"The literature of the uncanny invites psychological interpretation." Discuss.
(3000 words) Texts chosen for essay: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey & James Hogg, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

In order to discuss the literature of the uncanny we must first be able to define "uncanny", and trying to grasp a firm understanding of the term "uncanny" is problematic; since as accepted reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary filter down into popular culture the meaning subtly alters, or becomes drawn towards only one aspect of what was originally a much broader definition. To illustrate this, the Oxford Complete Wordfinder, Reader's Digest (1993), defines: "uncanny adj. seemingly supernatural; mysterious * see EERIE" and my word-processor contributes:

meanings for "uncanny" : weird >> "Of a mysteriously strange and usually frightening nature" (Lotus Word Pro 97 Thesaurus, allegedly adapted from the Oxford Thesaurus and Roget's 2nd: The New Thesaurus.)

The OED, the source from which both of these definitions ultimately are derived, takes its associations somewhat further, and there are decided connotations of the perilous and mystic:

"mischievous, malicious ... not to be trusted ... associated with supernatural arts or powers ... dangerous, unsafe" (lecture handout notes), but even considering this it is difficult to come to a decisive, all-encompassing definition of what constitutes 'uncanny literature', because to be concerned with the unknown, the subject matter must by its very nature be imprecise. What is suggested becomes far more important than what is actually said. An excellent illustration of this is the work of that master of cosmic otherworldliness, H.P. Lovecraft. (Typical extract from an e-text of his short story, The Outsider: "I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity." So little is actually said that the reader inherits the conviction of the author that the horror is ineffable, and the only limiting factor to the sense of terror becomes the imagination of said reader.)

The term "uncanny" therefore transcends genre, but seems particularly suitable for the gothic milieu, particularly as defined in popular culture : "3 in a style popular in the 18th-19th century c., with supernatural or horrifying events" (OEC) The author identifies our perceptions of what is considered the status quo in a novel of the type being produced, and manipulates us; subverting our expectations of what is (subjectively) "normal". Certain types of literature obviously lend themselves to this task far more than others.

Jane Austen responds to this by hypothesising the stereotypical readers' response to the gothic milieu, and having her heroine's expectations explained away in a rational manner (the closed casket, the mysterious old parchment, and so forth.) This tradition continues to a more purposeful effect in such modern uncanny drama as television's The X Files, in which a blend of rational explanation and genuinely inexplicable phenomena are presented in such a way that the viewer cannot accurately predict which is necessarily the case at any given point in the plot line. Austen's Northanger Abbey makes use of a primitive form of this; despite being an early novel in her career, there are 'genuine' gothic elements presented in between the sections of the text in which Catherine's suspicions are debunked. General Tierney's behaviour, though not given to wife-murdering, is at times despotic and domineering, as is that of other males in the novel, especially Thorpe in his domination over Catherine by pretending business, interfering with her social life to such an extent as her render her a virtual captive socially. Though this 'sends up' traditional attempts upon the life of a gothic heroine, Catherine is also in a position of being a physical captive within the stagecoach; the sense of danger remains real, and though we as a reader are intended to see Catherine's plight for the slightly ridiculous one it is, the effect of gothic horror is deliberately never fully escaped from.

Hogg also makes an extreme effort to present his text The Confessions of a Justified Sinner as having some roots in reality; much of its compelling nature for its early readers would have derived from the fact that Hogg wrote fictitious letters to a real-life magazine about its subjects. Knowledge of this for a present reader only serves to enhance the carefully crafted aura of mystery surrounding the book; one is left with a feeling that one cannot be absolutely certain concerning the possibility of a genuine link to reality. Of course, once that seed of doubt is planted, one becomes unsure how much might be true. We are forced to examine that element of curiosity within our minds which refuses to be convinced that all is as seems. The value of the uncanny in literature is its stimulation of the imagination, its careful linking of horror with that which at once familiar and unfamiliar, and its ability to drive the reader into paroxysms of terror not by creating anything in itself but allowing the reader to create the uncertainty for themselves. Since the literature of the uncanny is concerned with creating certain psychological effects, it is natural for it to do so by inviting interpretation, and it is likewise natural for it to be subjected to an analysis which focuses on the psychological.

In the literature of the uncanny, the personalities of characters are often crafted to such a grandiose and overblown extent that their disturbed inner equilibrium invites psychological interpretation since it cannot easily be explicated without a concerted effort to see things from the position of the madman. We see this clearly in the case of Robert in The Confessions of a Justified Sinner: since it is his narrative and his life under chronicle, it is through his neurotically distorted prism upon life that we are forced to examine, and even judge, events from his perspective. We are invited by the Hogg to follow the religious argument that to kill a man is no great crime because his soul will be judged accordingly in the afterlife, when all wrongs will be made right ("If the man Blanchard is worthy, he is only changing his situation for a better one" p105.) By doing so we are forced to examine not only the characters in the situation, but also our own sense of moral values. We are, if we are honest, forced to admit that given the presumption of life after death present in Christianity, Gil-Martin's logic is impeccable. For a Calvinist of the period in which Hogg was writing, this would perhaps momentarily challenge their whole belief system (although such a reassessment would naturally lead to the conclusion that Wringham is mistaken in his belief that he is one of the Elect, but that the Calvinist concerned is certainly not mistaken.) For a non-Calvinist, Hogg serves to bring that belief system into disrepute by presupposing to think what the consequences of a misguided religious fanatic loose in society might be. The uncanny presents always an uncertainty of some kind, and the uncertainty provokes readers to think, to appraise and to psychologically interpret.

Each author uses different devices—Hogg's version of a split narrative affords multiple readings of the events he wishes to emphasise, where Austen works to provide a parody of the uncanny gothic novel by subverting its main precepts... what links the novels is that there is always the presence of an unknown. There remains a sense of danger in what events might transpire.

