Chapters 1-4: Jane's childhood at Gateshead
The novel begins in Gateshead Hall, where a ten-year-old orphan named Jane Eyre is living with her uncle's family. The uncle, surnamed Reed, dies shortly after adopting Jane. His wife, Mrs. Sarah Reed, and her three children (John, Eliza and Georgiana) neglect and abuse Jane. They dislike Jane's plain looks and quiet yet passionate character. The novel begins with young John Reed bullying Jane, who retaliates, with unwonted violence. Jane is blamed for the ensuing fight, and Mrs. Reed has two servants drag her off and lock her up in the "Red Room", the unused chamber in which Mr. Reed died. Still locked in that night, Jane sees a light and panics, thinking that her uncle's ghost has come. Her scream rouses the house, but Mrs. Reed just locks her up for a longer period of time. Then Jane has a fit and passes out. An apothecary, Mr. Lloyd, comes to Gateshead Hall and suggests that Jane go to school.
 Chapters 5-10: Jane's education at Lowood School
Mr. Brocklehurst is a cold, cruel, self-righteous, and highly hypocritical clergyman who runs a charity school called Lowood Institution. He accepts Jane as a pupil in his school, but Jane is devastated when Mrs. Reed asks him to warn the teachers that she has a tendency to deceit. After Brocklehurst departs, Jane bluntly tells Mrs. Reed how she hates the Reed family. Mrs. Reed, so shocked that she is scarcely capable of responding, leaves the drawing room in haste.
Jane initially finds life at Lowood grim. Miss Maria Temple, the youthful superintendent, is just and kind, but another teacher, Miss Scatcherd, is sour and abusive. Mr. Brocklehurst, visiting the school for an inspection, has Jane placed on a tall stool before the entire assemblage after dropping and breaking a slate. He then tells them that "...this girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut—this girl is—a liar!"
Later that day, Miss Temple allows Jane to speak in her own defence. After Jane does so, Miss Temple writes to Mr. Lloyd. His reply agrees with Jane's, and she is publicly cleared of Mr. Brocklehurst's accusation.
Although his family leads a luxurious lifestyle, Mr. Brocklehurst hypocritically preaches to others a doctrine of privation and poverty. As a result, Lowood's eighty pupils must make do with cold rooms, poor meals and thin garments whilst his family lives in comfort. The majority become sick from a typhus epidemic that strikes the school.
Jane is impressed with one pupil, Helen Burns, who accepts Miss Scatcherd's cruelty and the school's deficiencies with passive dignity, practising the Christian teaching of turning the other cheek. Jane admires and loves the gentle Helen and they become good friends, but Jane cannot bring herself to emulate her friend's behaviour. While the typhus epidemic is raging, Helen dies of consumption (tuberculosis) with Jane in her arms.
Many die in the typhus epidemic, and Mr. Brocklehurst's neglect and dishonesty are laid bare. Several rich and kindly people donate to put up a new school building in a more healthful location. New rules are made, and improvements in diet and clothing are introduced. Though Mr. Brocklehurst cannot be overlooked, due to his wealth and family connections, new people are brought in to share his duties of treasurer and inspector, and conditions improve dramatically at the school.
Chapters 11-26: Jane's time as governess at Thornfield Manor
The narrative resumes eight years later. Jane has been a teacher at Lowood for two years, but she thirsts for a better and brighter future. She advertises as a governess and is hired by Mrs. Alice Fairfax, housekeeper of the Gothic manor Thornfield, to teach a rather spoiled but amiable little French girl named Adèle Varens. A few months after her arrival at Thornfield, Jane goes for a walk and aids a horseman who has sprained his ankle when his horse slipped on a patch of ice. She helps him back on the horse and he inquires as to her place of residence without revealing his own identity. On her return to Thornfield, Jane discovers that the horseman is her employer, Mr. Edward Rochester, an ugly, moody yet wonderful, passionate, Byronic, and charismatic gentleman nearly twenty years older than she. Adèle is his ward from a previous romantic relationship with a French ballerina. Mr. Rochester took her in, after her mother died, but is completely aware that Adele is not his daughter, because Céline Varens had many affairs.
Rochester seems quite taken with Jane. He repeatedly summons her to his presence and talks with her. Jane is happy at Thornfield, but there are soon events to tarnish her new happiness: a strange laugh in the halls, a near fatal fire from which she has to save the master of the house, an attack upon a houseguest: Mr Richard Mason.
