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Jane Eyre is the story of a poor, orphaned girl's search for love. In the first part of the novel, Jane is ten years old and living, none too happily, at Gateshead House with Mrs. Reed, her uncle's widow, and the three Reed children-Eliza, Georgiana, and John. John is a bully, and when Jane fights back after he throws a book at her head, Mrs. Reed blames her for starting the fight and lying about it. As punishment, Jane is shut up in an empty bedroom-called the red-room, where she has a terrifying experience that she interprets as a visitation from the ghost of her dead Uncle Reed. A few months later, Mrs. Reed turns Jane over to a gloomy death-obsessed clergyman, Mr. Brocklehurst, who runs a charity school for the daughters of poor churchmen. She tells him to watch Jane carefully, because the girl is a liar.
Lowood, the charity boarding school, is a dismal place. There is never enough to eat, and the girls are forbidden even the smallest pleasures in the name of teaching them Christian humility. Jane makes friends with a sweet-natured, pious girl named Helen Burns, who tells her that they ought to bear their sufferings at the school with patience. Helen never shows resentment, even when she becomes the favorite target of the school's nastiest teacher, Miss Scatcherd. But when Mr. Brocklehurst humiliates Jane by repeating Mrs. Reed's charge against her in front of the whole school, she rebels. She talks the school superintendent into getting a letter from the Reed family apothecary (who treated Jane after her ordeal in the red-room), which clears her name.
When spring comes, the school is swept by a typhus epidemic. About half the girls fall ill, and some even die. Helen, too, is ill, but from consumption (tuberculosis). When Jane sneaks into Helen's room for a visit, she is shocked to find her friend has only a few hours to live. Helen dies in Jane's arms, proclaiming her steadfast faith in God.
As a result of the epidemic, Lowood comes under investigation, and conditions at the school are improved. Jane stays on, as a pupil and later as a teacher, until she is nineteen years old. Jane has become a dear friend of Miss Temple, the school superintendent, and when she leaves her job to get married, Jane decides that the time has come for her to leave as well.
Jane is hired as a governess by a Mrs. Fairfax, who lives in a substantial but rather gloomy country manor-house, Thornfield Hall. Only after she has moved in does Jane realize that Mrs. Fairfax is only the housekeeper. Jane becomes quite fond of her only pupil, a saucy little French girl named Adele Varens. Yet there is an aura of mystery about the house-the master, Mr. Edward Rochester, is seldom at home, and from time to time Jane hears eerie laughter coming from one of the locked rooms on the third story of the house. Mrs. Fairfax tells her that this is Grace Poole, an otherwise taciturn servant who spends much of her time sewing in that part of the house.
One wintry night, Mr. Rochester returns unexpectedly to Thornfield. He is a dark, brooding man in his late thirties, with an abrupt, imperious manner. Jane first meets him on the road, after he's been thrown from his horse, and offers him help without realizing who he is. Later, back at Thornfield, when Rochester asks her if she thinks he's handsome, Jane is outspoken enough to say, truthfully, "No, sir." Instead of being offended, Rochester is intrigued and charmed by the boldness of the new governess. There is already a rapport developing between the two of them when, one night, Jane awakens to the sound of the eerie laugh just outside her bedroom door, smells smoke, and discovers that someone has set fire to the hangings around Mr. Rochester's bed. She douses the flames with a pitcher of water. The way Rochester holds Jane's hand after he awakens suggests feelings that go beyond mere gratitude, but she slips away and returns to her room.
The next day, Rochester is gone. He stays away two weeks, and when he does return he brings with him a party of house guests for an extended stay. Among the guests is a Mrs. Ingram and her two daughters, Blanche and Mary. Its obvious that the handsome Blanche is doing her best to snare the affections of Mr. Rochester, but Jane can only suffer her jealousy in silence. One day during the house party, two strange things happen:
1. Mr. Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy woman, and pretending to tell her fortune, tries to find out whether Jane cares for him. She is wary, however, and doesn't reveal her true feelings.
