The Uncanny and Sandman

What is the uncanny?

The uncanny is something that seems familiar, but its familiarity is unsettling, troubling, and frightening. The German word for uncanny, unheimlich, means un-home-y. As Freud notes, the English term canny also denotes cosiness (home/familiar), and a second (supernatural) sense (225).

So the uncanny is something that reminds the viewer of something familiar, and yet is strange. Freud says this familiarity stems from repressed emotions in the unconscious, and the fear that such traumas might reoccur (241, 246). Elements include:

-    doubles, repetition (Freud 234)
-    robots, automatons
-    a focus on the eyes
- a feeling of creepiness brought about by seeing someone's likeness

Who is uncanny?

A Doppelgänger (look alike, body double, or literally double walker) might have an uncanny similarity to someone.

Robots and avatars have an uncanny resemblance to humans, a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley

Where do we find the uncanny?

The uncanny often appears in science fiction and fantasy. Television and film that have uncanny figures include:

When do we feel the uncanny?

- When we see these doubles.

- "when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes, and so on . . . The infantile element in this, which also dominates the minds of neurotics, is the over-accentuation of psychical reality in comparisons with material reality" (Freud 244).

Why are they uncanny?

Why is the uncanny important?

- Doubling is an important motif in literature. The uncanny offers a way to understand the splitting of characters in literature, and a way to frame what they might say about psychological issues. Consider, for example, Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Although they do not resemble each other physically, one is the "bad" wife, and the other is the "good" wife. In some ways, however, Mason represents many of the fears of abandonment and anger against Mr. Rochester that Eyre does not verbalize in her conscious state (but may harbor unconsciously).

For Freud, the quintessential uncanny text is Hoffmann's The Sandman (1818):

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822)

ETA Hoffmann

-    Born 1776 in Königsberg (once capital of east Prussia, annexed after WWII by Russians and renamed Kaliningrad, birthplace also of the German philosopher Kant)

-    Government official, musician, illustrator, writer, and drinker

-    Father was a lawyer and he became one too for a time

-    Got syphilis from his lover

-    Worked in the theater (composing music, operas) and wrote novellas

1813: Changed his second middle name, William, to Amadeus in honor of Mozart

1816: Nutcracker and Mouse King (later adapted for the ballet, Nutcracker)

 1817: The Sandman published as part of Night Pieces (Nachtstücke)

1822: Died from a paralytic disease

Vocabulary & References

die Aufklärung (German) = Enlightenment

automaton = mechanized doll, 19th-c. word for robot, android

barometer (277)

Batoni's Magdalen (290)

Cagliostro (p. 288, 1743 - 1795) was an alchemist and occult figure who associated with the Freemasons:

klar = clear

296: lorgnettes = opera glasses

Franz Moor (288): is the villain of Friedrich Schiller's play, The Robbers (1781/82), which shocked audiences with its emotional language and revolutionary undertones. He arranges for his brother, Karl, to be disinherited, and Karl becomes a robber. Daniel is an old servant in the play.

the town of "G--" (290) that Nathanael studies at may well be Göttingen, a university well known for physics

"a lake by Ruïsdael" (290)

legend of the dead bride (300)

Party Game: Ask yes or no questions about your identity. Am I a man? Am I alive? Do I work for a living? After you've guessed your identity, sit down & write a 3-4 sent. summary of your character's whereabouts, job, the significance of their name (or lack of one), & how he or she knows Nathanael.



Giuseppe Coppola



the narrative voice (288)


Nathanael / Thanael

Nathanael's father

Nathanael's mother

Nathanael's nurse



the Sandman



Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Smith, Elder, and Cornhill, 1847.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. XVII. London: Hogarth, 1953. 219-252. Print

"E. T. A. Hoffmann." Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. 2005.     <> Accessed April 2010. Web.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. "The Sandman." Tales. Trans. L. J. Kent and E. C. Knight. NY: Contiuum, 1982. 277-308.

"The Uncanny and Sandman." W. C. Nielsen April 2010