A Psychoanalysis of The Whale
21 June 2023
Darren Aronofsky‘s 2022 film, “The Whale“, is a cinematic interpretation of Samuel D. Hunter‘s stage play of the same name. It delves into the last days in the life of Charlie (played by Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese English teacher living in self-inflicted isolation. After acknowledging his impending demise due to compulsive eating and self-neglect, the film follows Charlie’s final attempts to mend the broken ties with his estranged daughter, Ellie (played by Sadie Sink).
The film presents a psychological examination of human destitute, exploring themes of self-isolation, paralysis, and the pursuit of redemption. It provides a glimpse into the psyches of characters caught in a cycle of self-isolation, entrapped in their lives due to their inability to move past traumatic experiences. Rather than confronting their painful histories and working towards resolution, they retreat into their shells, resigning themselves to an existential stasis. Charlie, personifies this stagnation most dramatically, being trapped in a cyclic vortex of self-imposed guilt and remorse. His guilt is fueled by past actions, and his remorse continues to bind him to a life of self-inflicted suffering, where he is physically confined to the same space, even the same couch cushion from which it is almost impossible for him to climb out of due to his physical dimensions and deteriorating health.
Charlie’s compulsive overeating is metaphorically depicted as a form of self-flagellation. He consciously acknowledges the damage he inflicts upon his body, yet continues his self-destructive behavior, perhaps as a penance for his perceived failures and shortcomings, most notably, his desertion of his family, and his inability to save his lover, Alan, from succumbing to depression and suicide years ago. One might say that Charlie’s overeating is an active choice, an attempt resonating with an inverse form of anorexia and even a prolonged attempt at suicide.
Ellie’s character is a study in teenage rebellion, stemming from a deep-seated resentment towards Charlie, whom she blames for abandoning her and her mother to pursue a romantic relationship with his student, Alan. This resentment fuels a significant part of the film’s tension, playing out as Charlie tries to bridge their relationship. Her anger and resentment towards Charlie, largely stemming from his perceived betrayal, enable her to avoid confronting the pain of their severed relationship. She seems to project her own feelings of abandonment and betrayal onto others, leading to violent outbursts and conflict. However, beneath this veneer of anger is a young girl grappling with her emotions, struggling to reconcile her resentment with the newfound reality of her father’s imminent demise.
Ellie’s character represents the complexities of a subject compounded by a challenging family history. She demands honesty from those around her, a testament to her value for truth. Yet, this outward demand belies an internal struggle to face her own truths, namely her contradicting feelings about her father’s abandonment and his current situation.
As the narrative unfolds, the demand for truth from others starts to turn inwards. Ellie begins to introspect, challenging her own perceptions and feelings. This introspection forms a significant part of her character arc and is instrumental in her gradual shift from a position of resentment and anger to one open to change.
In a sense, Ellie’s journey mirrors Charlie’s. Both characters value truth, and both must confront painful realities about themselves and their relationship. In doing so, they embark on a path towards transformation and redemption, shedding light on the complex dynamics of human relationships and the power of truth in fostering dramatic changes in one’s relationship with oneself and the world.
At this juncture, I would like to stress the parallelism between “The Whale” (2022) and Herman Melville’s iconic work “Moby Dick” (also called “The Whale”). Melville’s “Moby Dick” is delivered through the eyes of Ishmael, a sailor who joins the crew of the whaling ship Pequod. Commanded by Captain Ahab, the ship is propelled by Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of Moby Dick, a gargantuan white sperm whale that once maimed him. Ahab’s obsession with the creature fuels the novel’s narrative, transforming his hunt from a simple whaling expedition into a metaphysical journey. Ahab’s readiness to risk everything — his vessel, his crew, and his very life — in his quest for revenge resonates throughout the tale. Despite entreaties from his crew and the looming perils of sea life, Ahab’s resolve to pursue Moby Dick remains unwavering. The climax of the novel is reached with the Pequod’s catastrophic encounter with the white whale, leaving only Ishmael alive to tell their tragic tale. Ultimately, Ishmael’s reflection on the futility of Ahab’s vengeance and the enigmatic nature of Moby Dick conclude the novel.
The film, “The Whale,” weaves an intricate web of connections with Melville’s work, extending beyond the mere similarity in their titles. Notably, the protagonist Charlie repeatedly peruses or recites a student’s essay on the novel (we later discover it was written by Ellie). Upon initial observation, one can perceive how Charlie’s obsessive nature parallels Ahab’s fixation with Moby Dick. Much like Captain Ahab’s unyielding obsession with the white whale, Charlie is consumed by his own obsessions — his guilt, self-loathing, and the yearning for vindication from these. These obsessions serve as the linchpin of the film’s narrative and form the contours of Charlie’s interactions with the other characters. Both the film and the book spotlight characters on a course of self-destruction: Ahab’s obsession with the whale ultimately catalyzes his downfall, and similarly, Charlie’s compulsive overeating and his refusal to seek medical intervention despite his worsening health manifest as a form of self-destruction rooted in past trauma.
