In his essay The Uncanny, Freud sets out to explore and define exactly what is is that what we identify as instances of the uncanny have in common.
He begins by exploring the origin of the word. The German for uncanny is unheimlich, which is the opposite of heimlich, which means homely, or familiar. Therefore, he argues, it is tempting to conclude “that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” However, although some new things might be frightening, not all are. So he determines that “something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.”
Charlotte Bronte, in her 1847 novel Jane Eyre, creates a scenario when that “something” is decidedly absent, and a situation that is described in such a way as to manipulate readers’ expectations of a spine-chilling moment is suddenly turned on its head.
Jane has arrived at Thornfield Hall, the large country residence of Mr Rochester, and on the second day is being shown around the house by Mrs Fairfax, the housekeeper.
She admires the large and elegantly decorated dining and drawing rooms, and a “boudoir … spread with white carpets” patterned with “brilliant garlands of flowers”. Everything is “well arranged and handsome”. She praises the “large front chambers” as being “especially grand”. Mrs Fairfax explains that Mr Rochester’s visits to the house are rare, but “sudden and unexpected”, so she keeps the rooms aired and in readiness for his arrival.
In contrast, the third-floor rooms are “dark and low” with an “air of antiquity”. They are filledwith furniture from the previous hundred years, and with embroideries “wrought by fingers that for two generations had been coffin-dust”. Jane likes the “hush, the gloom, the quaintness of these retreats in the day” but she by no means covets “a night’s response on one of those wide and heavy beds: shut in, some of them, with doors of oak; shaded others, with wrought English old hangings crusted with thick work, portraying effigies of strange flowers, and stranger birds, and strangest human beings – all of which would have looked strange, indeed, by the pallid gleam of moonlight”. Further, the long passageway of the third floor is described as “narrow, low and dim, with only only little window at the far end, and looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle”. No-one sleeps in the rooms. “One would almost say”, says Mrs Fairfax, “that if there were a ghost at Thornfield Hall, this would be its haunt.”
Thus does Charlotte Bronte introduce a flavour of the Gothic into Jane’s experience of the house, and having set up this uneasy atmosphere, she builds the tension. Jane hears a curious laugh coming from one of the rooms – “as tragic, as preternatural a laugh as I have ever heard”.
But is Jane afraid? No. The mood is dispersed as she says “but that it was high noon, and that no circumstance of ghostliness accompanied the curious cachinnation; but that neither scene nor season favoured fear, I should have been superstitiously afraid”. Freud’s “something” which has to be added to the unfamiliar to create the uncanny, is introduced – “the circumstance of ghostliness” – but is dismissed in no uncertain terms.
So good for Jane – she’ll have problems enough later on in the novel, but she isn’t going to be scared by darkness, a few sticks of old furniture and a strange laugh!