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Heart of Darkness, Paradise Lost and Beyond: The Literary Influences of The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ "The Lighthouse" chronicles the tribulations of two 1890s lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), stranded on a New England island and driven to explosive conflict. The 35mm black-and-white mystery relies upon a compendium of work imbued by deep literary traditions. Understanding the hypnotic and testy atmosphere of “The Lighthouse”—and its usage of archaic New Englander dialects, supernatural beings, and Greek mythology—happens by dissecting classics spanning from Milton’s Paradise Lost to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.       

The icy relationship between Thomas and Winslow hinges upon language, especially the dialects of 1890s New Englanders. To match the period, Eggers turned to the poetry and prose of Sarah Orne Jewett. She lived the entirety of her life in New Brunswick, Maine and couched her writing in regionalism—portraying the rhythm of speech of the period. 

Her poetry—particularly the way she uses caesuras—and her interviews with sea captains greatly inform Dafoe’s Thomas' dialect and accent. Thomas relies on a stop-go pattern of speech mixed with colloquialisms, which lies in contrast to Winslow’s down-east farmer intonations. Take Jewett’s poem, At Home for Church: “The Sunday-morning quiet holds/In heavy slumber all the street ... Behind the elms, comes slow and sweet.” The poet relies on mono and disyllabic words, hyphenated phrases, and a trochaic octameter (eight syllables per line). Most importantly, the verses succeed through caesuras: midline breaks punctuated by commas meant to allow the reader to pause and breathe. Thomas’ speech pattern depends upon those same breaks.  

In combination with her poetry, Eggers also utilizes Jewett’s two novels Strangers and Wayfarers (1890) and Tales of New England (1890), which pool its language from interviews with local sea captains. For example, in Strangers and Wayfarers a character says, "them pore creature's looks as cheerless as little birch-trees in snow-time.” Dafoe’s Thomas also relies on these similes and compound words, like the “why’d” in “Why'd ya spill yer beans?” Often, Winslow (and for that matter the viewer as well) struggles to translate what Thomas is saying, particularly because of these regionalisms—which furthers their burgeoning adversarial relationship and makes Thomas into an unreliable character. Thomas will name a wife he once had, or a woman long-ago loved, or explain how he hurt his leg and then renege on those details later.   

Other than Jewett’s works, the most obvious literary parallel to Dafoe’s Thomas lies in Captain Ahab of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). While no white whale exists, Thomas physically matches the appearance of “Old Thunder”—a lame leg, a pipe, and white beard. In one scene, Winslow even calls Thomas an Ahab parody. But his debt to the Mellvillian character goes deeper than mere knock-off. He protects the lighthouse with the same intensity Old Thunder pours into hunting for the whale, which further infuriates Winslow—who’s also intoxicated by the allure of the beacon. 

Coincidently, while Ahab thirsts to enact revenge for his maimed leg, he also desires to harvest the whale’s sperm and oil. 19th century lighthouses like the one Thomas mans were operated by using whale oil for fuel. In one scene, Winslow takes a heavy canister filled with the substance, hauling it up the winding staircase to the top of the tower. While he may struggle to fuel the light’s fire, he’s not allowed by Thomas to harness it either, which slowly unhinges him. 

In fact, whenever there’s talk of insanity in any remote location, comparisons to Joseph Conrad’s colonialist novella Heart of Darkness (1899) emerge. Eggers amalgamates the madness of Ahab with Conrad’s villain Kurtz. Like the crazed wretch’s trading outpost, the lighthouse Winslow and Thomas man exists at the ends of the earth. Viewers have greater awareness of the sheer isolation of their post because of Winslow’s insistence on working there. He once labored as a lumberjack, but the promise of higher wages lured him to employment as a wicky. Moreover, the further out the lighthouse, the higher the pay. Under the conditions, the autonomous Kurtz-like figure Thomas completely manipulates Winslow—making him into a slavish grunt for his salary and the light, which further antagonizes the young wicky.  

