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Extended Essay: The Woman’s Shared Heritage: Cupid & Psyche and The Shape of Water

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“Every myth is psychologically symbolic. ” Joseph Campbell (1985) argues that myths are an allegory for everyday life and should not only be taken at face value. That there are hidden ways that characters written from hundreds of years ago resonate with people of the 21st century. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a “fairytale for troubled times” (Del Toro, 2018) that begs to be picked apart and understood by its audience for its unusualness. It contains mythological representations and archetypes, similar to that of the story of Psyche and Cupid wrote by Lucius Apuleius. Archetypes are certain universal symbols that served to trigger the collective unconscious, a fundamental collection of shared memories that reside in the unconscious of every human being. (Jung, 1959). Although it is unrealistic that gods and monsters exist, the story continues to appeal to its audiences. Jungian psychology states that archetypes are ancient patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race. This essay illustrates how the film The Shape of Water follows the archetypal presentation of the young woman in the Greek myth of Psyche and Cupid, suggesting the shared memories or shared heritage that reflects the fundamental human condition.

The Shape of Water is an Oscar-winning film directed by Guillermo Del Toro in 2017 which is more like a mythological fairy tale. It is set in the year 1962, against a backdrop of post World War II and the period of time that America was flourishing. It follows mute woman Elisa Esposito, who works as a cleaner in a top secret military research facility. She encounters a half amphibian half man creature that was trapped by the scientist. Elisa gradually establishes an uncannily close relationship with this being and eventually falls in love with him. With the knowledge of the grave fate that the creature will face in the scientific facility, she plans to smuggle this River God out of the facility into her home. In the last scene, Elisa was killed by the military officer. She dropped into the river but was resurrected by the power of the River God as another river-dwelling being. The other story, Cupid and Psyche, is a Greek myth, earliest found in Lucius Apuleius’ book, The Golden Ass written in Late 2nd century AD. According to Thomas Bulfinch’s (1855) version of this myth, Psyche is worshipped by her fellow mortals because of her divine-like beauty. This angers the goddess Venus, who in return, asks her son Cupid to wound her with his arrow. Meanwhile, Psyche’s parents consult an Oracle about their daughter’s marital woes. The Oracle claims that Psyche is destined to be with a monster. However, Cupid himself falls in love with Psyche and takes the identity of her monstrous husband. Consequently, he forbids Psyche to see him in the light, yet she disobeys him. Their happy marriage is broken as Cupid flees from their home, leaving Psyche to find a way in order to reunite with him. Although The Shape of Water and the myth of Cupid and Psyche were not created in the same time period and comprise of completely different characters, settings, and plots, they still share a few similarities. If mythologies are the continuations of our human condition, then both stories are possibly reflecting some fundamental truths that are still applicable to our society today. The analysis below will shed some light on these important aspects of both stories.

Firstly, Shape and C&P portray the male protagonists as gods. In The Shape of Water, the male protagonist is an amphibian man-like creature that “natives in the Amazon worshipped (it) as a God. ” Although the creature is well-built with broad shoulders, similar in mould to an athletic human male. Yet, is described by the military sergeant to be “ugly as sin” for his more evident monster-like exterior. He also possesses healing powers that magically resurrects Elisa after her death. By transforming the scars on her neck into gills, he gave her a new life to live underwater with him. Similarly, in Cupid & Psyche, the male protagonist is described by the Oracle to be “a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist”. Although it is revealed to the readers that Psyche’s husband is in fact, Cupid, the “most beautiful and charming of the gods,” characters still speculated that he was a monster and proceeded to her fate “which more resembled a funeral than a nuptial pomp”. Psyche then opens a box from the underworld and falls into a “Stygian sleep” but Cupid also resurrects her by using his godly abilities. The immortality and supernatural powers of the male protagonists place them at a high ranking in terms of authority and value. This gives the men an air of dominance and they appear as untouchables; individuals who are transcendent compared to other characters in the film and myth. Secondly, the female protagonists are portrayed as the lesser mortals. Shape and C&P’s protagonists are both mortals, not gods.

In Shape, Elisa is a mute woman, who works night shifts cleaning at a military research facility. She is clearly from a humble working-class background, far from being godly. As she is mute, she can only communicate with some people through sign language. This includes her neighbour Giles and colleague Zelda. They often served as Elisa’s interpreter to the audience when she was signing to others. Zelda tells the military officer “I answer mostly, on account that she can’t talk. ” Somehow, Elisa and Psyche are both presented as helpless individuals that require the help of others. Psyche also has people around her to decide and do things for her, such as her family who quickly arranged a consultation with an Oracle to assure her of her marriage. Knowing that she is carefully stigmatized as an unfortunate woman, she tells her parents that she “submits” and to “lead me to that rock to which my unhappy fate has destined me. ” Muteness and blind trust in an oracle paint the female protagonists as meek. They are made out to be gentle and easily imposed on by others, completely submissive to their fate. Both are doomed in one way or another, victimized as lesser mortals. Thirdly, the godly male and the victimized mortal female form a natural hierarchy. The men are put in a higher position of power, as shown by the archetypal pairing of gods and mortals. Elisa and Psyche fall helplessly for their charms, perhaps because their lovers are gods. They come to depend on the gods for romantic love and eventually to resurrect them. In mythology across all cultures, mortals have been subjected to worship divine beings or gods, as they control everything from the weather, agriculture and even their own lives. Gods have their own specialities in which they are in control of. Some are rulers of the sky, sea, land, love etc. Stories of gods seducing or taking advantage of mortal women are different in every pantheon, yet common. For instance, Medusa (Greek) and Rindr (Norse) who were violated by Zeus and Odin respectively.

