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Jane Eyre is an orphaned girl living with her aunt Mrs. Reed at Gateshead Hall. Mrs. Reed and her children treat Jane cruelly, and look down on her as a dependent. Punishing her for a fight with her cousin that she didn't start, Mrs. Reed locks her in a red room where Jane's uncle, Mr. Reed, had died years before. His ghostly presence terrifies Jane. Soon after, Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Lowood Institution, a charity school run by the hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst. Lowood has terrible conditions and a harsh work ethic, though the compassionate supervisor, Maria Temple, intervenes sometimes to give the girls a break. At Lowood, Jane makes friends with another student, Helen Burns, who helps Jane learn to endure personal injustice and believe in a benevolent God. Helen, however, is sick with consumption and dies. When a typhus epidemic decimates the school's student population, new management takes over and improves Lowood's conditions. Jane flourishes under her newly considerate teachers, and after six years, becomes a teacher herself.
Ms. Temple marries and leaves Lowood, and the eighteen-year-old Jane advertises for a job as a private tutor. She is hired to become the governess of the young Adèle Varens. Adèle is the ward of Mr. Rochester—the older, swarthy, and commanding master of Thornfield Hall. While in residence at Thornfield, Jane frequently hears strange laughter, and one night rescues Mr. Rochester from a fire in his bedroom. On another occasion, Jane helps Mr. Rochester secretly bandage and send away a man named Mr. Mason who was slashed and bitten on the third floor of the Mansion. Rochester blames a quirky servant, Grace Poole, but Jane is skeptical.
Mr. Rochester brings a party of English aristocrats to Thornfield, including the beautiful but calculating Blanche Ingram. She aims to marry him, but Mr. Rochester turns Blanche away, as he is increasingly drawn to the plain, but clever and direct Jane. Mr. Rochester soon asks Jane to marry him. Jane, who has gradually fallen in love with Rochester, accepts. Rochester hastily prepares the wedding. But during the small ceremony, a London lawyer intervenes and declares that Mr. Rochester already has a wife—Bertha Mason from the West Indies. Her brother, Mr. Mason, appears to confirm this. Mr. Rochester reluctantly admits to it, and takes everyone to the third floor, where Bertha is revealed as a raving lunatic, looked after by Grace Poole. Rochester was tricked into the marriage and he appeals to Jane to come away with him anyway, but Jane refuses to be his mistress. After a dream that warns her to flee temptation, Jane sneaks away from Thornfield at dawn.
Penniless in a region of England she does not know, Jane experiences three bitter days of begging, sleeping outside, and nearly starving. Eventually she comes upon and is taken in at Moor House—the home of Mary, Diana, and St. John Rivers, a stern local clergyman. St. John gives Jane a position teaching in a rural school. Jane discovers that an uncle she's never met has died and left her 20,000 pounds. That uncle turns out to be related to the Rivers siblings, so Jane suddenly has cousins. In her joy at finding family, she divides her fortune equally between them.
St. John has plans to go to India as a missionary, and he proposes marriage to Jane so she'll accompany and work for him. Jane feels familial affection but no love for St. John. She says she would go as St. John's sister, but he will accept no conditions. St. John's forceful personality almost convinces Jane to sacrifice herself and marry him. But in her confused emotional state, Jane experiences a telepathic flash: she hears Rochester's voice calling to her. She immediately leaves to seek out Rochester.
Jane finds Thornfield Hall destroyed from a fire that Bertha had set in Jane's old bedroom. During the blaze, Bertha had jumped from the roof and died. Rochester saved his servants, but suffered injuries that left him blind and missing a hand. Jane meets the humbled Rochester at Ferndean, his woodland retreat, and promises always to take care of him. They marry, bring back Adèle from boarding school, and have a son. Rochester eventually regains sight in one eye.