Updated: May 14, 2019
Essential advice for mastering your Jane Eyre revision for GCSE English Literature.
Jane Eyre Plot Summary
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre tells the story of the eponymous heroine (an eponymous hero or heroine is the character in a play or book whose name is the title), in first person narration. We travel with Jane through her misery at the neglect and mistreatment at the hands of her aunt and cousins; away to school with its hardships, friendships, and lessons; off to work, first as a teacher in the school, then as a governess for the brooding Mr Rochester; and through her growing intimacy with Rochester, with its joy and despair, before a terrible revelation sends her running away into the unknown… My poor summary can make it sound unpleasantly saccharine and girly, but Jane Eyre is as far from tales of boarding school shenanigans and breathless romances as it’s possible to get. Jane is defiantly honest, strikingly independent, and magnificently passionate when it comes to matters of right and wrong, justice, and self-worth.
Literary Context for Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and is a remarkable conflation of literary forms. It is most noticeably a Bildungsroman: a novel telling the story of a child growing into a mature adult, focusing on what she experiences and feels along the way. But this particular Bildungsroman manages to include elements of the Gothic novel, a genre that was exceptionally popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The suspense, disembodied voices, and suggestion of Thornfield being haunted, all give the plot a supernatural edge, adding a sense of mystery to the story.
As well as the fantastical, fictionalised elements of Jane Eyre, the story incorporates a large amount of autobiographical detail. Brontë lived in Yorkshire for most of her life, and the book’s depictions of its physical and social hardships were taken from her experience. Like Jane, Brontë’s mother died when she was a small child, and she was sent first to live with an aunt, and then to a religious girls’ school, where the headmaster, Reverend Wilson, was the model for the cruel and hypocritical Mr Brocklehurst. Brontë lost two of her sisters to tuberculosis whilst at school, and it seems reasonable to infer that this influenced her description of the death of Helen Burns. And like Jane, Brontë worked both as a teacher and a governess, and longed to set up her own school.
Jane Eyre Exam Technique Tips
When answering exam questions, it’s important not to make too much of the autobiographical elements of the story. While Brontë’s life was a clear and factual influence on the novel, there’s a risk of paying it too much attention to the detriment of commentary on structural, thematic, and linguistic techniques and ideas. After all, you can have the most interesting or gloomy life imaginable, but that doesn’t mean you can write about it, let alone turn it into one of the nation’s favourite books! As usual, the questions ask about how Brontë creates and presents the characters and the story, so focus on how and why Brontë tells the story, why she chooses those particular words or that particular image, why that bit of the plot happens there – it will answer the question in much more depth, and is much more interesting!
It’s also really important to try and place yourself within the context Jane Eyre was written in. Whilst today, the idea of not being able to divorce your murderously insane wife might seem revoltingly perverse, and the suggestion of running away together, married or not, seem eminently sensible, that mind-set won’t get you anywhere in understanding Jane’s motivations. Arguing that she should have got over her principles and left with Rochester is to fundamentally miss the point – to Jane, Brontë, and her first readers, Jane did absolutely the right thing in leaving, and that’s really important to understand.
The same can be said for Jane’s belief in God. Whatever your personal beliefs are, Jane is sure that God is real, lives her life according to the Bible’s teachings, and would be horrified by the idea of deliberate sin. Understanding this is the key to understanding Jane’s character: why she’s so outraged at being called a liar, why she runs away from Rochester, and why she seriously considers St John’s offer. A quick comment on how her moral system would compare today is great, but an entire essay explaining why she’s stupid and naïve? Not great.
Fun Ways to Revise Jane Eyre
There have been countless adaptations of Jane Eyre on TV and film. For my money, the best one is the 2006 BBC miniseries, starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. It sticks pretty faithfully to the book, and has at least tried to cast actors who match Brontë’s descriptions (though nobody ever looks quite how you see them in your head). If you’re Yorkshire-based, or heading there for an Easter holiday, the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth House is well worth a visit. Then, if you’re looking for anything a bit weirder, Jasper Fforde’s wonderfully bizarre book The Eyre Affair is a world of literary detectives, demonic criminals, and time travel, all centred round the need to keep the plot of Jane Eyre safe from terrorists. It’s very strange, but a great way to think more about plot structure, and what makes the story what it is.
Whatever you do, try your hardest not to get so bogged down in memorising quotations that you forget how mesmerising and powerfully written the story is, and how unforgettably real the characters are.
Blog Post Crafted by Rebecca
Background: Rebecca is one of our most popular tutors, with a degree in English from the University of Cambridge and hundreds of hours of private tuition experience in 7+, 11+, English and Maths. She is also an assessor for Titanium Tutors, observing the mock lessons taught by potential tutors and deciding whether or not they meet the high standards of the agency.