Dolls and the Uncanny

photo 1I have a china doll of which I am very fond. It was given to me in childhood by a family friend, and I loved it, though it (she – her name is Emily) fell off a step and consequently has a cracked face. She is going to be mended soon, which has prompted me to think about her after years of ignoring her; some research has shown that she was made by a German company called Armand Marseille, and her serial number (542 with head model K) suggests that she is quite unusual. She belonged to my friend in her childhood, and was made in 1928, and came to me with several beautiful sets of handmade baby clothes. I never really saw her as a toy, more as something to be looked at.

However, she has scared a number of my friends on different occasions; she used to sit on top of my wardrobe in my parents’ house and someone once said she looked like the baby on the ceiling in Trainspotting. China dolls are always uncanny, I think: partly because they are usually old (as opposed to more modern, plastic dolls), and because their blank faces give the impression they are watching you. The strongest sense of uncanniness comes from the uncertainty as to whether they might be alive, as Freud says in his essay on the Uncanny:

‘Jentsch has taken as a very good instance ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata.’

Freud goes on to discuss how this might relate to childhood:

‘Now, dolls are of course rather closely connected with childhood life. We remember that in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people. In fact, I have occasionally heard a woman patient declare that even at the age of eight she had still been convinced that her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular, extremely concentrated, way. So that here, too, it is not difficult to discover a factor from childhood.’

Baby dolls of Emily’s kind were meant to look like real babies (presumably to encourage the desire for motherhood anphoto 2d nurturing
emotions in young girls), and despite her somewhat creepy stare Emily is very like a real baby in size and shape. Of course we know a doll isn’t alive, but there is always this uncanny uncertainty that they might suddenly just move their heads or blink (and in fact Emily does randomly blink spontaneously, her now-lashless eyelids slowly moving up and down; she also has a ‘Mama’ cry which is primal and eerie). Freud refers to the doll which comes alive in Hoffmann’s tale ‘The Sandman’, and this is both a longing and a fear for children which I think stays with us into adulthood (and apparently ‘pediophobia’, or fear of dolls, is quite common). The uncanny, according to Freud, is both familiar and frightening, a juxtaposition neatly fulfilled by these life-like baby-dolls. They are homely objects, reminiscent of childhood innocence, and yet frequently in books and particularly films, they echo the past children who have loved them, grown old, and died. An old china doll is full of memories not our own, and remind us of the passing of time – a baby that will never grow up, though she might sustain some wounds along the way. A doll is thus also a child’s double (another theme of Freud’s essay), but one which is destined to remain a child, a static reminder of lost innocence.

There is clearly some fascination in the figure of the doll, particularly the antique doll, though; there are many thousands of collectors of dolls like Emily, and even I am taking the trouble to have her restored. Perhaps it is that they somehow they embody a nostalgia for a past childhood which we didn’t inhabit ourselves, but which we can invent and layer into our own thoughts.


  1. Interesting perspective, but sometimes a “doll is just a doll!” I appreciate your last paragraph…I think you were more perceptive than Freud here!

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