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Jane Eyre | Study Guide

Charlotte Brontë

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the themes in Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre | Themes



Brontë explores the theme of passion through several of the characters. Those who channel and control their passions are rewarded; those whose passions run wild are punished.

Jane Eyre

As a child at Gateshead, Jane is able to nurture her passion for learning by spending long hours reading. Because she is isolated by Mrs. Reed, Jane represses her passionate desire for love and acceptance until the day she is pushed too far and erupts into an angry outburst against her aunt. After an initial feeling of victory, Jane feels let down and regretful. As Jane grows and matures, she constantly struggles to control her passions. At Lowood, with the help of Helen Burns and Miss Temple, Jane learns how to govern these feelings. Passion is also associated with love, and that is a passion with virtue. When Rochester tells Jane that he will marry, letting her think he means to Miss Ingram, she speaks with "something like passion" of the necessity of her leaving Thornfield: "Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup?" To have passion is to be human. St. John's desire for marriage is passionless; her and Rochester's mutual love is a deep, abiding passion.

Bertha Mason

Bertha Mason, Rochester's insane wife, represents the extreme of uncontrolled passion. It can be argued that her mental condition excuses her from responsibility for her behavior, but according to Rochester the excesses Bertha indulged in when she was young are at least partially responsible for the early onset of her insanity. Bertha's uncontrolled passion has resulted in her complete lack of freedom.

Mr. Rochester

Rochester has allowed his passions to run wild in the past, when he led a life of dissipation in Europe. When he meets Jane, he allows his passion for her to overrule his judgment. To be with her, he tries to defy law and religion; as a result, he loses Jane. After this loss his passions take a dark turn, and he becomes "savage" and "dangerous," walking the grounds of Thornfield "as if he had lost his senses." It's only after Thornfield burns down and he suffers physical injury that Rochester begins to deal with his disappointments, not by lashing out at the world but by looking inward. During that soul-searching he finds peace in the acceptance of God's will. Of course, it helps that he and Jane are also reunited.

Gender and Class

In Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë delves into the hypocrisy and injustice of 19th-century conventions regarding gender and class roles. Gender and class determined what opportunities people could expect to have in life, whom they could marry, and how much education would be available to them.


Brontë's choice of a first-person female narrator allows her readers to experience firsthand what it was like to be a female in Britain in the early to mid-19th century. Even though Jane is educated, her opportunities are limited, as she finds out when she tries to find work near the town of Morton after fleeing Thornfield. As an educated woman, her best options are to become a teacher or a governess; other professions aren't open to her because of her gender. Had St. John not found Jane a teaching position, she would have had to find more menial, less intellectual work, perhaps as a servant, like Bessie, or as a housekeeper, like Mrs. Fairfax. Women who worked in the theater, like French opera dancer Céline Varens in the novel, were assumed to have loose morals. Other jobs open to women at the time included seamstress, laundress, baker, and shopkeeper. By supporting herself through teaching, Jane has, to an extent, more independence than even an upper-class married woman. She may not have much money, but she doesn't need to rely on her husband to supply her with food, clothing, and shelter. While on a shopping spree with Rochester during their engagement, Jane begins to realize that with marriage comes a certain loss of independence. In the end Jane's unexpected inheritance allows her to maintain her independence when she finally does marry Rochester. In keeping with the conventions of the times, marriage is the happy ending that Brontë supplies for most of her female characters. In addition to Jane, Bessie, Miss Temple, Mary and Diana Rivers, and even Georgiana Reed are happily married at the end of the novel. The too-passionate Bertha Mason is the exception. In settling into the role of wife, these women exemplify the Victorian idea of domesticity, in which men were allowed to act in the public sphere but women were relegated to overseeing domestic life. Their charge was the family, seeing to its physical, emotional, and, to a degree, spiritual needs.


