Structure defined by volume

The economics of the three volume novel

The most fundamental structure of Jane Eyre is the form in which it was first published: as a three-volume novel. Nineteenth-century publishers favoured this means of publication for a number of reasons:

  • It increased their income. Three volumes at 10s 6d per volume would earn them more than publishing a single volume at perhaps 15 shillings. Given the level of income in the nineteenth century, the single volume price put the purchase of books beyond most people's financial reach, whereas 10s 6d was perceived as more affordable
  • It enabled them to make good deals with circulating and subscription libraries:
    • Library members paid an annual fee
    • Libraries bought books from publishers in bulk at a discount
    • They then charged their members a fee for each volume borrowed – perhaps 6d or 1s per week.

Dramatic volume conclusions

The three volumes of Jane Eyre are of roughly equal length and are divided into chapters as follows:

  • Volume 1: 15 chapters
  • Volume 2: 11 chapters
  • Volume 3: 12 chapters

In terms of the plot or action, this means that each volume ends as follows:

  • Volume 1: the attempt to set Rochester's bed on fire
  • Volume 2: the events of Jane's intended wedding day
  • Volume 3: the conclusion.

Each of the first two volumes therefore ends with a dramatic event related to Rochester's marriage:

The fire at the end of Volume 1 could be seen as a warning or at least a foreshadowing of the dangerous situation in which Jane, unsuspectingly, is now placed
The interruption of Jane's wedding to Rochester reveals the true identity of the woman in the attic, responsible for the fire
The resolution of the novel is brought about by another fire.

Volume structure: comparison with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations

It is worth considering the extent to which Charlotte Brontë actually planned the structure of the novel in three volumes. In comparison with Great Expectations (1860-1) by Charles Dickens (1812-70), for example, the volume structure is far less self-conscious and emphatic:

  • Each of the volumes of Dickens's novel ends with a statement that this is the end of the first, second and third stages of the narrator Pip's expectations
  • This imposes a pattern on the novel and ends both the first and second volumes at a key point in the effect of Pip's expectations on his life
  • It therefore gives a shape to Pip's life, in terms of a narrative, one of which he is very conscious and to which he refers several times.

Volume structure and the demands of publishing

  • The volume breaks of Jane Eyre are just as likely to have been determined by considerations of length and the publisher's need to produce three volumes of roughly equal in size
  • The length of each volume would also have been determined by the physical demands of printing and the number of large sheets of paper out of which book-sized pages were produced.

The significance of chapter length

It is also worth noting that the first volume of Jane Eyre contains about a quarter more chapters (fifteen) than either of the remaining volumes (twelve and eleven chapters respectively):

  • The greater number of chapters in Volume 1 is demanded by the events of Jane's life
  • In Volumes 2 and 3 there are longer chapters devoted to extended conversations, arguments and discussions between Jane and Rochester, and then Jane and St John Rivers.
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