The novel begins with a ten-year-old orphan named Jane Eyre who is living with her maternal uncle's family, the Reeds, as her uncle's dying wish. Jane's parents died of typhus. Jane’s aunt Sarah Reed does not like her and treats her like a servant. She and her three children are abusive to Jane, physically and emotionally. One day Jane is locked in the red room, where her uncle died, and panics after seeing visions of him. She is finally rescued when she is allowed to attend Lowood School for Girls.
Jane arrives at Lowood Institution, a charity school, the head of which (Brocklehurst) has been told that she is deceitful. During an inspection, Jane accidentally breaks her slate, and Mr. Brocklehurst, the self-righteous clergyman who runs the school, brands her a liar and shames her before the entire assembly. Jane is comforted by her friend, Helen Burns. Miss Temple, a caring teacher, facilitates Jane's self-defense and writes to Mr. Lloyd, whose reply agrees with Jane's. Ultimately, Jane is publicly cleared of Mr. Brocklehurst's accusations.
The eighty pupils at Lowood are subjected to cold rooms, poor meals, and thin clothing. Many students fall ill when a typhus epidemic strikes. Jane's friend Helen dies of consumption in her arms. When Mr. Brocklehurst's neglect and dishonesty are discovered, several benefactors erect a new building and conditions at the school improve dramatically.
After six years as a student and two years as a teacher, Jane decides to leave Lowood, like her friend and confidante Miss Temple. She advertises her services as a governess, and receives one reply. It is from Alice Fairfax, the housekeeper at Thornfield Hall. She takes the position, teaching Adele Varens, a young French girl. While Jane is walking one night to a nearby town, a horseman passes her. The horse slips on ice and throws the rider. She helps him to the horse. Later, back at the mansion she learns that this man is Edward Rochester, master of the house. He teases her, asking whether she bewitched his horse to make him fall. Adele is his ward, left in Mr. Rochester's care when her mother died. Mr. Rochester and Jane enjoy each other's company and spend many hours together.
Odd things start to happen at the house, such as a strange laugh, a mysterious fire in Mr. Rochester's room, on which Jane throws water, and an attack on Rochester's house guest, Mr. Mason. Jane receives word that her aunt was calling for her, after being in much grief because her son has died. She returns to Gateshead and remains there for a month caring for her dying aunt. Mrs. Reed gives Jane a letter from Jane's paternal uncle, Mr John Eyre, asking for her to live with him. Mrs. Reed admits to telling her uncle that Jane had died of fever at Lowood. Soon after, Jane's aunt dies, and she returns to Thornfield. Jane begins to communicate to her uncle John Eyre......