Although Jane Eyre contains a number of sharp criticisms of the treatment of women and the social roles assigned to them, it also demonstrates that women can live their lives on equal terms with - or independent of – men. Jane herself is the idealized version of Charlotte Bronte’s vision of a contemporary woman. Throughout the novel, Jane encounters a number of women who offer her either positive or negative role models.
Jane Eyre is a poor but aspiring, small in body but huge in soul, obscure but self-respecting girl. Jane is not conventionally beautiful, yet she wants to be loved and find love. Jane begins the novel as an angry, rebellious, 10-year-old orphan and gradually develops into a sensitive, artistic, maternal, and fiercely independent young woman. In each stage of the novel, Jane is met with fierce opposition from those around her, often because of her low social class and lack of economic independence. Yet, Jane maintains her independent spirit, growing stronger in her beliefs and ideals with each conflict; Jane's inferior position as a governess serves simply to heighten her thirst for independence, both financial and emotional. She rejects marriages to both Mr. Rochester and St. John because she understands she will have to forfeit her independence in the unions. Only after she has attained the financial independence and self-esteem to maintain a marriage of equality does Jane allow herself to marry Mr. Rochester and enjoy a life of love.
The novel contains a number of female roles with which Jane compares herself at various points. There are the negative women characters who act as foils to Jane’s character. Again there are those female characters that possess moral attractiveness and independence of mind.
At one extreme is Céline Varens, who is entirely at the disposal of men, with a succession of lovers who support and indulge her, but whom she treats badly in return. A French opera dancer, Céline pretended to love Rochester but actually only used him for his money. Céline abandons her own child to run off to Italy with a musician. But for Jane's intervention, Adèle might have turned into the same kind of woman. Although Blanche Ingram lives in an entirely respectable society, her destiny, too, lies in finding a suitably rich man to marry and support her. The way in which she adorns her body emphasises her role as a commodity in a social marriage market. Georgiana Reed is another woman driven by vanity, who allows her life to be determined by the values of a shallow social world.
Helen Burns, Jane's friend at Lowood School, stands on complex grounds. On the positive side lie her sweetness of character and her intellectual qualities; but Jane, much as she loves her, finds it difficult to accept her religious resignation and her ready acceptance of illness, suffering and death. Rosamund Oliver is a more complex example in that she is beautiful but also good-hearted. She does not suffer from the faults of vanity and is able independently to use her wealth and position for good purposes. Miss Temple is again a positive example and obviously helps to mould Jane into the woman she is when she leaves Lowood for Thornfield. Her intellectual qualities, her courage in standing up to Brocklehurst and the compassion and concern that she displays for the girls in her care are very prominent. Diana and Mary Rivers are the women in the novel most like Jane and she welcomes them both as examples and as companions.
The most well-known and problematic character in Jane Eyre is Rochester's first wife, who is almost always referred to by her maiden name of Bertha Mason. Critics point out that within the time span of the novel she is unable to give an account of herself; whose personal voice is never heard, except through her mad actions.
In general social terms, the novel does not ultimately challenge the status quo – the present state of things, although it points out religious hypocrisy and the abuse of wealth and privilege in relations to women.