In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for The Pale Blue Eye, we will discuss the meaning behind the movie’s title.
- Christian Bale – Augustus Landor
- Harry Melling – Cadet Edgar Allan Poe
- Lucy Boynton – Lea Marquis
- Simon McBurney – Captain Hitchcock
- Timothy Spall – Superintendent Thayer
- Toby Jones – Dr. Daniel Marquis
- Harry Lawtey – Cadet Artemus Marquis
- Fred Hechinger – Cadet Randolph Ballinger
- Joey Brooks – Cadet Stoddard
- Charlotte Gainsbourg – Patsy
- Robert Duvall – Jean-Pepe
- Gillian Anderson – Mrs. Julia Marquis
Why is the movie called The Pale Blue Eye?
The phrase “pale blue eye” is spoken when Poe recites a poem he’s written to Lea. There are, of course, deeper implications to the phrase that we’ll get into. But first, the poem:
Down, down, down
Came the hot threshing flurry
Ill at heart, I beseeched her to hurry
She forbore the reply
Caught her then in its slurry
Shrouding all, but her pale blue eye
Darkest night, black with hell
That deathly blue eye
Early in the movie, Poe tells Landor the poem was dictated to him in a dream by his dead mother. That very morning, he noticed Lea for the first time and thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—he immediately believed her to be the woman present in the poem. After learning of Lea’s terminal illness, Poe sits down with Lea and recites the above poem. “Do you see?” he says to her. “Lenore—Lea. It speaks of your unspeakable distress. A conclusion to what’s oppressing you. A poem is speaking to us.”
Death, or the inability to confront death—by far the most prominent theme in The Pale Blue Eye—surrounds this poem: it was recited to Poe by his dead mother; the poem speaks of a woman on the brink of death, who is shrouded in darkness and surrounded by evil; Lea has secretly been the one cutting the hearts from cadets’ bodies. That “pale blue eye,” then, carries morbid energy: it is pale, losing its life and color, armed with spectral energy. The person with this “deathly blue eye” is fading from existence, into a ghostly plane detached from the living.
It should be noted that in the source novel written by Louis Bayard, Lenore is referred to as “the ghoul with the pale blue eye” in Poe’s poem. Also, during the scene where Lea has a seizure, Poe writes that her “pale blue eyes stared into mine, with a wildness and a wantonness.” Clearly, Bayard wishes to associate Lea with anguish and distress; with the fear of losing someone; with an ethereal entity—the afterlife.
So that’s the plain and simple answer: the title of the film specifically refers to Lea’s sickness, the state of her uncertain existence. Lea may soon leave this earth, and several characters—including her brother, her father, her mother, and Poe—seem unable to reckon with it. In order to preserve her humanity, they must all commit inhuman acts: murder; disembowelment; communication with evil spirits. Faced with the prospect of death, the preciousness of life begins to feel impalpable.
But the symbolism beneath the “pale blue eye” runs even deeper to connect with Landor, who previously appeared as a detached, observant force. As we find out in the end, Landor was the one who murdered the cadets. He, too, was driven to madness with the inability to cope with the terrible crime committed against Mattie, his daughter—a crime that, as we learn, eventually led to her suicide.
The twist? Mattie, too, had pale blue eyes.
The book elaborates on this revelation a bit more than the film. Here is the entire poem that Poe writes in the novel, which will help bring clarity to the reasoning behind the movie’s title:
’Mid the groves of Circassian splendor,
In a brook darkly dappled with sky,
In a moon-shattered brook raked with sky,
Athene’s lissome maidens did render
Obeisances lisping and shy.
There I found Leonore, lorn and tender
In the clutch of a cloud-rending cry.
Harrowed hard, I could aught but surrender
To the maid with the pale blue eye
To the ghoul with the pale blue eye.
In the shades of that dream-shadowed weir,
I trembled ’neath Night’s loathsome stole.
“Leonore, tell me how cam’st thou here
To this bleak unaccountable shoal
To this dank undesirable shoal.”
“Dare I speak?” cried she, cracking with fear.
“Dare I whisper Hell’s terrible toll?
“Each new dawn brings the memory drear
Of the devils who ravished my soul
Of the demons who ravaged my soul.”
Down—down—down came the hot thrashing flurry
Of wings too obscure to descry.
Ill at heart, I beseeched her to hurry . . .
“Leonore!”—she forbore to reply.
Endless Night caught her then in its slurry—
Shrouding all but her pale blue eye.
Darkest Night, black with hell-charneled fury,
Leaving only that deathly blue eye.
Upon reflection, Poe realizes that his poem was never about Lea—it was about Mattie. Poe’s mother communicated with him from beyond the grave about another woman in the afterlife. Poe believed the poem to be about Lea, who was struggling with her imminent death. But really the words reference Mattie, who—contrary to Lea—killed herself because she was unable to cope with living. The “endless night” that surrounds the character isn’t the prospect of death, but the seemingly endless savagery of life.
So the idea of a “pale blue eye” carries multiple meanings that speaks to multiple characters. It speaks to Poe of his relationship with Lea, of his desire to love and to be loved, of finding and living within the poetry of life; and it speaks to Landor of his lost relationship with Mattie, of his inability to embrace his family, of feeling imprisoned by the slow, cruel passage of time.
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