Symbols, Archetypes, and Jungian Psychology in Great Expectations Movie (1998)

Jungian Psychology in Great Expectations Movie (1998)
This article explores the movie Great Expectations (1998) through the lens of depth psychology in general and of certain concepts of Jungian psychology in particular. The movie Great Expectations (1998) offers a modern time story similar to the one told in the well-known novel with the same name by Charles Dickens. This article focuses on the movie alone without discussing the similarity or deviation from Dickens’ novel. Set in the United States, the movie narrates the memories of Finnegan Bell and how each experience influences his development as an individual. The main Jungian themes identified in the movie are the protagonist’s journey of individuation, the encounter with different archetypal dynamics (the death mother, the anima, the inner child), the destructive influence of unaddressed complexes and a numinous encounter with the shadow. The movie’s strong use of strong visual elements such as the color green, the strategic use of water and the repeated image of the fish, provide a mirror of its symbolic contents.

Movie Synopsis

The movie Great Expectations was released in 1998, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, produced by Deborah Lee, and features Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert De Niro as lead actors. The movie follows the life of an orphan boy, Finnegan Bell, his affection for a woman from a different social class and his journey towards fame, success, and wealth. Young Finn likes to draw. His journey begins when he has a scary chance encounter with an escaped convict whom he helps out without telling anyone. The richest woman in the gulf, Ms. Dinsmoor, pays Finn’s caregivers to have him spend time with her young niece Estella. As time passes, Finn and Estella become teenagers and share a kiss. Their paths separate for seven years until an attorney shows up offering Finn the opportunity and money to go to New York and be the artist in a solo show. He goes to New York, begins to paint and sees Estella again, intensifying his chemistry with her. Finn’s show is a wild success but Estella leaves to marry. Finn is heartbroken. The same night, he is visited by the convict he helped escape as a boy -Lustig- who congratulates him on his success. He once again helps him escape “old associates” who are chasing him but Lustig gets stabbed and dies in Finn’s arms. With his last breath, he confesses that he is the man who secretly financed his trip to New York and the success of his show. Finn continues to pursue his art until one day he goes to visit Paradiso Perduto -the place he and Estella grew up- only to synchronistically run into her. She apologizes for the past and the movie ends on a hopeful and romantic note.

Main Depth Psychology Features

 While the movie follows a storyline inspired by the famous novel by Charles Dickens, it tells a modern and adapted story which at times affords itself the freedom to deviate from the original. Examining Finn’s life through a depth psychological perspective reveals several Jungian core concepts such as Finn’s ego and persona development, his libido surge in the face of anima projection around Estella, Ms. Dinsmooor’s death-mother complex around men, Lustig’s original shadow-like appearance and his sacrifice later in life. It’s also worth noting, the movie’s strong visually symbolic elements such as the color green, the strategic use of water, and the repeated symbol of the fish.

Looking at the movie as a whole it seems to reflect Finn’s journey towards a more whole and more balanced individual. The very first line of the movie is Finn’s narration:

“There either is or is not a way things are. (…) I’m not going to tell the story the way that it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.”

This opening hints at Finn’s awareness that his perception of physical reality is heavily influenced by his psychic reality. In the Transcendent Function, Jung describes artists as being gifted in accessing the unconscious. According to him, “the very advantage that such individuals enjoy consists precisely in the permeability of the partition separating the conscious and the unconscious.” (1969, par. 134) The movie ends with Finn returning to this childhood realm: “one day I went home” suggesting a return to the self, a more whole and integrated self. 

A Numinous Encounter with the Shadow

As he follows and draws the fish in the water in the opening scene, Finn comes across a man completely submerged in water (unconscious). This man scares him, questions him and threatens him. It is clear that Lustig is the representation of the shadow. He is presented on the news as an escaped convict, morally wrong and cast away by society. He is a death row fugitive. He is hidden or hiding and he also threatens Finn with death. Jung describes a meeting with the shadow self in a very similar fashion: “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality.” (Jung & Storr, 2013, p. 91)      

Finn’s narration seems to describe his encounter with Lustig with an element of numinosity.

