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The novel Jane Eyre charts the release and development of a free woman's spirit. The plot of this novel shows the protagonist in three phases that correspond to the three acts in a drama. The protagonist, Jane Eyre, begins as an orphan, despised and unwillingly brought up by her Aunt Mrs. Reed. Slowly she acquires self-reliance. Her sense of confidence increases further as she becomes older. Finally she blooms into "a free human being with an independent will."
Jane's Gateshead Hall days are days of extreme emotional deprivation. She is excluded from the family circle and bullied by her aunt and cousins, who are her antagonists. Finally, she is sent to Lowood School, almost as a punishment. There she receives her education but is subject to extreme physical deprivation under the supervision of Mr. Brocklehurst, another antagonist. This part of the novel serves as a kind of exposition.
The reader witnesses the rise in action in the second "act" of the plot. During her next phase in life, Jane becomes a governess to Adèle, the ward of Mr. Rochester. She has to face some competition for Rochester's love from Blanche Ingram, a beautiful and accomplished lady of a superior social rank. Eventually, she considers herself to have emerged victorious over her antagonist, Blanche, and seriously contemplates marrying Mr. Rochester. However, a real barrier to her love exists in the form of an invisible antagonist, who is none other than the lunatic, Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester's lawful wife. Unaware of Bertha's existence on the third story of Thornfield Hall, Jane falls desperately in love with the dishonest Rochester. At this point even Mr. Rochester is her antagonist, for he can offer her only a bigamous marriage. When their wedding does not take place, Mr. Rochester appeals to Jane to become his mistress. This leads to the third phase of the novel.
Jane flees from Mr. Rochester and finds refuge with the Rivers, who are actually her cousins. She inherits a fortune of twenty-thousand pounds from her uncle in Madeira. Her cousin, St. John Rivers, finds in Jane a capacity for hard work and a missionary zeal. As he is planning a religious mission to India, he wants her to accompany him as his wife. He offers her a marriage without love. At this point, Mr. Rochester's mysterious cry, borne by the wind, spurs Jane to run from a loveless union with her willful cousin. In his attempt to make her comply with him and turn from her natural inclinations, St. John is the last of her antagonists.
Anxiety about Mr. Rochester makes her undertake her journey to Thornfield. She learns about the Thornfield fire and Bertha's death from an innkeeper. The climax of the novel occurs here. With Bertha's removal from the scene of action, the plot moves towards a resolution. It is certain by now that nothing will come in the way of Mr. Rochester and Jane. With the marriage of Jane and the disfigured Rochester in the Ferndean section of the novel, the plot reaches a denouement.