Jane Eyre Chapter 1 Summary

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

This lesson presents an overview of the first chapter of Charlotte Bronte's ''Jane Eyre,'' a Victorian novel that alarmed its contemporary critics, but has enduringly delighted readers.

Rain, Rain, (Don't) Go Away So Jane Won't Have to Go Outside Today

Looking out at the Rain

The novel opens on ten year-old Jane Eyre, who is delighted to discover that she will not be made to go for a walk on this cold November evening due to the driving rain. It is not just the cold that makes little Jane glad to avoid the walk, but also the constant chastening from Bessie the nurse and the perpetual unfavorable comparisons that would be made between her and the other children. While the rain might save her from some unpleasantness outside, the indoors doesn't seem much better.

Discord and Disdain

In lieu of an outdoor walk, the other children (Eliza, Georgiana, and John) gather cozily around their mother (Mrs. Reed) in the drawing room. Jane, however, is forbidden from joining them. Mrs. Reed tells Jane that she should instead be 'endeavoring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition.' Mrs. Reed's criticisms of Jane are immediately called into question as Jane simply asks what crimes she has committed to deserve them. Mrs. Reed responds with further disparaging remarks, dismissing Jane's honest query with, 'I don't like cavillers or questioners.' Mrs. Reed disdainfully dismisses Jane with, 'Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.' The quantity and extent of Mrs. Reed's criticism, together with Jane's resigned acceptance of this treatment, create in the reader the impression that this treatment is something Jane must endure on a regular basis.

A Moment of Refuge

Once she is unceremoniously banished from the drawing room, Jane slips quietly into the adjoining breakfast room, selects a book (Bewick's History of British Birds), ensconces herself in the window seat, and hides herself from view with the scarlet-colored window curtain. In a very ten-year-old fashion, she admires the book's illustrations and enjoys imagining stories about them while all but ignoring the text. Thus secluded, Jane reflects, 'With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy; happy at least in my way. I feared nothing but interruption.' This, together with her obedience to Mrs. Reed's unkind commands, further evokes sympathy for Jane from the reader. If a small moment alone with a book brings her this happiness, what little happiness she must have otherwise in life!

Awful, Flabby John

Jane is able to enjoy only a few moments of her book when John intrudes on her solitude, calling her first 'Madam Mope' and then 'bad animal.' We learn that John is fourteen and that he is supposed to be at school. We are told, however, that because he 'gorged himself habitually at table' he experiences certain habitual gastrointestinal ailments, which his doting mother takes as clear evidence that John must come home for a rest from school. Therefore, John finds himself possessed of 'dingy and unwholesome skin,' 'flabby cheeks,' and a whole lot of spare time. John seems to spend much of this leisure time abusing Jane: 'He bullied and punished me--not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when he came near.' What an awful way to live!

John's Abuse of Jane

With the help of his sister, John discovers Jane's hiding place and demands she come out. This perpetual abuse has sadly made Jane 'habitually obedient to John,' so she does as he commands. He takes her book, disparages her, and finally strikes her. The regularity of events like these is made depressingly clear as Jane muses, 'accustomed to John Reed's abuse, I never had an idea of replying to it.' After he has insulted and hit Jane, John proceeds to hurl the book of birds at her with such force that she falls and hits her head against the door, sustaining a cut that bleeds freely.

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