“The Uncanny” in The Prisoner of Azkaban

In his essay The “Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud says that what is uncanny “is undoubtably related to what is frightening–to what arouses dread and horror.” He attempts to discuss the different ways the uncanny is interpreted, which typically includes the assertion that to be uncanny has a quality of “intellectual uncertainty.” He describes the way the aesthetic qualities of certain works can contribute to this air of uncanniness.

To a certain extent, it can be argued that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban carries an uncanny aesthetic. The plot of the novel is essentially guided by what Harry doesn’t know, and this creates a feeling of uncanniness. One very obvious example that creates a feeling of unease throughout the story is the appearance of the dementors. From the beginning, Harry and the other students are told that the demetors are there to protect Hogwarts from Sirius Black. For something that is meant to be protection, Harry has several instances with the dementors that actually prove to be very dangerous. This sets up the subliminal feeling that what is going on in the plot might not actually be what we are led to believe, along with Harry. At the start of the novel, Harry is told that Sirius Black is a threat to him, and the dementors are there to protect him from that threat. Later we discover that Sirius is the opposite of a threat to Harry, and the dementors–who are still very dangerous–were an unnecessary risk in protecting him. Throughout the story, Harry has many uncanny experiences that provide a sense of unease, and cause a sort of misdirection to the reader. We can sense a feeling of danger, but it is not exactly what we think it is.

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Another part of the story that contributes to the uncanny is the introduction of divination class. Professor Trelawny represents a sort of superstitious, unreliable side to the magical world that Harry, Ron and Hermione are not familiar with. Hermione, a character who relies on reason, rejects Trelawny’s class because she thinks it’s a load of nonsense. Harry however, feels uneasy about it, because he is already growing cautious about what is happening around him. He starts to piece together the things that have been going on, like the hunt for Black, and the appearance of the dog figure, and going to divination just adds to the uncanniness of what he is experiencing. It reflects the fact that Harry cannot count on what is going on around him. When Ron looks at Harry’s tea leaves he sees one message, but when professor Trelawny looks at them she sees another. This is reflective of the uncertain nature of the story’s plot. It may seem as if one thing is happening, but really it is something else entirely.

Aside from elements specific to the plot of The Prisoner of Azkaban, the Harry Potter books in general have an uncanny aesthetic. The details of the wizarding world, while at times fanciful, also have an uncanny nature. Rowling uses names and details such as naming the castle”Hogwarts” to create a mood for the story that isn’t all fairytale. There is a dark spin on the wonders of the wizarding world and the dangers that the characters face. In the film adaption of the movies, the directors do an excellent job of depicting this. Often the colors of the sets are dark and muted, the costumes are not lavish, but dark and dull. Even the setting of the bleak English countryside speaks to the uncanny aesthetic of the story.

 

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Ultimately, there are many elements of the novel that create the feeling of uncanniness for the reader. The predominate theme of things not being as they seem takes on a real form at the end of the novel when the use of time travel comes into play. In addition, revealing that the rat is actually the disguised Peter Pettigrew, is in itself a physical example of the theme of misdirection that manifests itself through the entire plot. Along with the many small details that create a feeling of uncanniness, the way in which the story is told, and the way we receive the information all serve to contribute to the uncanny feeling of the story.

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