The Uncanny

The Uncanny Summary and Analysis of Section Two


Having completed his linguistic analysis, Freud now proceeds to gather examples of the uncanny and try to discover what they have in common. He begins with the example given by Jentsch: uncertainty whether an inanimate object, like a doll, might be alive, or whether an object that seems to be alive is in an automaton, i.e. a robot.

Jentsch singles out the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, and his story "The Sand-Man" as a masterful example of this kind of uncanniness. Freud proposes to study the story more closely.

Freud now offers a brief summary of "The Sand-Man." A student named Nathaniel is haunted by childhood memories of the death of his father. When Nathaniel was a boy, his mother would send him to bed early, saying that it was time for a visit from the Sand-Man. She insists that this person isn’t real, but at night, Nathaniel can hear the Sand-Man clomping up the stairs. A nurse laughingly tells him that the Sand-Man is a monster who steals the eyes of naughty children to feed to his own children on the moon.

Nathaniel is determined to find out what the Sand-Man looks like. He hides himself in the study and discovers Coppelius, a grotesque and unpleasant man, and a friend of his father. The two men are conducting a strange experiment with fire. Nathaniel screams, and Coppelius grabs him, threatening to put burning grains of sand into his eyes. His father begs Coppelius to spare his son, and Nathaniel passes out. When he comes to, days later, he learns that his father was killed in an explosion in the study. Coppelius has left town. It is left unclear to the reader how much of the study scene was panicked delirium, influenced by the nurse’s story, and how much was real.

As an adult studying in Italy, Nathaniel thinks he recognizes Coppelius when he meets Guiseppe Coppola, an optician who sells eyeglasses. Coppola claims to “sell eyes.” Nathaniel is relieved to find that these are just optical instruments, and he buys a pocket telescope from the salesman. He uses it to look into the house of Professor Spalanzani, who lives across the street, and sees the professor’s beautiful, motionless daughter Olympia. He falls in love with her.

After courting Olympia, Nathaniel is horrified to discover that she is an automaton made by the Professor. Coppola supplied her eyes. Nathaniel walks in to find the two men fighting over her. They rip her apart. Spalanzani throws her bleeding eyeballs at Nathaniel, and says that they were stolen from him (Nathaniel). Nathaniel has another fit of madness that blurs together his father’s death and this experience. He tries to strangle Spalanzani.

Nathaniel recovers from a long illness. He and his fiancé, Clara, climb up the tower in the town. Clara notices something on the street, and Nathaniel uses his spyglass to look at it. He begins to go mad again, screaming “Whirl about, my wooden doll!,” the same words he screamed at Olympia in the professor’s study. In his madness, he tries to throw Clara from the tower. Her brother rushes up to save her, and Nathaniel leaps to his death when he sees Coppelius in the crowd below. Nathaniel’s last words are “Fine eyes, beautiful eyes!’

Freud begins his reading of the story by considering the uncanny feeling often attached to the idea of losing one’s eyes. He thinks Jentsch’s focus on the intellectual uncertainty surrounding the automaton (Olympia) misses this obvious thematic point. Freud agrees with Jentsch that Hoffmann’s world is filled with supernatural elements, and that the reader is never sure how real they are. But Freud argues that at the story’s end Hoffmann does in fact establish that Coppelius and Coppola are one and the same. Therefore, intellectual uncertainty is not the true source of the uncanny in “The Sand-Man.”

Based on his research as a psychoanalyst with neurotic patients, Freud notes that fear of losing or damaging one’s eyes is a common childhood fear. This fear often persists into adulthood. Freud notes the presence of this feeling in the saying, “the apple of one’s eye.” In myths and dreams, going blind is often linked to a fear of castration, as in the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex. When a (male) infant develops a sexual drive, he begins to fear that his father will castrate him to remove competition for the affection of his mother. According to Freud, the eyes and the male genitals are often substituted for one another in our minds, stirring “violent and obscure” emotions.

Freud believes that “The Sand-Man” bears out his point. The story connects the fear of losing one’s eyes with the death of Nathaniel’s father. The Sand-Man also interferes with love, preventing Nathaniel from experiencing intimacy or pleasure as he intercedes in Nathaniel’s relationship with his fiancé, her brother, and Olympia.

In a footnote, Freud offers a complete reading of “The Sand-Man.” The figure of the Sand-Man represents the image of the father, split into two: one (the Sand-Man/Coppelius) threatens to castrate him, the other (Nathaniel’s father) loves him and protects him and his eyes. Nathaniel’s death-wish against the father is expressed by the death of the father.

The same structure is repeated with Professor Spalanzani and Coppola. Nathaniel is attracted to Olympia because he has narcissistically identified himself with her. Her femininity represents his own feminine stance towards his father, who is his masculine ideal. His love for her is narcissistic—she never speaks a word. Nathaniel is incapable of loving so long as he lives under his father’s castration complex.

