Analysis of ‘The Lighthouse’

The Lighthouse is a 2019 psychological horror film co-written and directed by Robert Eggers, derived from a story by him and his brother, Max Eggers. It stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who play two wickies in the late 19th century. They take care of a lighthouse on an island off the coast of New England, but a storm causes them to be stranded and isolated there, and soon they end up losing their minds and trying to kill each other.

The Lighthouse is considered one of the best films of 2019, having been nominated for Best Cinematography at the 92nd Academy Awards. Unusually, it was shot in black and white, with a nearly square, 1.19:1 aspect ratio, causing the sides of the screen to be black, which adds to the intended claustrophobic feeling.

Here are some quotes:

“Should pale death, with treble dread,
Make the ocean caves our bed,
God who hear’st the surges roll
Deign to save our suppliant soul.” –Thomas Wake

“And I’m damn-well wedded to this here light, and she’s been a finer, truer, quieter wife than any alive-blooded woman.” –Thomas Wake

Ephraim Winslow: Say, why is it bad luck to kill a gull?
Thomas Wake: In ’em’s the souls of sailors what met their maker. You a prayin’ man, Winslow?
Ephraim Winslow: Not as often as I might. But I’m God-fearin’, if that’s what you’re askin’.

“And if I tells ye to yank out every single nail from every moulderin’ nail-hole and suck off every speck of rust till all them nails sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker, and then carpenter the whole light station back together from scrap, and then do it all over again, you’ll do it! And by God and by golly, you’ll do it smilin’, lad, ’cause you’ll like it. You’ll like it ’cause I says you will! Contradict me again, and I’ll dock your wages.” –Thomas Wake

“Doldrums. Doldrums. Eviler than the Devil. Boredom makes men to villains, and the water goes quick, lad, vanished. The only med’cine is drink. Keeps them sailors happy, keeps ’em agreeable, keeps ’em calm.” –Thomas Wake

Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?

Thomas Wake: Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead Winslow! HAAARK! Hark, Triton, hark! Bellow, bid our father the Sea King rise from the depths full foul in his fury! Black waves teeming with salt foam to smother this young mouth with pungent slime, to choke ye, engorging your organs til’ ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more – only when he, crowned in cockle shells with slitherin’ tentacle tail and steaming beard take up his fell be-finnèd arm, his coral-tine trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and plunges right through yer gullet, bursting ye – a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now and nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the Dread Emperor himself – forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea, for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea!
Ephraim Winslow: Alright, have it your way. I like your cookin’.

“Why’d ya spill yer beans?” –Thomas Wake

Ephraim Winslow: You think yer so damned high and mighty cause yer a goddamned lighthouse keeper? Well, you ain’t a captain of no ship and you never was, you ain’t no general, you ain’t no copper, you ain’t the president, and you ain’t my father — and I’m sick of you actin’ like you is! I’m sick of your laughing, your snoring, and your goddamned farts. Your goddamned…Goddamn yer farts! You smell like piss, you smell like jism, like rotten dick, like curdled foreskin, like hot onions fucked a farmyard shit-house. And I’m sick of yer smell. I’m sick of it! I’m sick of it, you goddamned drunk. You goddamned, no-account, son-of-a-bitch-bastard liar! That’s what you are, you’re a goddamned drunken horse-shitting — short — shit liar. A liar!
Thomas Wake: Y’have a way with words, Tommy.

O what Protean forms swim up from men’s minds, and melt in hot Promethean plunder, scorching eyes, with divine shames and horror… And casting them down to Davy Jones. The others, still blind, yet in it see all the divine graces and to Fiddler’s Green sent, where no man is suffered to want or toil, but is… Ancient… immutable and unchanging as the she who girdles ’round the globe. Them’s truth. You’ll be punished.” –Thomas Wake

Dominant themes in the movie involve symbolism related to various aspects of Greek myth, and to variants of the Oedipus complex, among other psychoanalytic concepts. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) are seen going on a boat to the small island whose lighthouse they are to tend. The tints and shades of grey we see add to the gloomy, dismal atmosphere. Elderly Wake will be a father figure to Winslow, whether the latter wants this relationship or not.

