Symbols in Stanley Kubrick's movie 'Eyes Wide Shut'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

18 Pages, Grade: very good


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The first scene

3. “No dream is ever just a dream” – fantasy or true story?

4. Discussion of the major symbols in Eyes wide shut
4.1 Eyes
4.2 Mask
4.3 Mirror
4.4 Victor Ziegler
4.5 Orgy

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the 1990s, turned out to be the most controversial cinematic work of this decade. Critics are divided between scathing criticism and commendatory enthusiasm; reviews range from calling Kubrick’s movie intellectually over-hyped, a disaster, or a boring experience to praising it as a triumphant victory and a masterpiece.

For one thing, Eyes Wide Shut generates controversy on first viewing. It does not present easy answers or reassuring certainties, but leaves the viewer baffled as to its meaning. It is the movie’s complexity and large symbolic dimension that makes one realize that a single screening may not reveal all the meanings necessary for an interpretation.

One of the movie’s outstanding features is its extensive use of recurring motifs, symbols, allusions, and paradox – one of the reasons why the film is difficult to understand. Thus, to come to a fuller understanding of one of the film’s possible messages, it is not only useful, but also necessary to take a closer look at its symbolic structure. This paper attempts to discuss the symbols employed in the movie as it is of benefit to the film’s analysis.

Eyes Wide Shut presents two different planes of discourse: there is an outer reality, the social dimension, and there is the inner world of the characters, the psychodynamic dimension. To allow for the viewer to penetrate beyond the surface of outward appearances and human superficiality into the hidden worlds of dreams and fantasies, the use of symbols is an ideal instrument. Symbols appeal to the imagination and they address and evoke our emotions. They reflect on the interface between fiction and reality and thus help to reveal the truths of the subconscious mind.[1] This helps to foster audience participation and emotional involvement in the story, which is of importance for Eyes Wide Shut to develop its full effect. However, even though Kubrick’s movie is full of symbols and hidden meanings, it is difficult to put them together for an analysis. There is not one interpretation that fits perfectly and renders a symbolic coherence. Thus, Eyes Wide Shut is open to several interpretations, none of which fits perfectly to all parts and aspects of the film. And this is exactly what makes the movie so intriguing: its ambiguity and loose ends, which leave interpretation to the viewer.

2. The first scene

After one quick shot of a woman stripping naked in front of a mirror, the screen turns black, “as if an eyelid had closed reflexively to mask what the retina had just glimpsed.”[2] Such is the startling image that opens Kubrick’s movie Eyes wide shut. The focus of this very short first scene is on the visual impressions; there are no words. At the outset, the viewer is pushed in a position in which they are forced to concentrate on what their eyes can see, only taking in the images without having much room to think further. Alexander Walker even goes so far as to compare the role of the viewer to that of a voyeur in a peepshow with the shutters descending.[3] This does not seem to be too far-fetched, since the interior of someone else’s dressing room with a woman taking her clothes off is not for an audience of millions to watch. It is a very private moment that usually nobody is supposed to look at – except maybe her husband.

One function of this very short first scene is that it serves as an eye-catcher, trying to whet the viewers’ voyeuristic appetite and seemingly promising the audience that the movie is about to give them what they came for: to watch sex on the screen. This is a very sly move, since the viewer, ready to have their expectations fulfilled, is taken by surprise as the movie enfolds its different perspective and thus turns from mere eye-catcher to hypnotizing eye-opener. Lee Siegel sums it up in his review of Eyes Wide Shut: Kubrick makes us “look at the film the way the film looks at life.”[4] As the story unfolds, the focus shifts gradually from outside to inside, and the viewer’s attention is captivated because the movie’s sex is more in the mind than on the screen.

Eyes Wide Shut ’s opening scene encapsulates some of the symbols that will recur throughout the movie: There is nudity as Alice undresses, there is the black color of her dress, the red of the drapes, and a mirror in front of which she is standing. And, though in a very subtle way, the eye-motif is introduced as well. Alice is not looking toward the audience, so it seems that she is being watched secretly without her knowing it. Thus the question arises who is watching her and for what reason. It is a highly condensed image, like a tight ball of string from which the threads of ideas will unravel during the movie. When the screen blacks out, the audience seems to be summoned to stop staring and instead start seeing with their inner eyes. As the course of the movie then shows, the story develops into a direction where the mind can see but the eyes cannot.

3. “No dream is ever just a dream” – fantasy or true story?

