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This post is also the basis for our October 20 discussion question in English 324.

One thing that emerges from your answers to the question for last Thursday, together with our last class discussion, is that there's an angle from which just about any character in Jane Eyre could be considered "strange" or "alien." Consider him in the light of ordinary human compassion and understanding, and even so mainstream a character as Rev. Brocklehurst looks a little weird.

Strangeness in Jane Eyre is more or less comprehensive. The odd dramatis personae of the novel are in keeping with the novel's dreary atmosphere, its occasional paranormal activity (most notably the telepathic communication between Jane and Rochester), and its many peculiar settings — from the chamber of horrors (psychological horrors, at least) that is the "red room" at Gateshead Hall, to the icy and repressive Lowood Institution, to the mysterious Thornfield.

All of this is to say that strangeness itself is one thing that is not alien to Jane Eyre. And this is a significant fact about the novel. Consider how different Northanger Abbey is in this respect. Austen picked up on the frequent use of the word "strange" in the Gothic novels she set out to parody in Northanger Abbey, and thus almost every one of the 22 instances of the word in her own novel is ironic. Consider, for example, Catherine's inner monologue as she looks around her room at the Abbey for the first time:

"This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this! An immense heavy chest! What can it hold? Why should it be placed here? Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it — cost me what it may, I will look into it — and directly too — by daylight. If I stay till evening my candle may go out." She advanced and examined it closely: it was of cedar, curiously inlaid with some darker wood, and raised, about a foot from the ground, on a carved stand of the same. The lock was silver, though tarnished from age; at each end were the imperfect remains of handles also of silver, broken perhaps prematurely by some strange violence; and, on the centre of the lid, was a mysterious cipher, in the same metal. Catherine bent over it intently, but without being able to distinguish anything with certainty. She could not, in whatever direction she took it, believe the last letter to be a T; and yet that it should be anything else in that house was a circumstance to raise no common degree of astonishment. If not originally theirs, by what strange events could it have fallen into the Tilney family? (Chapter 21)

Here Catherine is thinking in the language of the novels that have filled her head with an alternative reality, a reality alien to the one she actually lives in. The strangeness is all in her head. Neither Austen nor the reader (assuming the reader is getting the parody) takes Catherine's word "strange" at face value. That's irony.

Contrast this with Rochester's declaration to Jane that he finds her "full of strange contrasts" (Jane Eyre Chapter 27). He means exactly what he says. And it seems a fair assessment of Jane's character. No irony here. The reality of Brontë's novel just is a reality of strangeness.

Why does this matter? Brontë, far from making fun of Gothic as a fictional mode, clearly embraces it. The kind of Gothic she writes in Jane Eyre is significantly different from the kind Austen parodied — it's genetically modified Gothic; we'll have to try to get to this in class — but it's Gothic nevertheless, and thus in some sense a plain repudiation both of Austen's take on reality and (necessarily, then) her take on the novel.

Brontë's genetically modified Gothic novel shows some family resemblance to Shelley's Frankenstein. For in both novels, not only is strangeness not alien; there is also a basic and pervasive sympathy for the alien as a human type. Sure, there are loads of odd characters in Brontë's story. But we can also see that some of them — like Jane, Helen Burns, and Rochester — stand outside the mainstream insofar as they lack power or are determinedly unconventional — while others, such as Brocklehurst, the Reeds, and St. John Rivers, belong to the mainstream insofar as they possess power or are regarded by others as more or less normal.

The aliens in Jane Eyre all have some of Victor Frankenstein's monster in them. Like Frankenstein, Jane Eyre makes the case for monsters: for the social outcast, the brooding psychological loner, the human that is somehow a "heterogeneous thing" (Chapter 2).