Freud, Roseanne and Fairy Tales

From the Interpretations of Dreams

From Chapter V. The Material and Sources of Dreams

[The Oedipus Complex]

“If Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less than it did the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not line in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified. There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus . . . His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours – because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him . . . our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (815-16).

In this statement, Freud conveys that the long-lasting appreciation of Shakespeare’s Oedipus Rex stems from our ability as viewers and readers to relate to Oedipus’ destiny. In fact, our destiny is that of Oedipus, we have an infantile sexual desire for our mothers and wish to murder our fathers (for women this is later suggested to be the other way around and is entitled the Electra complex). When reading this, I could not help but recall a scene from the sitcom Roseanne in which Darlene’s boyfriend, David, who lives with the Connor family has a dream involving him having sex with Darlene’s mother. In lieu of comedy, David reveals that he had a dream of another Connor woman and Darlene’s sister, Becky, believes that the dream involves her. However, it is soon revealed that the dream involved Roseanne, resulting in an awkward heart-to-heart moment between David and Roseanne. In typical Roseanne fashion, Roseanne claims that the dream makes perfect sense, she is attractive, they see each other every day, what is there not to dream about? Yet Freud would perhaps argue that because David has an estranged relationship with his own mother and that because Roseanne has assumed this role, David is destined to have such an incest-ridden dream. As this dream occurs when David is an adult, it is met with “feelings of repulsion” as he is ashamed to discuss it and initially chooses to move out (817). However, unlike Oedipus, David does not kill Roseanne’s husband, Dan, nor shows any indication of a will to do so (Freud would probably counter that David is repressing this wish) and after the dream is discussed, David and Darlene remain happily together (yet psychoanalytically, one could say that David truly desired Roseanne and settled for Darlene because she was the closest obtainment that David could have, yet I highly doubt that it the case). The very notion of a sexual dream concerning one’s own mother takes the status of the mother (familiar and homely) and turns it into something unfamiliar through the dream-action of incest: the uncanny.

From The “Uncanny”

“Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite unheimlich” (828).

Through reading the various definitions that arise from the term ‘heimlich’ in addition to the notion that other languages do not possess an exact equivalent, I found myself thinking of the limitations of language (something discussed time and time again) with a particular focus on its incapability to capture experienced emotions. As some view language as a way to communicate and express ourselves, I find it unsettling that it often fails us when we attempt to articulate emotions. The term ‘heimlich’ can only best be understood through the term ‘unheimlich,’ a term that is also ambivalent in its definition. While reading the definitions, I asked my mother (who was originally born in Germany) if she could define ‘heimlich,’ to which she defined it as ‘secret.’ When I asked if it was used to describe something homely or familiar, she claimed that she nor any of my relatives have ever used it that way. Granted that there are different dialects and generations, I still find it odd how the very premise of Freud’s piece rests on such an ambiguous term.

“We have heard that it is in the highest degree uncanny when an inanimate object – a picture or a doll – comes to life: nevertheless in Hans Anderson’s stories the household utensils, furniture and tine soldiers are alive, yet nothing could well be more remote from the uncanny” (837).

As an avid lover of fairytales, I found this passage to be particularly striking as I found myself asking the question: Why is this? Why are we not terrified of the inanimate objects that so regularly come alive in fairytales? The question begins to be answered by Freud’s following statements:

“. . . in the realm of fiction, many things are not uncanny which would be so if they happened in real life” (839).

“We adapt our judgment to the imaginary reality imposed on us by the writer” (839).

“In fairy stories feelings of fear – including therefore uncanny feelings – are ruled our altogether” (841).

Although these statements do hold a lot of weight, I am not completely satisfied with them, and I think this is because I am thinking of when these fairy tales are reproduced into movies. I believe that there is something else occurring that allows us to remove the uncanny. I think we must consider the image of these objects that would cause ‘uncanniness’ in real life yet do not in fairy tales.

While we are all rooting for the image on the left to occur and we would actually love to own one, we would probably run the hell away from the image on the right. In order for something to become uncanny, it has to first be familiar and then become rendered as frightening, unfamiliar, and ultimately uncanny. In images of fairy tales often perpetuated like the ones in Disney movies, the inanimate objects, through their ‘cartoonness’ have already become unfamiliar. Additionally, their coloring, lining, and highlighting removed them from the aspect of frightening. This could perhaps explain why fairy tales fail to cause an experience of the uncanny.

Rather the uncanny is caused more by images such as this:


No, not because George Lopez is not funny yet continues to pursue comedy (something frightening in and of itself), but because the wax figure of George Lopez so closely mirrors the original. George Lopez, the familiar, has become uncanny because the wax figure, although unreal and unfamiliar, so closely resembles Lopez and thus becomes uncanny.

Note: Citations stem from the NATC.

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