Jane Eyre: A Rags to Riches Fairy Tale?

Despite being published in 1847, Jane Eyre is still a favorite among readers today. When I finally got around to reading it last year, it struck me as wonderfully “homey.” I couldn’t figure out why this was until halfway through the novel when it clicked; this is a fairy tale! I mentioned this to another reader friend, and she responded with a confused “What? No, it’s not…” I insisted: yes, yes, it is! I am now here to plead my case that this novel is a fairy tale, much like Cinderella (or Ashputtle or many others). I plead my case in a threefold argument: (1) It follows the arc of “rags to riches” that many fairy tales share, (2) it has supernatural (or magical?) events, and (3) it ends with a happily ever after love story.

The rags to riches element of this story is the first and the clearest arc throughout the novel. Left orphaned, Jane lives with an evil relative. Like the wicked stepmother in Cinderella, her aunt treats Jane as a lowly burden and far inferior to her own children. Two of these cousins are unapologetically abusive—perhaps a nod to the evil step-sisters Cinderella endured? However, like Cinderella (and Snow White, Briar Rose, etc.), mostly Jane has an optimistic and unfailingly positive attitude throughout her struggle. She’s a hard worker and bears the unfairness of it all with no one else to lean on as a support and no hope of escaping her circumstance. Because of this, we see her struggle with fear and frustration, but every time, we also see her turn to her comforts of imagination and books, much like Snow White or Aurora talking to animals or like Belle who walks the town with her “nose in a book” while the whole town seems to mock her.

The light at the end of the tunnel appears when she gets news from Mr. Lloyd, the family’s apothecary, that her aunt could send her away to a boarding school. They make the arrangements. Jane travels to a school where she again must work hard. Once again, she’s unfairly treated (this time because of accusations from an authority that she is a liar, despite her persistent integrity and kind demeanor). However, she gains education and later experience as a teacher. This enables her to gain employment by a wealthy family, thus beginning her ascent to wealth and standing. Eventually, this too seems to crumble away, but (surprise!) Jane ends up inheriting her own wealth, and, besides her earned income, she ends up wealthy and happy by the end.

The element of the supernatural is a quiet but undeniable part of Jane’s story. In the second chapter of the novel, Jane is sent to “the red room,” which just screams “creepy ghost story” in my mind. This is the same room in which Jane’s Uncle Reed died. Her aunt uses it to punish Jane due to the fear it instills (in all the children). Because of the fear and isolation of this punishment, Jane’s imagination takes hold, likely to escape and comfort for her. In the red room, Jane imagines a light shining on the wall which she decides is a vision from another world. She feels the ghost of her uncle is in the room and he comes to take revenge on her aunt because of her treatment of Jane. This causes her to go into a fit of panic (ghosts are creepy, especially when they desire revenge), but it also implies a supernatural element has arrived to assist Jane.

Shortly after this incident, because of Jane’s medical need for Mr. Lloyd from her fit in the red room, Jane gains escape from the household in the form of boarding school. This help appears again when Jane is at Lowood, her boarding school, as an adult. The event is brief and unexplained, but Bronte writes that a “kind fairy” (101) visits Jane and advises her to advertise in the paper for employment. After following this supernatural advice, Jane gains escape from her poor circumstance and lands a job at a wealthy employer. Just like the fairy godmother in Cinderella, Jane receives supernatural help that allows her to change her circumstances. Throughout her stay at Thornfield, the supernatural is seemingly still at work through the unknown sounds and commotions at night. This turns out to be not-so-supernatural, but the events lead to Jane’s escape from an undesirable circumstance (marrying an already married man!). The demise of this (not-so) supernatural element leads to Jane’s eventual happiness, which may illustrate Jane’s freedom from the need to escape to an imaginary world due to her genuine happiness.

The love story is further proof of Jane Eyre’s fairy tale nature. Fairy tales end happily, and the hero/heroine falls in love as part of this happiness. This is also true in Jane Eyre, as Jane ends up happy and in love with Mr. Rochester. Immediately upon their meeting, Rochester likens Jane to an elfin and claims she has bewitched his horse. Later, when considering marriage to another man, Jane hears Rochester’s voice so clearly that she runs outside and yells, “I’m coming,” despite the impossibility of his voice being there as they are thousands of miles apart. Later, Rochester insists that he too had heard her voice around the same time. The two seem destined for each other, each other’s “one true love,” as fairy tales claim real lovers are.

Like Cinderella, Jane must be patient and overcome obstacles in timing and setting. Cinderella, subject to her midnight curfew, had to wait (and hope) for the prince to find her, and the prince had to be patient and persistent in finding Cinderella after only three meetings and a kingdom of hopeful maidens. Rochester, already married, needed his ill and violent wife to perish. Jane needed the time and space to forgive Rochester for his lie about his romantic availability. She also needed wealth, because of Rochester’s eventual injury. As happily ever afters require, the lovers could find each other through all the obstacles and achieve both stability and lasting happiness.

For these reasons and more, I believe Jane Eyre qualifies as a fairy tale. The correlation between Jane’s character (moral, kind, patient, and pure) also reminds the reader of many other fairy tale heroines, including the heroine that appears in the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. Both Belle and Jane arrive in a house of darkness and isolation, lorded over by a grumpy, demanding man with a troubled past. Each of them possess the moral goodness, purity, and strength of character to help transform him into a Prince. To show his love and break the spell, the Beast must release Belle into the world, just as Rochester must risk his life in an attempt to save his wife from death in the fire that ravages Thornfield. Her death would solve all his problems, yet he chooses to save her, and loses his own sight in the process. In so doing, he completes an inner transformation that makes him worthy of the woman who loves him. Both the Beast and Rochester attempt to keep their secrets from their female interests, but both women discover this secret and, through patience and understanding, forgive the past of their beaus and live happily ever after in mutual matured growth.

It leads me to wonder what other novels I have read that are fairy tales in disguise!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ashley Yarbrough is a writer, mother, teacher, gardener, and many other things. She writes about it all here. Feel free to take a look!

6 thoughts on “Jane Eyre: A Rags to Riches Fairy Tale?

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    1. It made me want to ask the author if it was intentionally allusive but…. can’t do that, so instead, I toss the thought out and see what others think!

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  1. I’ve long thought of this as a Beauty and the Beast retelling, though you’re so right that it has Cinderella aspects too. I also think of The Sound of Music as a Cinderella retelling — she even runs away right after a ball.

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