Eggers also combines Shakespearean soliloquy with Miltonian epic. With Paradise Lost (1667), Milton borrowed heavily from other classical poems like Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad,” and Virgil’s “Aeneid.” All three open with an invocation—basically a prayer to the gods to fill the speaker’s words with their strength. “Sing to me of the man, Muse/The Man of twists and turns,” opens the Odyssey. “Sing Heav'nly Muse…,” begins Paradise Lost. Following the same tradition, when Winslow disparages Thomas’ cooking—especially his lobster dish—the drunk superior casts a curse upon him. “DAMN YE! Let Neptune strike ye dead, Winslow,” Thomas exclaims. He later heightens his language by calling upon Poseidon to drag the young wicky down to the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker. Eggers morphs the normally serious literary technique into a comedic moment by first beginning the scene lightheartedly, with the two sitting on the floor drinking and joking. Eggers then taps into the same homoeroticism that’s present in the Greek and Roman epics, by turning the lobster into a domestic quarrel. Finally, after Thomas’ long harangue of a soliloquy, cutting to Winslow’s deadpan reaction.  

Winslow and Thomas’ relationship is further contextualized by mirroring Prospero and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611). Thomas serves as the metaphorical sorcerer of the island, commanding the power of the lighthouse. Winslow, like Caliban, desperately desires to claim that same force—and like the Shakespearean grunt remains under the full disposal of his master for manual labor. At one point, Winslow exclaims that he didn’t come to the island to be anyone’s slave. And while the Caliban character finds roots within New World slavery—the furthest existence for a white male—the sentiment remains. 

On the other hand, Thomas mirrors Prospero by assuming his underling should be grateful. “I pitied thee,/Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour/One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage…” proclaims Prospero to Caliban. And like Caliban, Winslow remains subservient to Thomas because of his immense might. That potency also permeates to the islands; both The Tempest and “The Lighthouse” recall magic and superstition. Furthermore, for much of “The Lighthouse,” a gull torments the young wicky—stalking him throughout the small craggy island. “It’s bad luck to harm a gull,” Thomas tells Winslow. They hold the souls of sailors lost at sea. 

The torment Winslow suffers mirrors the sailors at the center of Robert Taylor Cooleridge’s 1834 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (1845)—which coincidentally uses a trochaic octameter like Jewett. Both poems cycle through the macabre and supernatural, which permeates “The Lighthouse.” The Raven opens with a black bird tapping on the narrator’s window, beckoning for an audience. The same happens to Winslow, who hears the clanging of the gull’s beak against the pane while he sleeps. Like the narrator of The Raven, the gull stalks him around the island until Winslow finally snaps. He kills the gull, repeatedly smashing the bird to a pulp against a stone cistern. The bird serves as a projection of the pent-up rage Winslow feels toward Thomas. Like the annoying gull, the senior officer routinely vexes the young wicky—pushing his buttons to drink more, work more, say more without the reward of the lighthouse.

The killing of a bird also occurs in Cooleridge’s haunting Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There, the albatrosses fly high above, following the mariners and allowing them a light-southern wind for guidance. However, one of the mariners turns their crossbow to the sky—murdering a bird. The albatrosses that once brought the tranquil southern wind leave the sailors to uncharted waters. A supernatural spirit curses the crew—and the murderous mariner—assigning many of the sailors to death. 

For Winslow, a supernatural entity also haunts him after he kills the gull. The gentle wind changes to a harsh gale, and a storm erupts around the island. In fact, at the end of his four-week assignment for the lighthouse he is stranded on the isolated crag with Thomas due to the raging tempest. And like the narrator of The Raven, he is driven to madness—haunted by the macabre spirit of the bird, by Thomas’ pestering, and the specter of divine retribution for his actions. 

