The symbolism of “The Lighthouse” got you confused? The Greek mythology, the seagulls, the light? What’s the meaning of all this? Here are some answers.
So you have seen “The Lighthouse”. You left the screening room and have had one question stuck in your mind ever since – wtf did I watch?
You’re not alone. But hopefully, this article will explain “The Lighthouse”, with all of its complexity and diversity.
Let’s wind the clocks back for a second
Upon its premiere, “The Lighthouse” had already drawn more attention than dozens of blockbuster crowdpleasers. Robert Eggers didn’t even need to set a whole marketing campaign in motion. All it took was two great actors and a plot that guaranteed shivers.
And maybe an acclaimed debut a few years back.
The film received much acclaim from critics, and it marches towards a solid box office result, with breaking more than $10 million worldwide. The numbers will only get better, because it’s still ahead of its premiere in some major European markets.
The existence of the phenomenon of “The Lighthouse”, at least among cinephiles, is undeniable. People write, people analyze. Therefore, given how much food for thought Eggers provides, I decided to make my own analysis. I looked at the following concepts:
- The Greek mythology and its influence
- Symbolism of seagulls in the film
- A lighthouse and its meaning
- A theory that Thomas never really existed
- And how Eggers based “The Lighthouse” on a factual story
Without further ado, let’s first recap the film’s plot.
This article contains spoilers for “The Lighthouse”.
What is “The Lighthouse” About?
The plot of “The Lighthouse” revolves around two men – Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson respectively. Thomas is a sailor silverback and a blabbermouth who worked as the lighthouse keeper for years now. Ephraim serves as Thomas’ counterpart – silent and distant, he quickly grows angry at the way his superior treats him. Both gentlemen are rather stubborn and heavily grounded when it comes to their moral standards.
The bone of contention, revealed early in the film, is who takes care of the light that beams from the top of the tall building. Thomas tends to it on his own, although Ephraim’s responsibilities presumably include shifts in all duties.
As the tension between the two isolated men grows, Thomas and Ephraim form a sort of love-hate relationship. Thomas has certain prejudices and likes to remain the boss, but Ephraim – who feels cheated on and mistreated – seeks revenge. This results in a few random acts of insubordination and occasional violence – like the act of killing a seagull (which brings bad luck according to Thomas).
In the film’s climax, Ephraim takes over the control. Out of anger and developing delusions, he kills Thomas. Then, Ephraim falls prey to the tempting light of the titular lighthouse.
The film ends with the two men dying.
After the brief reminder, let’s move to analyzing the first layer “The Lighthouse” and its symbolical meaning – Prometheus and Poseidon.
How Greek mythology influenced “The Lighthouse”
Thomas and Ephraim are reflections on two mythological characters – Poseidon and Prometheus. Though the two weren’t part of the same tale, Eggers found a common denominator for them in “The Lighthouse”.
Thomas Wake – the image of god Poseidon
In the ancient Greek mythology, Poseidon was the king of the sea. The half-man, half-fish figure was usually portrayed with a trident, and a crown, as well as long beard. He belonged to the God’s pantheon, and was a sibling of Hades, Zeus, Demeter, Hestia and Hera – the key characters in the Greek mythology.
Poseidon was god of the sea, earthquakes, storms, and horses and is considered one of the most bad-tempered, moody and greedy Olympian gods. He was known to be vengeful when insulted.Source
The description above fits Thomas quite well. Wake too was bad-tempered, and most certainly greedy. He craved to bogart the light for himself. And when Ephraim finds out that Thomas killed the previous assistant, it becomes clear that Thomas’ also vengeful. While this might be the effect of the light, Thomas is clearly prone to letting these emotions take control.
Eggers even hints at the Poseidon allegory in a more direct way. In one of the more allegorical scenes, Thomas stands firmly above Ephraim, with blinding light beaming from his eyes. His appearance reminds of the projections that many painters and artists have in reference to Poseidon.
Ephraim Winslow – the vengeful titan Prometheus
Although some people might find it surprising, the word “Prometheus” isn’t Ridley Scott’s creation.
Prometheus was a Titan in the Greek mythology. His name was literally translated into “forethinker” – Prometheus craved to be among Gods, and had even surpassed some of them in wit and cunning. Known to be the moulder of humans, he’s also a trickster who defied Gods by stealing their fire and giving it to his beloved humans.
How does it refer to “The Lighthouse”?
