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Genre in A Song of Ice and Fire

Fantasy as a genre is a problematic discussion to most critics because of their inability to cooperatively locate a coalesced definition. They oftentimes examine the fantastic in their research in order to understand the nature of the genre from different novels and stories in the fantasy canon. Todorov defines the fantastic as the hesitation created when “there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (26). He later argues three conditions that contribute to the fantastic: the hesitation, the identification between the reader and the character experiencing the hesitation, and the rejection of “allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations;” he adds, “The first and the third constitute the genre; the second may not be fulfilled” (33). Eric S. Rabkin acknowledges but departs from Todorov by claiming the fantastic “occurs when the ground rules of a narrative are forced to make a 180 reversal, when prevailing perspectives are directly contradicted” (12). Though both Todorov and Rabkin provide insight into better ways to detect the fantastical in literature, they suffer from their specificity and non-inclusive assertions. What happens when there is an allegorical or poetic device at play in the world of the story; or rather, what if there are no completely contradictory, 180 perspectives? Furthermore, where does George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga fit when it comes to the genre of fantasy, or the fantastic; and how flexible is the series when it comes to assimilating devices from other genres?

Moving away from the fantastic and into the broader genre of fantasy, Roger C. Schlobin argues that fantasy has suffered from entering into the mainstream literary world because “most modern criticism emphasizes genres and specific literary aspects or tropes. Fantasy, however, is not detectable by such tools as theme, character, style, or structure” (x). Schlobin approves the broader use of the term fantasy so that it “can be found in all types of fiction” (x). Parallel to Schlobin but also in direct response to both Rabkin and Todorov, Kathryn Hume gives her definition of fantasy as being “any departure from consensus reality, an impulse native to literature and manifested in innumerable variations, from monster to metaphor” (21). Though vague in terms of defining the genre, Hume “would like to propose a working definition of fantasy whose aim is to be as inclusive and flexible as possible” (20). Her goal is to correct the exclusive definitions of her contemporaries so to better serve the literary world with a unified definition of fantasy. Following Schlobin and Hume, Jane Mobley finds that “magic is the key informing principle in fantasy and delineates both the focus (subject) and form (treatment) of the genre” (120). Without magic governing the laws of nature for the secondary world created in fantasy texts, the reader would not derive an absolute separation between worlds, therefore compromising the validity of the secondary world existing separate from the primary (real) world. Mobley ends with providing six “provocative, not definite” elements that widely appear in fantasy texts: poetic quality, creation of secondary magical worlds, multidimensionality, essential extravagance, spirit of carnival, and mythic dimension (122-124). These elements are important in the classifying of fantasy texts—with the first two being essential. My overall goal in this essay is to properly relate Ice and Fire to other discourses on the fantasy genre in an effort to locate a suitable definition.


So how do we being to categorize the genre of A Song of Ice and Fire? Do we examine the elements of plot, the humans and nonhumans, the first-person perspectives for eight characters per book, or maybe the larger “quasi-medieval” themes as an allegory to modern life? In a sense, excluding any of these aspects will render a faulty view into the category the series falls. In The Origin of Genres, Todorov explains “genres are therefore units that one can describe from two different points of view, that of empirical observation and that of abstract analysis…a genre, literary or otherwise, is nothing but this codification of discursive properties” (162). If we want to go towards an analysis of Ice and Fire in terms of its genre, it will be relevant to consider all the different codes at play—whether they pertain to fantasy or not. Is it safe to assume that rather than Ice and Fire abandoning fantastic elements, it instead embraces the tradition of furthering the boundaries of fantasy? Jacques Derrida approaches genre in a different fashion by stating, “One owes it to oneself not to get mixed up in mixing genres. Or, more rigorously: genres should not intermix” (57). He finds a great fault in defining works of literature within genres because they are “precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy” (59). However, he later explains his hypothesis in that “every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging” (65). How are we then to examine Ice and Fire according to the fantasy genre in relation to the countless other genres that result from the series’ makeup?

