Jane Eyre is the story of a young orphan who maintains her principles and honor in the midst of sustained hardship and even abuse.
Jane is a child. She lives with her aunt and her cousins, a scapegoat for their capricious natures. She is passionate and brutally honest. Their dying father and husband asked them to love her, his little orphaned niece, as he has loved her, but they refuse. She is too strange and challenges their view of themselves. She is taunted, assaulted, imprisoned, and terrorized; falsely accused, and eventually sent away to a charity school.
The school is a scene of more struggle and hardship, but also hope and love. The headmistress, Miss Temple, encourages her. She succeeds in studies and deportment. She makes a friend. Helen is ill. Helen is distractible. Helen is mistreated by one of the harsher teachers at the school, Miss Scatcherd. Jane is offended, impassioned, angry. She wants to tell off Miss Scatcherd, to throw things at her. Helen says that is not the way. Helen knows who she is outside of what happens to her. Helen's identity is Beloved. Miss Temple loves her, and so does Jane. This is what Helen embraces as her identity.
One evening, Jane tells her friend about the abuse she endured at the hands of her family. Her telling is full of hatred and bitterness. Helen understands abuse. Helen understands hardship. But she also understands these are not a person's identity. These are things that happen. She gently chides Jane for the tone of her telling. Jane's identity is not to be, abused child, but something more.
This puzzles Jane. Because she is thoughtful and admires Helen so much, she lets it sink into her soul.
Jane's beloved Helen dies. The school is discovered to be a place of privation rather than of learning. The school board has believed a false thing about redemption, that it can be produced through manufactured struggle and punishment. Kinder leaders prevail. The school becomes what it should be, a place of opportunity.
Jane grows to adulthood and eventually takes a position as governess in Mr. Rochester's home.
Mr. Rochester is bitter, full of angry passion. Years earlier, betrayed by his family, he took on the identity of wounded soul. He seeks shelter in sensual pleasure, sniping remarks, and the demeaning of others. He will do as he has been done by. This is his world. But at heart, he is noble. He is not a scoundrel, and playing one is killing his soul.
Enter Jane. Educated in magnanimity by two beautiful women at Lowood, skilled in accomplishments which illuminate her creative, independent, yet principled nature, she is a new creature. Mr. Rochester has never known anyone like her. He is fascinated.
He asks for her story and she tells it. Her telling is balanced and unvarnished, with a nod to different perspectives. It is a thing that happened. She no longer identifies as an abused child. She is a woman, quick, talented, playful; fiercely independent, noble, strong.
What happened in her childhood was terrible abuse. She was not to blame for it. It should never have happened, but it did. As she matures, informed by her loved ones, her story alters. She has now learned to understand others even when they do things she justly condemns. She has ceased to identify herself with her childhood experience. Her story has become more about what happened and less about how offended she is by it.
Mr. Rochester is puzzled, but because he is a thoughtful person and admires Jane so much, he lets her nature sink into his soul.
Jane's healing and growth teaches Mr. Rochester to stop identifying himself as betrayed son and pursue his true identity. He is so far gone in his egotism that he has to lose Jane, lose his home, lose his strength, in order to realize his true identity. He loses his sight, but gains true vision. Stripped bare, he is finally able to embrace his life. He is redeemed to be who he truly is, a loving soul with the promise of magnanimity.
“Reader, I married him.” Jane is a story of growth, of the strange paradox of becoming more real by discarding pride and ego. Jane, Mr. Rochester, Helen... they realize their true identities as they cease to identify with their stories of pain.