After falling asleep for a short while, Jane awakes to the realization that she must leave Thornfield. When she steps out of her room, she finds Rochester waiting in a chair on the threshold. To Rochester’s assurances that he never meant to wound her, and to his pleas of forgiveness, Jane is silent, although she confides to the reader that she forgave him on the spot. Jane suddenly feels faint, and Rochester carries her to the library to revive her. He then offers her a new proposal—to leave England with him for the South of France, where they will live together as husband and wife. Jane refuses, explaining that no matter how Rochester chooses to view the situation, she will never be more than a mistress to him while Bertha is alive. Rochester realizes that he must explain why he does not consider himself married, and he launches into the story of his past.
Unwilling to divide his property, Rochester’s father left his entire estate to his other son, Rowland, and sent Rochester to Jamaica to marry Bertha, who was to inherit a massive fortune—30,000 pounds. Bertha was beautiful, and although she and Rochester spent hardly any time alone, the stimulated, dazzled, and ignorant youth believed himself to be in love and agreed to the marriage. Shortly after the wedding, Rochester learned that Bertha’s mother was not, as he had been led to believe, dead, but mad and living in an insane asylum. Bertha’s younger brother was a mute idiot. Rochester’s father and brother had known about the family’s unpromising genetic legacy, but they had promoted the marriage for the sake of the money. Bertha soon revealed herself to be coarse, perverse, and prone to violent outbreaks of temper and unhealthy indulgences. These excesses only hastened the approach of what had been lurking on her horizon already: absolute madness. By this time, Rochester’s father and brother had died, so Rochester found himself all alone with a maniacal wife and a huge fortune. He considered killing himself but returned to England instead. He resolved to place Bertha at Thornfield Hall “in safety and comfort: [to] shelter her degradation with secrecy, and leave her.” Rochester then drifted around the continent from one city to the next, always in search of a woman to love. When he was met with disappointment, he sank into debauchery. He was always disappointed with his mistresses, because they were, as he puts it, “the next worse thing to buying a slave.” Then he met Jane. Rochester retells the story of their introduction from his point of view, telling her that she enchanted him from the start.
Jane feels torn. She doesn’t want to condemn Rochester to further misery, and a voice within her asks, “Who in the world cares for you?” Jane wonders how she could ever find another man who values her the way Rochester does, and whether, after a life of loneliness and neglect, she should leave the first man who has ever loved her. Yet her conscience tells her that she will respect herself all the more if she bears her suffering alone and does what she believes to be right. She tells Rochester that she must go, but she kisses his cheek and prays aloud for God to bless him as she departs. That night, Jane has a dream in which her mother tells her to flee temptation. She grabs her purse, sneaks down the stairs, and leaves Thornfield.
Riding in a coach, Jane quickly exhausts her meager money supply and is forced to sleep outdoors. She spends much of the night in prayer, and the following day she begs for food or a job in the nearby town. No one helps her, except for one farmer who is willing to give her a slice of bread. After another day, Jane sees a light shining from across the moors. Following it, she comes to a house. Through the window, Jane sees two young women studying German while their servant knits. From their conversation Jane learns that the servant is named Hannah and that the graceful young women are Diana and Mary. The three women are waiting for someone named St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”). Jane knocks on the door, but Hannah refuses to let her in. Collapsing on the doorstep in anguish and weakness, Jane cries, “I can but die, and I believe in God. Let me try to wait His will in silence.” A voice answers, “All men must die, but all are not condemned to meet a lingering and premature doom, such as yours would be if you perished here of want.” The voice belongs to “St. John,” who brings Jane into the house. He is the brother of Diana and Mary, and the three siblings give Jane food and shelter. They ask her some questions, and she gives them a false name: “Jane Elliott.”
Feeling . . . clamoured wildly. “Oh, comply!” it said. “. . . soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?”
Jane endures her most difficult trials in this section of the book: she resolves to leave Rochester although it pains her deeply, and she is forced to sleep outdoors and go hungry on the moors in her flight from Thornfield. However, this section is also where Jane proves to herself her endurance, her strength of principle, and her ability to forge new friendships. As she tells herself before leaving Thornfield, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Ultimately this self-interest will make her relationships with others, including her eventual marriage, all the more meaningful and rewarding.
Jane’s departure from Thornfield is perhaps the most important decision she makes in the novel. In Rochester she found the love for which she had always yearned, and Thornfield was the first real home she ever knew. In fleeing them, Jane leaves a part of herself behind. But living with Rochester as his mistress would require a self-compromise that Jane is not willing to make. Even before she learns of Bertha’s existence, Jane senses that in marrying Rochester she risks cementing herself into a position of inequality. She fears that Rochester would objectify her and that by “marrying above her station” she would come to the relationship already “in debt” to him. Now Jane sees more clearly than ever that a relationship with Rochester would mean the loss of her self-respect, and of her control over her life. Jane cannot bring herself to do what is morally wrong, simply out of weakness of will and emotional neediness.
Despite the happiness and the sense of acceptance that Thornfield and Rochester’s love offer, Jane knows that staying would be a type of self-imprisonment. Jane must choose between emotional exile and spiritual and intellectual imprisonment. She knows she must flee while she can.
Throughout the narrative of Jane’s trials, the reader not only gains insight into Jane’s personal constitution and character, but also into the society in which she lives. When Jane experiences the plight of the poor, the novel presents us with a bleak glimpse of a society in which the needy are shunned out of tightfistedness and distrust.