Saturday, March 13, 2010

Close Reading Questions for Freud's "The Uncanny" (handouts are in my box if you missed class on Thursday)

(at right: Rene Magritte's painting, The Blank Check, 1965.  Uncanny, eh?).   

Freud published this influential essay in 1919, which is a hundred years after Frankenstein; nevertheless, it has profoundly transformed how we read earlier literature and the Gothic in particular. The essay is an imaginative tour de force, as it combines psychoanalysis, literary analysis, and elements of a short story—the feminist critic Helene Cixous called it “a strange theoretical novel.” Hopefully, reading this essay will remind you that the critical can be creative, and the speculative can be theoretical. You might want to look up several Freudian terms used without context in this essay, such as ego, superego, pleasure principle, etc.

NOTE: I left out Part I of the essay which is only 3-4 pages long and concerns various definitions of the word “uncanny” in German and other cultures. Note that in German, das Unheimliche is “uncanny,” whereas das Heimliche is “homely” or “familiar,” which is a “double” relationship that does not exist in English.

Answer TWO of the following…

1. In the opening pages of the essay, Freud offers a close reading of E.T.A Hoffmann’s story, “The Sandman.” What is the purpose of this close reading—what is he trying to prove or reveal about the uncanny from this reading?

2. According to Freud, why do people typically describe an experience or event as “uncanny,” and what psychological motive lies behind it? Why might he link this to “a primitive phase in our mental development”(143)?

3. Toward the end of Part II, Freud writes, “an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes” (150). How might this statement (and the argument he makes in this passage) relate directly to our studies of the Gothic?

4. Why does the uncanny function differently in literature than in real life? What rules or principles affect a sense of the uncanny in literature, and how might fairy tales (using his example) be somehow exempt from the uncanny, whereas works like The Vampyre and Frankenstein are not?


  1. This week I had the opportunity to watch "Fourth Kind"

    I was simply amazed by the way that this movie utilized much of what we've been talking about in the Gothic Lit.

    It begins with a "disclaimer" that what you are about to see is based on the real and while certain things were changed.. yadda yadda. My first thought was towards the "Introductions" that we read in Otranto wherein the Intro reports a 'finding' or an 'original reliable source'.

    The movie then went on to be a fabulous example of the uncanny that we've been reading about in Freud's work. We are so completely drawn in to the world of Dr. Abigail Tyler and the world within a world in Nome, Alaska.. that it becomes difficult to know where the fiction is vs. where the reality is.

    Just thought I would bring that up and give people the opportunity to rent the movie. I thought the use of specialized lighting, splices of what appears to be real footage and the camera tilts were just very, very well done.
    It's worth a viewing.

  2. I haven't seen this film nor really heard about it, though I'm excited about the possible connections to The Uncanny, etc. Thanks for sharing this...perhaps you could write a more detailed review/analysis and I can post it on the site? I offer this to anyone who finds something outside of class as a way to make a fact, it should have been an assignment! Ah well, next time.

  3. Review: "The Fourth Kind" stars Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas
    This 2009 film revolves around a series of purported unsolved cases in Alaska--Nome, in particular.

    In the first minutes of the movie, Milla Jovovich (who portrays Dr. Abigail Tyler) makes an on-camera 'interview' of the reality of the case and summary detailing the events that happened. In so doing, she lays out a line of "the really real" that a viewer watches the movie as "Inspired by true events".
    With this, the movie begins with footage that is in a sepia color (indicating an 'age') and with this, it begins to move together (in a split screen from time to time) with Jovovich's portrayal of the same person.

    With the line significantly blurred between reality and fantasy--the viewer is well trapped into the Uncanny within the first ten minutes of the movie.

    It is interesting to look at some of the ways that the film itself, works to enhance the content. A tilt camera, conveys the sense of instability of the situation and the persons portrayed and the muted lighting of the Alaskan setting sets the viewer into a misted world, lending to the film a sense of otherworldliness that needs to be accomplished in order to make the connection to alien life forms and abductions.

    Early on, we also find that the older child of Dr. Tyler seems to be the most 'stable' within the family which further conveys the message that all may not be what it appears to be with Dr. Tyler. The youngest child,Ashley, has dealt with the death of her father by becoming blind--a form of hysterical reaction.

    At the movie's closure, Ashley is abducted--and never returned.

    Like any person who has fallen into the trap of the Uncanny--I went to researching the Dr. and the case as the movie reported--and found that much of it seems to boast a situation that may not have ever ocurred at all.
    Certain components "add up" such as the 911 calls that record persons reporting strange lights and objects in the sky. Certain places have certainly seen more than their fair share of unexplained disappearances and/or sightings--but the particular 'case' within this movie tends to be more elusive than capturing a UFO in my own back yard.

    Yet, it is the inability to dismiss the whole that creates the Uncanny situation the viewer finds themselves in and it leaves you with more questions than answers.

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