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Psychoanalytic Reading of Hoffmann’s and Kafka’s Works


Ever since Freud’s methodology of psychoanalysis has gained an academic validity, during the first part of twentieth century, it became possible for psychiatrists to get an insight onto the actual roots of their clients’ mental anxieties, which were revealed as such that reside deep in people’s subconsciousness. In its turn, this has led psychiatrists to realize that, unlike what had been assumed before; even seemingly normal individuals can succumb to mental illness, for as long as their deep-seated subconscious insecurities become articulated by their sense of rationale.

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This usually happens when people accidentally find logical confirmation to what they used to consider as something irrationally-illogical, and therefore – unworthy of any attention, on their part. In his essay “The Uncanny”, Freud explains technical aspects of a process of mentally adequate people experiencing emotional discomfort of clearly pathological essence, which is now being referred to by psychologists as “cognitive dissonance”: “We do not feel quite sure of our new beliefs (rational), and the old ones (irrational) still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation…

An uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (Freud). In this paper, we will aim at exploring the motifs of “uncannyness”, contained in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” and in Franz Kafka’s stories “The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgment”.

“The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffman

Even today, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” is being commonly referred to as literary insight onto the actual significance of Freud’s suggestions, in regards to what triggers uncanny experiences, in the first place. As it appears from story’s context, during the course of his childhood years, Nathanael had experienced an emotional shock on account of his nanny’s bedtime stories about the mythical character of Sandman matching the physical appearance and the attitudes of his father’s friend Coppelius. Even though, while still a child, Nathanael used to be getting utterly terrified by the prospect of becoming blinded by evil Sandman, by the time he had reached an adulthood, Nathanael was able to recognize his childish fear of a Sandman as being essentially irrational.

However, the scar that the semi-mythical character of Sandman had left on Nathanael’s sensitive psyche was never completely healed, which is why, after having encountered an Italian merchant Coppola (whose physical appearance loosely reminded that of Coppelius), Nathanael became emotionally distressed to such an extent that he could not think of anything but Coppelius’ imaginary return as something absolutely real: “He (Coppola) was differently dressed; but Coppelius’s figure and features are too deeply impressed upon my mind for me to be capable of making a mistake in the matter” (Hoffmann, p. 5).

Thus, there can be very little doubt as to the fact that the encounter with Coppola had triggered a cognitive dissonance within Nathanael’s rational mind – on one hand; Nathanael knew that the Sandman could not have possibly been real; but on another, Coppola’s appearance had confirmed the validity of Nathanael’s childhood anxieties as to Sandman’s realness. Moreover, this appearance strengthened the extent of Nathanael’s perceptional fatalism, simply because he had learnt to think of Sandman as a bearer of bad news.

As Freud had put it: “He (Sandman) separates the unfortunate Nathaniel from his betrothed and from her brother, his best friend; he destroys the second object of his love, Olympia, the lovely doll; and he drives him into suicide at the moment when he has won back his Clara” (Freud).

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We can say that by contemplating on the subject of Coppola’s possible affiliation with Coppelius, and consequently with Sandman, Nathanael had unwillingly stepped over the thin line that separates madness from mental adequateness. In its turn, this created an objective precondition for yet another reemergence of a Sandman out of the depths of Nathanael’s subconsciousness to affect novel main character’s life in absolutely realistic manner, just as it has been “predicted” by Nathanael’s irrational introspective onto the symbolic significance of its childhood’s tormenter – thus, bringing about his ultimate demise.

It is namely the fact that Nathanael could no longer experience an acute dichotomy between its irrational anxieties and its ability to assess objective reality in terms of logic, which facilitated the process of novel’s main character descending into the madness. In its turn, this had left Nathanael with only one possible option to end its misery – committing a suicide: “With a piercing scream, “Eh! Fine eyes-a, fine eyes-a” he (Nathanael) leaped over the railing” (Hoffmann, p. 21). Apparently, people cannot last for too long, while the workings their rational mind serve the purpose of facilitating these people’s subconscious fears.

“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis” can be thought of as yet another literary exploration of Freudian theme of “uncanny”. In it, after having woken up early in the morning, story’s main character Gregor Samsa realizes himself being turned into a bug: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug” (Kafka).

And yet, despite this monstrous metamorphosis, Gregor never ceased trying to act as if he had never been deprived of its humanity. For example, while speaking with the clerk who came to check on him, Gregor tried his best to assure his superior that he was just about to leave the house: “I’m just getting out of bed. Just a moment. Be patient! It’s not quite as easy as I’d thought. I’m quite alright now, though” (Kafka).

However, even though Gregor strived with all his might to ensure that his numerous relatives would continue treating him as a human being, he felt that as time went by, he was becoming increasingly alienated from them. What did not make any sense in Gregor’s eyes is that, the harder he tried to manifest its humanity to his father, mother and sister, the worse they would end up treating him. Freud’s essay “The Uncanny”, explains the nature of this seeming paradox.

