Shutter Island Analysis: The Role of Symbolism

‘What’s interesting to me is how the story keeps changing, and the reality of what’s happening keeps changing, and how, up until the very final scene, it’s all about how the truth is perceived.’ – Martin Scorsese, director of Shutter Island.

Scorsese’s film achieves this change in perception by using strong symbolism to give clues. During the film, two common symbols are fire and water. These symbols give meaning and tie all the ideas together, and the purpose of the symbols becomes clear during the final scenes. The main character, Teddy Daniels (Andrew Laeddis), also identifies the lighthouse on the island as a key place in the madness on the island. There are various shots and angles of the lighthouse, showing a difference in reality and perception. The film predominantly revolves around the perception of reality and truths, along with the fundamental, related ideas of sanity and insanity. The strong use of these symbols creates a deeper view into the ideas in the film.

Fire in the film shows the insight to Teddy’s mind, the constant use of fire in his dreams and hallucinations revolve around his insanity. The fire is also associated with Dolores in the film. He says that she died in an apartment fire, and that ‘Laeddis lit the match that killed my wife.’ When actually he figuratively lit the match. He did this by shrugging off the fact that his wife, Dolores, had a mental illness. She said that she was hearing voices, that someone was inside her head. This is how he lit the ‘match’ that started the ‘fire’ that was Dolores killing their children. Teddy is also plagued with memories of his time at Dachau. Dachau is an old German concentration camp in southern Bavaria between 1933 – 1945. When Teddy was in World War 2 he was one of the soldiers that took over the camp, what he saw left him with haunting memories. Teddy had a hallucination about Dachau while at Dr. Naerhing’s house, this was brought on by the fire and the music playing from the record player. During this hallucination he sees ash falling over Dachau and the bodies frozen, piled on top of one another. This ash could show the start of his insanity, the place where his issues started. Whenever Teddy is associated with fire a hallucination always follows, this is Teddy’s ‘trigger’ into a hallucination.

Water is necessary for life, as is Teddy’s desire for the truth. Water in the film is used in opposition to fire, it is used to represent Teddy’s sanity, the truth, reality. Water in this case often gets in Teddy’s way of finding the truth. The truth of what is going on, what Teddy is really looking for. He essentially wants to know what happened to himself. In the opening scenes of the film Teddy and Chuck are on a ferry to the island, Chuck asks if he’s is okay but he replies ‘Yeah fine, I just ah, I just can’t, can’t stomach the water.’ In this scene we also see shots of Teddy behind a chain-link fence, this shot depicts the fact that he is incarcerated. On a symbolic level, Teddy getting sick from water is really making him sick. The reality of what has happened to his family. Chuck also happens to introduce himself, telling Teddy that he is from Seattle, the most ‘watery’ of American cities. Chuck is Dr. Sheehan, Teddy’s doctor so it makes sense if he is from a place of water. Another example of water being used is when Teddy and Chuck leave Dr. Cawley and rain is distorting the view of Dr. Cawley. This shows water distorts his image of reality and illustrates that he is blocking out the past of his reality. The use of water in the film indicates to the fact that Teddy is blocking out his past, distorting it. Through these techniques, the director portrays that he does not want to face reality.

Throughout the film, Teddy is fascinated by the lighthouse because he wants to know what goes on there. Subconsciously he could want to know the truth but also not at the same time. He believes it is the source of evil on the island, ‘I’m going to that lighthouse. I’m going to find out what the fuck is happening on this island.’ By this, he establishes that he believes the lighthouse, or the truth about himself, is what is making the island evil. The lighthouse is separated from the mainland by water and heavily guarded, this is symbolic in the way that he doesn’t want to find out the truth. That the truth of his reality is holding him back. Often lighthouses are symbols of safety and illumination. Early on in the film, it could be said that the lighthouse gave an early clue that the doctors are trying to help him, trying to keep him safe. It the film the lighthouse is a source of illumination for Teddy, it is where he learns the truth. This is shown in the film in the final scenes. Teddy swims through the water, which represents reality. He arrives at the lighthouse, the viewer would expect to see an operating theatre, even if it was a hallucination. This lack of hallucination displays that he is in a place of truths. Teddy eventually arrives in the room where Dr. Cawley is. He is dripping wet from swimming in the ocean, there is no fire to warn him, no fire to delude the truth.

Symbolism is a technique used in movies to give a deeper meaning to a piece of literature, as is easy to see in Shutter Island. Scorsese uses certain symbols as ways of giving clues to the viewer, giving them a different perspective. This film uses strong symbols like fire and water to give a deeper meaning. This is done by when and where they are used, fire is used in dreams and hallucinations to show Teddy’s insanity. Water is used to show sanity and reality. Often these two symbols are used together, showing the difference in perspective. The lighthouse is a point of truth. This is the truth that Teddy does not want to know. Again the lighthouse is used in conjunction with water to give an even deeper meaning. Symbolism is indirectly used give the viewer clues to the ending, to make the viewer think. Indeed, Scorsese is often commended for his use of symbols to give meaning to his films. Shutter Island is a psychological thriller than confuses viewers but then rewards the audience in the final scenes with a strong but sensible ending. To quote Sidney Lumet, a director whose own approach parallels Scorsese’s: ‘There are no minor decisions in movie-making. Each decision will either contribute to a good piece of work or bring the whole movie crashing down around my head.’