Jane Eyre

by: Charlotte Brontë

Chapters 1–4

From its beginning, Jane Eyre explores and challenges the social preconceptions of nineteenth-century Victorian society. Themes of social class, gender relations, and injustice predominate throughout. Jane Eyre begins her story as an orphan raised by a wealthy and cultivated family, and this ambiguous social standing motivates much of the novel’s internal tension and conflict. Jane’s education and semi-aristocratic lifestyle are those of the upper class, but she has no money. As a penniless orphan forced to live on the charity of others, Jane is a kind of second-class citizen. In some ways she is below even the servants, who certainly have no obligation to treat her respectfully. The tensions of this contradiction emerge in the very first chapter of the novel, when Jane suffers teasing and punishment at the hands of John Reed and his hateful mother. Jane’s banishment to the red-room exemplifies her inferior position with regard to the rest of the members of the Reed household.

The red-room is the first in a series of literal and metaphorical imprisonments in the novel. Although Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room is real, she will encounter spiritual, intellectual, and emotional imprisonment throughout the book. The rigid Victorian hierarchies of social class and gender will pose challenges to her freedom of movement and personal growth, and corrupt morals and religion will also constitute menaces to her ability to realize her dreams for herself. Jane will even come to fear “enslavement” to her own passions. At the same time, the red-room is also symbolic of Jane’s feeling of isolation with respect to every community: she is “locked in,” but she is also, in a sense, “locked out.” Again, class and gender hierarchies will contribute to Jane’s sense of exile. For example, her position as a governess at Thornfield once again situates her in a strange borderland between the upper class and the servant class, so that she feels part of neither group.