Jane Eyre is the story of a young, orphaned girl (shockingly, she’s named Jane Eyre) who lives with her aunt and cousins, the Reeds, at Gateshead Hall. Like all nineteenth-century orphans, her situation pretty much sucks.
Mrs. Reed hates Jane and allows her son John to torment the girl. Even the servants are constantly reminding Jane that she’s poor and worthless. At the tender age of ten, Jane rises up against this treatment and tells them all exactly what she thinks of them. (We wish we could’ve been there to hear it!) She’s punished by being locked in "the red room," the bedroom where her uncle died, and she has a hysterical fit when she thinks his ghost is appearing. After this, nobody knows what to do with her, so they send her away to a religious boarding school for orphans—Lowood Institute.
At Lowood, which is run by the hypocritical ogre Mr. Brocklehurst, the students never have enough to eat or warm clothes. However, Jane finds a pious friend, Helen Burns, and a sympathetic teacher, Miss Temple. Under their influence, she becomes an excellent student, learning all the little bits and pieces of culture that made up a lady’s education in Victorian England: French, piano-playing, singing, and drawing.
Unfortunately, an epidemic of typhus breaks out at the school, and Helen dies—but of consumption, not typhus. (We always knew she’d be a martyr.) Jane remains at Lowood as a student until she’s sixteen, and then as a teacher until she’s eighteen. When Miss Temple leaves the school to get married, Jane gets a case of wanderlust and arranges to leave the school and become a governess.
The governess job that Jane accepts is to tutor a little French girl, Adèle Varens, at a country house called Thornfield. Jane goes there thinking that she’ll be working for a woman named Mrs. Fairfax, but Mrs. Fairfax is just the housekeeper; the owner of the house is the mysterious Mr. Rochester, and he's Adèle's guardian, although we’re not sure whether she’s his daughter. Jane likes Thornfield, although not the third floor, where a strange servant named Grace Poole works alone and Jane can hear eerie laughter coming from a locked room.