“Perhaps you’ve had an experience like that, in childhood, and told no one. Perhaps you’ve had that brush with a world so large that you seldom or never saw it again”.

While Finn retelling of the encounter exposes a numinous element, it is not revealed until the end of the movie that Lustig was equally if not more impacted by it. 

The Archetype of the Child

The movie begins with Finn’s child’s play. A free and happy Finn walks in shallow water, playing with his coloring pencils and his drawing notebook. He is surrounded by nature and teeming life- fish in the water, free-flying birds, representing powerful symbolism for the unconscious. He lives a simple and beautiful life and he likes to draw. He draws fish. Carl Jung describes the ease with which children are in touch with their unconscious through their child play in his book “Memories, Dreams, Reflections.”

Jung highlighted in his work several attributes of the archetype of the child that can be also seen in this movie. For example, Jung believed that “the child is potential future. Hence the occurrence of the child motif in the psychology of the individual signifies as a rule and anticipation of future developments.” (Jung & Kerényi, 1985) After Finn accepts Ragno’s offer to come to New York and have a paid art show, he revisits, accesses and expresses the inner child part of him. Finn shares:

“And I could still draw, nothing had lessened it, as much as had abused it, as much as I’d abandoned it. It was a gift and it was still mine, and everything else was less real.”

Finn, the child, is also presented as the savior and redeemer. The symbol of the fish is repeated throughout the movie. Finn draws the fish as a child. He catches the fish as a young man. He and Joe have a secret language around “how to smoke a swordfish”. The fish is depicted on the lid of his crayon box, on the cover of his notebook in New York as we well as on the cover of the notebook Lustig keeps. Also, upon arriving at Paradiso Perduto for the very first time, Finn uncovers a tile with his foot on the ground that reveals two fish in an ellipse. This is reminiscent of the story of Christ who feeds the multitude with the loaves and two fish provided by a boy. “The symbolism shows Christ and those who believe in him as fishes” (Jung, 2014, p. 186). Finn helps Lustig every time they meet. He not only keeps the secret of their encounter but he brings more than he is asked. He brings the right tool to remove the shackles. He also brings pills and booze to numb the pain and he brings food.

 Even though Dinsmoor represents him as “a scared little mouse scurrying her lawn”, Finn is courageous in showing up at night to help the shadowy figure of the man in the orange suit. Later, when Lustig visits him at his apartment in New York, Finn lets him in and eventually helps him escape the “old associates” who are chasing him, only to then hold him as he dies in his arms. The sacrifice he consciously makes for Finn ends up giving meaning and purpose to his life. Through his chance encounter with Finn, Lustig is somehow in time transformed from an escaped prisoner to a benefactor. 

Lustig whose childlike qualities are hidden to him seems to be projecting his bright inner child shadow onto Finn. He becomes obsessed with his drawings, talks of him with admiration and gratitude. Lustig keeps Finn’s drawing notebook and is so inspired by it that he chooses to dedicate his life to financially support Finn’s success as an artist. Sadly, his projection prevents him from discovering his own inner child. “Closer examination of the dark characteristics–that is, the inferiorities constituting the shadow–reveals that they have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality.” P91

Ego Development

Throughout the movie, Finn alternates between periods of time when the conscious mind is in control and times when the unconscious is at play. This point to the compensatory function of the psyche and the interplay Jung describes in the Transcendent Function. For example, after Estella leaves abroad for the first time, following their first kiss, a broken-hearted Finn goes through a period of maturing. He stops drawing and painting and lives a simple and physical life.

“I put aside fantasy and the wealthy and the heavenly girl who did not want me. None of it would happen to me again. I had seen through it. I elected to grow up. ”

As he narrates this period of his life, Finn is shown on a boat, fishing and spearing a large fish as opposed to drawing and painting it. This reminds of the hero archetype who slays the animals. Jung talks about the symbolism of large marine animals that “in psychological terms, they would probably symbolize the original total unconsciousness, out of which the individual ego can rise and begin to develop toward maturity.” (Jung, Henderson, Franz, Jaffé, & Jacobi, 2013).  In Jungian terms, this period of his life can be called ego development. Finn becomes more confident, more self-empowered.

