The Notion Of The Uncanny In Edgar Allan Poe's Stories

The feeling of déjà vu is a strange and curious emotion. Sigmund Freud calls this ‘the uncanny’ and describes it as secret, native and familiar, and something that is ‘frightening because it is unknown, yet familiar’. Freud talks about the German equivalent if ‘the uncanny’, the word ‘unheimlich’. This word tends to translate into scary or mysterious, however, this is not the best translation of it. Freud suggests that the word translates to ‘un-homely’, ‘unfamiliar’ or better yet, ‘uncanny’. An example of something being ‘uncanny’ is to hear a knock on the door at midnight. The knock on the door is familiar, but the time in which the knocking is occurring is strange or mysterious. Uncanny is also described as being strange and mysterious, and difficult to explain. This definition seems to be what a person would refer to in an everyday conversation, however, in literature, particularly Gothic literature, ‘the uncanny’ leans more towards the familiar yet unfamiliar feeling a person can often experience, creating a sense of uneasiness amongst themselves. Edgar Allan Poe utilises the uncanny in his writing to cast dark and dread tones, with many of his stories tending to focus on the unusual and unexplained that comes with something being uncanny in the Gothic world. Poe’s stories don’t have any moments of peace or serenity that can come at certain points in Gothic fiction, creating moments of rest from the horrors that the characters and the readers are being subjected to. There are many common themes amongst his stories such as psychological trauma and suffering, distortion of time and memory, paranormal, being buried alive, madness and hallucination. The stories The Fall of House Usher, and The Black Cat have similar themes such as the idea of an important character in another’s life, usually the narrator but this is not technically the case in The Black Cat, come back from the dead, or from being supposedly dead and bringing with it, this uncanniness. In The Black Cat, the uncanny comes in the form of a cat that is similar to the narrator’s previous cat, and in The Fall of House Usher, it comes in the form of the last remaining Usher’s sister, who was believed to dead. Both stories elude to the uncanny in their titles, as the uncanniness that is contained in the stories is what appears as the uncanny figure, as is the case for The Black Cat, or it is the uncanny that brings the family to its downfall, as is the case for The Fall of House Usher.

The Black Cat has a rather shocking narrative, told from the point of view of a male, unnamed narrator. Put simply, the story is a re-telling of the narrator’s horrifying life. The unnamed narrator is on death row for murdering his wife, and the story acts as a confession for his crimes. He describes himself as an animal lover and goes on to say that he and his wife had “birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat”. He says that the latter was his favourite pet, however, further into the novel, the narrator becomes irritable and violent under the influence of alcohol, physically and verbally abusing his wife and in a drunken rage, cuts out one of his beloved cat’s eyes. Rather than take the blame and admit that it was he that did it while under the influence of alcohol, he prefers to say that he was possessed by the “spirit of perverseness” and “a demon instantly possessed” him. Continuing in his drunken rage, one morning he decides to inflict more injury “upon the unoffending brute”, and “slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree”. He claims to have “tears streaming from [his] eyes”. The next day, after his house burns down, he finds a picture of “a gigantic cat”, with a rope around its neck, beginning the uncanny feeling within the story. It is in the paragraph starting with “One night as I sat half stupefied…” that has the most aesthetics of the uncanny and is present through the use of coincidence. This is because the narrator experience similarity to the subject, yet it is not quite the subject the reader and the narrator expects. The coincidence that occurs in this short story is that a second cat that is similar to the narrator’s previous cat, Pluto, which instils dread in the narrator as he killed his previous cat. This second cat is introduced as the narrator is sitting in his sitting room when “some black object” appears out of the shadows. The narrator was not able to identify the cat in the shadows, which already casts an uneasiness upon the narrator, as he is unsure as to whether or not the “black object” was there the whole time or if it came from the shadows as he states that he was “surprised that he “had not sooner perceived the object thereupon.” The narrator soon feels a sense of déjà vu when he approaches the cat stating that it closely resembled him in every respect, besides the white that covered the black cat’s “breast”. The coincidence of this is that the place in which the cat had its white hair was where the narrator had dealt the blow which would cause Pluto’s death, which adds to this uncanny feel. A cat that is eerily similar to his first cat turns up in his sitting room, bearing a mark upon his chest in the place that the narrator dealt that deadly blow. The narrator soon believes that this black cat somehow knows his secret and is inundated with severe dread. It is this that creates the uncanny with in The Black Cat and possibly what gives the story its name.

