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How Freudian Theories Explain the Horror of Frankenstein and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Sigmund Freud is most well-known for his theories of the Ego, Id, and Superego or terms like the Oedipus Complex. However, his theories of the uncanny and displacement have cemented themselves both in psychology and in literary theory. Together, these two theories can unveil the horror aspects of Frankenstein and “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein created one of the most recognizable monsters in pop culture. More than two hundred years since its initial publication and remakes of Frankenstein’s monster and story continue to be made. The story notoriously follows the life and death of Victor Frankenstein, who leaves his home in Geneva, Switzerland to go to school in Ingolstadt, Germany. There, he is intrigued by the natural sciences, including chemistry. At university, Victor finds the recipe to life and uses it in combination with his skills in grave robbing to create the monster we all know and love. The rest of the story depicts Victor’s declining mental and emotional state as the creature he brought to life becomes a source of crippling fear and guilt. After his loved ones are killed by the monster he created, Frankenstein vows to destroy him, climaxing a cross-continental chase in Siberia.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is lesser known, but no less impactful as a horror story. It follows an unnamed narrator as she writes in her diary. She suffers from what now would be diagnosed as postpartum depression, but is, because of the time, instead called “hysterical”. The narrator’s husband, John, is a physician who prescribes time in seclusion without her writings or her child to help her illness. She keeps the diary that the story is formatted around in secret because of how bored and stir crazy she was becoming. In her diary, she talks about how much she hates the yellow wallpaper in the room she is cooped up in. She focuses on the patterns and slowly starts to believe that she can see a hidden pattern between the visible yellow one. As she stays in her room, the hidden pattern starts to take the shape of a woman whom the narrator believes is trapped in the wallpaper. Over time, the narrator becomes obsessed with the woman, to the point where she sees the woman creeping around outside her window. The story ends with the narrator tearing off the wallpaper only to begin to believe that she herself was the woman trapped in the wall all along.

Sigmund Freud is one of the most well known names in psychology. Two of his theories about the human psyche especially apply to these two notorious names in horror. First off is his idea of the “uncanny”. A definition for Freud’s uncanny can be summarized as something being familiar yet unfamiliar. Something you once knew but is now different. Some examples include inanimate objects becoming too similar to animate ones, or dismembered limbs being something that is only a part of a familiar whole. The other is Freud’s theory of displacement. This theory, in horror, suggests that the fears that we have stem from a deeper, unknown fear but are displaced into other objects or people, often taking the form of monsters or beasts to be slain in fiction. By using these two Freudian theories, horror aspects of both Frankenstein and “The Yellow Wallpaper” can be understood.

In Frankenstein, any reader would be able to feel an eerie sense of Freud’s uncanny. The way that Victor only chooses the most beautiful of limbs and body parts from the corpses he gets his hands on can be seen as something terrifying being a part of something so familiar as human bodies. “Each of these items [severed limbs], whether animate or inanimate, produces an uncanny effect. They are all a part of a whole, something cut off from a familiar object. The complete object is familiar, as are the individual parts, but only when attached to the original collective” (Rippentrop, 2012). Victor takes the familiar shape of a man and distorts it until it is recognizable only as a monster or, as Victor himself calls it, a demon. The idea of the uncanny, especially in regards to dismantling the human form, brings an indescript amount of dread and disgust. In a similar way of finding inanimate objects unnerving when they exhibit animate traits, the feeling of a corpse being brought back to life, dismembered or otherwise, can be described by the uncanny. Along with the familiar being terrifying, readers can look at the way Victor himself worked on his creature for two whole years, painstakingly connecting every nerve and vein together, only for him to become so terrified of his creature immediately after giving him life.

Freud’s idea of the uncanny is also frequently seen in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The most familiar thing to the narrator throughout the story is the wallpaper that plagues her mind. Seeing the yellow patterns day in and day out takes the previously ugly interior decoration and warps it into a sinister prison for the main character as well as the woman perceived to be trapped within the walls. The reliable nature of the unchanging is a source of comfort in most, and can usually be found in peoples’ rooms or homes. In this case, however, Gilman takes this trust in the familiar surroundings of one’s abode and betrays it. The unchanging becomes a source of hatred and disgust. In addition, the way that the woman in the walls is portrayed as both an imaginary monster as well as a real one goes along with Freud’s take on his uncanny. “This is that an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality.” (Freud, 1919)

As for displacement, Frankenstein’s monster is the perceived source of Victor’s troubles throughout the book, however, all of Victor’s problems are a result of his lack of responsibility. Immediately after the creature comes to life, Victor runs away in terror, as if he is surprised by the life he worked so tirelessly to create. He runs away, spending the time with his childhood friend while his monster has to figure out what it means to be alive by himself in a cruel world. Despite knowing the maid, Justine, is innocent, Victor does not come forward in her defense, not only because he is scared of the monster’s strength, but because he was afraid of being reviled for bringing life to a monster capable of murder. Continuing his pattern, Victor vows to destroy his monster, only after everyone he loves is killed directly or indirectly by the creature. Victor was not afraid of this so-called daemon, but afraid of taking responsibility for what he had done, fearing the way people would treat him if they knew. It is only because of his true fears that he despises his creation so much, and killing the monster is the only way he can see to destroy his displaced anxieties.

Whilst watching the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” slowly descend into madness, it is not difficult to see that the true source of her turmoil is not the wallpaper at all, but her husband. He is who secludes her from the outside world and separates her from the writing that she enjoys. Looking at the monster in her tale, the similarities between herself and the woman in the wallpaper become clear. The narrator takes her stress and boredom of being confined in her room and displaces it not only onto the wallpaper, but onto an imaginary imprisoned woman the narrator creates. In trying to free the woman, she is inadvertently trying to free herself. In the end of the story, the narrator is unable to separate herself from the woman in the wallpaper, ending in a psychological break as the narrator celebrates her freedom from the wallpaper while remaining contained within the room itself. By seeing that what she is fighting is in her imagination rather than an actual being, readers feel a disheartening hopelessness for the main character, understanding that she cannot win the fight against her own madness.

These stories, while not ones that give nightmares or make readers scared of what lurks in the dark, are scary in the sense that they use roundabout ways to unnerve their readers. Despite there being a monster in Shelly’s Frankenstein, the true horror comes from the mutilation of the human figure rather than what the creature does with his newfound autonomy. The anxieties of Victor are able to be felt through the pages be the readers, but his fear of the monster really stems from a deeper fear of consequences and how others may think of the man who reaped the consequences of playing god. As for “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the horror completely comes from the main character’s own mind as well as Gilman’s ability to take the places and people so trusted and turn them into sources of terror and insanity. Freud’s idea of both displacement and the uncanny both work to help readers understand what makes these stories feel the way they do. The Freudian theory of uncanny shows the way that authors can warp what we find so familiar and reliable, whether it be interior design or the human body to betray trust and cause a panic.

Displacement on the other hand can make the readers support the character fighting against a beast despite the character not realizing what makes them so adverse to the monster. It can also make the readers feel sympathetic towards a character fighting the wrong battle when targeting a monster rather than their own traits.

Citations:

Rippentrop, Jessica M. “The Uncanny.” UIowa Wiki, 6 May 2012, https://wiki.uiowa.edu/pages/viewpage.action?pageId=74615767.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” 1919. PDF file

Stevens, Anne H. “Chapter 9: Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Psychoanalytic Approaches.” Literary Theory and Criticism, 2015, pp. 211–218.

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