Wake bosses Winslow around, threatening to dock his wages if he’s insubordinate. In this tension, we see not only the conflict of a symbolic father/son relationship, but also the alienation felt between workers, the contradiction of those in superior and inferior positions.

The filming in black and white reinforces the feeling of psychological splitting, or of what’s often called black-and-white thinking. As a father figure to Winslow, Wake is experienced by his ‘son’ symbolically as both the good and bad father. For not only is there the domineering aspect of Wake, but also a comradely side, that is, when the two men begin drinking together and merrily singing sea shanties.

This splitting adds nuance and complexity to the symbolically Oedipal feelings Winslow has for Wake. Sometimes the young man hates his ‘father,’ and sometimes he loves him; that is, sometimes there’s the normal Oedipus complex, and sometimes there’s the negative version of it.

Now, such is the relationship between Winslow and his symbolic father…but what of his relationship with a symbolic mother? She is expressed in a number of indirect ways. She can be seen in the sea–Thalassa, the sea-goddess (Put another way, La mer est la mère.). She can also be seen in the shrieking mermaid of whom Winslow has masturbatory fantasies. She is a variation on the Harpy-like, squawking sea-gulls, since the Harpies, half-woman, half-bird, are also like the half-woman, half-bird Sirens…and mermaids can be seen as having evolved from the Sirens. But Mother is best seen in the light of the lighthouse, a lunatic-inspiring lunar ball shining in the night–therefore, a symbol of Selene, the moon-goddess.

We see the Oedipus complex symbolized here in how Winslow craves a chance to go up to the top of the phallic lighthouse to experience up close the ecstasy-inspiring light that Wake is always enjoying, but which Wake will never permit him to enjoy. This prohibition symbolizes what Lacan called the nom du père, or the Non! du père, the father’s law against his son’s being the phallus for his mother.

Instead, Winslow has to make do with satisfying his Oedipal feelings for Mother by transferring her elsewhere, to either the mermaid he fantasizes and hallucinates about, or through masturbating to the scrimshaw mermaid he’s found hidden in a hole in the mattress of the bed he’s using, a bed formerly used by the man he’s replacing as Wake’s subordinate, a man who–according to Wake–went mad believing there’s “enchantment in the light.”

Winslow’s finding of the mermaid scrimshaw in the mattress is symbolic of the return of repressed Oedipal feelings, which resurface in unrecognizable forms (Who would consciously associate his mother with a mermaid?).

Now, just as Winslow’s symbolic father has been split into good and bad, into the pleasant and frustrating aspects of Wake’s personality, so is the symbolic mother thus split. We’ve already seen the good mother in the Oedipally-desired forms of the light of the Fresnel lens and the mermaids; but the bad mother is equally apparent in many forms, such as when Thalassa is stormy, and when she is in her Harpy-like, sea gull form.

Winslow often has to tend to the yonic cistern, stirring the slimy liquids inside it with a phallic stick. As he does this and other onerous duties, he encounters an irritating, one-eyed gull that obstructs his path or stares at him with that confrontational eye.

He is warned by Wake not to harm any of the gulls, as they apparently house the souls of dead sailors, and thus hurting or killing them will bring bad luck. The one-eyed gull isn’t only to be associated with the female Harpies, and hence only with the bad mother; its one eye also invites an association with the male Cyclops. When Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, he incurred the wrath of the Cyclops’s father, Poseidon; similarly, when Winslow kills the gull, especially in that violent, malicious way, he incurs the wrath not only of the gulls (whose Harpy association is in turn connected with the winds), but also of the sea-god.

My point is that we see both the gulls and the sea as male and female at the same time. The one-eyed gull is a female Harpy and a male Cyclops; the sea is female Thalassa and male Poseidon, or Neptune, as Wake calls him. This male/female combination, symbolic of Mother and Father, gives us Melanie Klein‘s terrifying combined parent figure, the phallic mother. For just as there’s splitting into opposites in this film, so is there a dialectical unifying of them, too.

