Realism and The Lack of Sight

A set of  8 Claude Monet’s ‘Nympheas’ or ‘Water Lilies‘ murals are currently housed at the La Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris, a gallery which was designed in 1927, with large oval rooms particularly to display his works. Many more of the works are held in galleries around the world and are part of Monet’s largest and most famous series.

Monet painted ‘The Water Lilies‘ over a 30 year span, between 1899 to 1927 and number approximately 250 oil paintings in total. His method of painting the same scene many times grew from his desire to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons.


The wall murals at La Musee de l’Orangerie are so large that one should stand back several meters from the work to gain a full view and to allow the eyes to adjust to the taches of paint which up close cause the vision to blur.

The name of the era, Impressionism, is derived from the title of a Claude Monet’s early work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) [below] which was exhibited in 1874 and which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term as part of a satirical review. He declared the work as nothing more than a sketch.  The Impressionists indeed faced harsh opposition from the conventional art community in France who at the time championed traditional and historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits. The Académie des Beaux-Arts, preferred carefully finished images that looked realistic when examined closely, with precise brush strokes carefully blended and with muted colours. 


However, as art was becoming almost photographic the invention of photography challenged the role of the artist.  The development of Impressionism can be considered partly as a reaction by artists to the challenge presented by photography.

Photography encouraged painters to exploit aspects of the painting medium, like colour, which photography then lacked:

The Impressionists were the first to consciously offer a subjective alternative to the photograph.

It was painters such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille in the 1860s who ventured into the countryside together to paint in the open air, in sunlight, taking subjects direct from nature, and making bold use of the vivid synthetic pigments.


Photography inspired artists to pursue other means of creative expression, and rather than compete with photography to emulate reality, artists focused,

…on the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph—by further developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated.

These artists showed that the more we see with the eye, the less we see with the heart. To them, art was never about producing a representation of reality but of carrying on a conversation with reality, through the lens of the eye via the heart and into a form which will then create an impression in another persons eye and body and heart.

The Wild Duck

It is not often that plays made into films, particularly remakes of classics written in another language and era, translate well. However, sometimes it is done well and a particularly good case in point is the 2016 Australian film, The Daughter, based on Henrik Ibsen’s classic, The Wild Duck [1884].

Adapted for screen and directed by Australian film and theatre director Simon Stone, the film features an ensemble cast including Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neil.


The original play, The Wild Duck, is a Norwegian classic, set in the 1880s. It is considered to be Ibsen’s greatest work and recounts what he discerned to be the fatal effects of the “life lie” and the destructive nature of idealism in a quest to dislodge fantasy.


It centers around the rather singular character Gregers Werle who returns to his home town after a self imposed exile to visit his father Hakon Werle, a wealthy merchant and industrialist. He encounters his old school friend Hjalmar Ekdal, who married a servant girl of his father and is working under Hakon’s patronage. Gregers  is bitter with his father over the suicide of his mother 16 years earlier from an affair with the servant girl Gina and discerns that she was married to Hjalmar as a cover for her pregnancy.


Feeling his old school friend is living a lie, particularly in relation to his 16 year old daughter Hedvig, who is in fact not Hjalmar’s child but rather Gregers own half-sister and Hakon’s daughter. The idealist Gregers cannot help but reveal the truth. However, in doing so, he upsets the fragile equilibrium of everyone’s life. His idealism drives him to speak frankly and bring all to light. However, in exposing the skeletons in the closet he rips up the foundation of the Ekdal family and their whole dreamworld collapses.

Deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness.

Re-written into rural Australia, the film opens with wealthy landowner Henry shooting down a wild duck. As the story unfolds we see the return of unhappy Christian after 16 years in the USA, to his home town for the wedding of his father Henry. Tension between father and son expose the unresolved pain from the suicide death of Christian’s mother 16 years prior. Christian encounters his childhood friend Oliver and observes his seeming idyllic rural life with wife Charlotte and daughter Hedvig. Oliver works at Henry’s sawmill and looks after his father Walter, a slightly doddery old man who rehabilitates injured animals. It is Walter who takes the injured bird from Henry to convalesce it with the help of 16 year old Hedvig. It is Christian, alcoholic and facing the demise of his own marriage, who cannot help but reveal the painful truths to not only Oliver but also eventually Hedvig, leading to the unraveling of their family.


The Wild Duck is littered with symbolism centered chiefly around the wild duck. Gregers  imagines Hjalmar as the wild duck in his entrapment in the “poisonous marshes” of his household – shot down by wicked Hakon. The old Ekdal lives in a fantasy world, rehabilitating animals when he himself had been fatally wounded by Hakon and willingly conceals the truth about Hedvig from his own son. Moreover, Hedvig figures as the wild duck in that she loses her family and place of origin and is caught up in the mendacity of three generations of deceit. Most significantly, it is Greger’s “truth telling ” which catalyses the fatal blow for Hedvig and the duck, bursting the fragile fantasy world of their imagined protection.


