The Ghosts, The Mad, and The Undead: A Search for Elements of Gothic Literature in Jane Eyre and “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Charlotte Brontë and Edgar Allen Poe use elements of the gothic in Jane Eyre, and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” respectively, to provoke individual feelings of suspense and fear. As is common to the gothic tradition, both writers use choppy, action sentences to keep the reader just as on edge as the characters are. These instances often surround what the characters believe to be supernatural occurrences. Similarly, these works use gloomy settings, unreliable narrators, the color red, and madness to rouse an unsettling feeling in their reader that is common to gothic literature. Furthermore, these works of literature make similar statements on the role of women in the gothic. Poe sticks to a classic interpretation of the powerless female character who is oppressed, not only my men but by emotion. While Brontë’s main character, Jane Eyre, is a progressive portrayal of feminism for the time, the character who is oppressed the greatest is Bertha Mason. She is a statement for western colonialism and suffers from madness due to the imperialistic tendencies of Mr. Rochester. These works tell stories that are meant to incite troubling emotions in both the characters and the reader. They set up disturbing events by building suspense through the narrator’s inability to know what exactly is going on at all times and through characters who are mentally unstable.
Brontë highlights the results of western colonialism through Mr. Rochester, who represents the west, Bertha Mason who stands for the oppressed, gothic “other,” and Jane who is affected by colonialism’s violent and maddening tendencies. Bertha Mason represents the centuries-long traditions of barbarism and imperialism. Everyone sees her as a savage because this is what society made her into. While her madness was a pre-existing condition when she and Rochester first met, she is a scapegoat for all of his forthcomings and the reason why he can’t initially be happy with Jane. At the same time, she is the reason he has any fortune at all. When Mr. Rochester was not given his father’s inheritance because he was not the eldest son, he is forced to marry into wealth. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many people got involved with the slave-trade because it was a profitable institution. They likely had no other options and due to the lack of morals toward people considered “savages,” they had no problem getting rich at the expense of the less fortunate. Therefore, in the eyes of the Victorian English, including Brontë, there is a fundamental otherness about someone who is depicted as savage that English-folk wanted to avoid completely. They feel their mind, body, and soul are at risk to the unpredictable nature of those they see as mad. Brontë uses gothic elements to give this risk form. In a passage on page 283, Brontë uses short, choppy statements to relay Jane’s direct actions, “I again cried: and still it was silent. I had risen up in bed, I bent forward: first, surprise, then bewilderment, came over me,” (Brontë 283). This creates suspense for the reader who is still unsure what Jane is actually experiencing. This suspense is an elemental aspect of gothic literature because it heightens an individual’s feelings, especially horror, and employs insights to expect something frightful. Even more so when nobody knows exactly what’s going on in the first place. When Jane has her first interaction with Bertha Mason, her “blood crept cold,” (Brontë 283). Brontë repeatedly uses the color red to suggest impending dreadful events. This passage is the first instance of Jane’s doubts in Mr. Rochester after they declare their love for each other. His imperialist tendencies towards Bertha Mason reflect that of western colonialism in the Caribbean. This dissatisfies Jane and leads to her withdrawal from his life for the time being.
Like Bertha Mason, Madeline Usher is a drastically hidden figure in “The Fall of the House of Usher” who when seen, invokes feelings of dread upon her viewer. She does not have a line of dialogue in the story which makes her character all the more mysterious. In addition to the striking similarities that these two show, both women’s actual bodies appear only a few times in the their respective stories. The narrator sees Madeline Usher’s body three times: when she eerily walks by him in the hall, upon putting her in her coffin, and when she escapes the coffin. Bertha Mason is physically seen by Jane two times: when she breaks into Jane’s room and after the interrupted wedding. The story of her death that the inn keeper tells Jane would be a third time, though Jane does not actually see Bertha’s body. Their absence from much of the stories strengthens the mysticism surrounding the characters and gives a stronger shock and awe effect when the characters physical forms emerge and impact other characters. Their madness and confusion rubs off on other characters who do not know how to approach the nature of these two oppressed women.