It appears that, after Gregor has been transformed into a bug, his relatives had automatically ceased to think of him as a human being, so that they would be able to preserve their perceptional sanity. This is why his relatives’ initial attempts to take care of him derived out of their love towards Gregor as an abstract idea, rather than out of their love towards Gregor as an individual. In its turn, this explains utterly mechanistic manner, in which these people went about providing Gregor with assistance: “Since they could not understand him, no one, not even his sister, thought that he might be able to understand others, and thus, when his sister was in his room, he had to be content with listening now and then to her sighs and invocations to the saints” (Kafka).

Therefore, the fact that Gregor persisted with trying to manifest its humanity, could not have possibly benefited him in any way, whatsoever. And the reason for this is simple – by trying to win the attention of its relatives, Gregor was involuntarily causing them to experience a cognitive dissonance. Apparently, the recognition of Gregor’s basic humanity had never left the realm of these people’s subconsciousness. However, since there was no rational proof as to the fact that the ominous-looking bug has been endowed with Gregor’s existential identity, they preferred to think of it as being simply a remainder of Gregor, rather than an insect-like emanation of Gregor’s true self.

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Every time they sensed that there was more to this bug other than simply a remainder of Gregor, they would experience a sensation of an utter emotional discomfort. In its turn, this would cause them to hate Gregor even more, while resorting to their sense of rationale, in order to deal with apparent signs of Gregor’s humanity: “If it were Gregor, he would have long ago realized that a communal life among human beings is not possible with such a creature and would have gone away voluntarily” (Kafka).

Thus, we can say that it was namely Gregor’s constant strive to act as human, rather than his insect-like appearance, which was contributing to the sensation of alienation, on the part of his father, mother and sister – by being exposed to the signs of bug’s Gregor-likeness, his relatives had to confront their subconscious anxieties as to the probability of Gregor’s continuous existence, even though in different form. In its turn, this was leading them towards the sensation of guilt – after all, if a despicable bug really was Gregor, their unwillingness to treat him as their son and brother would signify their own lack of humanity. And, as psychologists are being well aware of – avoiding the experiences of guilt represents one of people’s most important existential priorities.

“The Judgement” by Franz Kafka

In Kafka’s another short story “The Judgment”, the Freudian motifs of “uncannyness” appear being more elusive, as compared to what it is the case with “The Metamorphosis”. Nevertheless, it does not represent much of a challenge to define them, for as long as we keep in mind the particulars of Freud’s methodological approach towards the issue. As we have pointed out earlier, it is namely when one’s subconscious insecurities can be articulated rationally, which results in these insecurities growing to dominate his or her psyche.

By writing a letter to his friend in Russia, George Bendemann strived to confront its deep-seated sensation of guilt over the fact that he turned out to be more fortunate, as compared to this friend, even though he clearly lacked the qualities that allow an individual to attain social prominence – industriousness, resourcefulness, willingness to take risk, etc. Moreover, while contemplating on the subject of his friend’s unsuccessfulness, George was slowly beginning to suspect that there might have been be a connection between his own existential progress and the fact that this friend has been undeservingly cheated out of lack.

While trying to deal away with this suspicion, George decided to talk to his father, so that a “third party” would confirm the absence of such a connection. However, instead of acting in way that was expected of him, George’s father did something entirely opposite – he rationalized George’s insecurities in front his son: “My son goes merrily through the world, finishing off business deals which I had set up, falling over himself with delight, and walking away from your father with the tight-lipped face of an honorable gentleman!” (Kafka).

The reason why George became utterly terrified by these words is not because they revealed the full scope of his unworthiness, but because they have been articulated by someone who could not have consciously strived to cause him any harm – his very own father.

The horror is not truly “horrible”, for as long as it can be explained along the lines of logic. For example, mentally adequate people do not get utterly terrified by being exposed to the sights of violent death – they simply become grossed out. In order for a particular event or physical object to inspire horror, it has to be unnatural. We all know that chairs cannot move on their own, that walking sticks cannot bloom and that corpses cannot walk. Yet, somewhere in the depths of our primeval subconsciousness we do consider such a possibility, which explain the visual subtleties of people’s hallucinations.

As it comes out of novel’s context, throughout the course of his life, George pursued an absolutely normal relationship with his father. This is why it would never occur to George that his dad was capable of hating him with a passion. However, given the fact that Oedipus complex is being subtly experienced by all males, many of George’s irrational anxieties did feature the scenes of his father killing him, even though he could never bring himself to rationalize this fact.

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Therefore, after having realized its own subconscious fears as being absolutely real, George became horrified to such an extent that he had instantly lost its ability to act as a sovereign of his life – father’s words had simply triggered George’s instinct of death. In a similar manner rabbits become stunned by looking into the eyes of a snake. This is exactly why George was in such a rush carrying out his father’s “sentence” – father’s speech had endowed George with an unbearable sensation of guilt. And, there is only one effective way of dealing with such a sensation – suicide.


Freud, Z. (1906) The uncanny. San Diego State University. Web.

Hoffman, E.T.A. (1816). The Sandman. HorrorMasters. Web.

Kafka, F. (1912) The judgment. Vancouver Island University. Web.

Kafka, F. (1915). The metamorphosis. Vancouver Island University. Web.

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