The story in modern form is still as powerful as the 19th century stage-play and a credit to the film makers and actors for translating it so effectively to film.

Jane Austen and Why Stories End With Weddings

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and lived only 41 short years. In this time she published four novels and left two to be published after her premature death in 1817.  A seventh lay incomplete and never published.

Each of her novels featured female protagonists in romantic and pastoral settings. Well known for her realism, biting irony and social commentary, Jane Austen is one of the most widely read novelists of the English language.

jane austen

Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the predicament of women in a world in which their social standing and economic security depends largely on men. Giving voice to women’s thoughts and feelings, Austen did so with wit and stunning insight.

George Whatley, reviewed Austen’s work in 1821,  shortly after her death:

We suspect one of Miss Austin’s [sic] great merits in our eyes to be, the insight she gives us into the peculiarities of female characters. … Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it.

becoming jane

Austen’s strength is in her lack of sentimentality. In fact she is noted for critiquing the sentimental novels of the late 18th century and marking a move to realism in the 19th century. She makes fun of:

such novelistic clichés as love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers’ proclaimed indifference to financial considerations, and the cruel crudity of parents.

Her portraits of women, and of men, are subtle, insightful, acerbic and cuttingly close to home.  Sir Walter Scott writing in 1816, commended her ability to copy…

…from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader … a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.


Nevertheless, every tale ends in a marriage not of sentimental love, nor of economic expediency but of the meeting of true minds and hearts.

Austen-men are known by women the world over to form a constellation of gentlemen who well…. er… their feelings.

John Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charles Bingley, Edmund Bertram, George Knightly, Edward Wentworth and the list goes on.



Each of her heroines find love, quite truthfully, and yet, Jane Austen herself never married.

Indeed she is recorded as saying,

The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man that I can really love.

So what is the disconnect for Austen between the narratives of her fictional characters and the marriage and love she saw in the world around her?

marriage jane austen

Julie Szego, in her article published in the Age earlier this year titled, Traditional Marriage: A bourgeois bargain for men, writes:

The American scholar Stephanie Coontz​, author of Marriage, a History, says that while love has existed throughout history, “only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married”. At different times, marriage served to forge ties between monarchs, emperors and tribes (read: finding the right in-laws), to affirm religious belief and to secure the inheritance of legitimate children…..

It wasn’t until the 18th century that marriage became bound up with an ideal of romantic love, and that coincided with the retreat of women into the domestic sphere. And even in our cynical age, the happily-ever-after fantasy sputters on, retailed through a bridal industry that’s light on irony – the virginal white gowns, the glossy photo spreads of rapturous bride and groom, the impossible expectations lurking off camera.
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Many of social requirements for marriage including economic need, title, land, sexual ownership, legitimacy of children and more have fallen away prompting social commentators to declare the institution obsolete. 

In contrast however, while the social contraints that defined marriage in past generations have reduced, the popularity of marriage as an ideal and in fact intensity of debate surrounding the nature of marriage has only increased.

Considering that Jane Austen’s novels are as popular as ever, and stories enduringly end with the motif of marriage, the significance of the motif to our lives lies in something far deeper than social custom and commentary belies.

wedding JA

Maybe within such a contradiction lies the key to Jane’s hesitation to enter a marriage while writing consistently about it.

Articles such as Szego’s above posit that when marriage must lose much of its bourgeois connotations of heterosexual ownership for it to symbolise in truth, a union based on love.

Indeed, the symbol as marriage as the union with a lost “other”, culmination of narrative tension indicates there is something far more spiritual and transcendent about it.

jane austen marriage

It seems that the definition of marriage as the fulfilment of personal happiness is where definitions have gone wrong. Fulfilment, happiness, success – all these notions skim the surface of love and so marriage, remaining bourgeois and trite.

The power of literary embodiments of love, and the motif of wedding at the culmination and resolution of the conflict, brings marriage further into a notion of redemption, than of “happiness”.

Naturally the Judeo-Christian understanding of God does not resonate in a post-Christian society. But indeed, ones understanding of the divine will inform ones notion of redemption and of marriage as “sacrament”.

Marriage is an image of the union of God and humanity. Marriage is an earthly representative of return to what was lost, reunion with a lover, a divine wedding party at the end of time.


The Bible – both Hebrew scripture and Greek New Testament are full of such imagery.

Despite the proliferation of polygamy in the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew scriptures consistently depict the chaos, jealousy and strife caused by polygamous marriages. God throughout the Hebrew writings is depicted as long suffering lover whose beloved consistently betrays him to chase other lovers.

In scripture, the image of marriage and the possessiveness of love becomes redemptive. This lover suffers for his beloved.

When powerholders surrender economic and social security to provide ultimate freedom through the giving up of all rights and power in doing so,  bring forth life and flourishing.

This is a motivating love story.


However one defines marriage, the image of a lover, sacrificing their status, power and independence, to bare their soul, and give of themself to sensible and intelligent beloved, is ultimately motivating and profoundly powerful.