Ephraim arrived to the lighthouse as an apprentice, presumably someone of lesser importance then Thomas. In a way, it captures the relation between Gods and Titans. Ephraim quite literally attempts to steal the fire from Thomas too – the beaming light that Thomas takes care of. And in his final wake, he lies near the seashore, on rocks, with a flock of seagulls preying on his body. That is the way Prometheus died too, with a slight difference of eagles instead of seagulls.
The Fallen God and The Trickster
In the original Greek Mythology, it was Zeus, the God of Gods, who sentenced Prometheus to eternal suffering after the act of theft. The Greek pantheon was known to be ridiculously cruel, and Prometheus’ punishment belongs to one of the most vile ones. His liver was eaten every day by Zeus’ bird, and then it grew overnight just to be eaten again.
“The Lighthouse” could be viewed as a very auteur adaptation of Prometheus’ story. Pattinson arrives to the lighthouse to help and learn a certain craft. But from the start, Thomas sees him as a threat, therefore treating him with no respect. That’s how the Gods interpreted the role of Prometheus – a threat, which needs to be used as an example. Thomas draws a certain line, leaving the top of the lighthouse – the symbol of God’s pantheon – all to himself.
Eggers twists the story around though. In “The Lighthouse”, Prometheus manages to kill his God, but that act of violence costs him a life. And the seagulls, while could be understood in a slightly different way (which I will move onto next), symbolize Zeus’ eagles.
The symbolism of seagulls in “The Lighthouse” explained
Due to the fact that Thomas claims to be a former sailor, he’s quite superstitious about his lady, the sea (interestingly, he always refers to the sea as “her”). Any kind of bad luck omens, Kraken tales and whatnots are all an essential part of his psyche.
One strong belief Thomas reveals is related to seagulls – the white birds with characteristic brushes of grey color on their wings. They also happen to be known for a distinct, screeching sound they make. It’s often heard in “The Lighthouse”, blended in the ominous sound design.
Seagulls are symbols of freedom in the marine world
Their squawk was also heard from miles, therefore seagulls meant that there had to be land close. That’s why sailors were cautious not to hurt them. One of the beliefs was that seagulls could seek vengeance and mislead the sailors if they’d hurt the birds in the past.
Setting aside the nautical beliefs, seagulls have more than one meaning. These birds are associated with resourcefulness and survival at all costs, while some view them as omens of bad luck. Seagulls often prey on whatever’s found in near-shore wastelands. That could also include decaying bodies – resourceful and creepy!
Hence, when Thomas warns Ephraim not to hurt the birds, there’s a deeper meaning to it. Thomas intentionally sells the fairy tale that these creatures have exceptional memory and will remember the damage. But, as the story evolves, the squawking becomes a reminder of negative emotions for Ephraim. Each time a seagull arrives, Ephraim’s reminded of his nagging companion.
The anger-freeing act of killing one of the birds could be understood as a nautical tale coming true. Like Adam that eats the forbidden fruit, Ephraim too kills in a burst of rage. Eggers further plays with the “bad luck omen” concept – from the moment Ephraim smashes the poor birdie against a rock, madness escalates rapidly.
A lighthouse’s symbolism explained
It’s easy to overlook the way the titular building strengthens the whole narrative in Eggers’ film.
In its most common meaning, a lighthouse is a symbol of guidance and finding a path. Like a ship that is brought to the shore safely, this concept has grown into a religious metaphor. In the biblical sense, God could be described as a beacon for his followers, who follow his everlasting light. That could also be stretched to judaism, where the tradition of Passover links to the light that guided Jews during the dark times in Egypt. Digging even deeper, a flickering light in a dark mist could also point to Manicheism – a never-ending clash of light and darkness.
Lighthouses are also a masterful construct on an architectural ground. Often built on parlous terms, close to steep cliffs or facing raging waves, these high towers symbolize resilience.
And what about “The Lighthouse”?
Eggers steers away from these highly religious concepts, and leans towards a representation of privileges. The levels of the lighthouse are ornamented with particular scenes that refer to a local idea of wealth – the closeness to the light. When both characters sit inside, after one helluva drinkfest, they’re supposed to look repelling. Like the lowest scumbags, they raise their heads to glance at the top.
Think of what’s outside the lighthouse too. Decomposing bodies, squawking seagulls, and the disgusting cabin where both gentlemen often meet. Eggers makes a tremendous use of light and scenography to emphasize the symbolism of these levels. The top is luminous, almost too bright, and most of the interiors down below are dark and unwelcoming.
