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As the novel opens, Mrs. Reed, a well-to-do widow, is sitting by the fireplace in her comfortable living room. Around her are her three children-Eliza, Georgiana, and fourteen-year-old John. A fat, spoiled bully, John is still his mother's favorite. She stuffs him with rich food and keeps him out of school because she's convinced that he is too "delicate" to keep up with his schoolwork.
Off to one side of the room is Jane Eyre, a ten-year-old orphan who lives with the Reed family. We can see right away what Jane's life must be like-we learn that she's being punished for the crime of not being cheerful enough. Jane is an unloved, unwanted child, an outsider in the only home she has ever known. Jane wanders off to the next room and settles herself on a small window seat. Hidden from view behind the scarlet curtains that decorate the window, Jane can read in peace. Her book, Bewick's History of British Birds, is filled with romantic illustrations of the Far North-Norway, Siberia, the Arctic-and Jane's lively imagination soon carries her away into her own fantasy world.
But she doesn't get to enjoy her book for long. John Reed finds Jane in her hiding place and demands that she give him the book. At fourteen, he is already a tyrant. He reminds Jane that he is the young master of the house and that everything in it, including the books, all belong to him-or will in a few years. Jane, he says, is nothing but a penniless dependent who ought to be out on the streets begging instead of living in comfort "with gentleman's children like us." With that, he picks up the heavy book and throws it. She falls against the door and cuts her head.
Jane has always been too afraid of John to stand up to him. This time, however, she is furious. "You are like the Roman emperors!" she shouts, thinking of tyrants, such as Nero and Caligula, whom she has read about. Jane's willingness to defend herself makes John lose all self-control. He flies at her and starts pulling her hair. She feels a drop of blood trickling down her neck, and it gives her the courage to fight back. Just as Jane starts hitting John, Mrs. Reed rushes in, and of course she jumps to the conclusion that Jane started the fight. She orders her to be locked up in an empty bedroom as punishment. As Jane is being dragged out of the room by the nursemaid, Bessie, and Mrs. Reed's maid, Miss Abbot, she hears one of them say disapprovingly, "Did you ever see such a picture of passion!"
By this time-if you're like most readers-you're already very much on Jane's side. Weren't there times in your own childhood when other children picked on you-and you ended up taking the blame? Is there anything more infuriating? On the other hand, you're a few years older-maybe you can see things differently now. If you have younger brothers or sisters, you can see that children's fights are hardly ever completely one-sided.
But as you read the first few chapters of Jane Eyre, notice how quickly they pull us into a child's view of the world. The narrator-Jane-is supposed to be looking back on something that happened to her years ago, but she's just as angry as ever. And she makes us angry too. She doesn't bother to wonder how the incident must have looked from Mrs. Reed's point of view, or to ask whether John was really as bad as he seemed. Some readers feel that this is the best thing about Jane Eyre-it brings us back to the strong emotions we felt as children. But others say that the job of the author is to give us a new perspective on things, not just to reinforce a one-sided-and in this case, childish-view of why people behave the way they do.
As you read on, remember that phrase "picture of passion" (it's an old-fashioned way of describing a temper tantrum). In future chapters we're going to hear more, both good and bad, about Jane's "passionate" nature.