Into the Woods

The latest Disney holiday release, “Into the Woods” is interestingly, not a children’s film at all but rather an exploration of contemporary philosophical themes.

Written by Stephen Sondheim,  “Into the Woods”  initially debuted on stage in San Francisco in 1986 and since has won several Tony Awards, and toured globally. Despite its mature themes, in 2014, Disney pictures released a star studded version directed by a Rob Marshall to great critical and commercial success.

into the woods 3

The point of the musical seems less to entertain and beguile children, but rather to make a forary into post-modern thought. Admittedly, it does so lightheartedly and with flair.

Step one, de-sanitise the tale, return it to its gruesome original state and juxtapose it with other tales.


The musical tells the interweaving tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Bean Stalk and the characters sing and dance their way through the narrative with charming ease. Retainin the gruesome elements of the original Grimm’s tales means the ugly sisters chop of toes to fit shoes, Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf [and promptly revived by the gallant baker and his knife], and Rapunzel is banished to a swamp by the witch who has blinded her lover.

Step two, explore what happens after the characters attain their wishes, the post- “happily ever after”.


Once each character receives their wishes, and “happily ever after,” the narrative explores their subsequent unravelling. Cinderella’s Prince is adulterous, Jack’s giant ramgaes through the country in search of her lost harp and hen, key characters die off. Each of the characters begins to blame the other for the chaos.  The story moves from fairy tale into solemn reality……. things don’t always work out the way we think they will. The witch cautions them all to question their wishes, that each of them contributed to the demise by what they desired.

Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you

Perhaps the most profound lines come in the closing song:

Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen

 into the woods 2

Step three: Redefine the very notion of knowing and meaning.


The characters chant to each other:

Wrong things, right things…

Who can say what’s true?…

Witches can be right, Giants can be good.

You decide what’s right you decide what’s good

The story closes with half the fairy story characters dead or disappeared, and the remaining few, huddled together in the woods, to hear the story from the beginning. They are adrift in a world without certain meaning and outcomes and must define meaning for themselves together. The find comfort in each other and not in the narratives they have imagined.

into the woods 5

So what?


Doctor of Philosophy and Catholic commentator, Taylor Marshall in his blog review,  labels the story “pernicious” and outlines the philosophic nominalism evident in the narrative. For him, the moralism evident in which the characters are cautioned to make their own reality, is deceptive. Instead, he cautions that in fact “rationalism” and discovery of “what is” is in fact the fittest form of human endeavour. As sojourners here, our job is to discover the world, it’s rules and paradigms, the order that God has placed and to abide by this order.

I find his reasoning misses the mark.

Fairy stories have always been ground for phillsophical and theological debate – rich with imagery they naturally speak to the dream and the psyche. They play an important role in our subconscious development. It’s important to know that you can overcome the giant. It’s important to know that while there is wickedness in the world, that goodness still prevails. It’s important to know that love saves and that goodness is redemptive.

However, fairy stories, for their simplicity, can be oppressive too.  Is wickedness so black and white? is the witch always wrong  or is she a person too with a story to understand? Should girls be waiting for a prince or there is there another narrative girls can listen to? Does a requited love story always bestow the end of all unhappiness upon a girl or boy? Can our wishes for wealth, greener pastures, beauty and so on – lead us into more trouble than we know?

“Story is a spell and we should be careful what we tell,  because children listen” !!

Definitely !!

“Be careful what you wish, wishes are children, they come true”.

Absolutely !!

There is ground to question the narratives we absorb year after year. However, what “Into the Woods” shows us is that by dissolving meaning, we dissolve the grounds for narrative itself. The characters cannot ascertain whether the giant is “good” or “bad” and so slay her out of their immediate need. The cling to each other in the woods, a community adrift finding solace, and meaning  in each other.

The true end point of post-modern thought is absurdism. There is no more story to tell because there is no meaning to speak of. We’re just “Waiting for Godot.”

Instead of deciding this,  I would urge the characters of these fairy stories, to not define their own meaning but instead to break out of the story they are trapped within to find a GREATER story and a GREATER meaning. If we as readers find tales we read too limiting in moralism, in their two dimensional villains and stereotypical endings, we need to read MORE narrative, and absorb MORE and broader definitions of meaning, not less.

Narrative by nature, says something, and asserts meaning. Meaning is required for crisis and catharsis. Without these we have no stories to tell, no songs to sing.

Stories are wishes, wishes are children, we should be careful what story we wish, what spell we tell, because children believe them, because they come true. The stories we listen to define us and our perspective on the world. What we believe, we become.

I know a story where the wishes of the two protagonists, unravel the whole of human history requiring a promised hero to save them, a king, a prince to arrive and deliver them. This story covers thousands of years and weaves its way through civilsations and empires and finds itself in a regional outpost, a backwater, where a young man from a country village gives his life up for his nation. And saves the world.

That is a GREAT story.