I love exploring elements of the uncanny in gothic literature. It is directly linked with the transgressive nature of such writing. This has been epitomised in many novels and short stories of the nineteenth century. The Gothic and uncanny reinforce each other; they stand side by side in the dark shadows of such writing. To show this I’m going to give the example of two of my favourite gothic novels: Dracula and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
To transgress is to break a limit or a boundary; both works contain characters, Dracula and Jekyll/Hyde, which have undergone a transgressive transformation; they have gone from a normal sate of being to something paranormal: they have broken a boundary. This transgression has resulted in an uncanny existence for them both, which arouses more fear towards them. The uncanny, according to Freud, evokes fear and dread. The gothic novel creates a heightened level of fear because the uncanny creates something strangely familiar at the heart of the unfamiliar.
Firstly, this can be seen with Dracula. The Count’s death like sleep is eerily familiar. Harker finds the Count at rest in a coffin “he was either dead or asleep, I could not say which.”
This sense of unfamiliarity with the familiar, someone who is seemingly dead when they should be alive, evokes dread within Harker “I fled from the place.” The vampire’s uncanny nature is created by his transgressive undead state, which makes him evocative of more fear. Dracula’s uncanny existence is unexplainable with what governs normal life; he has no reflection in the mirror; he “sleeps” in a coffin and scales walls. Harker is disturbed by this strange nature of the familiar. Dracula has undergone an extensive transformation, which breaks the boundaries of mortality and sets him in the realm of the paranormal as a member of the undead. This can be seen when the Count attests to his immortality 'My revenge has just begun! I spread it over centuries and time is on my side' This signifies that he is now an undying creature and can span his goals over the ages; he has transgressed the rules of mortality with his uncanny existence. The same is true for Jekyll/Hyde.
Indeed, the development of a doppelganger, a counter part for a person, can be seen as fear inducing, and resides in the uncanny transgression of Jekyll. This is because Jekyll was “radically both.” With Jekyll/Hyde the uncanniness of the doppelganger is increased because both of the doppelgangers are one person, and the familiarity evoked in the unfamiliar character (Hyde) is stronger. The repetition is key; it causes a strange feeling, of fear and dread, in the face of such an abnormality.
Doctor Jekyll has transgressed the role he has in society and the one his personality has created for him. This is because the potion that results in Hyde allows Jekyll to break free of his restrictions; he becomes something paranormal through the use of a doppelganger that is both him and not him. He is now free to act in a reckless way that will not directly be associated with his original persona; he now has according to Jekyll “a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation.” He has transgressed his original role and, like Dracula, has become something paranormal and uncanny, which is something to be greatly feared.
Freud’s ideas on the uncanny are perceptive and far reaching. They can be applied to literature so easily. There are many wonderful essays out there linking the ideas to Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, amongst others too. There is much more to this work than its applications on gothic literature, but for me, as an English student, and lover of the gothic, that’s the main piece of knowledge I take from this work. This is compelling stuff.