As a protagonist, Jane is the perfect choice for Brontë to explore the effects of class roles on people's lives. Jane is poor, but she's not working class. She's educated and accomplished, but she's not upper class. She's outside of or in between class. This is a particularly lonely, isolated position: the upper class scorns her poverty, and she's not really comfortable with the working class. As a governess, and later as a teacher in a village school, Jane interacts with people of all classes. This gives Brontë the opportunity to shine a light on the inherent hypocrisy and injustice of the class system. Even after becoming engaged to Rochester, Jane is troubled by the differences in their social standing; Mrs. Fairfax warns her to be careful because it's unusual for gentlemen of Rochester's standing to marry their governesses.

Later in the novel, Jane shines that light on herself as she struggles with her own class prejudice when she begins teaching the village children in Morton. She tells herself, "I must not forget that these coarsely clad peasants are of flesh and blood and as good as the scions [children] of gentlest genealogy [nobles]."

While there is nothing explicit in Brontë's text on the point, some critics have suggested that race might be another theme related to gender and class, as it, too, is a social construct. These critics have interpreted Bertha Mason as being of mixed race. For example, Bertha's parents are said to have desired her marriage to Rochester because he was "of a good race," meaning that he was white. There are also references to her black hair and dark complexion, and Jane typically sees her at night and in shadow. Her portrayal as a figure of uncontrolled passion could reflect this reading—many British felt superior toward people of color around the world. This reading adds associations to Bertha's character but may not reflect that strongly on the theme of class. She is, presumably, kept on the third floor because she is mad, not because she is of mixed race. When Mr. Mason—her brother—appears, no mention is made of him having any mixed-race characteristics, and other characters interact with him in perfectly normal ways, suggesting no race-based prejudice.

Religion and Self-Control

The themes of religion and self-control are somewhat intertwined, just as the self-control issue is related to the theme of passion.


As a child at Gateshead, Jane has only a vague sense of religion. She's familiar with the Bible, but when her cousin bullies her, she responds impulsively without thinking of the consequences. At Lowood she is exposed to Mr. Brocklehurst's harsh version of religious morality that emphasizes sin and punishment. Contrasted with that is the gentle, very spiritual Christianity of Helen Burns.

Helen Burns teaches Jane that belief in a higher power can help her endure indignities without lashing out. Helen's interpretation of Christianity appeals to Jane, but it's a little too spiritual for someone as rooted in the natural world as Jane. At Thornfield, and later at Moor House, Jane seems to have developed a relationship to religion that's comfortable for her and supports her through trying times.

St. John represents yet another attitude toward religion. For him, religion is an outlet for his ambition and craving for glory and heroism. He is conscientious, self-sacrificing, and puts duty to God above all else, but his approach to religion is joyless.

Rochester comes to accept his fate as God's punishment for his ill-advised attempt to marry Jane while he was still married. He shows no contrition over the betrayal of his vows to Bertha Mason. Rather his guilt stems from the sense that such a marriage would have tainted Jane.

Eliza Reed also finds satisfaction in religion but feels she must withdraw from society to fully express her spirituality. Jane manages to more successfully integrate her religious beliefs with her emotional and social life.


Jane learns to control her passions. She values self-control for three reasons. First, self-control is a path to moral behavior. Second, it is a way to demonstrate the supremacy of reason over passion. While Jane is clearly a passionate character, she values reason—good judgment—over feeling. Third, self-control relates to social position and gender. Jane's dual status as an outcast from society and a woman makes her vulnerable. By controlling her passions, she protects herself from taking actions that will expose her to risk. In perhaps her most powerful expression of self-control, Jane foregoes her passionate love for Rochester to maintain her moral code and protect herself from the social disgrace that would fall on a mistress. The decision is a wrenching one, but she has to stay true to her beliefs.

Jane has some self-control from the beginning of the book. An orphan, despised and mistreated at Gateshead by her cousins and by Mrs. Reed, she grew up aware of the need to move and speak carefully to avoid punishment. While the book opens with her revolting against this ill treatment, Bessie Lee points out it was the first time Jane had ever behaved in such a way. This is a self-control born of survival instinct. What she must learn is self-control as a moral imperative. Helen Burns teaches self-discipline as the way to avoid punishment and to avoid bringing shame on loved ones. Jane, loved by no one, must develop this control for different reasons. She wants self-control so she can have self-respect.

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