“Whose business was it what I did with my life? Who’d gotten my life in order? Me. I was in control. And everything I wanted, I had.” 

Finn’s Persona

After Finn arrives in New York it is becoming evident that he is missing the persona of the sophisticated artist. He goes to the restaurant where Estella invites him, but has to borrow a dinner jacket to be allowed in. The attendant has to follow up and remind him to return it. Finn seems to forget himself. When he is asked how he prices his work, he doesn’t have an answer. He admits he’s never sold a painting. When Ragno asks him if he needs anything else. He adjusts by requesting additional publicity. He arranges an interview with a reporter. During the interview, he fabricates parts of his story in order to make his life more dramatic and impressive. He is building a persona or a false ego for the first time. He has never had to do this before in his simple fisherman life with Joe. Now he is turning himself into the New York artist with a traumatic past:

“I was born again.”

The movie also seems to point to this symbolical fake re-birth through the visual representation of pregnant belly art expo during Finn’s first visit to the gallery he ends up painting for. This new mask does not hold up as he is clumsy during social encounters and loses his patience with Joe during his opening. 

Estella as the Anima 

Estella appears unexpectedly in Finn’s life. Their meetings often seem to have an archetypal aspect through their either magical, numinous quality or through a more sensuous feel.  The anima and the creative side of Finn’s inner child seem to be bound in the scene of their first encounter. Later in the movie, as Finn begins to draw again and attempts to access the part of him that he has neglected and abandoned, Estella also magically reappears. Finn is in an overgrown garden teeming with life, watching a ladybug, when he sees Estella for the first time. Throughout the movie, she wears different shades of green when meeting him which represent “in folklore a symbol of hope. (Jung, Henderson, Franz, Jaffé, & Jacobi, 2013)” They seem to repeatedly meet in the presence of water (a symbol of the unconscious). Right from the beginning, Finn is warned by Nora Dinsmoor about the potential helplessness and heartbreak he will experience as a result of his feelings for Estella, and her predictions come true. All of these elements can be associated this the anima. “The anima is more likely to be intoxicating and to take over us unwittingly. It’s hard to resist the lure of the anima (in the form of enticing desires and the promise of seemingly blissful happiness)” (Le Grice, 2016, p. 50)

Estella plays the archetypal role of the alluring, unattainable and ever desirable subject perfectly. She repeats this role throughout the movie in a pattern: discounts Finn, seduces him, disappears. “In one aspect, the anima represents the promise of the fulfillment of desire, an escape from the pain of ego-consciousness into the bliss of romantic union, which is a reenactment of the mother-infant relationship. Hence the hypnotic allure of the Femme Fatale anima figure.” (Le Grice, 2016, p. 53) She discounts Finn at first by calling him “the gardener” and by dramatically tossing his portrait of her. She then entices him to the water fountain and surprises him with a kiss. When they grow older she invites herself to his place, sensuously teases him and then leaves abruptly. In New York, she kisses him again at a water fountain, tells him she thought she saw a much “bigger” version of him and then uses him as a pawn in her ploy to get her boyfriend to marry her. She has been trained to break hearts and as Dinsmoor confesses later, and she repeatedly uses Finn as a practice subject. 

A strong archetypal charge emerges the moment she shows up in his hotel room. She symbolically wakes Finn up from slumber and tells him it’s time to paint her. There is a surge of libido (psychic energy) in Finn and he goes on a drawing frenzy. When she once again leaves him abruptly, he chases her barefoot and for the first time challenges her with a question:

“What is it like not to feel anything?”

Estella appears to be an internal conflict about Finn’s question herself. Her teary eyes in the cab show an emotional side for the very first time. She is in pain. 

