The novel begins in Gateshead Hall, where a ten-year-old orphan named Jane Eyre is living with her mother's brother's family. The brother, surnamed Reed, dies shortly after adopting Jane. His wife, Mrs. Sarah Reed, and their three children (John, Eliza and Georgiana) neglect and abuse Jane, for they resent Mr. Reed's preference for the little orphan in their midst. In addition, they dislike Jane's plain looks and quiet yet passionate character. The novel begins with young John Reed bullying Jane, who retaliates with unwanted violence. Jane is blamed for the ensuing fight, and Mrs. Reed has two servants drag her off and lock her up in the "red-room", the unused chamber in which Mr. Reed died. Still locked in that night, Jane sees a light and panics, thinking that her uncle's ghost has come. Her scream rouses the house, but Mrs. Reed just locks her up for a longer period of time. Then Jane has a fit and passes out. A doctor, Mr. Lloyd, comes to Gateshead Hall and suggests that Jane go to school.
Mr. Brocklehurst is a cold, cruel, self-righteous, and highly hypocritical clergyman who runs a charity school called Lowood Institution. He accepts Jane as a pupil in his school, but she is infuriated when Mrs. Reed tells him, falsely, that she is a liar. After Brocklehurst departs, Jane bluntly tells Mrs. Reed how she hates the Reed family. Mrs. Reed, so shocked that she is scarcely capable of responding, leaves the drawing room in haste.
Jane finds life at Lowood grim. Miss Maria Temple, the youthful superintendent, is just and kind, but another teacher, Miss Scatcherd, is sour and abusive. Mr. Brocklehurst, visiting the school for an inspection, has Jane placed on a tall stool before the entire assemblage. He then tells them that "...this girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut—this girl is—a liar!"
Later that day, Miss Temple allows Jane to speak in her own...