Nevertheless, gulls aren’t the only entity to haunt Winslow. Mermaids and ghosts torture him as well, with Eggers’ picture depending upon H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and Algernon Blackwood’s dark short story The Insanity of Jones (1907). While the mythos doesn’t feature mermaids per se, a cthulhu is a mix of a dragon and octopus with human features. Winslow demonstrates a sexual attraction to the mermaids and siren, and even masturbates to a small figurine of one. In two sex scenes, tentacles and scaly bodies of two figures—similar to the description in Lovecraft’s pulpy The Call of Cthulhu (1928)—choke Winslow. Eggers never divulges if these sequences are real or hallucinations, making Winslow just as unreliable as Thomas. During a later moment, Winslow discovers a siren on the beach buried underneath seaweed. When she screams he runs back into the lighthouse, unable to explain to Thomas what he’s just witnessed. 

Eggers furthers plays with hallucinations by drawing from Blackwood’s short story. In it, a reincarnated man explores his past life while he dreams—even recalling his murder. Winslow experiences nightmares of a “lost” life too. He sees the face of a white-haired man with a silver mustache. Likewise, Jones also observes the death of a prisoner with a white beard. His name is unknown. Like Jones and the mysterious prisoner, Winslow and that white-mustached man share the same identity. And whenever the ghost haunts him, we’re never sure if Winslow is dreaming or if the phantom does physically appear. 

Moreover, Eggers greater muddies the waters of reality by inserting alcoholism into the narrative. When Winslow and Thomas first dine together, the young wicky refuses to toast. He’s tainted, a drunkard. But Thomas eventually talks him into drinking. And when it’s clear they’re stranded on the island, they use liquor as rations in place of food, ultimately causing multiple midnight revelries as a tempest rages around them. His alcoholism in combination with the hauntings, and the total slavish role assigned to him, pushes Winslow to further distrust Thomas. Like Jones, he even questions the passage of time itself. “How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two Days? Help me to recollect,” begs Thomas to the young wicky.

While Winslow is a sure stand-in for Caliban, and his mental state follows Blackwood’s Jones, his desire for the lighthouse recalls imagery from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820). In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who stole fire from Mount Olympus. To punish him, Zeus chained the titan to a rock for all eternity, and for good measure assigned an eagle to feast upon his liver too. As an immortal, Prometheus’ body would heal over night only for the eagle to return the next day to dine at the buffet known as Prometheus’ abdomen. While Winslow isn’t trying to harness fire, or bequeath the lighthouse for the good of all mankind, he is attracted to an element above his creation. 

To actualize Winslow’s attraction to the luminous beams, Eggers makes sure his lighthouse employs a Fresnel lens. Flat on one side and rigged on the other, Fresnel lenses emit light bright enough to be visible from extremely long distances. They also feature a hypnotic swirling pattern. Eggers observed its motif when he traveled to Point Cabrillo’s lighthouse, which dates back to 1909 and still employs the optic. With cinematographer Jarin Blaschke using vintage 1930’s Baltar lenses—which gives lights a greater glow—the turning flashing tower becomes an undeniably bewitching force. 

Unfortunately for Winslow, Thomas guards the topmost floor that houses the light like a Zeusian figure. Ironically, Melville actually labels Moby Dick godlike because his oil makes fire. Ahab is a promethean figure attempting to harness the whale’s power. If Thomas is Ahab, then it follows that he’s also promethean as well. Nevertheless, by this point Winslow fully distrusts Thomas—mostly because the lighthouse’s strength has been withheld from him. He topples his superior in an attempt to scale the top of the proverbial Mount Olympus. He opens the window housing the light, reaching in to feel the untamable property. The light consumes him in pain and ecstasy, casting him down the winding stairs he earlier climbed for his attempted usurpation. 

The final shot of Winslow mirrors the lines of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, “Heaven's wingèd hound, polluting from thy lips ... and shapeless sights come wandering by.” That is, the eagle feeds upon the titan’s liver and his eyes. Consequently, Winslow’s body by film’s end is strewn across the rocks as seagulls pick at his intestines and his eyes. Like much of “The Lighthouse,” this parting visual plays upon classic literary imagery to fortify the havoc brought by isolation.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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