What Does 'Black Swan' Have To Do With Carl Jung?

The Players

As I walked out of the theatre after viewing 'Black Swan' I could not help but notice the striking similarities between the primary actors' roles and certain archetypes of the unconscious mind as delineated by Carl G. Jung. This film seems to be mostly labelled as a psychological thriller, I think of it more as a psychological allegory. While it is thrilling, I am less concerned with the thrill and more so with the aspects of psychological transformation present in the film. Of the critiques I read, the general consensus seems to be that Nina, the main character, is losing her mind, becoming unhinged. I think they are somewhat off mark. Yes, to the casual observer, this would be the obvious assumption, but as they say, things are not always what they seem to be. So it is with 'Black Swan'.

Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is an aspiring and dedicated ballerina. She works hard to perfect her craft. She aspires to be the best. She wants the lead part. Not so much for the fame or the glory per se, she is too humble a character for such shallow effects. She needs the part to prove to herself that she is worthy of her work and dedication to be the best. She will find that the process is so much more than mere dance. She is faced with the challenge to search deep within herself to elevate her craft to the higher level of art. This requires a sacrifice on her part.

Nina in the beginning of the film can be viewed as what Jung would term the undifferentiated psyche, prior to individuation. This is the ego unaware of its higher Self and the unconscious mind which presents the aspirational goals of the higher Self. We can see this evidenced in Nina by her general state of affairs. She lives a sheltered life under the watchful eye of her mother, her room still has all the trappings of girlhood and youth, of innocence. Her energy is conciously directed toward the ballet and little time is left for anything else. This can be seen as the ego enamored with outer reality, giving no thought to the deep processes of the unconscious mind. Those processes which will soon begin to stir within Nina's soul and shake the foundations of her presupposed reality. As Dr. Jung posits, "So by means of dreams(plus all sorts of intuitions, impulses, and other spontaneous events), instinctive forces influence the activity of consiousness."(1)

Enter: The Animus. The ballet company director is Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel. In her audition for the lead part, Thomas questions Nina's ability to play the role of the black swan. He senses her virginal, good natured, sheltered personality will not bring authenticity to the sensual, seductive qualities necessary to fulfill the darkside of the lead role. She is a shoo-in for the white swan, but he issues a challenge to her to find her darker self to make the black swan come alive. While Leroy seems at the outset to be somewhat of a sexist, ready to take advantage of Nina, he doesn't. He appears as the manifestation of the animus archetype, having a dangerous potential, but ultimately, his interest is more in bringing out the best of Nina in the performance. It is because of her refusal in the face of his advance that she reserves for herself his respect. He is willing to give her the chance to prove herself worthy. He demonstates his higher aspect when Nina falls for his seduction by rejecting her and turning this into a lesson to Nina that what she has yet to learn is how to seduce. Leroy urges her to begin to discover her sexuality and thusly her darker side. While it may seem harsh treatment, this was symbolic of the very real potential of the animus to induce change and growth as well as guidance in the psyche of a woman. Dr. M.-L. von Franz(an associate of Dr. Jung) states, "But if she realizes who and what her animus is and what he does to her, and if she faces these realities instead of allowing herself to be possessed, her animus can turn into an invaluable inner companion who endows her with the masculine qualities of initiative, courage, objectivity, and spiritual wisdom."(2)

Introducing: The Shadow. Lily(Mina Kunis). She comes on the scene as a whir of precocious, natural talent at ease with her sensual self. Nina immediately feels threatened by Lily, knowing instinctively, that she has everything necessary to play the part of the black swan. Nina is distrustful of Lily's attempts to befriend her. Eventually, Nina acquiesces, in part to escape the overbearing protectiveness of her mother. This leads to a wild night out and ends in Nina's deeper distrust of Lily's intentions. Lily quite obviously possesses all the traits of what Jung calls the shadow, the dark side of the unconscious mind. Nina is both intrigued and repulsed by what Lily represents. Dr. M. L. von Franz says, "If the shadow figure contains valuable, vital forces, they ought to be assimilated into actual experience and not repressed. It is up to the ego to give up its pride and priggishness and to live out something that seems to be dark but actually may not be. This can require a sacrifice just as heroic as the conquest of passion, but in an opposite sense."(3) I find this quote sums up very well the whole sequence of dark events that plays out in Nina's dressing room just prior to her taking the stage as the black swan on opening night.

Interplay and Resolution

If we do a quick etymological study of the names Leroy and Lily, we can discover further evidence of their archetypical symbolism. Leroy is Le Roi, 'the king' in french. This is representative of a strong and powerful animus figure with the ability to either destroy Nina or to endow her with a new and profound sense of her nature and ability. If we examine Lily, this name instantly hearkens to Lilith, the mythological first-wife of Adam. Lilith historically conjures images of dark femininity and uninhibited behavior and sexuality. So in the names we can see reflections of the archetypes represented.