The Fall of House Usher takes on the traditional basics of Gothic conventions, being the haunted mansion, the remote and sinister setting, a mysterious confinement that amounts to incarceration, hints of incest, a family curse, and the decline and collapse of the old family line (Nadal). However, Poe signals that the story, with words such as “half-pleasurable”, is not going to contain any moments of peace and serenity that is often present in other Gothic novels. The narrator questions himself a lot in the first two pages of the story, asking himself “what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?”. This quote comes after an extensive description of the dark uneasiness that surrounds the mansion, using words such as “decayed”, “hideous” and “iciness”, and the narrator goes as far as to think “…an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.” Stating that no provoking of anyone’s imagination could make the place look grand or bring such delight upon one’s eyes. The narrator states that what unnerved him so much “was a mystery all insoluble” despite the in depth and dark descriptions the narrator gives the reader, yet they are still unable to underpin what exactly unnerves him despite being to the house many times before, which in the real world, a person is more likely to remember what they disliked about a place that unsettled them.

The only remaining members of the Usher family, twins Roderick and Madeline are said to have never dared leave the house, slowly wasting away in the desolate mansion, becoming victims of a mysterious “family evil” and of the “peculiar” and “pestilent” atmosphere that emanates from the lake and the walls, but which, ironically, they have to remain alive. Nadal mentions in Trauma and the Uncanny in Edgar Allan Poe that the house “proves to be a “quaint and equivocal appellation,” not only because it “seemed to include . . . both the family and the family mansion”, but especially because it conveys the metaphor of the “architectural” psyche that Freud mentions at the beginning of “The Uncanny” (cf. the progression from unheimlich — unhomely — to uncanny, and to haunted) and that Poe evokes in the text through Roderick’s poem ‘The Haunted Palace’”. Madeline dies after the narrator’s arrival and Roderick’s anxiety increases as he suspects that his sister has been buried alive. Madeline herself symbolises the uncanny in this story, as well as the anxiety that Roderick feels. Similar to The Black Cat, Madeline ‘comes back’ from the dead, covered in blood and returns to the person that entombed her too soon, and he untimely dies, confronted with his past in a familiar, yet terrifying way turning him into “a victim of the terrors he had anticipated” (143), with Madeline becoming the bringer of death for her brother. Madeline was probably never dead, she just appeared to be so after a seizure which would explain why she lunges at Roderick, mad at him for entombing her when she was not, in fact, dead. In terms of Roderick’s anxieties, which may be believed to start with as the anxieties of his family name being close to its end, it can be seen as foreshadowing for the return of his sister as he knows that he had buried his sister alive and that it was only a matter of time that she would return, but also the familiar yet unfamiliar feelings of past trauma.

‘The uncanny’ is a feeling that people in the real world do not always an experience, with people getting a more déjà vu feeling, something that they feel is familiar but are unsure as to why it does. The uncanny is slightly different to this as it involves something having more mystery, and often times have some scary or unsettling elements to it, such as those discussed in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Poe uses the uncanny in many of his stories and both The Fall of House Usher and The Black Cat use the uncanny in their stories. The uncanny in The Black Cat comes in the form of a cat that has striking similarities to the narrator’s previous cat, Pluto, with the only difference being the white hair that is present in the area on the cat’s chest where the narrator gave a deadly blow on Pluto. This realisation caused severe dread in the narrator. The cat was so similar to Pluto, it was familiar, yet it was different, and it was this difference that caused this dread within the narrator as he believed that his secret had been exposed. In The Fall of House Usher, the sister, Madeline, is who takes the form of the uncanny, supposedly returning from the dead, after being buried alive. However, she is not dead, only unconscious after suffering from a seizure from the sickness that she suffers from, which would bring her to her end anyway. When she returns, covered in blood, and lunges at her brother, both her and Roderick meet their deaths. The uncanny is important in Poe’s short stories as it adds a different kind of horror into the world of the Gothic. It not necessarily supernatural like many other earlier Gothic novels that are setting similar locations, as it is often coincidental that the uncanny figure, being, or object is something that the narrator is familiar with, such is the case of The Black Cat. It is coincidental that the cat has a marking on its chest. And in the case of The Fall of House Usher, it is coincidental that Madeline Usher appears out of the tomb on a dark and stormy night, adding to the uneasiness in the story. 

16 August 2021
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