To lay the foundation for the numerous codes at play within the fantasy genre, Dieter Petzoid offers four ways (relevant to Ice and Fire) that reality and fantastic texts relate with each other according to secondary worlds—parallel to Mobley’s second element. The first instance appears when “a text is related to commonly accepted reality in a subversive way, its secondary world is shaped so that it tends to challenge the reader’s concept of reality and his sense of security based on it” (17). He explains that the author presents a secondary world that is similar to reality, but the former employs supernatural or magical elements to disrupt our feelings of reality. This is evident in Ice and Fire through the disruption of dragons in the history of the realm. Countless folk-stories and songs explain the once great Targaryen families conquering of Westeros with the help of dragons hundreds of years prior. The reader may draw a connection to Genghis Khan and his brutal conquering of our past world—also told through stories; similar to those recalling the Targaryen past. The glaring difference is the dragon; it unsettles the reader to think of a reality in which Khan could use dragons to assume larger, more destructive victories; but in the end, the reader makes a clear distinction between the two worlds. The second instance steps away from the supernatural and focuses on the secondary world as being an “alternative to existing reality…ideally without violating existing laws of nature” (17). This mode is common in science fiction in which the uncanny dominates the laws of the secondary world, and makes it appear as if the secondary world could have existed if history took an alternative course. This is problematic for the world of Ice and Fire because there is no rational explanation in our laws of nature to explain the existence of dragons or direwolves (wolves the size of a horse) to ever exist in our primary world—evolution or not. Other fantasy texts may subscribe to this alternative existing reality, but Ice and Fire clearly does not.


Moving to the third instance, Petzoid finds a combination between the alternative and “desiderative, whose basic attitude is: ‘this (secondary) world is better than our familiar world’ ” (17). A connection to Freud’s wish-fulfillment occurs in this mode because of the texts ability of exploring desires in the secondary world that are near-impossible to achieve in the primary world; the reader is presented a world to live out their fantasies. Such fantasies include: “eternal youth, strength, power, regression to a state of childlike innocence or of uterine security, or for a life in perfect harmony in nature” (18). Not so much eternal youth, but eternal life occurs frequently in Ice and Fire, specifically with Thoros of Myr’s ability of reviving dead or near death victims due his supernatural powers of being a red priest. Strength and power are the major themes in the series using tournaments, wars, and other acts of aggression as signs of worth for knights and their families. One of the seven major houses of the kingdoms, the Starks, find little to no childhood security because of the murder of the father and mother while their children are still relatively young. Throughout the novels, the remaining kids are in one way or another looking for a home again among their displaced lives in the desolate wasteland of Westeros; this creates an emotional connection to the readers who also feel detached from their childhoods and are looking for guidance. Finally, the “life in perfect harmony” is evident in the overall theme of the series. The reader immediately arrives in a world of turmoil and socio-political ruin between different cities and families—not to mention the constant threat of nonhuman figures to the realm. Every chance the story gets to dive further away from perfect harmony, it does, which makes the series hard for readers to feel fulfilled, leading to Martin’s ability of continuously releasing sequels that will not fail to captivate the readers wish for fulfillment.

The fourth and final instance between realistic and fantastic texts is that “such texts are informed by the applicative mode, which implies some kind of correspondence between the primary and the secondary world,” and that fantasy fiction’s “applicability rests in their expressing certain basic human experiences through the very structure of the narrative and the constellation of characters” (18). Petzoid claims this to be broader than other instances because of the ambiguity of the correspondence between “pure allegory” and “deep levels of abstraction.” Ice and Fire takes a neutral position between allegory and abstraction. To begin with the latter, the “grey characters” of the secondary world provide an idea of how humans operate in the real world. In an interview with Guardian, Martin claims to have “always been attracted to grey characters rather than black and white characters. You read about these people who perform a heroic act and then…perform a horrible act.” Nobody in the primary or secondary world is pure good or pure evil. The characters represent the ideas of the internal strife of humans in the face of conflict, multi-spatial relationships, and redemption. They find humanity in Martin’s language; the chapters in the novels cycle from the point-of-view of multiple interchanging characters. In the fifth book of the saga, A Dance with Dragons, Martin writes, “The Wall itself turned red and pink and orange, as waves of color danced across the ice. Is this the power of the king’s blood?” (138). He writes not from a distance, but through the point-of-view of John Snow and uses italics for every bit of inner dialogue. The characters have unique psychologies according to their features (sex, age, family, and land) and personalities (stoic v. feeble, smart v. dull, ambitious v. lazy, etc.), which manifests through the italics of the series. From this web of complex human interaction and point-of-view, the characters become just as familiar and unpredictable as real humans; and by this association, “deep levels of abstraction” surface from the application of the secondary world characters.


