Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Modern Uncanny and Christina Stead's 'The Marionettist'

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Modern Uncanny and Christina Stead's 'The Marionettist'

Article excerpt

Little critical attention has been paid to Christina Stead's first published work, The Salzburg Tales, which appeared in 1934. Those critics who have addressed the book tend to do so fleetingly. It is usually considered a failed experiment or a false start to Stead's writing. Michael Ackland's 2003 article on The Salzburg Tales is only the second to address the book since M. Barnard Eldershaw's 1938 essay, 'Christina Stead.' Ackland offers a reappraisal of The Salzburg Tales, and suggests several new lines of interpretation. In doing this, he focuses on 'The Marionettist,' the first story in a collection of over thirty loosely connected short stories. In the following article I want to explore further one of the points Ackland makes about 'The Marionettist.' While tracing Stead's debt to the German Romantic writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and in particular his story, 'The Sandman,' Ackland notes how the figure of Coppelius, so uncanny in 'The Sandman,' becomes completely free of any uncanny aspect when it reappears in Stead's 'The Marionettist' as a marionette. The point is, if I read Ackland correctly, that what induced uncanny effects in Hoffmann's day ('The Sandman' was first published in 1817) is no longer felt as uncanny, since what a reader is prepared to credit has now changed: a reader of the 1930s, or a contemporary reader, would no longer be as likely to credit the supernatural, with which the Coppelius figure is associated. As Ackland writes, the Coppelius marionette in Stead's story 'not only serves as tacit recognition of Hoffmann's influential legacy, but also marks the distance travelled beyond it' (62). This is because, between Hoffmann and Stead's day, 'intellectually there had been a massive shift. Devilish forces, witches and fairies still people the popular imagination in the Romantic's [Hoffmann's] time. . . . By the 1930s, the former theatre of inherited deities was resonately hollow' (63). Uncanny effects can no longer be elicited, therefore, from a supernatural, changeling figure such as Coppelius. In general, 'The Marionettist' seems devoid of uncanny effects for Ackland.

This is the point I wish to explore, because I do feel uncanny effects while reading 'The Marionettist,' and some of them are linked to the figure of the Coppelius marionette that so briefly surfaces in Stead's story. Other uncanny effects in 'The Marionettist' are not linked with the Coppelius marionette, and this also forms part of my argument. This paper, then, explores uncanny effects in 'The Marionettist.' What is the source of these effects, how are they characterized, and how and why are they felt as uncanny? Ackland's evoking of the relationship between the historical and the uncanny also invites further investigation. This is a very large question, but in short I argue that the uncanny is not confined to modernity. My reading of 'The Marionettist' aims to provide an appropriate example for some suggestions regarding this much broader point.

I want to return briefly to Sigmund Freud's 1919 essay, 'The Uncanny.' Later writers often make assumptions based on this work, or about this work, and my argument questions some of these assumptions. One common assumption is that Freud's theory of the uncanny is homogenous. However, Freud identifies at least three classes of uncanny in his essay, each with different characteristics. Freud also gives four different definitions of the uncanny. One is borrowed from the German philosopher, Schelling, who is cited by Freud as stating 'everything is unheimlich [unhomely, uncanny] that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light' ('The Uncanny,' Art 345). Schelling's definition is often given as Freud's, or conflated with one of Freud's. Freud's most general original definition of the uncanny is this: 'the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar' (340). Important to my argument is that Freud divides this old but long familiar material into two classes-the repressed, and the surmounted. …

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