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Feminism and the Role of Women
When "Jane Eyre" was first published in 1847, it was titled, "Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, edited by Currer Bell." Most reviewers of the time did not believe the novel had been written by a woman. Currer Bell was in fact Charlotte Bronte, who along with her sisters Emily and Anne published under the androgynous pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Thus, the author and the main character are very aware of women's position in society. When does Jane revolt against her expected role as a lowly woman? When does she seem to enjoy it? Contrast, for example, the scenes where Jane is helping with domestic preparations for Rochester's arrival with company and when she is preparing for Christmas at Moor House.
The moon is a symbol of womanhood. How is the moon described, and what role does it play in Jane's life? (For example: Jane's dream where her mother spoke from the moonlight; Rochester's joke that he would take Jane to live on the moon).
Jane, an orphan, has several surrogate mother figures — some better than others. Compare and contrast the characters of Mrs. Reed, Miss Maria Temple, Mrs. Fairfax and Hannah.
Jane declares herself equal to Rochester, yet continues to call him "sir," "Mr. Rochester" and "my Master" after they are engaged. In what ways are Jane and Rochester equal? In what ways is Rochester Jane's superior? In what ways is Jane superior to Rochester?
The madwoman in the attic is a powerful symbol of female repression. Is Bertha sympathetic? Why or why not? Taking into account the time period, do you think her treatment is cruel, or reasonable?
Jane only returns to Rochester after she has secured financial independence and Rochester has been blinded and crippled. So when they are finally married, it is on a more equal footing. What do you think of this feminist conclusion? Do you think their relationship was balanced and equal before, or not?
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Compare and contrast Jane's two love interests: Mr. Rochester and St. John. How do they differ in physical appearance, morals, social standing and attitude towards Jane? How are they similar? What is Jane's attitude toward each of them?
What does "Jane Eyre" say about beauty? Is beauty necessary for love? Jane is plain and Rochester ugly, but Jane says that she would have nothing in common with a handsome man. This raises a troubling question: is Bronte saying that like should stick to like, and beauty cannot have anything to do with ugliness (at least not romantically)?
Many characters allude to Jane's plainness and mistreat her for it, and Jane herself has no illusions about her looks. If Jane was a modern teenager, we might say she has low self-esteem. How does appearance contribute to how characters are perceived and treated in "Jane Eyre"?
Jane is 18; Rochester is 40 — old enough to be her father. In that society, a woman would have gone from obeying her father to obeying her husband. Do you think there is a Freudian element in Jane, an orphan, falling for an older man like Rochester?
How are sexuality and physical love dealt with in the novel? For instance: discuss the social, sexual and religious connotations of the word "Master," which Jane uses to describe Rochester.
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Romanticism in "Jane Eyre"
Romanticism is characterized by high emotion and characters that trust emotion over reason. Is Jane guided by emotions or by reason? What about Rochester, or St. John? Jane is a passionate character, but also very sensible. Are there situations in which Jane uses reason over emotion, and vice versa?
Romantic Era writers valued nature. What role do nature, the outdoors and the weather play in Jane Eyre? What is the significance of the settings of Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield and Moor House?
"Jane Eyre" makes many allusions to other Romantic works, including poetry, epics and folktale retellings. How does this enhance or detract from the novel? What does it show about Jane, and in turn, about Charlotte Bronte?
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"Jane Eyre" as a Gothic Novel
The Gothic novel is an offshoot of the Romantic movement, involving darker elements of Romanticism such as fascination with the supernatural, omens and talismans, women in distress or imprisoned, threatening male power figures, gloomy castles and other Gothic settings and virtuous heroines in danger from unscrupulous men. "Dracula" is another good example of a Gothic novel. In what ways does "Jane Eyre" fit these Gothic conventions? In what ways does it deviate from them?
Rochester's wife, Bertha, is described as a "vampire" and a "demon" several times, with a blackened and purple face. John Reed is also described after his suicide as having a black and purple face. What is the effect of this demonizing description?
What role do dreams and visions play in "Jane Eyre"? What is the symbolism behind Jane's dreams involving a child? Do you think that dreams and visions are an effective way to foreshadow?
When Jane first hears Rochester approaching with his horse and dog, she thinks of a folk legend about a demonic horse. When Rochester first sees Jane, he calls her an "elf," a "fairy" and a "witch" and accuses her of bewitching his horse to fall. What does this supernatural impression on their first meeting foreshadow for their future relationship?
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Role of Religion
Religion and faith are very important aspects of "Jane Eyre." Trace Jane's religious/spiritual development, from her saucy answers to Mr. Brocklehurst to her willingness to become a missionary. How do Jane's religious and moral beliefs influence her decisions?
Brocklehurst is described as being like a huge black "pillar," which parodies his role as a pillar of the church/community by painting him as inflexible. How else does Bronte satirize Brocklehurst's religious hypocrisy? Contrast Brocklehurst and Miss Temple.
Consider the characters of Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns and St. John, who subscribe to three very different versions of Christianity. What do you think of their beliefs and practices? What effect do these characters' beliefs have on Jane's formation of her own beliefs?
What is the significance of ending "Jane Eyre" with the letter from St. John?
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Opinions and Impressions
What was your overall impression of "Jane Eyre"? Did you like it? Why or why not?
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Smith, Elder, and Co., 1847. Penguin Classics, 2006.