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In "The Uncanny" Freud seeks to explain the feeling of uncanniness.

Freud attibutes the feeling to a repressed infantile complex that has been revived.

Hoffman's "The Sandman" describes the figure of the Sandman who steals the eyes of children.

The sense of uncanniness arises from that which is both fearful and frightening.

Freud's short essay on the uncanny is an important landmark in the history of psychoanalytic criticism, not least in that it moves away from the analysis of authors and introduces a thematic reading of works of literature that provoke a sense of dread, unease or horror in the reader.

In this essay Freud explores Hollmann's stories The Sandman and The Devil's Elixir, concentrating on those themes that can be related to the fear of castration: severed limbs, the children's eye that are magically removed by the sandman to feed his own children.

He interprets them as an expression of the male conviction that there is something uncanny or threatening about the female genitals.

According to Freud, the feeling of dread arises because the uncanny (unheimlich) is also familiar or homely (heimlich).

Hoffmaann's stories evoke something that was once familiar, but which has been made unfamiliar and uncanny by repression.

The unheimlich is the entrance - the maternal genitals - to the original human home or Heimat.

Freud's argument is underpinned by the philological theory that certain primal words have antithetical meanings and by the observation that dreams often use a single image to express contraries.

Freud claims that the seeming antonyms heimlich and unheimlich are in fact synonyms adn that they prove that primitive elements still survive in the unconscious.

The encounter with the uncanny thus relates to the rediscovery of something that is very ancient in both individual and historical terms.

Freud develops this concept with references to etymology and linguistic variants, and observations or fantasies that appear in novels.

The term umheimlich

The French, English, and Spanish translations of unheimlich all fail to recapitulate the principal reference to the familiar, or family (heim, or home), which defines and limits the notion of the uncanny.

Das Unheimliche is defined as "that particular variety of terror that relates to what has been known for a long time, has been familiar for a long time."

We are presented at once with a paradox that Freud does nothing to alleviate since the familiar should not be disquieting.

This proposition is at the heart of Freud's ideas about the original pleasure-ego that coincides with the good and rejects the bad. In "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915c), we find the same opposition between ego/non-ego, just as we do in "Negation" (1925h).

Still, it is not clear why the familiar should be threatening and therefore, a second element is needed, namely, the secret, the hidden, which gives rise to the notion of hostility and danger.

For danger is associated with penetrating what is sealed off, and strangeness—based on an idea Freud borrowed from von Schilling—with the revelation of what should by rights remain hidden because it is the bearer of transgression.

To these linguistic and fantasy associations, Freud, in the second part of the essay, introduces a number of literary examples (many from Hoffmann), centered primarily on the intellectual uncertainty over whether something is living or not (from Jentsch).

There it is shown how the repetition compulsion manifests itself through the return of the repressed.

This is true even in situations where we expect the new and with it the return of the dead to life.

The figure of the double is a source of ambivalence.

the Unheimliche is connected with the anxiety associated with the return of the repressed

It represents an exemplary effort at combining literature and psychoanalysis.

Freud helps establish his thesis on the basis of the study of works of literature.

See Also


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1919h). Das Unheimliche. Imago, 5: 297-324; GW, 12: 229-268; The "uncanny," SE, 17: 217-256.
  • UNCANNY (386) CD