Families, parents and children

Inadequate families

Families in Jane Eyre are often incomplete or do not function well:

  • Most of the main characters are lacking one or both parents, with the consequence that, as children, they lack guidance, support or control: this is true of the Reeds, for instance; and, of course, of Jane herself
  • Parents who are present, as in the case of Rochester's father, cannot be relied upon to give sound advice or to act in their children's best interests
  • Substitute parents – whether they be Mrs Reed for Jane, or Brocklehurst for the girls at Lowood School – are equally likely to be unsatisfactory, either neglecting their charges or dealing with them sternly and harshly.

Reformulated families

The novel contains a number of reformulated family groupings:

  • Both Miss Temple and later Mrs Fairfax are substitute mothers to Jane, though each fall short – Miss Temple by leaving her at the age of eighteen; Mrs Fairfax by the limitations of her understanding
  • The most satisfactory substitute parent is Rochester, who undertakes responsibility for Adèle voluntarily. He does so out of a sense of duty and compassion rather than because he is legally obliged to do so
  • When she meets the Rivers, Jane is glad to acquire some family with whom she can enjoy a positive relationship, in contrast to the highly negative feelings she has for her surviving Reed cousins, Eliza and Georgiana
  • Jane's relative freedom from family ties enables her to establish a new family grouping with Rochester, their children and Adèle.

Family ties

Family connections are revealed to be at the centre of the plot structure. (See Family structure in Jane Eyre: Eyre, Reed and Rivers.) The situations in which the Reeds, Rivers and Jane find themselves have their roots in quarrels and separations that took place in the previous generation. Rochester, too, finds himself at the mercy of his father and of Bertha Mason's family history of madness.

So a group of absent individuals, related by blood or marriage (Mrs Reed being the only one who appears in the novel) determines the lives of those in the next generation:

  • Uncle John Eyre's decision to leave his money to Jane, and her subsequent choice to share it with her Rivers cousins, enables the resolution of the previous problems in the Eyre family
  • The Reeds, on the other hand, are seen as being part of their mother's rather than their father's family and are therefore excluded from this redemption: John is the victim of his mother's indulgence, while Georgiana and Eliza inherit her vanity and meanness of spirit respectively
  • Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights offers a similar pattern of events in the way in which the lives of a younger generation are shaped and confined by the actions of their parents and guardians.
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