Contrast to this angle, we might also argue that Charlie’s severe obesity transforms him, in a way, into a physical embodiment of Moby Dick, the whale. To his daughter, Ellie, he’s not Ahab, but the monstrous whale itself. In this interpretation, Charlie is the creature that has caused her profound emotional damage, analogous to Moby Dick taking Ahab’s leg. He represents the obscure and frightening element of her existence, and she projects her anger rooted in his failing paternal role onto the world around her. She is, in essence, searching for an Other who can take on the role her father was incapable of fulfilling.
Interestingly, the act of abandoning his family isn’t what metamorphosed Charlie into the whale. As he himself mentions, his obesity didn’t define his entire life. He fondly recollects the time when he realized he was gay and began his romantic journey with Alan—a period of love, happiness, and intimate connection. Alan’s suicide shattered Charlie. But Charlie provides insights into why this loss impacted him so profoundly. He confesses to Liz that he was aware of Alan’s deep melancholy but didn’t seek help. He believed that his love for Alan would be sufficient to save him, even when Alan’s own desire was collapsing under his depressive weight. Charlie imagined himself as Alan’s object cause of desire, his Agalma: a treasure that would inspire Alan to keep living.
When Alan committed suicide, however, Charlie’s position as Alan’s cause of desire was demolished. From being a sublime object, he was reduced to an object of waste. Since then, Charlie’s life revolves around embodying waste: he gorges on junk food, transforming his body into a living garbage dump, a monument of waste. This adds another layer of symbolic depth to his character and the overall narrative of film.
Nevertheless, this angle is not enough to elucidate the pivotal transformation that Charlie undergoes toward redemption. To understand this part of the film, it is imperative to acknowledge the paramount role of waste in modern human civilization. Waste essentially serves in contemporary culture as a sacrificial surrogate, replacing human sacrifices of ancient cultures. For societal equilibrium, waste must be appropriately disposed of, and effectively vanish from the public eye. Analogously, Charlie orchestrates his own “disposal” – that is, his impending death – as a tangible sacrifice aimed at not only rescuing his daughter from her downward spiral, but also facilitating his own spiritual ascent – a detail underscored by the film’s religious undertones. This ascent also fits the Christian sentiment presented by the character Thomas, where Jesus sacrifices himself for the sake of human kind.
In this context, “The Whale” (2022) traverses the existential impasse found in “Moby Dick”. As articulated in Ellie’s literary critique of “Moby Dick”, Captain Ahab aspires to slay the whale, believing it will bring an end to his torment. However, as Ellie contends, this will not alleviate his suffering. Paraphrasing J.A. Miller’s proposition: one can indeed sacrifice oneself for another, yet upon one’s demise, this other also perishes. This realization elucidates that the other, in all its nuances and distinctness, is fundamentally shaped by the perceiver’s fantasy world. To put it differently, our emotional responses to, and perceptions of others are inherently contingent on our subjectivity. With our death, this unique interpersonal imprint also vanishes, leaving no residual trace.
Correspondingly, we understand that Moby Dick as-itself is not an external root of Ahab’s distress. Rather, it is Ahab’s personal fantasy in relation to the whale that molds his symptom. By projecting the cause of his suffering on Moby Dick, Ahab shirks his responsibility for his own suffering, and, funnily enough, upon his death, while the white whale keeps on living, Moby Dick, as an entity within his psyche, perishes. Like Hamlet, it is only when it is too late (in extremise) that he is able to execute the act that mends the symbolic complex bringing his desire to a halt. Stated otherwise, Ahab could have killed Moby Dick years before without laying a finger on the white whale or himself.
Charlie arrives at the comprehension that his death alone will not liberate Ellie from her fixation on the trauma he inflicted. Should he die and bequeath her his savings, she would remain ensnared by her traumatic narrative, shaping every relationship in her life as an aftermath of this transgression. Charlie reconfigures the narrative of “Moby Dick” by transforming himself into a literary embodiment – “The Whale” – for Ellie. It is not through his organic death, but through his death as a metaphor of the whale, that he endeavors to propel her past this trauma and foster in her the conviction that she is an exceptional individual, possessing kindness and a capacity for forgiveness. By embodying two conflicting opposites – Ahab and Moby Dick – within one entity, he affords Ellie an opportunity to symbolically kill the father, thus certifying their mutual castration. In his final moments, Charlie does the impossible and, like Jesus walking on water, rises from the couch and walks towards Ellie. In doing so, the whale, the mythical creature representing their shared traumatic past, is symbolically sacrificed. This facilitates the traversal of their mutual impasse, thereby enabling one to truly die and the other to truly live.