Of all Freud’s essays on art and literature, “Das Unheimliche” [1919; “The Uncanny”, 1925] has enjoyed the greatest critical afterlife, partly because it eschews this emphasis on the psychoanalysis of the author. In this essay, Freud sets out to trace the nature of the uncanny, “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (340). The initial part of the essay shows how definitions of the German word “heimlich” (homely, familiar, cherished) can coincide with its opposite “unheimlich” (unhomely, weird, concealed, secret).

Freud traces the experience of the uncanny to the “primary narcissism” of early childhood and to an animistic conception of the universe amongst ‘primitive” and superstitious cultures, a formative phase of human history that corresponds to the early stages of infantile development. He discusses many of the characteristic features and situations associated with the uncanny, such as the uncertain boundaries between living and inanimate bodies, the figure of the double, involuntary repetition, the occult and womb phantasies.

Freud demonstrates the significance for psychoanalysis of many of these uncanny phenomena through a discussion of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story, “The Sand Man” which revolves around Nathaniel, a student haunted by his memories of the Sand-Man, a figure of dread in nursery tales who is reputed to steal children’s eyes when they refuse to go to bed. This imaginary figure finds its living embodiment in a “real’ Sandman, the sinister lawyer Coppelius, who visits Nathaniel’s home and is subsequently implicated in the death of his father. Later, while at university, Nathaniel believes that he has recognised the Sand-Man in the guise of Coppola, an optician who sells him an eyeglass with which he spies a beautiful automaton, Olympia. Nathaniel’s infatuation for Olympia becomes conflated with his obsession with Coppelius, and he is eventually driven to madness and suicide as a result of this skewed vision. Freud concludes that the uncanny effect of “The Sand-Man” derives from anxiety about losing one’s eyes and its connection with the castration complex of childhood, a reading that has been disputed by a number of critics. Despite some of Freud’s hesitancies in analysing the properties of the uncanny, the essay has become hugely influential for literary and cultural critics over the last thirty years. More generally, while the “classic” Freudian approach to aesthetics has come to be regarded as reductive, many of Freud’s essays have proved sources of rich fascination for literary critics and theorists, and his case studies are now often read in terms of their literary qualities. Freud himself was awarded the Goethe Prize for Literature in 1930.