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How can I find someone to love me? And how can I tell whether the person who loves me is worthy of being loved in return? All of us ask ourselves these questions. For Jane Eyre, the heroine of this story, the prospects of finding happiness in love don't seem very good. At the beginning of the novel, Jane is a poor orphan. Her only known relatives, the Reeds, do not want her. She isn't a pretty girl, and perhaps more important, she doesn't have the knack for pleasing people. As a child, Jane is starved for affection. "If others don't love me, I would rather die than live!" she tells Helen, her only true friend. Yet part of her problem in winning the love of others is that she is "too passionate"- that is, angry, rebellious, and prone to retreat into her own richly imaginative inner world for solace.
Even though circumstances are against Jane, she isn't ready to settle for a man's love on any terms that are offered. She's deeply skeptical of organized religion, but she believes in God. She also has a strong sense of pride and self-respect. So she can only be happy with a man if she can reconcile that love with her love of God and her love for herself. That's a tall order! To fill it, Jane must be prepared to struggle, both against external circumstances and with her own failings and weaknesses.
All readers agree that Jane Eyre is a love story. However, they often disagree about just what kind of a love story it is. Many readers are impressed by Jane Eyre's insistence on emotional equality with her lover and see a feminist message in the story. They point to the strong feminist views expressed by Jane in Chapter 12, where she says, "Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do..." Other readers feel that Jane's search for a way to reconcile her need for love with her search for a way of life acceptable to God is the most important idea in the story. And still others find it hard to take either the social or religious aspects of the story very seriously. For them, the elements of mystery, horror, and thrilling emotional extremes make the book a romantic fantasy. A fourth point of view is that Jane Eyre is a story about the problems of growing up as an outsider without the support of family or a recognized place in society-a story rather like Dickens' David Copperfield, except that the main character happens to be female.
In reading Jane Eyre, you may find that just one of these views matches your own reactions to the story. Or you may find yourself deciding that Jane Eyre fits more than one of these categories. Jane Eyre is a very personal book, and it affects different readers in different ways.
One thing is certain: Jane Eyre is a novel that's meant to be enjoyed, not just picked apart to search for hidden meanings. For well over a century, readers of both sexes, all ages, and widely different educational backgrounds have been entertained by the novel's gripping story. An understanding of the themes and literary artistry of the novel can deepen your pleasure. However, you don't need any special kind of knowledge in order to understand and identify with the story of Jane Eyre's search for love.