One instance (from many) that deals with a more direct allegorical approach is the Wall and its relationship to modern day immigration borders. The people north of the Wall, named wildlings because of their uncivilized lifestyles, represent the lesser of the two forces in a hegemonic relationship. The land they live on is fraught with constant blizzards and threats from various supernatural beats. Humans are generally not supposed to live beyond the Wall in the frozen wasteland, but the people south of the Wall view the wildlings as “other” and therefore subject them to a punishing life. This point of allegory directly contradicts Todorov’s third condition of the fantastic, in which “[the reader] must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations” (33). I, along with Petzoid and Mobley, refute this condition based on the inevitably of the secondary world existing as an allegorical extension to its poetic construction. Mobley argues her first element of fantasy fiction—poetic quality—in that “the incantatory nature of the narrative also works on the reader, seeking to enchant, not merely to suspend disbelief (as any art must do), but to promote new belief” (122). This textual enchantment allows for the secondary world of fantasy to exist under its own laws of nature, separate from reality; and is recognizable due to the allegorization of events from the real world.

In closing Petzoid’s approach to fantasy fiction, he argues it “is the result of a combination of the desiderative and the applicative mode” (19). The desiderative applies in Ice and Fire’s ability to represent certain aspects like eternal life, strength, and power. As for the applicative, the secondary world (with respect to reality) is able to come to life with the unpredictability with the characters. According to Petzoid, it is safe to assume Ice and Fire to be fantasy fiction. Specific to Ice and Fire, Ricarda Schultchen argues that the popularity of the saga is the result between the blending of fantasy and a “modern narrative perspective” where “central fantastic features like magic and mythological creatures are used to thicken the plot rather than as elements of the core narrative, which is shaped by politics, war and diplomacy” (122). She quickly premises that the series is in fact fantasy, but goes on to explore the ways Martin utilizes human conflict in achieving popularity to a modern day audience. The predominant storylines affecting our view of the saga involves the politics of power from a distinctly modernist perspective. The importance of this predomination only comes from the secondary world, which is an illusion created by the text; therefore, the modern politics of the novel becomes an allegorization or abstraction of the politics of today.


Returning to Todorov to conclude this essay, his three-condition approach to the fantastic almost holds true. The first two conditions (hesitation and identification) eventuate in the point-of-view writing style, but the third to “reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations,” does not. From the previous argument with Petzoid, Ice and Fire finds an allegorical approach in displaying the connection between moments in the text to bring together the secondary world and reality. To argue using Todorov against his own condition, he speaks of art and science having evolutionary qualities in which “every work modifies the sum of possible works, each new example alters the species” (6). Let not a few moments of allegory hinder its potential for consideration in the fantasy genre. In a broader sense, although the series takes many basic elements from other genres, it does not alter the fact that Ice and Fire is a fantasy text. Going back to Todorov’s Origin of Genres, he briefly mentions “at the heart of [the fantastic’s] universe an event occurs for which it is difficult to find a natural explanation” (167)—I like this definition for its inclusiveness better than his three conditions for the fantastic. These events include: the children’s folk-tales, the embellished oral history of battles and tournaments, the unpredictable characters, and the myth of the realm’s existence. René Descartes famously stated, “a whole cannot exist without all its parts, its parts can exist apart from each other” (213). Because parts can exist separately, many different texts can be included in the fantasy genre that does not share a rigid structure; the importance of defining fantasy (and genres in general) comes from its flexible nonexclusivity. The definition for fantasy I conclude with is the basic creation and recognition of a secondary world independent from our own. Specifically for Ice and Fire, the allegorization of a secondary world that defies Todorov’s third condition is essential in the creation of the fantastic for the saga and the more general contribution to the genre as a whole. Returning to Derrida, he states, “Genres are not to be mixed” (55). It is not that genres mix in a text to form some hybrid genre, but rather the basic parts of their makeup mix. Genres are concrete categories defined by the sum of their basic parts, but those basic parts do not wholly subscribe to one category. Fantasy is a broad genre in which many works constitute as fantasy texts, and more contribute to the characterization of the genre’s makeup everyday, including Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980): 55-81. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Descartes, René. “The Identity of Ideas.” A Companion to Descartes. Singapore: Blackwell, 2008. 230. Print.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis. Cambridge: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Martin, George R. R. A Dance with Dragons. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

—. “Martin Talks about New Series Game of Thrones.” Interview. Guardian. Trinidad and Tobago Guardian Online, 11 June 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <http://www.guardian.co.tt/entertainment/2011/06/10/martin-talks-about-new-series-game-thrones&gt;.

