In his 1919 essay of the same title, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud defines das unheimliche (‘the uncanny’) as, ‘that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.’ His original essay relies on the etymology of the German word unheimlich, which as well as ‘uncanny’ roughly translates as ‘unhomely’; a word that describes a frightening encounter with the strange, yet contains within itself the word “home” and thereby a sense of the intimately known. For Freud, then, what we find most terrifying is that which is both familiar and unfamiliar.
Freud splits the kinds of familiar phenomena necessary to a feeling of the uncanny into ancient beliefs that have been surmounted, such as the belief in the supernatural, and repressed modes of thought that remain unsurmounted but buried in the unconscious. Part of the terror of the uncanny is in the return of these repressed or surmounted phenomena.
Freud’s theory can be interestingly explored in relation to the role of culturally repressed misogyny and sexism in Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’. One of the central themes in Carter’s story is the role of women in society, and Carter’s representation of that role draws on the uncanny in its chilling portrayal of arguably outdated modes of thought. Seen through the lens of Freud’s uncanny, sexism itself becomes a tool of terror.
In discussing the experience of the uncanny, Freud states that, ‘what is involved is an actual repression of some content of thought and a return of the repressed content.’ The notion of the return of the culturally repressed is established early on in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ in the contrast between the mother and the daughter; the mother, a woman who ‘had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man- eating tiger with her own hand’ and married for love, and the daughter who had simply ‘ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.’ The freedom and independence experienced by the mother is absent from the life of the daughter, who instead changes from one prescribed role to another. In this contrast, we see the first, relatively benign suggestion of a return to older gender roles.
The idea of the woman as the property of her husband is a familiar one. It is widely accepted as part of the history of Western culture, and as something we have moved away from over recent decades. It can however be argued that this way of thinking about women has been repressed rather than overcome, and that is very much what Carter’s story suggests. The Marquis’ self-proclaimed status as a ‘connoisseur’ of women, foregrounds his outdated objectification of the female, which is rendered even more sinister through his ardour for collecting; his ‘gallery of beautiful women.’ This supposedly extinct attitude towards women is the driving force behind the narrative, and also the means through which Carter’s story produces the effects of the uncanny on its readers: the Marquis is a danger because he represents these culturally repressed views.
In discussing beliefs that have been surmounted rather than repressed, Freud observes that a person with ‘evil intentions’ can be perceived as uncanny if we feel that ‘his intentions to harm us are going to be carried out with the help of special powers.’ In ‘The Bloody Chamber’ there are some indications that this form of the uncanny may also apply to the character of the Marquis, though the evidence for this is uneven. The Marquis’ evil intentions are made clear with the discovery of the chamber (a medieval-style torture room), but the harm arising here is not from any ‘special powers,’ but from a history of human cruelty, and barbarity. The discovery of the chamber is a terrifying moment in the story, but does not render the experience of these unfolding events or the character of the Marquis uncanny in relation to any associations with the ‘supernatural’, or that which, according to Freud, we have ‘surmounted.’
The Marquis is described as having ‘red lips’ and an ‘almost waxen face,’ characteristics associated most strongly with vampires. Yet it is unclear how strongly these characteristics, which may indeed indicate certain ‘special powers,’ relate specifically to the causing of harm. The cultural associations between vampirism and sexual violence may implicitly make this connection, but in the story itself the threat is far more earthly than supernatural. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the sense we get that the Marquis is an uncanny character arises more certainly from his bringing the ‘repressed’ rather than the ‘surmounted’ into the present.
The Marquis’ is presented as a figure directly connected to the past. His unmarked face follows on from his ancestors’ ‘lined up with their dark eyes and pale faces,’ and his intentions and methods of harm are likewise related to a more barbaric time. It is this embeddedness in the cultural past that suggests most strongly a sense of the uncanny. A sense borne from a confrontation with beliefs and desires from the infancy of western civilisation, which ‘these more democratic times’ (Carter) had supposedly repressed.
The occupation of the present by the past is what produces the effect of the uncanny in Carter’s story. This occupation is centred on repressed notions about the role of women in society, which view them as passive objects to be controlled. The scope of Freud’s notion of the uncanny therefore goes beyond his original ideas based on the individual, to encompass cultural issues, such as those explored in Carter’s story.
Carter, Angela (1995) ‘The Bloody Chamber’ in The Bloody Chamber, London, Vintage, pp7-41
Freud, Sigmund (2001) ‘The Uncanny’ in V.B Leitch et al The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism New York, Norton, pp929-952
(This piece was written for an undergraduate assignment at Staffordshire University in 2010)