The supernatural always invites psychological interpretation because of the relationship that events perceived as supernatural have with the workings of the human mind; through a culture's mythic traditions can be traced many interesting facts in the way of social values and preconceptions, since superstition most always derives from some point in reality.

Any discussion of so-called 'uncanny' texts requires that outside sources be included, because the uncanny relies upon a system of subverting the 'canny', or known. In The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hogg relies upon the works of many other authors who have preceded him in his characterisation of the Devil, Gil-Martin, as a rational Satan. His remarks that "Gil-Martin ... is not my Christian name, but it is a name which may serve your turn" "I have no parents save one [(God)], whom I do not acknowledge" "I have servant and subjects [(Devils, demons and those malicious who walk the Earth)] more than I can number, yet, to gratify a certain whim, I have left them ... [and] attached myself only to you." (p101) cannot be translated and understood without a certain amount of prior knowledge about Christian theology and common historical conceptions. That Lucifer was the brightest amongst God's angels before his Fall, is consequently (perhaps even understandably) bitter, and is expected to lure mortals into sharing in his misery is absolutely crucial to the plot. Authors such as Alighieri and Milton, who wrote at considerable length about this, form an important base of general 'knowledge' which is a prerequisite to being able to interpret this and other texts. They are important in understanding the motivations of characters (in this case Gil-Martin), and this understanding has to include building up a psychological profile of why he acts in the way he does. Anything else would be an abject failure to engage with the text, and a related interest in the text must also be the possible indications of what a novel preoccupied with the supernatural has to say about the mental state of the author. The minds which conceive tales of chilling murder populated with unsociable characters and which are often supplemented by dark abodes with grisly decor must first have allowed these subjects to preoccupy their idle hours.

Hogg's use of the double narrative works well with regard to functioning as uncanny literature because it functions upon the principle of restricting the information available to the reader. Wringham's dubious mental stability ought to lead any conscientious interpreter to treat his chronicle with many reservations, and it is only the fact that it shares points of correlation with the Editor's history which makes it anything but the ravings of a demented individual. Trying to fully reconcile the two accounts being impossible, one cannot help but speculate as to the nature of the discrepancies. Mysteries are compelling, simply because curiosity is innate to the human condition. It is also the case that many look beyond lives preoccupied with drudgery to spheres which make decisive breaks away from the known: gothic fiction fulfils the function of an escape for many readers. Jane Austen makes this point by equating its importance with that of fashion and wooing in the lives of Catherine and Isabella "are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?" (p24) "while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! the dreadful black veil! ... But, my dearest Catherine, have you settled on what to wear on your head to-night?" (p25) The uncanny provides an outlet for the imaginations of characters, typically women in this area, whose lives were socially routine, claustrophobic and eminently otherwise non-stimulating.

Austen's intentionally misunderstanding characters subject uncanny literature to their own particular brand of psychological interpretation by prejudging its subject matter "'Camilla?' ... 'such unnatural stuff! ... I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I hear she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it.'" (p32) It is clear that John Thorpe "has not read beyond the first few pages" (notes, p382) and so, though his interpretation is hurried, incomplete and completely unjustified, it nevertheless reveals a predisposition of people (and an authorial perception of a predisposition) to do so with novels of this type. Also, the mention of Camilla by Austen is further characteristic of the pattern of judgement since its subject matter was, I believe, considered controversial by many at the time of its publishing. (A plot which included same-sex eroticism?)

The trend of uncanny literature towards such controversial and taboo subjects as sexual deviancy and religious fanaticism is a natural hook which serves to broaden its appeal to a wide audience. Such a desire to plumb the depths of the human subconscious, however, must be regarded with an interest which borders upon caution. The casual reader may at first be horrified by the situation of Robert Wringham awakening as if from a dream to find that he has committed acts of murder and lechery. Even a slight broadening of interpretation, though, encounters many questionable readings, not the least of which may be the wish to act out morally dubious acts with the universal excuse of a malicious schizophrenic personality; since the possession denies culpability in unknown actions, the effect (if understood by others) might be extended to known actions. The effect of the uncanny narrative is to launch the imagination and curiosity of the reader into unfamiliar territory, and may often serve to leave them morally rudderless. This is a widely-offered criticism of many modern serial killer inspired and themed novels such as Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris—that any sense of authorial judgement on the actions of the protagonists is absent; this criticism could easily be levied upon Justified Sinner if not for the heavy dose of irony Hogg injects. As it is, a disturbed personality could still very convincingly take the demonic logic it offers at face value.

In summation, one would have to conclude that the literature of the uncanny (with specific reference to the genre of gothic fiction and its derivatives) makes an specific effort to engage the curiosity and fertile imagination of its readership; this, naturally, extends to a form of psychological interpretation of the texts because of an engendered interest in the characters, their motivations, and the emotional and moral consequences which both the fictional society and our own attaches to their actions. Not only is this a possible engagement with the text, it is also an invited one, because a great deal of the value of the text lies in presenting an unsettling and subtle variation upon a known theme or situation. Mastery of the literary genre depends upon a clear knowledge not only of recurrent themes and styles of the form (which exist to be perpetuated in continually evolving manner, much more so than in other genres), but of human nature and the psychological triggers which create in readers a spirit of curiosity. One might think that such a device was inherent to any form of writing of any quality, and whilst this is true, there is a much more marked difference between formulaic uncanny and gothic fiction than that of other genres.


Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, Everyman, 1998.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, Oxford World's Classics, 1998.

All quotations attributed to an author are taken from these editions. Other quotations (definitions) are directly credited in the essay text.