Eyes Wide Shut raises the question whether Bill’s and Alice’s adventures are real or just a dream, since the story continually and ambiguously crosses back and forth between fantasy and waking reality[5]. For Bill it is of no importance whether he dreamt about his nightly odyssey or actually experienced it – what is significant here is that the events exerted such a profound influence on both the dreamer and his environment that they changed the life of all involved.[6] Bill emerges as a different man, and his perception of his wife and the world around him has changed as well. He has been awakened to the reality of the non-rational dimension of his being and challenged to accept that fantasies also do shape his self-understanding. The doubts that arise through the ambiguous way in which the events are presented reinforce the idea that nothing can be known for certain. Thus, the dream is an important tool to enfold the movie’s essential theme: the “exploration of appearance and reality and the problem of knowledge.”[7]

Another point worth mentioning in this context is that the function and effect of the dream-motif is closely related to those of the symbol. Eyes Wide Shut is a psychological exploratory film that attempts to look beyond appearances and examine the interiors of motivation of human behavior, which in its evasiveness cannot clearly and precisely be pinned down. Thus there is a certain element of unreality in the movie, adequately expressed through the dream-motif, symbols, and paradox. These elements do not suggest definiteness where there is none; the ideas and insights they evoke remain naturally imprecise. The dream enables the mind to grasp subconscious or suppressed ideas and encourages the dreamer to gain affective experience instead of cognitive knowledge.[8] To achieve this, symbols are frequently employed. As has been mentioned in the introduction, symbols speak to the instinctive feelings of the reader, not to the intellect. They help to convey a mood to the subconscious rather than an appeal to the rational faculties. Thus the dream with its symbolic scope provides an opportunity to reveal concealed motives and explore the depths of the inner mind, to enable both the movie’s characters and the audience to see themselves and their surroundings as they really are. The human subconscious is oftentimes seen as a dark place, as a kind of underground. In Eyes Wide Shut, Bill’s wandering the streets at night alludes to this idea: By moving through the city’s and society’s underworld, he delves into the underworld of his own psyche, grappling with his shattered illusions, with his fears and desires. He moves through a “townscape of dream”[9].

4. Discussion of the major symbols in Eyes wide shut

4.1 Eyes

Alice’s husband Bill functions as the audience’s proxy in the movie, so it is probably him who is watching his wife in the first scene. The audience sees the events from Bill’s perspective and thus shares his experiences. Like Young Goodman Brown, Bill goes through a process of initiation and emerges in the end as a changed man. He experiences moments of crisis and disillusionment that foster a process in which his eyes are opened: he gains self-knowledge and discovers a new inner and outer reality.

The eye-motif has a large symbolic scope.[10] Some of the meanings associated with it prove to be fruitful for an interpretation of Eyes Wide Shut. The different meanings of the eye-symbol are so densely woven into the movie’s texture that it can be regarded as a Leitmotif. Its thematic dimensions fit perfectly the movie’s many paradoxes and doubling effects.

Our eyes give us the ability to see our environment and each other. The world we perceive and comprehend with the help of our eyesight constitutes the major part of our own personal reality. What we can look at and see we tend to think of as being true and real. The first few scenes of the movie remind the viewer of how much emphasis we tend to put on what is perceptible to our eyes. This knowledge is based on what is visible.


[1] Ahrens, Rüdiger, ed. Symbolism: A new international journal of critical aesthetics. Volume 1. New York: AMS, 2000. xii.

[2] Walker, Alexander. Stanley Kubrick, director. New York & London: Norton, 1999, 344.

[3] Walker, Alexander. “It’s a sex odyssey:” This is London. < hottx/film/top_film.html?in_review_id=29653&in_review_text_id=14004> (01.12.2001).

[4] Siegel, Lee. “Eyes wide shut. What the critics failed to see in Kubrick’s last film.“ <> (30.07.2000).

[5] Kubrick, Stanley, and Frederic Raphael. Eyes wide shut. New York: Warner, 1999, 164.

[6] As mentioned by Daemmrich, Horst S., and Ingrid Daemmrich. Themes and motifs in western literature. A handbook. Tübingen: Francke, 1987, 95.

[7] Scourfield, David. “The appearance of knowledge: Oedipus and Eyes wide shut.“ <> (03.03.2002).

[8] Ibid., 94.

[9] Walker. Stanley Kubrick, 344.

[10] As to be found in De Vries, Ad. Dictionary of symbols and imagery. Amsterdam & London: North-Holland, 1974, 83, and Daemmrich. Themes and motifs, 102. Many of the meanings the eye-motif is associated with are as old as the Bible. Many verses of the Old and New Testament speak of the connection between the eyes, the heart, the soul, and mind and their mutual influences on each other, e.g. Job 31:7, 2 Peter 2:14.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Symbols in Stanley Kubrick's movie 'Eyes Wide Shut'
University of Würzburg  (English Philology)
very good
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Symbols, Stanley, Kubrick, Eyes, Wide, Shut
Quote paper
Carolin Ruwe (Author), 2002, Symbols in Stanley Kubrick's movie 'Eyes Wide Shut', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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