Darren Aronofsky, the director, increasingly blurs the line between Nina's inner and outer realities as if to inform us that this is a drama about the unfolding of a psychological manifestation more than it is strictly a tale of a struggling ballerina losing her mind. Nina confronts the difficulties in finding the proper relationship to her animus and incorporating her shadow. If we consider two other characters, Nina's mother(Barbara Herschey) and Beth(Winona Ryder) the fading star of the ballet, Thomas Leroy's jilted lover. We may observe in them two examples of what could be Nina's fate should she fail to achieve the integration of her psychological archetypes. Nina's mother is a former ballet dancer who gave up her aspirations and seeks her own fulfillment vicariously through her daughter's success. She is possessive and overbearing and ultimately tries to prevent Nina from taking the risk to prove her worthiness. She is what Nina will become should Nina refuse to undergo the arduous task of facing the shadow self and learning to embrace and integrate its affirmative aspects. Beth on the other hand is representative of the fate of a skewed relationship to the animus which ultimately sends her into a self-destructive spiral from which there is apparently no return. With these two examples looming ominously in Nina's peripheral vision, she is compelled and even instructed in subtle ways to take her own chances and avoid the mistakes made by these two women.

Darren Aronofsky did an exellent job of bringing out the psychological aspects, blurring the distinction between inner and outer perception. This imparts upon the viewer an awareness that what is outside us is also within us. Our witness to the external reality is the internal Self which constructs that reality, thusly informing and influencing the decisions and growth of the ego conciousness.  From the actors Aronofsky coaxes all the human qualities of the archetypes making them compelling characters in the process of attainment. From the story of a ballerina aspiring to find success, the drama of a woman's psychological transformation is brought to an apex in a masterful fashion. Many people may look at the superficial details of this film and consequently label it in a shallow manner, missing its significance. If we look deeper and contemplate the symbols presented, we can discover an allegory that defines something more, something which could take place in each of us, a sacrificial introspection which has the potential to make us great, or if we ignore the challenge, to leave us unfulfilled or even to destroy us. Like Nina, the choice is ours to make.

References:

(1) p.53, Jung, von Franz, Henderson, Jacobi, and Jaffe, 'Man And His Symbols', Dell Publishing/ copyright: 1964, by Aldus Books, Limited, London.

(2) p.206, ibid.

(3) p. 183, ibid.

Comments 19 comments

Farah D 5 years ago

Like the film, brilliant, beautiful, dark, persuasive and so eloquent. Loved it, the psychological references are interesting and hold so much value in a modern context.


L. Ray Haynes profile image

L. Ray Haynes 5 years ago from the biosphere Author

Thank you Farah. Your comments and insights are highly esteemed.


shawinterventions profile image

shawinterventions 5 years ago from California

OMG. Brilliant.


spookyfox profile image

spookyfox 5 years ago from Argentina

Excellent hub, I couldn't help noticing the archetypes as I was watching the movie, the shadow being the most obvious one. Didn't think about Nina's possible futures represented by her mom and Beth though.

SPOILERS

Two other things I noticed that you didn't mention were the fact that Nina keeps projecting her inner fears into other people, and the ending: I believe she doesn't literally die at the end, but that she's lost the part of herself that was holding her back, I believe Jung calls it the myth of the hero, that the hero must die often sacrifizing himself in order to grow.

Great stuff, I wish there were more Jungian analysis of other movies, and I wonder if this was all done on purpose while concieving the film.


L. Ray Haynes profile image

L. Ray Haynes 5 years ago from the biosphere Author

@Spookyfox: I was primarily concerned with presenting the archetypal parallels so that is what I focused on in the name of simplifying a fairly complex subject. I am glad to know someone else noticed the archetypes while watching the movie. I was less aware of the projection of fears, so I appreciate you pointing that out. I agree with you that she doesn't literally die at the end, although the movie leaves it vague. To me it was a triumph for her in the death of her undifferentiated ego, which you identify as the hero's death. At the time of writing, I was reluctant to give away too much regarding the ending and I was also indecisive as to how to relate it specifically to Jungian archetypes. I concur with you on the hero's death as the fitting one. I appreciate your insight and commentary, Spookyfox. Thank you very much. (It is pleasant to have some discourse for a change).


Darren 5 years ago

Just came from seeing Black Swan, and couldn't help but see it in terms of archetypes as well. Reading this so soon afterwards was a real treat. Many thanks for posting, and I really like the analysis of some of the names as well.

One thing I noticed during the film was the use of mirrors, especially multiple mirrors or shards, and the obvious significance of this in terms of her changing sense of self. I won't spell out each instance, but definitely something to watch for.


