Tag Archive: the uncanny


Momma’s Boy Forever

Sigmund Freud’s theory of “the uncanny” is presented in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through Victor Frankenstein’s Oedipal desires in his “wildest dream” (Shelley 60). Victor Frankenstein has a vivid dream in which his beloved Elizabeth turns into the corpse of his deceased mother as he kisses her. The description of Victor’s feelings within the dream, while also illustrating his shock at seeing the transformation, hints at his lust for his mother. The passage is loaded with sexual imagery, like “the grave worms crawling in the folds of the flannel” alluding to vaginal intercourse and the “cold dew [that] covered [Victor’s] forehead” like the ejaculate released from the head of a penis (60), demonstrating the level if intimacy Victor unconsciously wants to have with his mother. More importantly, this reveals the reason for his fixation on creating life and the monster. He wants to give life to the monster the same way his mother gave life to him. In doing so, Frankenstein also gives life to his mother through memory by dedicating creation of the monster to her and literally giving her life in his dream through his ejaculation into her. This is the result of what Freud calls the “Oedipus Complex.” The Oedipus Complex claims every man is attracted to their mother since infancy and strive to develop a relationship with a woman reminiscent of their mother, since the mother is already taken by their father.

While the idea of a person, especially an infant, being attracted to their parent may be a strange concept for people to, it is not uncanny to Freud. Freud views it as normal and crucial to the social development of the child innate in all “normal” heterosexual humans. Therefore, it is canny, at least in a Freudian context, because of its rationality and existence in the unconscious. Freud writes in his essay “The Uncanny” that something is uncanny “because it is not known and familiar” (Freud 418), meaning it diverges from the common perception held of it while also abiding by it. The uncanniness in the scene that causes Victor to awake in fear is the uncanny appearances of his dead mother and his continued attraction to the corpse. In his dream, Victor’s mother is not fully human. She is no longer human because she no longer has a pulse and is decomposing, but her features indicative of a human gives the feeling that she could potentially have life and is simply not engaging at the moment. The case is the same for Frankenstein’s monster because he has human traits and body part but his deformities give the impression that he is an undead monster at the same time. Because of the uncanny appearance of his mother their relationship becomes uncanny as well. Victor is still attracted to his mother, which is seen as acceptable under the following of the Oedipus Complex. However, now that she is a corpse, she is no longer the same mother Victor fell for. Nevertheless, she also is because she is literally Victor’s first and continued love and is the same body and being. He finds comfort in his love for his mother while also dreading that he loves a corpse.

-Wendy Gutierrez

Shuffled Development and Unfinished Business

While reading about the uncanny and its definition, as well as Freud’s general theories and theses regarding it, everything started to fall into place with regards to Frankenstein and his monster.  The immediate conclusion that is brought to mind is that Frankenstein is using his creature to put into physical being his double, and through this regressing into his childhood again because he is experiencing the uncanny – he is experiencing his double as an adult.  But I think a large factor is that Frankenstein has experienced his development in a twisted way, and therefore in experiencing the uncanny he sees a return of the repressed material that illustrates the disruption of his natural development, which may be the causation for the need to create his creature.

In a regular trajectory of development, a child would experience their childhood narcissism and create ideas for their double, where it is acceptable since the narcissism has not been overcome.  Then, later on in life, as the narcissism is overcome, encountering the double will end up leading the person to the uncanny and return them to childhood thoughts and memories.  Naturally, we can interpret his creature as his double.  Yet there is something very critical that happens in Victor’s experience of the uncanny: “I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams.   I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt” (61).  According to the Oedipal design of development in relation to the family, a person’s development of feelings of affection towards an individual are based on the interactions with their parents and basically, whether they have fear of castration or penis envy.  The “normal” development of a male child will push them to have affection for their mother, and then transfer that affection to a woman that reminds them of their mother.  Instead Frankenstein has been attached by affection to Elizabeth since so early in his life (since the age of five) that he was not able to properly complete his development with regard to affection of his mother.  With regard to Elizabeth, Frankenstein has this to say early on in the narrative – “Elizabeth Lavenza became the inmate of my parents’ house – more than my sister – the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and pleasures” (43).  Victor prematurely transferred his affections from his mother onto his “cousin,” and if this aspect of development was disrupted, is it not also possible other aspects of his development was disrupted?  In particular, what if he never truly overcame his childhood narcissism, and is, instead of mentally, physically creating his double in order to ensure his immortality?

The uncanny seems to be anything that reminds a person of their earlier psychic stages of the unconscious. Victor’s unconscious was definitely reminded, upon the animation of the creature, of his Oedipal psychic stage. On the surface, Victor seems to have progressed normally through that process. However, the dream reveals that isn’t quite the case. Although it seems that Victor is in love with Elizabeth, her image in the dream regresses to that of his dead mother. However, we can’t say that this directly correlates with Victor’s unconscious wanting to get with his mother. According to Freud’s dream interpretation, the forbidden desires of the unconscious are censored in dreams. The explicitness of the dream suggests that what it censors is even more taboo than desiring his mother. What could be more taboo than that?