If the uncanny feeling attached to losing one’s sight goes back to an infantile fear of castration, are other uncanny phenomena, like the living doll, also residues of fears from infancy?

Freud argues that dolls are, indeed, linked to the life of the infant. Very young children don’t distinguish between animate and inanimate objects, and often treat dolls as though they are living. However, infants don’t find the prospect of dolls coming to life frightening. On the contrary, it’s often something they wish for. There seems to be a contradiction here.

Leaving this problem for the moment, Freud turns to other uncanny effects in Hoffmann’s tale. In addition to the fear of losing one’s eyes and the living doll, there is also the “double,” people who look exactly alike. Doubles in literature often share knowledge telepathically—that is, they share a consciousness. In so doing, they divide the self. Freud also points out the uncanny effect produced by doubling over time, with events, faces, character traits, or a name recurring across generations.

Freud turns to the Viennese psychiatrist Otto Rank, who has written about the double. Rank links the double to mirrors, shadows, and guardian spirits, which have to do with fear of death and the primitive belief in the immortal soul. In early phases of humanity, the double also used to be assurance against death. "The soul" itself, that which we believe survives physical death, is also a kind of double, a denial of the power of death. We often double things we fear losing; as a result of the fear of castration, genital symbols are often doubled in dreams. As an example, Freud points out the Egyptian practice of making images of the dead.

The double is also linked to what Freud calls primary narcissism experienced by children and “primitive” man. As the ego, i.e., our conscious mind, develops, however, the “double” can pick up different meanings. The double is a special faculty that observes and criticizes the self—we would call this our conscience, a faculty that treats the rest of our conscious mind as an object to be observed. Narcissism and self-criticism are therefore linked.

The double can also serve as a repository for lives we haven’t lived, fantasies that are unfulfilled, and all of the suppressed impulses that make us believe that we have free will. Nonetheless, none of these fully explain the “uncanny” feeling that doubles often induce. Freud believes that the uncanny aspect of the double comes from the fact that it belongs to an earlier stage of consciousness that we have suppressed as we have become socialized. Now this familiar and forgotten part of our consciousness returns as something terrifying, just as, in the history of religion, gods worshipped in one era return as demons in the next.

Freud believes that the other aspects of the uncanny in Hoffmann also correspond to moments in the development of the ego, and are residues of a primary narcissism when the ego had not yet sharply distinguished itself from the world around it, or from other persons. This narcissism had to be overcome and forgotten for our conscious mind to be formed.

Another widely shared uncanny experience is a sense of helpless repetition, which we often encounter in dreams. Freud recalls a time when he walked through the deserted streets of an Italian town, in which “nothing but painted women [i.e., prostitutes]” were at the windows. No matter how he tried to leave, the side streets kept leading him back there. The feeling this induced is a prime example of the uncanny.

Freud considers other kinds of involuntary repetition, such as when chance encounters appear fateful and inescapable: for example the number 62 appearing again and again in addresses, hotel rooms, or train cars. The repetition will strike us as having a secret meaning. Freud traces the uncanny effect of repetition to the repetition-compulsion in infants, and likely in all living things, the tendency of unformed consciousnesses to repeat behaviors over and over again.

In brief: the uncanny is caused by the return of instincts and memories from very early childhood, both fears and wishes, that had to be repressed and overcome in order to develop our conscious mind, and that have now returned. Freud now proposes to test this hypothesis by examining some literary examples.

One example is “The Ring of Polycrates,” a poem by Friedrich Schiller. In this poem a tyrant drops a bejeweled ring into the ocean. It is swallowed by a fish, which is caught, and served to him and his guest that evening. His guest immediately leaves, saying that someone so lucky is certain to invite the wrath of the gods.

Freud also describes a patient who wants a favorite room at a hydrotherapy clinic and when he can’t get it, wishes that the man there would die. To his horror, the man does die. He also mentions patients who are thinking of someone and then suddenly run into them on the street.

Freud connects these examples to the evil eye, which is the fear of attracting a curse for attracting the attention of others, particularly out of envy. The worry is that the intensity of the stare will convert it into action.

Freud traces all of these examples back to what he calls the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts. Freud explains this as the animistic belief of primitive man in the power of one's own thoughts to change and control the world, and the belief that the world is peopled with spirits. (Freud calls this “magic”). Freud believes that each child passes through a phase like this one, then represses and forgets it as his ego develops. It is our recollection of it that produces the sense of the uncanny.

The existence of the uncanny thus supports one of the primary insights of psychoanalysis: repressed emotions produce anxiety; and so anxiety or uneasiness always signal not something new and unfamiliar, as Jentsch says, but something recurring. Freud accepts Friedrich Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as something that ought to be concealed, but that has nonetheless come to light.