Darren 5 years ago

Just thought I'd post this. Nice little nterview with Aronofsky about the significance of mirrors. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaoRoWdSSGI


L. Ray Haynes profile image

L. Ray Haynes 5 years ago from the biosphere Author

Darren, thank you for sharing your thoughts. My interest is piqued to see the interview you posted a link to. I am certain that an entire hub could be written regarding the significance and use of mirrors in 'Black Swan'. That could actually become a rather involved study, to say the least. It is definitely worth further consideration as a subject.


Kate 5 years ago

Saw the glorious film last night and thought of Jung throughout. I searched for Jung + Black Swan and found your fine blog. Thanks so much for taking the time to pull these threads One other archetype I thought of was in that last shot of Beth (Ryder) in the hospital: the old crone. As you stated I find this a film about transformative potential as opposed to the surface read of it being a breakdown. I think Nina's self-mutilation may lead some to the latter. But isn't she in a sense peeling off her persona in order to reveal her black feathers?

It is so satisfying to see a film this rich have such widespread appeal. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts in this space.


L. Ray Haynes profile image

L. Ray Haynes 5 years ago from the biosphere Author

Thanks for the comments Kate. I did miss 'the old crone' there. You make a good point about Nina "pealing off her persona...to reveal her black feathers". I hadn't thought of it in quite that way. I suspect the movie's widespread appeal may be due to the archetypal nature the film portrays. Even though many may not understand or appreciate the underlying psychology, it nevertheless affects on an overtly emotional level because it resonates with the deeper, more unconcious tendencies of humanity. We can relate to it even if we can't explain why we relate to it. Thank you again, Kate, for sharing your own thoughts with me.


carol 5 years ago

Wow that was great. Thank you so much. I thought of Carl Jung the entire movie and you summed it up nicely for me.

Reading Carl Jung and belonging to a Jung club several years ago helped me immesely in breaking through my own neurotic tendencies.


L. Ray Haynes profile image

L. Ray Haynes 5 years ago from the biosphere Author

I am glad you found resonance with my thoughts. Thank you for reading and responding. It is great to get feedback and to be aware of others' thoughts on the subject. It's good to know you've benefitted from Jung's writing and study. I know I have found his ideas and their application to be helpful in comprehending my own mind and soul and the complexities therein.


Haley 5 years ago

You're forgetting Beth.

Beth is the wise old woman, the guiding, counseling force. Like the wise old man, this archetype is often the idol of the protagonist. While Beth is not what most people would call "old," in the ballet world, she is. It's her retirement that allows Nina to take the center role, and Nina often returns to her for advice.


Haley 5 years ago

Oh, I see now that someone all ready brought this up.

Never mind :)


L. Ray Haynes profile image

L. Ray Haynes 5 years ago from the biosphere Author

Haley, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I don't mind that you reiterated an important point which I missed. I probably needed reminding of that.

d;^}


sirar 4 years ago

Hi,

This is so inspiring article. Thanks so much!


Fran Bull 4 years ago

I just happened to watch The Black Swan on a plane, and rushed to the internet to find a Jungian-based discussion, and there you were. Thanks so much for your comprehensive and deeply thoughtful comments. As a long-time Jungian (analysis and many conferences and workshops), I found the ending of the film inauthentic to its deeper story. Yes, Nina dies--to the old Puella (eternal girl) self. But, as you so rightly say, she has triumphed, she has broken through, she has undergone initiation and transformation. I think this is where the film makers didn't clearly discern the differences between Nina's inner and outer worlds, and they let those lines blur in a sensationalist way. If it had been my film, you'd have seen the blood on her costume--this works symbolically, and as a real part of the ballet--, seen her jump backwards onto the mattresses, hear the roar of the crowd, and seen her lying there, tears in her eyes, tears of self-knowledge and strength. Fin. Instead, we moved into bathos, and into territory dear to the heart of our culture--the Archetype of the Wounded Feminine. Nina is made to die like an opera heroine. Her sacrifice had already been made over and over again as she underwent trials, humiliation, and the rigor of being a dancer. She did not have to make the ultimate sacrifice of dying, rather, we needed to see that she now could live. I was disappointed at this point, but nonetheless, fascinated by an otherwise terrific attempt to present a difficult and important theme--what is really required in growing up, becoming whole and reaching towards real maturity. Again, thank you.


L. Ray Haynes profile image

L. Ray Haynes 4 years ago from the biosphere Author

Sirar,

You're welcome!.

Fran,

You're welcome too and thank you for your insightful comment. I appreciate having such a knowledgable person as yourself bring your wisdom and experience to the table. You have added clarity to perhaps the most muddled portion of the film, the ending. Thank you very much.


EsmeSanBona profile image

EsmeSanBona 3 years ago from Macon

As a devotee of all things Jungian, I must say that this one one spot on, awesome article. I linked it to my Jung articles. Great work! Vote up!

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