Mobley, Jane. “Toward a Definition of Fantasy Fiction.” Extrapolation 15 (1974): 117-28. Western Washington University. Web. 7 May 2015.

Petzoid, Dieter. “Fantasy Fiction and Related Genres.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 32.1 (1986): 11-20. John Hopkins University Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976. Print.

Schlobin, Roger C. “Preface.” The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art. Harvester Limited, 1982. Print.

Schultchen, Ricarda. “A Game of Thrones, Indeed: A Lot of Politics and Just a Bit of Magic in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.” Inklings 30 (2012): 122-34. Web. 11 May 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Origin of Genres.” New Literary History 8.1 (1976): 159-70. The John Hopkins University Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan, and Richard Howard. The Fantastic. Press of Case Western Reserve U, 1973. Print.

A Look into “The Tree of Life”

“The ‘I’ who speaks in this story is not the author. Rather, he hopes that you might see yourself in this ‘I’ and understand this story as your own. Paradise is not a place here or there. The soul is paradise; it opens before us; here, today. The humblest things show it. We live in the eternal, even now.”

-Terrence Malick

The Tree of Life is a divine journey that transcends our own planetary struggles to show the momentary struggles of a small town family. Films have repeatedly been contrived since 2001: A Space Odyssey that have prompted the discourse on an exponential universe that is impossible to interpret; various films progress the idea that humans and life is nothing in the vast universe we inhabit. Terrence Malick strays from those ideas and proposes life to be more than specks of dust; that life connects to everything in the universe since the knowable creation, using a tree as the allegory. Life needs more than thought or science to understand; it takes touch, feelings, and moments of love to connect to the system of the universe. Humans consciously only get one chance to achieve this spiritual nirvana of interhuman connections, recognized as love and compassion. The Tree of Life is a parable to display the proper way to treat other humans through the use of demonstrating ethical crimes of the past, and how the chain of oppression manifests within the individual and the scars it leaves for the future.

First some backstory on the most mysterious director-writer working today. Terrence Malick was raised in Waco, Texas in the fifties, which became the setting of The Tree of Life. He grew up with Christian parents and attended an Episcopal school in Austin; later he studied philosophy at Harvard and went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He never ended up getting his doctorate in consequence to a dispute with his tutor on his thesis on the concept of the world. He ended up teaching philosophy at MIT and wrote freelance articles for Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Life. Though coming from a religious family, Malick certainly displayed a willingness to study life beyond the Christian faith in order to understand how the world works. In one way or another, that’s what this film tried to study.

The Tree of Life begins in a world closed off from nature. Tall buildings and uniform employees; this is not natural. The privileged first world collectively achieved this fake-city-nature through repression of the real. The main character, Jack, is an adult trapped in this world and through the film understands how to escape. He wakes up one morning and feels some phantom pain which the audience at first does not understand. He is starting to feel the deceit of the unnatural world. His thoughts and the images on screen guide the audience to his younger brother’s death years ago; he died at the age of nineteen. Waves of nostalgia punches Jack and renders a pain indescribable with vain attempts to overcome his arduous countenance. We see through prolonged flashbacks that Jack’s father oppressed him in his youth. In order to release the built up anxiety from this oppression, Jack commits the same crime to his younger brother. The unnatural chain of oppression is born. Jack’s father is an angry individual because of his failure of becoming a great musician and ends up settling for an engineering managerial position. He had also lost an important court case in which his patent and original idea was stolen. The father is no monster, he was cornered in the artifice like a wild animal. The cycle is created and thrives off this world and the beings inside, turning nature against itself. The way out, according to Malick, is through forgiveness, “Forgiveness is the key to reality.” By the end of the film, Jack’s father asks his son for forgiveness; its too late because Jack already spread the oppression to his younger brother. Through this realization at an older age, Jack understands the pain that he is feeling to be the unnatural world stealing his soul. Evil and sorrow can be destroyed through love and beauty. This is how the world is restored to its original glory.


The camera in this film moves in such a way to make everything seem like a dream, or even a transcendent being viewing the family in a celestial way. It flows through each scenes with no motive, almost like a subjective point of view from one of the boys.