The combined parent figure is also seen in Winslow’s hallucination–towards the end of the film, when he’s been punching Wake on the floor–that Wake is the mermaid, her thumb in Winslow’s mouth and him erotically sucking on it. Then, Winslow sees not her, but an effeminate-looking Wake looking up at him and grinning mockingly. On several occasions, Wake sees Winslow as androgynous, too, saying the boy is “pretty as a picture,” and “with eyes bright as a lady.”

This merging of opposite sexes is just one example of the merging of opposites seen in the film. The names of Wake and Winslow, with their shared Ws, as well as their shared name of Thomas (i.e., when we learn that Ephraim Winslow is really Thomas Howard), means that the two of them can be seen as doubles of each other.

This doubling of Wake and Winslow, or Thomas and Thomas, means that the line separating the two men is blurred. Each man is a metaphorical mirror of the other. Just as Winslow has a symbolically Oedipal (i.e., murderous) attitude towards Wake, so does Wake have a kind of ‘Laius complex‘ towards his symbolic son. Both men have urges to kill, or at least injure, each other.

Just as Thomas Howard, motivated by murderous urges, allowed the real Ephraim Winslow to die during their logging job in Hudson Bay, Canada; so can it very well be that Wake has killed his previous subordinate, using the ‘madness’ story to cover up his crime. This could be regardless of whether or not Winslow has hallucinated seeing the head of his predecessor in the lobster trap.

Both men project their crimes, their madness, and their vices onto each other. They accuse each other of smelling bad: Wake says Winslow “smell[s] of shit”; Winslow gripes about Wake’s frequent farting, and that the old man smells of “piss” and “jism” (a projection of Winslow’s own masturbating with the mermaid scrimshaw).

Wake uses an ax to hack up the dory Winslow was hoping to escape in, then he chases Winslow with it; afterwards, Wake claims it was Winslow who was wielding the ax. Wake judges Winslow for engaging in “self-abuse” with the scrimshaw; yet when Wake is up with the Fresnel lens at the top of the lighthouse, he’s undressed and sits in awe of his “wife,” suggesting a symbolic sexual union with “her.” His hogging of the light to himself suggests a jealous lover, the father refusing to allow his son to indulge in his Oedipal appetites.

When Winslow, or Thomas Howard, really, confesses to his criminal negligence in not saving the life of his foreman in Canada, the real Ephraim Winslow (a man whose white hair suggests a man old enough to be Howard’s father, and who bossed Howard around as Wake does, and as a father would his son, thus engendering more murderous Oedipal fantasies), Wake describes the confession as ‘spilling one’s beans,’ which invites comparison with Wake’s farting. Both men have filth that they wish to expel (recall the possibility that Wake killed Winslow’s predecessor).

So the many points of similarity between the two men suggest a fading of each man’s individuality, a merging of their identities, just as there’s a merging of seagulls with Harpies, Sirens, and mermaids, and there’s a merging of Thalassa with Poseidon, Oceanus, and Pontus (i.e., male and female sea deities). In fact, even Wake is equated with Poseidon when he curses at Winslow, invoking Neptune, for not liking his cooking, and when the old man is seen naked on the outer balcony of the lighthouse with Winslow (who hallucinates a double of himself), in a dramatic posture imitative of Neptune.

This merging of identities, this blurring of boundaries between people, is symbolized by the Chaos-like, crashing waves of the ocean, especially during the storm. Liquids, like water and alcohol, are formless: they have only the shapes of their containers. So the Chaos and formlessness of the ocean water has its parallel in the wild madness associated with liquor. Poseidon’s identity is thus merged with that of Dionysus.

To cope with their isolation and the misery that is associated with their work, Wake and Winslow indulge in the manic defence of getting drunk. The Harpy-like seagulls, getting revenge on Winslow for killing the one-eyed gull, bring on the winds and rain that ruin the men’s provisions, rather similar to how the Harpies shat on blind Phineus‘ dinner table. The two men dig up a crate of liquor, and their Dionysian revelry intensifies.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote of the difference between individuating Apollo and his opposite, Dionysus, whose wild ecstasies, ritual madness, and dismembering, mutilating Maenads destroyed all sense of individuality, returning us all to that original, formless Chaos: ‘…we might say of Apollo that in him the unshaken faith in this principum [individuationis] and the calm repose of the man wrapped up in it receive their most sublime expression; and we might call Apollo himself the glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, through whose gestures and eyes all the joy and wisdom of “illusion,” together with its beauty, speak to us.