Freud considers the German phrase for a haunted house: ein unheimliches Haus. Clearly, what makes such a house uncanny is its relation to death. We hesitate to speak about death because we can never really grasp it, and can never really understand whether it truly is the fate of all living things. Many rational people still believe in an afterlife. Our fear is rooted in the old belief that whoever dies becomes the enemy of anyone who survives him, and wants to take him to join him in death. Freud believes that this fear has not been dispelled so much as it has been repressed.

Freud now says that he has covered the major examples, and adds several more: a person who we believe might be able to do us harm just by willing it; and epilepsy and madness, which the Middle Ages attributed to demonic influence. Dismembered limbs, severed heads, hands and feet—all these have something uncanny about them. Freud links these to the castration complex. Being buried alive is another such example, which Freud interprets as being the recurrence of the infant’s desire to return to the womb.

Freud believes that the uncanny effect is often achieved by removing the distinction between imagination and reality. For primitive peoples as for neurotics, it is the overemphasis of psychic reality over physical reality that produces the uncanny. Both types of persons hold onto the belief, which fully formed egos have suppressed, that one can control the world with one’s own thoughts. Freud sees this effect in a horror story about a young married couple that moves into an apartment with a table with carvings of crocodiles, and gradually become aware of ghostly crocodiles haunting the place.

Freud closes this section with the observation of one final uncanny sight: the ultimate home-become-foreign: female genitalia.


The second section contains the bulk of Freud’s argument. Here, Freud’s strategy is to gather a comprehensive list of uncanny experiences and effects, and to work backwards to a theory that can explain them all. Freud believes that his own theory succeeds where Jentsch’s, Rank’s, and Schelling’s theories fail.

The contemporary reader familiar with horror movies or literature might be surprised by just how many of Freud’s examples they recognize. The sense of helplessness in dreams, or being compelled to repeat something, dolls and other inanimate objects coming to life, doubles, the return of the dead, mental illness, the loss of one’s eyes, being buried alive—the continued interest in Freud’s essay owes much to the fact that these tropes are still mainstays in horror.

To be sure, Freud borrows a little from each theory: the concept of the uncanny itself he takes from Jantsch, and he agrees with Schelling’s claim that the uncanny is the return of something that was meant to be hidden. But Freud’s main insights come from his psychoanalytic practice. The uncanny has its roots in the recollection of memories, desires, and fears that we had in infancy, or that date back to earlier phases of humanity, that have been overcome or repressed.

The strange feeling of familiarity that distinguishes the uncanny from fear is then a kind of recollection, a memory of something we believed we would never remember again. Dolls coming to life remind us of our infantile belief that dolls really can come to life, that the world is filled with living spirits that we can control with our thoughts. The fear of losing one’s eyes recalls the childhood fear of castration by the father, which Freud believes all (male) children go through when they become aware of their own sexuality. The fear of being buried alive is in fact the memory of our time in the womb.

Like Freud’s other late publications, such as Totem and Taboo or Civilization and its Discontents, The Uncanny draws a parallel between the development of humanity itself and the development of children. Freud believes that children, as well as neurotics, naturally possess beliefs that echo those of “primitive man”—above all, the narcissistic belief of the power of one’s own thoughts to control objects and events in the real world.

Consequently, though only “neurotic” people, i.e., people who have failed to properly work through these earlier emotions, are sensitive to the uncanny, there are certain things, like doubles, that are recognized as universally uncanny. As with many of Freud’s diagnoses, the uncanny is both a condition of psychological extremity and a constitutive fact of human consciousness.

First-time readers of Freud often find his conclusions outlandish. Indeed, the reader’s mileage will vary as far as the “insights” of psychoanalysis are concerned. It must be noted, however, that Freud’s reading of Hoffmann’s The Sand-Man is considered definitive. (In Germany, the Freud’s text is often bundled together into a single edition with Hoffmann’s story.) Freud was the first to note the connection between the family dynamics of the story’s first half and the Olympia episode in the second. Even scholars ambivalent about psychoanalysis agree that Nathaniel’s narcissistic love for Olympia, who possesses no personality and is, as it were, a blank slate onto which he projects his desires, is symptomatic of the traumatic experience of his childhood.

What Freud leaves unanswered—uncharacteristically for Freud—is the relationship between Hoffmann, the author, and the uncanny. Does Hoffmann employ the uncanny knowingly? Is he simply telling what he thinks is an entertaining story and using uncanny effects to color it? Is the story an allegory for the uncanny itself?

In a footnote, Freud mentions Hoffmann’s own unhappy childhood as a possible inspiration for Nathaniel’s. Uncharacteristically for Freud, he does not stress the connection. Freud’s analysis suggests that Hoffmann might have just been impelled to write a scary story; in the essay’s third section, Freud will suggest that the effect can, and often is, deliberately and full consciously employed by authors. The question of why, and to what end authors are impelled to use the uncanny is one of the “difficulties” associated with aesthetics that Freud claims has put him off of writing about art in the first place. But as we will see in the third section, Freud’s interest in this essay lies elsewhere.