Misreading Signs. The Uncanny and Language in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass"

Seminar Paper, 2011

25 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Concept of the Uncanny and its Relation to Language

3. The Uncanny and Language In Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

4. Conclusions


1. Introduction

The original point of interest in the uncanny and language in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass related to the immense popularity of the stories which resulted in numerous translations of the books into a multitude of languages. However, people tend to forget about the inherent strangeness oftranslations. Even though translations are uncanny, one is almost never aware ofthis fact until one fails to find a direct translation for a word into another language. Thus, one needs to consider the concept of the uncanny in relation to language.

The aim of the following dissertation is an analysis of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass in regard to the uncanny and its relation to language. For the purpose of the study on the psychoanalytical concept of the uncanny in connection with linguistic theory, the most important theories have been evaluated in the first chapter of the dissertation, titled "The Concept of the Uncanny and its Relation to Language". Afterwards the chapter "The Uncanny and Language in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass" applies the acquired theoretical framework to the two selected texts in order to understand the different ways in which Carroll manipulates language in order to create an uncanny atmosphere.

First of all, the problematic notion of the uncanny in the two Alice narratives is explored. Secondly, the different methods employed by Carroll in Alice's two adventures are studied. The communicative techniques that are discussed are silence, homophony, names and the usage of words without knowing its meaning - all of which lead to the continuous questioning of the very system of language and moreover seem to lead to Alice's ontological crisis. Therefore, an analysis of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass reveals the close relationship between language and identity that is complicated by the innate illogicality of language. Finally, some conclusion and more general remarks on uncanny language are offered in the last chapter of the paper by putting the researched topic into the broader context of literature in general.

2. The Concept of the Uncanny and its Relation to Language

The term 'uncanny' proves to be problematic since it evades accurate definition, indeed attempting a definition of the term "[...] is immediately to encounter one of its decisive paradoxes, namely it has to do with a troubling of definitions [...]" (Bennett and Royle 35). Several scholars ofdifferent fields of study have attempted to define the concept ofthe uncanny in the past, yet all of their efforts have remained fruitless (Cixous; Freud; Royle; Jentsch). One of the first to publish on the subject of the uncanny was psychologist Ernst Jentsch with his essay "On the Psychology of the Uncanny", which was published in 1906. Jentsch suggested that a sense of uncanny is created by "psychical uncertainty" (Jentsch 7). However, another piece of writing on the same topic might be said to overshadow Jentsch's work almost completely. Sigmund Freud, whose 1919 infamous essay "The Uncanny" references Jentsch's work in several instances in the text. Therefore, though Jentsch published on the uncanny thirteen years before Freud, Jentsch's essay is rarely discussed as a piece of research in its own right. Instead it is mostly mentioned in relation to Freud's essay. Roy Sellars, the English translator of "On the Psychology ofthe Uncanny", notes in the preface to his translation from German into English that the text itself has nearly become uncanny since it is regarded as a kind of ghost text to "The Uncanny" (Jentsch 1). It is only in 1995 that Sellars wrote the first ever English translation ofJentsch's essay. Nevertheless Jentsch's work, as Sellars points out, has been frequently quoted in the vast literature available on the uncanny (Jentsch 1). Consequently, the references to Jentsch and his study of the uncanny were mostly due to Freud's discussion of the essay. Although Freud criticises Jentsch's preceding work on the subject ofthe uncanny with '[¡]t is not difficult to see that this definition is incomplete [...]' (341), Freud himselffails to provide the reader with a precise explanation of the uncanny as well.

Freud suggests that Jentsch's definition of the term 'uncanny' is not accurate (341).

Instead psychoanalyst Freud stresses that the uncanny does not only depend on uncertainty caused by unfamiliarity, as Jentsch implied, but further that '[something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny' (341). In order to complete the definition of the uncanny provided by Jentsch, Freud turns to the etymology of the word 'heimlich'. "The Uncanny" begins with the etymology of the word 'uncanny', resulting in Freud's realisation that the very term 'uncanny' is paradoxical. According to Freud, an unambiguous definition ofthe uncanny is not possible, '[...] perhaps only because we speak a language that is foreign' (341). Therefore, since the meaning of the term 'uncanny' is contradictory - it means 'heimlich' and 'unheimlich' at once (Freud 345) - it is an instance of the difficult nature of language systems. The meaning of the word 'heimlich' moreover is highly ambiguous as Freud establishes via an analysis of the different possible connotations of the word 'heimlich', which interestingly enough '[...] exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, "unheimlich(345), thus rendering what is familiar unfamiliar. However, David Macey notes that Freud, akin to linguist Karl Abel, arrives at the initially surprising conclusion '[...] that the seeming antonyms heimlich and unheimlich are in fact synonyms and that they prove that primitive elements still survive in the unconscious' ("Uncanny" 386). Freud states that '"[u]nheimlich" is the name for everything that ought to have remained [...] secret and hidden but has come to light' (364). This coincides with the second part of Macey's reading of Freud's essay because feelings of uncanniness arise especially in situations in which ancient elements resurface that were supposed to be buried. David Punter concurrently expands this point in Freud's argument further:

'[The uncanny] represents a feeling which relates to a dialectic between that which is known and that which is unknown. If we are afraid, then more often than not it is because we are experiencing fear of the unknown; but if we have a sense ofthe uncanny, it is because the barriers between the known and the unknown are teetering on the brink of collapse. We are afraid, certainly; but what we are afraid of is at least partly our own sense that we have been here before' (130).

The uncanny is hard to fathom, argues Punter, because it is exists in the liminal space between the known and the unknown - itisa sense that the failing distinction between the two categories are what ultimately creates the feeling of uncanniness. Consequently Punter here implies that uncanniness is created through the process of repression, which is an important argument in "The Uncanny". This association between psychological repression and the sensation of uncanniness accounts for the '[...] secret nature ofthe uncanny [...]' (Freud 363). Due to the partial compliance of the connotations of 'heimlich' and 'unheimlich', Freud concludes that the uncanny is, as a matter of fact, not something unknown but rather something that was once known but has been repressed, and has thus become unfamiliar.

It is this notion of the uncanny as the resurfacing of suppressed memory that Freud traces back to the actual word 'unheimlich' when he states that '[...] the prefix "un" ["un-"] is the token of repression [...]' (368), hence establishing a close connection between the word and the concept. As previously mentioned in the last paragraph, language is deeply interwoven with the concept of the uncanny. In order to understand Freud's frustration with language systems, it might be helpful to referto Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure criticized the conception of language '[...] as a naming process only - a list of words, each corresponding to the thing that it names' (852). In contrast to this widespread assumption in linguistics, Saussure contends that '[...] the linguistic unit is a double entity, one formed by the association of two terms' (852), namely the signified and the signifier.


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Misreading Signs. The Uncanny and Language in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass"
University of Constance
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misreading, signs, uncanny, language, lewis, carroll’s, alice, wonderland, through, looking-glass
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Anonymous, 2011, Misreading Signs. The Uncanny and Language in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/345171


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