Jane Eyre and the Invention of the Self

Those who remember Jane Eyre solely as required reading in high-school English class likely recall most vividly its over-the-top Gothic tropes: a childhood banishment to a death-haunted room, a mysterious presence in the attic, a Byronic hero, and a cold mansion going up in flames. It’s more seemingly the stuff of Lifetime television, not revolutions. But as unbelievable as many of the events of the novel are, even today, Brontë’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t in plot devices. It was the narrative voice of Jane—who so openly expressed her desire for identity, definition, meaning, and agency—that rang powerfully true to its 19th-century audience. In fact, many early readers mistakenly believed Jane Eyre was a true account (in a clever marketing scheme, the novel was subtitled, “An Autobiography”), perhaps a validation of her character’s authenticity. —The Atlantic