into her confidence. As someone who does not fit neatly into the social class structure of 19th-century Britain, Jane provides something of an outsider's view of the society in which she lives. As an intelligent and sensitive woman, Jane provides a thoughtful and emotionally tuned perspective on other characters and the events of the story.

Consider the comparison Jane uses in describing her first sight of Mr. Brocklehurst in Chapter 4 of Jane Eyre. What does this suggest about him and about Lowood school?

Jane describes Mr. Brocklehurst as a "black pillar" topped by a grim-faced, "carved mask." Thus she compares him to a statue rather than a living, breathing human being. The comparison to this imposing, threatening image fits Mr. Brocklehurst's hard, unbending approach to religious observance. His comments reveal that he is focused on instilling humility in the Lowood students—a humility he himself does not show—and he attempts to teach this lesson by using deprivation, unthinking obedience to his rules, and threats of punishment. This negative impression of Mr. Brocklehurst suggests that Jane's time at Lowood will be just as challenging to her spirit and her sensibility as was living with her aunt and Reed cousins.

In Chapter 1 of Jane Eyre, what does Jane's choice of reading material reveal about her state of mind and her situation in life?

Jane chooses a book that contains images of cold, lonely, desolate landscapes and sinking ships. She skips over the text and concentrates on these images, which seem to reflect her own gloomy, hopeless feelings of loneliness and isolation. At the same time, she finds them "profoundly interesting" and relates that she was happy. That she could choose a book for herself—that she could exercise some will of her own—is something to be treasured. Readers quickly see that Jane has the power to make few choices and has little independence. In this small gesture of autonomy, she gains pleasure.

In chapter 6 of Jane Eyre, Helen Burns gives Jane advice about religion and self-control. What effect does this advice have on Jane over time?

Jane and Helen discuss their different attitudes about being unjustly punished by teachers or other authority figures. When Jane says that her impulse is to strike back, Helen contends that it's better to patiently endure punishment than to do something rash that might have negative effects for others as well as for herself. Helen advises Jane to read the New Testament and follow the example of Christ. "Life" is "too short," she says, to hold onto angry, passionate emotions. In this advice, Helen reveals a deep sense of humility and grace and the self-control Jane is herself trying to master. Jane's immediate reaction is to reject Helen's "doctrine of endurance." Following Helen's example, she says, "I should love Mrs. Reed, which I cannot do; I should bless her son John, which is impossible." But, suspecting that Helen is right, she decides to think more deeply about the matter at another time. Years later, when Jane is being sorely tested, she echoes some of Helen's spiritual beliefs. Significantly, when Jane visits the dying Mrs. Reed, she forgives her—even though she has learned of yet another instance of her aunt's injustice to her and even though her aunt remains unchanged in her own attitude.

What do we learn of Jane's character when Mr. Brocklehurst calls her a liar in Chapter 7 of Jane Eyre?

Jane is mortified by Mr. Brocklehurst's label, shamed over having her character criticized so publicly when she is still new to the school. Yet she also has enough self-control to stand on the chair, as instructed, and not do anything that would produce further punishment. The support of Helen Burns, who gives Jane a smile as she walks past her, helps fortify Jane to withstand the punishment. Her self-control can only last so long, however. When the half hour ends and she descends from the stool, she collapses in a heap in a corner of the room, crying and despairing of achieving the happiness that she hoped she could gain at Lowood. "Here I lay again crushed and trodden on," she bitterly reflects, feeling once again alone and unable to please those in power. Only when Helen Burns returns to comfort her and she realizes that her isolation is at least partly ended do her spirits return.

In Chapter 7 of Jane Eyre, what does the appearance of his wife and daughters reveal about Mr. Brocklehurst's character?

Mr. Brocklehurst's family enters the room as he is ranting that it is his mission to prevent Lowood students from indulging in "the lusts of the flesh" by making them wear plain, cheap clothing and cutting their hair short. It is obvious that Mr. Brocklehurst doesn't think his ideas about the moral value of self-denial and modesty apply to his own family, evidence of his religious hyprocrisy. His wife and daughters are wearing furs and expensive clothing made of velvet and silk. Fashionable ostrich plumes adorn his daughters' hats, and they have long, "elaborately curled" hair; some of his wife's curls are "false." Their hair also underscores Mr. Brocklehurst's hypocrisy, as they enter the room just after he has instructed Miss Temple to cut off the hair of any student with curls or topknots.

At the end of Chapter 8 of Jane Eyre, why does Jane say she would not exchange Lowood for Gateshead?

Jane has overcome a number of obstacles at Lowood school, and now she feels that she is well on her way to accomplishing her goals of independence, love, and acceptance. Miss Temple has announced to everyone that she is innocent of the charge of being a liar. She has been promoted to a higher class. She has been allowed to study French and drawing. More importantly, at Lowood she has escaped the misery of being constantly judged—and found wanting—by Mrs. Reed. Jane cites a biblical saying attributed to Solomon to make the comparison: "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled [stabled] ox and hatred therewith."

In Chapter 10 of Jane Eyre, Jane says she wants to serve in "a new place" because there's "no use in wanting anything better." Why does she say this?

When Miss Temple leaves Lowood, Jane loses the company of her mother figure, friend, and mentor, and she feels lonely and restless. She also worries that, without Miss Temple's guidance, she won't be motivated to maintain the good mental habits she has acquired. Life at Lowood suddenly feels too restrictive and predictable . She assesses her qualifications and decides to look for a teaching position in "a new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances." She knows that a governess position is the best situation that a woman of her circumstances, education, and experience can expect to find.

What is the significance of Jane's thoughts about the role of women in society in Chapter 12 of Jane Eyre?

Jane has been at Thornfield for a few months, and she's feeling restless because she hasn't found the intellectual stimulation and excitement she had hoped to find in her new situation. She's feeling defensive about wanting to expand her horizons and resentful because society confines women to such limited roles. Jane's ideas about gender equality are not unique for her time, but they are rarely expressed because many people in her society, particularly men, disapprove of women acquiring formal university education or achieving success on their own. In this context it is worth remembering that Brontë chose to publish her novel under a male pseudonym because she expected the work to then be taken more seriously.

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