Finn is often desperately looking for Estella. He seems to be in an archetypal possession, driven mad by Estella’s news of her engagement. At the conclusion of his show, Finn once again goes seeking her, inebriated, finally courageous enough to confess his feelings. He yells:

”Anything that might be special in me is you”

which points to his anima projection onto Estella. Jung teaches about projections that they “lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable. The resultant sentiment d’incomplétude and the still worse feeling of sterility are in their turn explained by projection as the malevolence of the environment, and by means of this vicious circle the isolation is intensified.” (Jung & Storr, 2013, p. 92)

Finally, Finn’s desire to be on the same social plane as Estella is a catalyst to his personal investment in his art and his success. In a way, his longing for Estella leads him to embrace his gift for painting and gives a deeper meaning to his life.“The anima possesses the potential to lead us into disaster or misadventure but also guide us (often through the carnage) to the discovery of a greater life meaning.”(Le Grice, 2016, p. 53)

Dinsmoor’s Death Mother Complex

Complexes have been defined as a subpersonality that takes us over. The Death Mother is “is the primary symbol and force of the wounded feminine principle” (Harris & Harris, 2014) and she is often associated with the myth of Medusa. Medusa lives in a cave and she turns to stone any man that lays eyes on her. Dinsmoor lives at Paradiso Perduto (Lost Paradise), a decaying mansion with statues of children in the garden. There are no adults other than Finn ever shown with Dinsmoor. She offers money in exchange for Finn’s time, knowing their precarious financial situation. She slips the money under the door the first time Finn visits her place, without ever being seen. She, herself, has been emotionally frozen for the past 30 years after being abandoned at the altar by her groom.

“Her room smelled of dead flowers and cat piss.”

When Finn asks her what she feeds her cat she replies: other cats. 

Her anger towards men is evident from the beginning when she orders young Finn to dance for her. She gets angry when he doesn’t know how to. “I’d like for you to dance. That’s why you’re here. To entertain me.”  From Dinsmoor’s first encounter with Finn, she is a mocking persecutor who seems to forget that he is just a boy. Her thinly veiled disdain for men reveals her habitual perspective and pattern of behavior. She mocks him when he apologizes for not knowing any dances. “You can’t or you won’t!?” She gets mad at a mere child whom she has paid to entertain her.  

Dinsmoor she sees herself as a victim of men, which she no longer sees as human but animal: 

“What kind of creature takes such a thing, such a gift, a trust? Who does this? A man does this, so men must pay.”

She calls Finn a “scared little mouse” and uses him as practice for Estella’s man-hurting training program. Dinsmoor raises Estella to see men as dangerous, not be trusted. She teaches Estella to create a cold and intangible persona and to manipulate and use men to her benefit.

“Estella will make men weep. She’ll break them. I taught her well. When she returns, she’ll cut through them like a hot knife through butter.”

In this way, she freezes Estella’s ability to have meaningful and loving relationships with men. “Death Mother costs women their chance to grow in a balanced way, to confront their inner and outer reality, and to have compassion for themselves that is born of the knowledge gained from their own torments and struggles.” (Harris & Harris, 2014, p118)

Depth psychology teaches that all complexes have an archetypal core as well as a hook. Dinsmore seems to know this as she mentions it several times. “The hook is in deep, isn’t it dear?”. Finn and Estella seem to get wrapped up in Dinsmoor’s death mother complex. She is the puppeteer who controls their interactions. The movie reflects this visually in a brilliant way through the evolving dance of Finn and Estella under the mad like instructions of the aging Dinsmoor who commands “smile, smile, smile. Fine, don’t smile.”  Dinsmoor and Finn repeat the pattern of the broken heart.

“You know what this is? This is my heart, and it’s broken. Can you feel it?”

Jung describes the tragic aspect of our unawareness of the repeated patterns in a complex. “It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going.” (Jung & Storr, 2013, p. 92)  Dinsmoor eventually seems to become aware of her doing when she screams a panicked “what have I done?” after Finn takes her hand and puts it on his heart as she did in the very beginning. Through this powerful and deliberate gesture, he reveals to her that she succeeded in inflicting a similar wound in him that had been troubling her for years.

“Her sick obsessions were now mine.”

In conclusion, this article analyzes the movie Great Expectations through a Jungian psychological perspective. The main Jungian themes identified in the movie are the journey of individuation, the encounter with the shadow, the archetypal motifs of the inner child, the death mother, and the anima. Alfonso Cuaron’s film is a visually vibrant production that shows forethought and intentionality. The director brilliantly weaves symbolically rich elements that offer continuity and depth. These elements include the color green, the representation of fish and the presence of water.

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