As the climax of “The Fall of the House of Usher” takes form, Poe’s writing becomes quick and perilous. When the characters begin to realize they have buried Madeline Usher alive, Poe uses dialogue spoken by Roderick Usher to show their panic, “Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many hours, many minutes, many days have I heard it,” (Poe 334). At this moment, the reader does not know what this sound is. Like Brontë, Poe is using these choppy sentences to intentionally make the scene confusing. Moreover, Roderick Usher is known to have a serious mental illness which makes his narration of the event all the more unreliable. Soon after the narrator and Usher realize they have put Madeline Usher in her coffin alive, Poe parallels the blood-red moon which creates the setting for the scene with the blood on Madeline’s robes. He uses the color red to symbolize an intense moment following the drawn out suspense. Events start to happen really fast and in one page after Madeline emerges from her coffin, the story is over.
Jane’s experience in the red-room at Gateshead is another prime example of gothic elements inciting emotion in the characters and reader. Early in the novel, she is locked away for disapproving Mrs. Reed and has a supernatural experience in which she believes to interact with the ghost of her dead uncle. First, Brontë uses the red imagery to describe something sinister going on. During this supernatural interaction, Jane is “oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down—I uttered a wild, involuntary cry—I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort,” (Brontë 17). Brontë again uses these short, choppy action statements to invoke suspense and fear. Jane insists that “something seemed near me,” (Brontë 17) but doesn’t know what it is. None of these passages mentioned so far tell the reader exactly what is going on. When Jane first sees Bertha, the reader does not yet know who Bertha is. When she feels her uncles spirit, there is no clear imagery about what she is feeling and seeing. While it could be the spirit, it could also be the manifestation of Jane’s anxiety about living with her aunt and cousins. By not including any concrete facts about her observations, Brontë leaves these supernatural encounters open to interpretation.
This passage sensually compares to an instance in “The Fall of the House of Usher” in which Roderick Usher believes he is seeing spirits outside in the storm, “’And you have not seen it?’ he said abruptly, after having stared about him for some moments in silence—‘you have not seen it?’” (331). Comparatively, this passage shares the same suspense as Brontë’s statements about Mr. Reed’s spirit. The reader is not sure what Usher is referring to but they know it is not good. Due to Usher’s mental illness and sister’s apparent death, the reader may conclude that he is seeing his supposedly dead sister’s spirit. Unlike Brontë’s work however, this mysticism is being described by a character that is not the narrator. The reader may have a more concrete conclusion about what Jane Eyre is seeing because the reader knows her thoughts and mental state. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” however, the conclusion is uncertain because the reader cannot confidently conclude whether Usher’s visions are true or not until later on when the narrator confirms he was seeing that which was not there. This creates suspense that is even more hallowing than the example in Jane Eyre.
Both Charlotte Brontë and Edgar Allen Poe entice their reader to be unsettled by their writing. They keep the reader on the edge of their seat by invoking gothic elements such as heightened suspense and symbolism that implies something dreadful will happen. In Jane Eyre, Brontë uses Bertha Mason’s character to state the wrongdoings of western colonialism upon those that they deemed as savages. Bertha Mason is a mad and mysterious character who provides for much of the action in the novel and makes Jane think critically of the people she surrounds herself with. As is characteristic to the gothic tradition, Poe similarly uses a female character to portray oppression. Though Poe does not make any political statements such as Brontë’s depictions of the results of colonialism, Usher similarly serves to stipulate uncertainty upon the surrounding characters. Madeline Usher and Bertha Mason hardily appear in their respective works, still, they both beseech madness on the world around them and make other characters act in ways that are uncharacteristic to their persona. Mason and Usher are consistently depicted with the color red: Mason with her red eyes and Usher with the blood on her robes and hands. When the color red appears, events start to transpire quickly and urgently. People act out of emotion instead of logic. Both of these works are examples of the gothic and efficaciously provide the reader with an emotional and sometimes dreadful experience.
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Charlotte Brontë and Edgar Allen Poe use elements of the gothic in Jane Eyre, and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” respectively, to provoke individual feelings of suspense and […]