Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” (Das Unheimliche) stands at the center of reflections on the uncanny art of reading and the points at which the aesthetic meets the psychological. The essay, published in 1919, reflects Freud’s disjointed experience of being in the world in the wake of World War I and the fall of the Habsburg empire. It is an experience that he accesses through the act of reading literature (E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”), revealed as an emotional engagement with vague feelings of anxiety that he characterizes as “uncanny.” Freud works both with and against Ernst Jentsch’s “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” from 1906, in which Jentsch describes feelings of the uncanny as “intellectual uncertainty” that results from “lack of orientation” (2). Skirting the boundaries between etymological analysis, literary criticism, theory, autobiography, and medical treatise, it is not surprising that Freud’s essay continues to fascinate scholars of literature and those who relish Freud’s failed attempts at cohesion for the unexpected connections they invite. By connecting the essay to theories of anxiety and trauma in Freud’s other works, this essay reads the uncanny as signifying much more than simply “the return of the repressed.”
Below are some examples of uncanny characters and events in literature:
Dracula by Bram Stoker
“With his left hand he held both Mrs. Marker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension” (300)(3)
This scene shows Mina and Dracula exchanging fluids in her bed. It also suggests Mina wants more of Dracula as he has to hold her hands back while still having this intimate interaction. Mina continues to be connected to Dracula, and continues to mix fluids with him, after he leaves as his blood “smeared her lips and cheeks and chin” and her own blood trickled “from her throat” (301). (3) Compare this suggestive scene to any time Mina is described as with her actual husband, Jonathan Harker, in their bedroom. Jonathan rests “on the sofa, so as not to disturb her” when she is sleeping and tries “not to wake her,” choosing to converse with his male friends instead (271; 280). (3) Even when they are first married, they only spend time together when both are awake (115-116). (3)
The relationship between Dracula and Mina Marker is uncanny. It imitates the relationship between husband and wife, but is described as sinister, more as if they were predator and prey. The relationship between husband and wife is familiar, and the relationship between predator and prey is familiar, but only when they are separate from each other. Combining the characteristics of these two separate pairings and applying them to a single relationship between Dracula and Mina, creates an uncanny effect.
- Are other relationships in Dracula uncanny? How so?
- Why is the idea of Lucy, or any vampire, uncanny?
Please visit the Wiki page on Dracula to learn more.
“The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot
“I could see the wondrous slow return of life; the breast began to heave, the inspirations became stronger, the eyelids quivered, and the soul seemed to have returned beneath them” (41)(4)
Latimer’s friend, Charles Meunier, has just attempted a blood transfusion on a dead woman, Mrs. Archer. The result was a temporary reincarnation of Mrs. Archer. Latimer and Meunier react with scientific interest to these strange events, which makes the reader feel uneasy. They are not reacting in an appropriate manner. Bertha, Latimer’s wife, has the most natural reaction. Instead of being interested, she stood “at the foot of the bed and gave a stifled cry” (41). (4) To see an inanimate object acting like an animate object is one of Freud’s basic examples of an uncanny event.
- Why is telepathy an uncanny ability?
- How is Bertha an uncanny character?
Please visit the Wiki page on “The Lifted Veil” to learn more.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
“one feels even in the midst of traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense…before Big Ben strikes” (4)(5)
The idea running throughout the novel is that multiple people, if not all, are connected through some form of telepathy. The main way this is possible in Mrs. Dalloway is through time. Shifts between characters often occur when otherwise unrelated characters share a thought about the time when Big Ben strikes. People are sharing these thoughts simultaneously. The presence of Big Ben also makes people constantly aware of time, creating the sense everybody is always thinking the same thing.
The idea that all people are connected through their thoughts is uncanny. This is especially true in Mrs. Dalloway because the people cannot control it. They are not even aware it is happening. The world around them could be manipulated into having them all think the same thing at the same time, or share the same thoughts throughout the day, without them knowing. This is why Clarissa Dalloway always feels “that something awful was about to happen” (3). (5) Although telepathy has not been used for this purpose yet, it could be.
- Mrs. Dalloway does not present a traditional understanding of telepathy. Does this make it more or less uncanny?
- Other than the presence of telepathy, are there other events in the novel that are uncanny?
Please visit the Wiki page on Mrs. Dalloway to learn more.
1984 by George Orwell
“A bowed, gray-colored, skeletonlike thing was coming toward him. Its actual appearance was frightening, and not merely the fact that he knew it to be himself.” (271)(6)
This is the first time Winston has seen himself in a mirror since being imprisoned in the Ministry of Love. Winston’s encounter with his reflection plays on Freud’s idea of the “double” and on the familiar being unfamiliar. The combination of these two creates an extremely uncanny effect, especially for the character Winston. As he walks toward his image, he “stopped short” and let out “an involuntary cry…because he was frightened” (271). (6) The narrator is hesitant to even call the image a reflection, using phrases like “skeletonlike thing” and “the creature” and “forlorn, jailbird’s face” instead (271). (6) Both Winston and the narrator are trying to distance themselves from the reflection because it is so uncomfortable.
- How does the Two Minutes Hate create an uncanny sense of telepathy?
- How is technology uncanny in the world of 1984? In the real world?
Please visit the Wiki page on 1984 to learn more.
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