The man behind the camera is Emmanuel Lubezki (reigning two-time Oscar winner) known for shooting: Ali, Children of Men, Gravity, and Birdman. Lubezki and Malick developed a list of shooting aspects that is followed throughout filming. They include: shoot in available natural light; shoot in backlight for continuity and depth, shoot in crosslight only after dawn or before dusk, never front light; avoid lens flares; no filters, except polarizer, no zooming, Z-axis moves instead of pans and tilts; the list goes on. The film is littered with these types of shots:

tol6 tol5

The shots give the audience a regular reminder of the sun and with that, the families place in the universe; they cannot escape simply because they are connected. It also reminds the audience that there is a bigger that always looks over us, creating the sense of a divine presence like that of God. This divineness is visible from the shots that Lubezki employs. The scenes are not introduced with wide shots, the characters do not line up on traditional geometries within the frame, and the camera follows Jack’s internal strife as if with guidance. The scenes shot at the 1956 Texas set are chiefly random. Malick was able to secure an entire block of houses to shoot through and around, giving the cast freedom to play around like a family would. The day would start with the actors told to completely ad-lib some activity in the most natural way possible, and the camera would just follow and capture what happened. These captured moments are not planned with a traditional storyboard, they follow the dogma and seldom stray from it. The camera tracks Jack’s reactions and his point-of-view through these sequences in order for the audience to understand the world through his perspective.

Throughout the film, the shots remind the viewer of the four elements:


Fire: The great creator and destroyer. In this film, it appears in the beginning of the creation of the universe sequence as being one the essential element to create the stars and galaxies. In the biblical context, it equivalently represents the fertility of God.


Water: This element is discussed later on in this analysis when I talk about the ending. This element represents femininity, purity, and cleansing. This element pervades most of the scenes in this film because of the color often associated with it: blue.


Earth: Even more than water, earth is considered the most dominant feminine element (mother nature). Its associated with fertility and the cycle of life. This film shows the sons being born up until when Jack is an adult. Even more representative in the creation of the universe sequence, which features the earth’s creation and the fertility of the planet that made life possible. The colors associated with earth is green and brown. The green is seen in most scenes by virtue of the abundant trees and plants in the neighborhood. The father wears a lot of brown, meant to represent his firmness and strength.


Air: This last element is connected with the soul and “breath of life.” Air is the great reliever to those who need conflicts to blow over and disappear. This element is not as prevalent as others, which may be because Jack is unable for the conflict to go away, the winds are not bringing him a peace of mind. Air is associated with white, which is a color Malick tried to stray away from when he made his dogma with Lubetzki. This is interesting considering the film has a lot do with with innocence, which is usually given a white cloak in biblical terms. The reason Malick wanted to avoid this color is because Jack is not pure or innocent, as evidence with his demons haunting him later in life. He was being infested with the negative energy his father bestowed upon him, which is anything but pure. Instead Malick forces the purity and innocence theme on the color blue because of waters theme of cleansing and purification. Jack needs to be purified of his sins.

These scenes remind the viewer of the way nature is inherent in everybody’s lives. We live inside of nature and nature lives inside us.


Another aspect of the film that accompanies the cinematography to endorse a transcendent viewing is the score. Alexandre Desplat (French composer known for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The King’s Speech, The Ides of March, Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game) was brought in to do his first collaboration with Terrence Malick. The sound he creates amplifies the divine quality by introducing larger than life, transcendent sounds. The strings hold notes out long notes, the piano plays soothing melodies, and the orchestra picks up throughout the sequences of oppression to heighten the drama. This chain of oppression on screen only works in this transcendent sense because of the orchestral score. Otherwise, the scene is grounded on earth and without a divine quality. The score does not feature a particular sound that becomes the ritornello or defining sequence of notes that is repeated throughout the film. This ritornello is used in repetition, multiple times throughout a film in order for the audience to identify with and be pleased each time they hear it, almost like a pop song’s repeated note patterns. The Tree of Life does not give the audience this satisfaction. The audience is not left with a ritornello, or little return, because the narrative does not make any simple returns. It is a complex film with layered feelings that should not be exposed by the score, but rather the emotions of the visual aesthetics of the cinematography and acting.

