Jane Eyre: The critical tradition

Established approaches to the novel

Jane Eyre, as well as being popular with readers, has always attracted a good deal of attention from academic critics, and until about thirty years ago the following ways of ‘reading' the novel were the most common:

  • As a realistic representation of individual experience, concentrating on Brontë's creation of a convincing central character offering a true representation of her social and emotional experience
  • As a moral fable, emphasizing the pilgrimage that Jane undertakes in the course of the novel, the temptations and setbacks that she encounters, and her eventual attainment of marriage and happiness
  • As a romantic love story perhaps containing an element of wish-fulfilment on the part of its author
  • As a critique of certain social evils, particularly those concerning the treatment and education of children
  • As a comment on some forms of Christianity, again focused on education.

Initial reception of Jane Eyre

When it was first published, Jane Eyre met with a mixed reception.

Positive reviews

Most of the reviews welcomed the novel as representing a bold new voice in fiction:

Freshness and originality, truth and passion, singular felicity in the description of natural scenery and the analysis of human thought, enable this tale to stand out from the mass. The Times
From out of the depths of a sorrowing experience here is a voice speaking to the experience of thousands. Edinburgh Review
Reality – deep significant reality – is the characteristic of this book. Fraser's Magazine

The novel was valued for its realism, its strength of feeling and the sense that, although it told the story of only one person, it spoke to the experience, hopes and disappointments of many.

Negative reviews

Other commentators, especially those in the religious and conservative press, were less satisfied with what they read as the message of the novel and felt that it set a dangerous precedent:

It burns with moral Jacobinism. The Christian Remembrancer

By using the word ‘Jacobinism', the reviewer is evoking the French Revolution of 1789, when the Jacobins were the most extreme of the radicals.

Contemporary unrest

The suggestion that a story of one young woman's life might herald some sort of political upheaval might seem exaggerated to twenty-first century readers, but we have to remember that the novel appeared at a Chartist Postertime of considerable political unrest, both at home and in Europe:

  • The 1840s in England had been marked by the growth of Chartism, a working-class movement with a radical agenda for political change, which included the extension of the franchise and payment for Members of Parliament so that Parliament might become more representative of the population as a whole
  • In the years 1846-48, there were revolutions or other action by subversive groups in various European countries, including France, Italy, Austria, Prussia and Poland. It was feared that, in the wake of the Chartist unrest, Britain might be the next country to experience a popular uprising. It is in this context that the following extract should be read:
The popularity of Jane Eyre is a proof of how deeply the love for illegitimate romance is implanted in our nature […] Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit. […] It is true Jane does right and exerts great moral strength, but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself. No Christian grace is perceptible upon her. She has inherited in full measure the worst sin of our fallen nature – the sin of pride. Jane Eyre is proud and therefore she is ungrateful too. […] It is by her own talents, virtues and courage that she is made to attain the summit of human happiness, and, as far as Jane Eyre's own statement is concerned, no one would think that she owed anything either to God above or man below. […] Altogether the autobiography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment – there is a proud and perceptible assertion of the rights of men, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence – there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilised society in fact at the present day has to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre. Lady Eastlake, Quarterly Review
  • List the main reasons for Lady Eastlake's objections to Jane Eyre.
  • What does this passage say about Lady Eastlake's social standing and political opinions?
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.