The Uncanny Summary

Sigmund Freud

The Uncanny

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

The Uncanny Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud.

The Uncanny, by seminal psychologist Sigmund Freud, posits that childhood memories influence or determine adult artistic expression. Freud (1856-1939) published the essay in 1919, under the original German name, Das Unheimliche. “Heimliche” means home in German, so the title literally means “the un-home” or the inhospitable. It is frequently published with four other essays: “Screen Memories”; “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming”; “Family Romances”; and “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood.”

The Uncanny has the themes of the connection between early childhood development and artistic expression, the ramifications of psychic repressions, and psychological mechanisms deployed to preserve one from knowing too much.

The first essay, “Screen Memories,” was first written in 1899. Its literal translation means “cover memories.” Freud looks at one survey in France that asked hundreds of people about their very first memory. Freud explores the possibility that childhood memory is so fragmented and seemingly random because children are constantly being shaped on how to behave, i.e. being repressed into more socially appropriate forms. He points out that many people project their current selves onto past memories. That projection is a “screen memory”; it is a sort of defense mechanism that keeps the individual from confronting the nature of their repression.

Freud examines one childhood memory from a middle-aged male patient who was experiencing lust toward a much younger girl. Mimicking a detective, Freud listens for clues from the patient as he “free associates” about early childhood memories. After hearing the client out, he informs him that his early childhood memory of flowers is likely a lie; there are clues to suggest he wants his childhood to appear more idyllic and is thus projecting a happier memory back into the past. In this case, he still wants to “deflower” the young girl and won’t admit this impulse to himself, even as the recollections of his memories betray his intent.

Freud looks at the possible link between literature and daydreaming in “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming.” This essay is actually a transcription of a lecture Freud gave to college students in 1907. Freud proposes a strong link between the near universal impulse of young children to imagine plays, and the adult shaping of such imaginative impulses into plays, poems, books, etc. Citing many famous German authors and composers, including Goethe, Freud says that the making of art is best thought of as innately human desire linked to playing. Adult artists take the pleasures (or “erotics”) of daydreaming and transform them into socially appropriate productions. Unlike children, adults must hide their native desires; however, they still need to entertain these desires in order to have a fulfilling life. Thus, they frequently turn to various forms of art.

In “Family Romances,” Freud examines major plots from around the world that deal with love. It’s longer and more literal title means “The Family Novels or Neurotics.” Considering several major stories, Freud notes that many of them involved the removal of a parent early on in the narrative. This supports Freud’s idea of children-parent relationship, namely that on a fundamental level, the relationship is an increasingly antagonistic relationship that demands that the child move away from their parents, i.e., in a figurative sense, murder them.

These stories also give people, especially teenagers, a model on which they can imagine their own future lives. Each story encourages readers to think of themselves as heroes, which is a rite of passage for many young people when they move into adulthood and leave their parents’ house. Major fictions (or romances) allow individuals to imagine lives outside of the strictures of their family.

To further illustrate his ideas, Freud offers a case study of the great “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo Da Vinci, whose status as an artist and a scientist Freud greatly admired (psychoanalysis blends science and art). This essay, “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood,” is an early example of “psycho-biography.”

Freud begins by exploring the enigmatic nature of Da Vinci’s life and work. He cites several art historians who remain puzzled while interpreting Da Vinci’s most famous work, the Mona Lisa.

Freud looks at one personal memory that Da Vinci recorded in a notebook. As a toddler, he recalled a crow flying through the window and alighting on his open mouth and eating some food that the toddler had in his mouth; this occurred while his mother wasn’t watching. Freud sees this moment of recall/project as an experience of the uncanny, as well as a repression of Da Vinci’s own repressed homosexual orientation. To Freud, this memory is a “screen memory.”

The title essay, “The Uncanny,” appears last in this collection.

When we experience two feelings at once, the contradictory or paradoxical experience is known as “the uncanny.” While “the uncanny” has been defined in various ways by philosophers before Freud, in this essay, Freud extends previous definitions to arrive at one more in line with his general psychoanalytic theories. For Freud, the uncanny conjoins not only paradoxical emotions, but also a sense of déjà vu. For Freud, the uncanny occurs when a repressed memory exerts itself, often unexpectedly, during the course of one’s daily life.

Freud discusses the etymology of “unheimliche.” He notes that the home is supposed to be a place where one is seemingly content because secrets are successfully concealed. The un-home (das unheimliche) occurs when a phenomenon that usually is obscured is suddenly brought to light.

In psychoanalysis, anxiety arises from repressed impulses. But it’s also possible for anxiety to occur once an impulse has been seen, and then the individual tries to re-repress the impulse. When people experience this second form of anxiety, they are in a state of touching the uncanny.