Masturbation, Madness and Queer Stirrings in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse”

Ria Banerjee


Through a strategic interrogation of compulsory heterosexuality, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019, film) probes into the alternate configurations of sexuality by charting the descent of two lighthouse wickies into the abyss of insanity and ghoulish paranoia. Set in 1890’s New England, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) find themselves stranded on a deserted island with the sinister blaring of the foghorn as an ominous subtext. Eggers’ well-executed deployment of the black and white cinematography, coupled with dated jargons, captures the decadence of the period while playing host to the primal forces buried within them.

Thomas Wake is the senior lighthouse keeper whose eccentricity provokes the wrath of his subservient accomplice Winslow. Winslow is subject to backbreaking manual tasks but debarred from tending the “light”- a prerogative solely reserved for Wake. The “pretty as a picture” Winslow aspires to man the lighthouse, just like Wake but is denied that privilege. The denial becomes an affront to his manhood while simultaneously triggering his homophobic anxiety as he unconsciously endeavours to emulate Wake’s machismo.  Wrapped in isolation, their mutual resentment betrays their surreptitious longing for companionship. Wake identifies with and reciprocates to this longing but Winslow repeatedly resists it.

Wake’s suspicious manoeuvrings fuels Winslow’s curiosity when he finds Wake masturbating in the presence of the ‘light’. Winslow’s voyeuristic gaze implicates Wake as the unhinged seafarer with a shady past. As the narrative unfolds, Winslow’s actions reveal a duality in his temperament- a duality which manifests itself in hallucinations, recurrent skirmishes with Wake and wanton sexual impulses. Winslow claims to have donned the identity of his former colleague after his accidental death, thereby perpetrating a ruse with respect to his own identity. Wake and Winslow’s camaraderie is precariously wedged between episodes of unrestrained indulgence and mutual hostility. In a particular moment of horseplay, Wake and Winslow embrace each other. Wake’s attempt to kiss Winslow is thwarted by the latter who is infuriated beyond measure. Though the embrace carries seeds of intimacy, Winslow’s homophobic fear manifests itself in the form of violence. Violence becomes a tool in the hands of Winslow to reaffirm his heteronormativity. In a fit of rage, Winslow strangulates Wake, and buries him. Through the act of the burial, Winslow attempts to bury his homoerotic stirrings. Winslow’s ambiguity about his queer identity spirals into paranoia which culminates in a violent termination of the love/hate object- both in case of Wake and his former co-worker who died ‘accidentally’.

Against Wake’s hegemonic masculinity, Winslow struggles to redeem himself from feeling emasculated.  In contrast to Wake’s virility, Winslow’s masculinity is an exterior shield to suppress his homoerotic leanings.  Winslow’s discomfiture to embrace his queer identity is rooted in the socio-cultural ideology of the time which labelled homoeroticism as something deviant.

The lighthouse emerges as a site of liminality by virtue of its spatial location. Located at the heart of the sea, it is transformed into a domestic space where Wake and Winslow rehearse the man-woman dynamics. Standing tall and erect, the phallic dimension of the lighthouse unleashes the demon in Winslow. He falls prey to frenzied hallucinations which lead to his eventual psychological disintegration – a classic evidence of which is crystallised in his encounter with the mermaid. Conventionally, mermaids are represented as harbingers of misfortunes as they are often responsible for the premature death of the sailors. Finding a mermaid enmeshed in seaweed, Winslow’s initial fascination with her breasts changes to revulsion on discovering her vagina. Female power and female sexuality is thus perceived as monstrous for Winslow. The otherised presence of the female-in the form of a mermaid- associates femininity with danger, manipulation and deviousness. Winslow’s fear of the female is apparent in his frantic attempt to escape the clutches of the mermaid and return to the promise of the security offered by the lighthouse. Though Winslow is appalled by the mermaid, he climaxes to the ceramic figurine of the mermaid before he collapses. Winslow’s pent-up orgasmic release in the closeted chamber of the lighthouse has an animalistic barbarity to it. The very act of masturbation, for Winslow, becomes a desperate attempt to retain his heterosexual affiliations. Winslow’s ambiguity surrounding his queer identity paves the way for his subsequent neurosis.

The Lighthouse becomes a cinematic journey into the inscrutable recesses of the human psyche to negotiate conflicts that afflict human existence.