2. Jane is awakened in the middle of the night by calls for help coming from the third floor of the house. The calls are from Mr. Richard Mason, an unexpected visitor who had arrived from Jamaica earlier that day. Mr. Rochester asks Jane to stay with Mr. Mason while he rides to town for the doctor. Jane observes in horror that Mason is bleeding heavily from stab and bite wounds. Judging by his frantic cry-"She sucked my blood!"- he's been attacked by Grace Poole.
Before the house party ends, Jane is called back to Gateshead to the bedside of the dying Mrs. Reed. Mrs. Reed confesses that three years ago the brother of Jane's dead mother had written from Madeira saying that he wanted to adopt Jane and make her his heir. Out of spite, Mrs. Reed wrote back to the uncle, John Eyre, telling him that Jane died of typhus at Lowood School.
Jane returns to Thornfield, where it is expected that Mr. Rochester will soon marry Blanche Ingram. On Midsummer Eve, however, when Rochester tells Jane that he will have to find her another job after his marriage, she breaks down and reveals her love for him. Then he admits that it's she whom he's loved all along and asks her to marry him.
Two nights before the wedding, Jane awakes to find a strange woman standing over her bed-not Grace Poole, but someone far more frightening, with a swollen, blotchy face and wearing a shapeless white shift. The strange woman tears Jane's bridal veil in two and stomps on it. Rochester assures Jane that the stranger must have been Grace Poole and that her hideous appearance was only a nightmare.
It's the day of the wedding. The ceremony has already begun when it is interrupted by two men-Richard Mason and a lawyer from London, Mr. Briggs. Briggs announces that Rochester already has a wife, Bertha Mason, who is already living at Thornfield! Rochester confesses that his wife, hopelessly and violently insane, lives in the locked rooms on the third floor of the house. Mr. Briggs then reveals that he works for Jane's uncle, Mr. John Eyre, who knew the Mason family and was determined to keep his niece from making a bigamous marriage. (Jane had written to tell him she was getting married.)
Rochester tells Jane that he never loved Bertha and only married her at the urging of his father, who wanted his son to have a rich wife. Because the symptoms of Bertha's insanity were concealed from him before the wedding, he feels that the marriage was never morally valid. (Under the laws of England he cannot obtain a divorce.) He asks Jane to run away to France with him and live as his mistress. She refuses.
Early the next morning, Jane flees Thornfield, traveling as far away as she can on the little money she has. Hungry and destitute, she is taken in by two sisters, Diana and Mary Rivers. Their brother, St. John (sin'jun) Rivers, gets Jane work teaching at a charity school in the parish where he is a clergyman.
Fearful of scandal, Jane has not told her new friends her correct last name. Some months later, when St. John discovers her true identity by accident, he realizes that she is his missing cousin, Miss Eyre! What's more, he tells Jane that her uncle John Eyre has died and left her a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Jane decides to share the money with St. John, Diana, and Mary, who have been so kind to her and who are the family she has always yearned for.
St. John is a pale, cold man who brags to Jane that he is overcoming the tendencies of his earthly nature in order to prepare himself for a life of missionary service in India. Among the temptations he overcomes is his love for Rosamund Oliver, a beautiful and wealthy girl who wants to marry him. Because he thinks that Jane, plain and used to hardship as she is, would make a better missionary's wife, St. John proposes to her. Jane, after much inner struggle, rejects this offer of a cold, loveless marriage and decides that the time has come for her to find out what has become of Rochester.
But when Jane returns to Thornfield, she discovers that the house has been destroyed in a fire. Mad Bertha, who started the conflagration, leaped to her death from the burning roof of the house and Rochester, who was trying to rescue her, lost his left hand, one eye, and the sight in his remaining eye.
Jane seeks out Rochester at Ferndean, the isolated hunting lodge where he has been living a hermit's life. Reunited, they realize that they are still deeply in love and decide to marry. In the concluding chapter of the story, we learn that Jane and Rochester have been married for ten years and are idyllically happy.