What if Thomas Wake never existed?
At some point, after reading plenty of fan theories and other analysis pieces around the web, one more came up to me.
While Egger’s plot explains the need for two-manned station, the reality was that many lighthouses had only one person working at a time. It wasn’t particularly safe, but that’s the reality.
In reference to one-manned stations then, Ephraim could have been sent to the lighthouse after his predecessor drowned by accident. If that was the case, then Willem Dafoe’s character could be a delusion of Ephraim all along.
If that sounds off, read the rest of the story.
This theory finds reasoning in the fruitless discussions of the two. On many occasions, Ephraim behaves as if Thomas was a nagging voice in his head, which keeps on blabbering. Superstitions, sailor tales, and self-diminishing could all be signs of a mental illness. Furthermore, consider Ephraim’s origins – the need to change his name, looking for a fresh start.
By creating a fake companion, Ephraim tries to remain sane, but then the solitude drives him mad.
That’s not all though.
The scene with a mermaid proves that Ephraim wasn’t mentally stable. And the act of “the murder” could also be just him easing the tension accumulated. Like a metaphor of throwing away the voice that’s stuck in his head.
The Light – aliens, cult or what?
Symbolism of “The Lighthouse” leaves one enormous question mark after the last scene. In particular: what the light was, that beamed inside the building?
Eggers leaves a lot of space to think and discuss here.
The enigmatic ending, when a tiny-creepy door opens and Ephraim’s ecstasy happens, is ambiguous. The script doesn’t explain what’s inside the rounded bulb, nor does it explain its power over light keepers.
Therefore, there are several ways to understand the meaning of the light.
The entire lighthouse could be seen as a temple, existing for some unknown sea creature, or even a quasi-God of sorts that Thomas (or any previous light keeper) found. This theory would explain the tentacles seen early in the film, when something sleazed above Pattinson’s head. In this case, the beam of light would radiate directly from the creature itself.
On the other hand, Eggers never crosses out the option that the lighthouse hosted some extraterrestrials, who poisoned the mind of Thomas. While the director stated that he’s much into occultism and folklore, it would be tempting to think of “The Lighthouse” as a secretly sci-fi horror.
Is “The Lighthouse” based on a true story?
Last, but not least, the facts behind “The Lighthouse”.
The rumors that Eggers’ film is an actual true story was circulating ever since the film’s premiere.
What’s the truth?
To quote the director himself:
(…) It really happened, in Wales, in the early part of the 19th century. The way the story is told and ends is like a folk tale, so how much truth there is to this “true” story, who knows. Very little of that story aside from the fact they’re both named Thomas came into The Lighthouse, but the idea that they were both named Thomas struck a chord. I was like, “Okay, this is a movie about identity, and can devolve into some weird, obscure places.”
Then we started researching all about period lighthouses and the maritime community. What are these people eating? What are they wearing? And where are they living? And how are they living? Reading [Herman] Melville and [Robert Louis] Stevenson and other stuff — mostly, frankly, for learning how people talk.Robert Eggers in a chat with Vox
The story Eggers refers to is a tragedy that took place in 1801. The location was known as the Smalls Lighthouse. Two workers – Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith – were prone to fight a lot. In what’s told to be a fatal accident, Griffith was killed by Howell. The latter, crawling in fear that he might be sentenced for the crime, built an outside coffin and hid the body there. However, the moody weather made the situation even worse. As found on the wikipedia page about the accident:
Stiff winds blew the box apart, though, and the body’s arm fell within view of the hut’s window and caused the wind to catch it in such a way that it seemed as though it was beckoning. Working alone and with the decaying corpse of his former colleague outside, Howell managed to keep the lamp lit. When Howell was finally relieved from the lighthouse the effect the situation had had on him was said to be so extreme that some of his friends did not recognise him.
“The Lighthouse” isn’t a direct retelling of the above. However, Eggers clearly used some parts of it to get inspired.
The symbolism of The Lighthouse (2019) explained
You made it. I hope that “The Lighthouse” is a bit clearer to you. However, let’s be honest – the true beauty of “The Lighthouse” is the room left for free interpretations. While some theories go bonkers and find Eggers romancing with aliens, others dig into the symbols and meaning of the story. One is certain – Eggers’ film has provided some genuinely brilliant material to discuss and analyze.
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