On a Toaster, Wordsworth, and Phallic Daffodils

“Oh, for the love of God! Shut up and just watch the movie!” 

This is a sentence that I hear rather regularly when watching a film in company. After 5 years of studying British literature and culture, my brain seems to have developed a few extra cells which instantly try to decipher the symbolic codes of movies and books and which hugely annoy other people. To me, everything becomes a riddle that wants to be solved. When I was watching Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island with a few friends, they started complaining about the poor quality of the special effects. I really put on an effort to tame my inner academic freak, who was already frantically jumping around inside my head wanting to throw film studies companions and his oversized nerd glasses at them. Yet after 15 minutes of having had to listen to them slandering Scorsese’s work, I simply had to tell them that I read the deliberate unrealism of the special effects as a comment on the intricacy of the border between reality and fiction thus reduplicating the main features of the plot in its visual representation.

Well… What can I say: They stared at me open-mouthed for about 10 seconds and then wholeheartedly continued railing against the movie.  

I certainly tend to overthink but what if I am right? What if Scorsese really intended to hint at the plot closure by making use of visual means? What if Freud was right and Hamlet really suffered from a severe oedipus complex? What if ideology critique is right and the Sherlock Holmes stories are less about the value of rational thinking than about its limitations in a western centered, logocentric, patriarchal society?

In 1967 literary critic E. D. Hirsch published his notorious book entitled The Validity of Interpretation, in which he claimed that the author had a clear intention when producing a work of art which can be decoded by the reader. The implication is that there is one valid interpretation of a work which directly mirrors the author’s intentions and which can be found out by closely studying the author.

When a friend of mine showed me a short film that she had co-produced I was over the moon when the film’s domestic setting suddenly changed and the protagonist entered a dream world filled with daffodils. I instantly had to think of William Wordsworth’s famous poem about the daffodils. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the film’s protagonist actually bears some resemblance to Wordsworth, that he talked about feelings so important to romantic poetry and that there were hundreds of daffodils surrounding him. And as this friend studied with me, I could even be quite sure that she had encountered Wordsworth’s poem at some point.

But when I wrote her that I particularly enjoyed the Wordsworth-reference, secretly thinking myself very smug for having spotted it and for successfully having decoded the film, she replied: “Ha! Isn’t it funny what people read into this?” 

This marked the birth of a great idea! My friend and I decided that I should interpret the film as I thought fit and then she would provide me with the actual story behind that short film, enabling me to finally check the validity of my interpretation. 

Here’s the film and below that you can find my short analysis. Why don’t you also have a go at speculating about what it might mean?

Toast

We encounter a young man in a rather bleak, domestic surrounding that is characterized by the chromium surfaces of his kitchen and the technical cooking devices, especially the toaster. The only allusion to nature found in this metallic world is the little snow flake engraved in an undefined metal surface.

He craves a slice of toast before going to bed. Toast is a very British kind of food and thus denotes that the film also negotiates Britishness which becomes more clear in the dream sequence. The man suddenly finds himself leaning against a wall and facing the toaster which is hardly visible as it is surrounded by daffodils. The wall has a darker and a lighter side which creates another contrast to the homogenous colouring of the kitchen sequence. According to a BBC survey William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1804) – commonly known as “The Daffodils” –  comes on fifth place in the race for Great Britain’s favourite poem. Thus, just like toast, the poem exemplifies a sense of Britishness that is closely tied to an idealized, romanticized past, in which feelings dominate over rationality, here embodied by the toaster. Suddenly it is no longer the man in the kitchen which is – as natural being – the odd element out, but now it is the toaster which does not really fit in anymore. Also note that the protagonist defines his superiority over the toaster by indicating his creative abilities and potentials, especially the art of writing.

The film identifies this image of a colourful, peaceful past linked with Romantic, Wordsworthian ideals as an idea that is to be desired but that is simultaneously represented as a dream. The film ends with the next morning. Once again, the young man has a slice of toast, thusly accepting his existence in (and to some extent dependence on) a technological world and drawing attention to the ritualistic, passionless nature of our world, in which it is finally the toaster which actually has created something (toasted toast) but the human being can merely consume and no longer be creative anymore.