Warning–I’m gonna say something pretty crazy here: maybe Victor like–I don’t know–didn’t think the creature was so hideous. Maybe he really thought, “damn this guy is fine.” In a weird, weird way he felt attracted to what he had created? I mean, he was set to marry his adoptive sister so already his life is pretty weird. But let’s turn to the text, and talk about my second best friend: Victor’s unreliability as a narrator. “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast…” (60). Victor may have designed the creature to be beautiful, but it is interesting that, in describing the “monstrosity,” he first paints it as beautiful. Present Victor, the one on Walton’s ship, knows that the creature isn’t beautiful. He knows that the creature becomes a murderer. The Victor of that moment, however, doesn’t know that.

Perhaps that is why Victor carelessly leaves the creature alone, right after it’s birth. He can’t handle the fact that he’s feeling something for a guy-like creature. He lives in a hetero-normative world. His mother literally said to him, on her deathbed, “My children [Elizabeth and Victor]…my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union,” and to impress her point she has them hold hands (49). He’s been told that Elizabeth was his since she joined the family. In the dream, Elizabeth’s transformation into his mother seems to be a throwback to his mother’s dying words. To what is expected of him. The norm that he may be–probably is–deviating from. The possibility of not fitting the mold laid out for him was too much for him to take

I realized this past week that, much to my chagrin, I have been using the word “uncanny” wrong for my entire life. For Sigmund Freud “the uncanny undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread” (Freud).  Freud likens the uncanny to losing your eyes or fear of castration. In humans both the eyes and the genitals are instruments of categorization and the uncanny relates to the inability to categorize life in the chaotic world. Your eyes categorize the things around you while your genitalia categorizes the self.  The monster has categorized his world through observation but when we sees himself he sees something different from what his observations have taught him about human life.   The moment he looks into himself he realizes that he embodies the destruction of the dichotomy of the familiar versus the unfamiliar. He sees a being that is familiar because it is indeed a reflection of self but simultaneously new and terrifying because he has never seen something like himself before.  This scene of the creature’s self discovery is the very union of heimlich and unheimlich.  The moment is heimlich in the personal nature of self-discovery, yet unheimlich in the idea that his being is radically different and more grotesque than the life he has spent weeks observing.  Upon seeing his reflection the monster experiences the uncanny because he cannot categorize himself as familiar or unfamiliar.

For next week’s blog post (Monday 3/18), answer the following questions from a psychoanalytic perspective, using Freud’s idea of the uncanny double or Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage:

What does the creature see when he looks into a reflecting pool of water (p. 104, 118)?  Why is he so disgusted of his self-image if, ultimately, he wants others to overlook his physical deformity?

 

 

For inspiration, students can recall my graphic in-class drawing of Victor Frankenstein’s “wildest dream,” what Freud would call an uncanny return to his unconscious childhood desire before the Oedipal stage: to have sex with his phallic mother, an incestuous desire displaced from Elizabeth (his “cousin-sister”), to his dead mother, and finally to the hideous monster (the double).  Wow, this novel has some serious psychological trauma (or maybe this image reflects my disturbed transference!!!).

Students can learn from this image about the importance of taking the time to do a close reading, how to base your interpretation on key words, phrases, images, motifs, and symbols.  Remember, don’t over-intellectualize the novel (that’s a form of repression); instead, think psychoanalytically at the emotional level; in other words, think perversely and pornographically–in the most twisted way–and you will discover the secret of the uncanny.

 

Here’s my explanation for the image below:

Victor’s dead mother folded in the flannel = the binding of the mother in an idealized “safe” form (repression) kills her, displacing the unconscious desire to kill the father onto the mother instead (an “abnormal” Oedipal cycle)

the graveworm = the penis linked with maternal death, thus the phallic mother.  I see a connection between this image and Victor’s recollection of his childhood: a boy bound to his family by a “silken cord”: the biological umbilical cord.

sweaty forehead = the penis forehead in the act of ejaculation, sexual pleasure prior to castration (the uncircumcised penis)

Victor’s sweaty body and convulsing limbs = the son having sex with the mother or, conversely, the phallic mother having sex with her son; incest is not a taboo before the Oedipal stage, thus Elizabeth, Victor’s lover and sister, reverts to maternal love

the moon shining in from the window = the dark, horrible secret of the uncanny has been revealed in the light; the return of the repressed.

the horrible, nameless monster = the uncanny double that reveals the horror of Victor’s secret unfulfilled wish: to have sex with his mother; but he could also symbolize the missing father figure, the super-ego (external observer) that denies incestuous love.  Thus, the creature is a condensation of the mother-father figure, the embodiment of the phallic mother Victor encounters unconsciously in his dream.

uncanny photo

 

 

Here’s an inspiring YouTube video on Oedipus veggies, the story of Oedipus told through vegetable actors.  Be warned: this video contains graphic scenes not suitable for vegetable viewers.