One night Jane has a presentiment and the next day receives word that Mrs. Reed, upon hearing of her son John's apparent suicide after leading a life of dissipation and debt, has suffered a near-fatal stroke and is asking for her. Jane returns to Gateshead and remains there for over a month while a frequently incoherent Mrs. Reed lies dying in bed. Although she rejects Jane's efforts at reconciliation, Mrs. Reed gives Jane a letter that she had previously withheld out of spite. The letter is from Jane's father's brother, John Eyre, notifying her of his intent to leave her his fortune upon his death.
About a fortnight after Jane's return to Thornfield, Jane, after months of concealing her emotions, vehemently proclaims her love for Edward, who in turn passionately proposes to her. Following a month of courtship, Jane's forebodings arise when a strange, savage-looking woman sneaks into her room one night and rips her wedding veil in two. Yet again, Rochester attributes the incident to Grace Poole.
The wedding goes ahead nevertheless. But during the ceremony in the church, the mysterious Mr. Mason and a lawyer step forth and declare that Rochester cannot marry Jane because his own wife is still alive. Rochester bitterly and sarcastically admits this fact, explaining that his wife is a violent madwoman whom he keeps imprisoned in the attic, where Grace Poole looks after her. But Grace Poole imbibes gin immoderately, occasionally giving the madwoman an opportunity to escape. It is Rochester's mad wife who is responsible for the strange events at Thornfield. Rochester nearly committed bigamy, and kept this fact from Jane. The wedding is cancelled, and Jane is heartbroken.
Rochester then asks Jane to accompany him to the south of France, where they will live as husband and wife, even though they cannot be married. But though she still loves him, Jane refuses to betray the God-given morals and principles she has always believed in. Although she loves Rochester more than anything else, she cannot abandon her morals, and chooses to leave in the middle of the night.
 Chapters 27-35: Jane's time with the Riverses
In the dead of night, she slips out of Thornfield and takes a coach far away to the north of England. When her money gives out, she sleeps outdoors on the moor and reluctantly begs for food. One night, freezing and starving, she comes to Moor House (or Marsh End) and begs for help. St. John Rivers, the young clergyman who lives in the house, admits her after his servant, Hannah, refuses to allow her into the house. There she is cared for by the sisters of St. John, Diana and Mary, who are only too happy to nurse her back to health. They are, in fact, more warm towards her than St. John, who is wary of the stranger in his home.
Jane, who gives the false surname of Elliott, quickly recovers. St. John arranges for Jane to teach a charity school for girls in the village of Morton.
When St. John becomes more comfortable around Jane, and once she recovers from her illness, the two take a walk and come across Rosamond Oliver, who talks with them for a while. Later, when Jane tries to confront him about his feelings for Ms. Oliver, St.John confesses he is indeed in love, but doubts of asking her hand in marriage as he feels she deserves better than the life of religion he is planning.
John's show of emotion here is contrasting to his usual frosty facade, as he thinks about what should be done and what he feels would work better, and doesn't follow his heart, a comparison to Jane, who always follows her feelings and doesn't make judgment on her actions depending on how she thinks situations could turn out, and doesn't worry about whether it could turn for the worst.
Suspecting Jane's true identity, St. John Rivers relates Jane's experiences at Thornfield and says that her uncle, John Eyre, has died and left Jane his fortune of 20,000 pounds. After confessing her true identity, Jane arranges to share her inheritance with the Riverses, who turn out to be her cousins.
St. John intends to travel to India and devote his life to missionary work. He asks Jane to accompany him as his wife. Jane consents to go to India but adamantly refuses to marry him because they are not in love. St. John continues to pressure Jane to marry him, and his forceful personality causes her to capitulate. But at that moment she hears what she thinks is Rochester's voice calling her name, and this breaks her out of St. John's influence for a moment. The next morning, she goes to Thornfield to find out about Mr. Rochester's well-being, as her last wish before she departs forever to India with St. John.
Chapters 36-38: Jane's reunion with Mr. Rochester
The next day, Jane takes a coach to Thornfield. But only blackened ruins lie where the manorhouse once stood. An innkeeper tells Jane that Rochester's mad wife set the fire and then committed suicide by jumping from the roof. Rochester rescued the servants from the burning mansion but lost a hand and his eyesight in the process of attempting to save his wife. He now lives in an isolated manor house called Ferndean. Going to Ferndean, Jane reunites with Rochester. At first, he fears that she will refuse to marry a blind cripple, but Jane accepts him without hesitation. Rochester eventually recovers sight in one eye, and can see their first-born son when the baby is born.
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