‘In the same work Schopenhauer has depicted for us the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena because the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception. If we add to this terror the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication…’

‘…Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.’ (Nietzsche, pages 36-37)

Drunken Wake and Winslow, dancing and singing sea shanties, are experiencing this ecstatic madness, this “union between man and man.” Yet, as with the dialectical relationship between all opposites, the heights of heaven and pleasure are quickly coupled with the depths of hell and pain. The shift from individuated, differentiated Apollo to undifferentiated Dionysus is paralleled by the result of what Lacan called foreclosure, a repudiation of the Name of the Father and of the Symbolic Order (i.e., the Oedipal refusal to give up Mother, as we see in Winslow’s continued craving of the Fresnel lens light), that result being the madness of the undifferentiated Real Order.

Now, excessive drinking has been known to worsen mental illness; and Winslow–in his guilt over what happened to the real Winslow, stealing the dead man’s identity (a symbolic identification with the Father) and not taking responsibility for his negligence–has already been seeing things. The punitive superego, derived from the internalized objects of his parents, is driving him mad with guilt. Wake’s and Winslow’s partying will lead to Maenad-like violence soon enough.

Their drunken hugging…and near kissing…quickly shifts to homophobic fisticuffs. In this contrast, we see the symbolizing of the love/hate, Oedipal relationship between father and son. Part of the hate aspect of that relationship is the son’s fear of castration by his father; and Wake’s earlier confiscation of Winslow’s filched knife is symbolically such a castration, as is Wake’s docking of Winslow’s wages. Further unmanning of the young man is seen when, after he complains of everything he can’t stand about Wake, the old man puts him in his place by describing him as a spoiled crybaby.

Finally, Winslow turns the tables on Wake by beating him to a pulp, during which the young man hallucinates seeing the mermaid again; then he sees Cthulhu-like tentacles, symbolic of the chthonic area of Mother Earth, wrapping themselves around his neck. He hallucinates some more, seeing Wake decked out effeminately (i.e., the symbolic combined parent figure), but he keeps punching the old man. Having been called “dog” by Wake (and the real Winslow) for so long, Thomas Howard now makes Wake into his more-or-less literal dog, forcing him to be led about on a leash.

This turning of the tables, a switching of master and servant, reinforces the doubling of both Thomases. The burying of Wake alive, in the chthonic underground of Mother Earth, symbolically recalls the Cthulhu/chthonic tentacles, and is another representation of the combined parent figure.

Winslow steals Wake’s keys (more symbolic castration, but this time the ‘son’ is the perpetrator, like Cronus, and the ‘father’ is the victim, like Uranus). Wake tries to kill Winslow (like Laius trying to kill baby Oedipus by exposure), but Winslow successfully kills Wake (like Oedipus killing Laius where the three roads meet). These switches of father/son role-play once again reinforce the sense that there’s no real boundary between the two men.

Winslow finally gets to the Fresnel lens, and experiences firsthand the light of the symbolic Mother. His Oedipal fantasy has been fulfilled at last. The transgressive jouissance he enjoys, a sinful, forbidden pleasure spilling over into pain, is him seeing those eye-like, revolving circles-within-circles, the eyes of a loving mother looking back at him, returning his desire to him, and satisfying it. He puts his hand into the lens, symbolic of entering her sacred yoni.

He screams in his mad ecstasy, then falls down the spiral staircase; for no one can enjoy such excessive pleasure without suffering the consequences. For the sin of his “hot Promethean plunder,” he suffers the same fate as the naked Titan chained to a mountain. A gull tears at his innards, just as an eagle ate the liver of Prometheus.

Never mess with the sea-gods. Don’t be unnatural with Mother Nature.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s