______________________________________________________________________

It is very likely that my reading does not even come close to the message of the film. I might totally misunderstand it. I deliberately tried to analyse it as I understood it at the first viewing and restrained from a psychoanalytical reading that also came up to me in which the daffodils can be identified as phallic symbols metonymically representing Wordsworth’s castrated penis and his uncanny desire for the toaster, i. e. the representation of an emotionless, technical vagina dentata, which burns the toast and thus poses a danger to masculinity. This reading would invert the nature/culture opposition in which nature is commonly associated with femininity and culture with masculinity. Suddenly technological progress renders nature as masculine and feminizes culture.

Such a reading would probably have made the film’s creators fall off her chairs!

Maybe they wanted the film to be read as I did? Maybe they inscribed some phallic images into their film? Maybe someone just slept unwell from eating to much toast in the evening? Well… We’ll find out soon! So stay tuned!

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4 thoughts on “On a Toaster, Wordsworth, and Phallic Daffodils

  1. I’m also one of the co-creators and writer of Toast, and am really delighted with your analysis of the film. You say “It is very likely that my reading does not even come close to the message of the film,” but it certainly matches my observations in a number of areas, and where it diverges I’m really interested to hear different interpretations which had not even occurred to me.

    Perhaps I should frame my response by saying that if you wish the intentions of the film’s creators to remain eternally mysterious, you shouldn’t read on…

    The Britishness and the contrast between the toaster (bleak, metallic) and the character (natural) were there from the script – the script started life as a thought about the nature of humanity and what it is that makes humans feel superior to their technical environment. The alien human in an non-natural, dead environment versus the alien toaster in a natural, living environment was a pleasant co-incidence as we chose locations that, initially quite by chance, led to this – but the contrast occurred to me as we filmed the daffodil sequence so I made an effort to remove all natural objects from the kitchen scene (filmed afterwards, out of sequence) to amplify the existing circumstantial differences.

    The ending (despite his protests about his creativity versus a cold, metallic toaster, it is the toaster doing the creating – of toast) and his acceptance/admittance of defeat, were there in when I wrote it.

    The light-dark wall and the homogeneity of the kitchen were lighting choices driven partly by chance (it was a bright day when we filmed) and design (I subsequently lit the kitchen to act as a visual counter to the outside harshness). The colours, too, (blue and red inside versus yellow and green outside) try to drive that contrast.

    I do rather like the analysis of the toaster as a representation of dangerous, toothed femininity and your idea that the film inverted the masculine/feminine nature/culture – that is a new interpretation to me, though admittedly perhaps subconsciously worked into the film (which I’m sure would please Freud). And now I’m thinking about that what also occurs to me is that the combination of the masculine and feminine leads to the creation of toast in a climactic burst. Without the toast maker and toaster combined, there can be no toast.

    Also, I didn’t fall of my chair, but I did lean in and raise my eyebrows – which is, of course, the British equivalent.

    • Thanks a lot for your insights, Christopher.

      It is really nice to hear that I was not too far off with my interpretation. My mother will be particularly pleased that my studies are not much ado about nothing. I will also henceforth use this example whenever one of my students throws me a quizzical look asking “What if the author wasn’t thinking anything about it?”

      I am also in awe that the psychoanalytical reading seems to agree with you. I have to admit that I am what one might call a “Freudian Fangirl” and am always a bit attempted to have some psychoanalysis in my interpretations although most people fall off their chairs – or apparently raise their eyebrows when they’re British. First I had to giggle about my idea of the daffodils representing a phallocentric, male idea of nature but then everything else also seemed to fit somehow. Your idea of (re)creation needing both elements is intriguing and I’m thinking about working it into my text. It would give the analysis something like a “happy ending”.

  2. Enjoyed your essay as well as the follow up commentary by the film’s writer. Wonderful contrasts in that film–I may show it to my students.

    • Thank you. Glad you liked it.

      I am also pretty sure that the filmmakers will be quite delighted about the idea that their film is taught to students. Have fun with it!

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