The focus of this research is uncanny reading effects in the shorter fiction of the Australian author, Christina Stead (1902-1983). I define the uncanny as an awareness of uncertainty over how to categorise something. As a reading effect, this is the experiencing of ambiguity in relation to a hard-to-place aspect of a narrative. I argue that Stead’s writing often depicts characters, situations, and atmospheres that resist categorisation, and that the form of the writing is, in addition, often difficult to classify. This thesis is an enquiry specifically into the different and innovative ways in which this ambiguity occurs in Stead’s writing, and more generally into the ways in which ambiguity in a narrative can be uncanny. My argument offers a new interpretation of Stead’s fiction, centrally of The Salzburg Tales, in the light of theorisations of the uncanny. Implicit in the argument is the memorable, striking quality of uncanny effects which, I argue, are a large part of the power of Stead’s fictional production. Stead’s works challenge and provoke: this thesis articulates this in terms of the uncanny.
The introduction highlights patterns in the critical literature on Stead: critics repeatedly note that Stead’s work is hard to categorise, and that it is characterised by strangeness. I suggest that theories of the uncanny are helpful in theorising the hard-to-categorise and the strange. I discuss different interpretations of the uncanny, and how they relate to literature, including an exploration of ideas found in Sigmund Freud’s essay, “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919). In the first two chapters of the thesis I discuss uncanny effects in Stead’s work with reference to Freud’s theories of the return of the repressed, the return of the surmounted, and the death drive. I find that Freud’s ideas of the uncanny, while crucial to an understanding of subsequent developments in theorising the uncanny (especially in literary, visual arts, and cultural critique), cannot illuminate the main source of uncanny effects in Stead’s work. These, I find, are produced by ambiguity of category.
From the third chapter onward, my thesis develops ideas to do with ambiguity of category, and how it produces uncanny effects, in relation to Stead’s writing. Through an analysis in chapter three of storytelling characters in several Stead stories, I explore how story can be a medium for the hard-to-categorise, and how this produces uncanny effects. In the two chapters that follow, I make further links between uncanny effects and the hard-to-categorise. Drawing on the writings of the structural anthropologist, Mary Douglas, I argue that the hard-to-categorise – that which falls between categories, or occupies simultaneously several usually discrete categories – is perceived as formless: furthermore, that the formless can be linked to what is iii taboo. In a discussion centred on the title story in Stead’s novella collection, The Puzzleheaded Girl, I indicate how the evocation of formlessness is a persistent and powerful aspect of Stead’s work, as is her fearless evocation of the taboo. I find that the formless and the taboo are closely associated with uncanny effects deriving from ambiguity of category in Stead’s writing.
In the last two chapters I focus on distinct features of Stead stories which generate an ambiguity of category – aspects of language (imagery) and form (elision) in the case of “The Captain’s House”; content in the case of “The Rightangled Creek,” in its treatment of nature. In discussing imagery, I adapt Roland Barthes’s understanding of the blind field, to argue that a striking detail in a work can elicit a trail of association in the subject: this brings to light the hard-to-place, which is felt as uncanny.
My thesis is an exploration of powerful and key aspects of Stead’s writing. My findings are arrived at through analyses of works that have not received much, or any, critical attention. My conclusions about the uncanny and its central relation to ambiguity of category, and the links with formlessness and taboo, have implications for the study of Stead’s work, and for theorising the uncanny in literature more generally.