Nature v. Grace:

The off screen dialogue of Chastain sets up the idea behind the narrative of nature v. grace: “When I was young the nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which path you’ll take. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts all things. It does not mind being slighted, forgotten, disliked, insults, or injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Love shining through all things. No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” I like to think of nature and grace in terms of the Freudian Id and the Ego. The nature or id is the primeval way of life of following the bestial instincts of staying alive and populating the earth. These instincts are natural to every living thing on the planet: plants, animals, humans, etc. Grace or ego describes the more celestial qualities within a person, including love, compassion, reasoning, etc. These are the conditions that connect every form of life to the community and space they live. In the sequence of events showing the formation of the universe, a dinosaur is lying helplessly on the ground while one other approaches. The latter dinosaur steps on the helpless dinosaur’s face in the form of dominance, the id, or beastial instinct. But then it releases and runs away leaving the other dinosaur to live. This is Malick’s form of showing the early interaction between nature and grace. The compassion that the dinosaur felt that made it leave is the grace or ego overcoming the nature or id that would have killed the helpless dinosaur. This form of nature and grace takes place within Jack and his father. The father shows no grace until after the fact, and so does Jack towards his younger brother.



The final sequence with the family on the beach reminds me off Fellini’s final scene from 8½. In both, the central character is visited in a surreal setting of the people they remember from the past. The setting is something of a dream state projected to the audience to show the character’s inner thoughts. The difference between the two is the setting: The Tree of Life takes places on a beach and takes place on an expansive field. features the main character directing all of the characters in a line with a carnival setting; The Tree of Life shows older Jack interacting with his 1956 family with his brother still alive. Jack’s thoughts are at this moment in time specifically because he is remembering the loss of his brother, which triggers the remorse he feels for how he treated him back when they were kids. He feels a wave of nostalgia when looking into the eyes of his loving mother and embracing her, hugging his younger brother, watching his mother embrace her brother, and looking on his father with a certain reconciliation. These are the moments Jack wants to remember. These early memories of the innocence of youth is what everybody wants to remember; a certain carpe diem theme resonates here.

Its also important to note the final scene happening at the beach. Symbolically, the sea represents where all of humanity was originated. By returning there with thoughts of forgiveness of compassion, Malick could be arguing for the purity of these traits in being the fundamental units of life. Water is also a “feminine energy” in common folklore, which shows in Jack’s gaze being directed toward his mother during this final scene. In Catholicism, holy water plays a great part for prayers and rituals. Malick no doubt wanted to show this final scene in seawater because it happens to be the most pure holy water (which is just salt added to water) because of its production in nature. He’s going for the religious purification theme (not to mention the soundtrack featuring a church chorus singing); the father’s sins against Jack being purified by forgiveness, and Jack being purified in this final scene of surrealism.


Freudian Psychoanalysis:

There is a lingering Oedipus nature throughout the narrative. This theory was coined by Freud in his 1900 book, The Interpretation of Dreams. The Complex was taken from the Sophocles play, Oedipus Rex, in which a prophet claims that the King’s son will kill him and have sex with his wife; and that is what ends up happening. Freud claims that this is fundamentally how all humans develop their id in conjunction with the super ego in the creation of their ego. This oedipal desire pervades many different stories once you begin to notice it; most visibly it is what drives Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In terms of The Tree of Life, there is a scene in which young Jack steals a piece of his mother’s garment and throws it in the river in confusion. He’s confused because the oedipal desire (unknown to him) is controlling him. This desire of the mother is prominently featured in two particular scenes: first with Chastain suspended in air and in the final sequence on the beach. The former scene shows the mother floating like an angel, which makes sense if we are perceiving the narrative from a subjective/subconscious view of Jack, specifically relating to his oedipal desire. The final scene shows the mother, dressed in blue, and her transfer of desire to another woman. This is the sequence in which Chastain and some woman are shot in a closeup against a blown out background with Chastain directly in front of the other. Chastain even mutters, “I give him to you.” Meaning, Jack’s desire for his mother is shattered and attached onto this other woman, who probably turns out to be Jack’s future wife, considering this scene is a flashback from Jack at an older age. The oedipal desire goes even further when considering Jack’s relationship with his father. Jack feels a hatred towards his father, but doesn’t go as far as to kill him, and later shows his forgiveness on the beach.


One answer this film gives about the question of life is love. Love is the intrinsic unit of life that we should all stride towards; it wastes time not to. Love is the one thing in life that transcends space and time; it goes beyond the limits of the known universe and reaches an almost god-like position or higher dimension. The Tree of Life shows the audience what it looks like when discipline stifles love. This absence follows the children through life and develops this hidden pain in the future. A pain so inherent that we only try to suppress it instead of find the cause. Malick is looking for that cause by examining the history of the universe and our relation within the unknown. And that’s what life is: largely unknown.