The River God and Cupid do not only hold physical power over Elisa and Psyche, but also sexual and emotional powers. This reinforces the power imbalance that is the normal structure between men and women, the men being on top of the social hierarchy. Fourthly, in Shape and C&P, both female protagonists are juxtaposed as incomplete or excessive. Being a mute woman, Elisa is not only deemed incomplete by society but also by herself. This is bridged across to the audience when Elisa is confronting Giles about her plan to break the creature out of the military research lab. She gets into a heated argument with Giles because of his refusal to help. The audience comes to understand Elisa’s feelings for the creature during her passionately signed monologue, which she made Giles repeat verbally. “And what am I? I move my mouth – like him- and I make no sound- like him. What does that make me? “ She explains that “the way he looks at me. He doesn’t know what I lack. . . Or how I am incomplete. He just sees me for what I am. As I am. ” Del Toro uses this scene as a tool to explain how society sees her disability as a factor that decreases her value as a human. She knows that people look at her and think that she is broken; not enough and she needs recognition from others that she is not so. Thus, she has been viewing herself as an outcast and yearns to complete her incompleteness through this love affair with the river god. On the other hand, Psyche is presented to be excessive. Her beauty “was so wonderful that the poverty of language is unable to express its due praise. ” Men are too intimidated by her beauty to court her and she is worshipped as if she is a goddess. Her completeness brought her downfall as she is considered at fault by the goddess Venus. She sends her son Cupid to unleash her revenge on Psyche. When he too falls for her attractiveness, it angers the goddess even more. All that her beauty brought is jealousy and trouble, dooming her to a seemingly unfavourable marriage with a monster. She was “sick of that beauty which, while it procured abundance of flattery, had failed to awaken love. ” (Bulfinch,1855).

Both Elisa and Psyche are being shamed, either by themselves or others for something that is in their nature and cannot be changed. Elisa’s sense of incompleteness and Psyche’s over completeness are ironically treated as being at fault. They reflect an uncompromising reality so extreme that suggests society’s strict expectations of women. It exhibits that women are expected to fit into a box that society puts them in and the women themselves reinforces it to perpetuate a sense of incompleteness, or a longing for acceptance from the outside. Fifthly, both the film and myth sees the female sacrificing themselves after they were accepted by the godly male. It may appear that it is the result of the love they felt towards their lover, but similar to the archetypes in mythology, it is also a recognition of the union of mortals and immortals. In Shape, Elisa gradually develops a sort of kinship with the creature because like her, he is unable to verbally communicate. For her, his captivity is the “loneliest thing”. So, she devises a complicated and high-risk plan to break the creature out of a military research lab. She asks her friends to be accomplices and lie to the authority, providing enough time to carry out her plan. In doing this illegal act, Elisa is prepared to risk both her life and liberty, as well as those of her friends’. Out of her sense of incompleteness, she felt completion through her acceptance by a god and is ready to fight for it. As for Psyche, she lives a blissful married life with Cupid, though they can only be together in the darkness. However, to her, it wasn’t enough. She gives in to her sisters’ urge to secretly peep at her husband in the light, regardless of his explicit opposition to it. Cupid immediately abandons her because of her betrayal. She is distraught and “wandered day and night, without food or repose, in search of her husband. ” Tasked by Venus to undergo “a trial” for her “housewifery”, to prove her suitability of being Cupid’s wife. She accepts in order to reunite with her beloved Cupid.

In order to experience that completeness with the godly lover, the woman undergoes sacrifices. The film and myth shed light on the sense of completeness or empowerment women felt after their union with the male god. triggers sacrifices and hardships that women are willing to undertake in order to find that completion again. Finally and most importantly, the woman’s strength is undeniable in both Elisa and in Psyche. Their actions celebrate a meek, yet powerful force that is innate in the female figure. Undeterred by the dangers that they may face in achieving their own goals, they readily sacrifice their own personal safety. Their voluntary choice to sacrifice themselves paint them as noble and transcends the mundane view of physical and mental dependence or a selfish notion of wanting to be with a god. A certain type of strength is required to muster up the sheer courage and selflessness to prioritize another person above oneself the way that Elisa, Psyche and all women naturally do. Their will and determination in the pursuit of their goals are evident. This shows that women can equal men in terms of willpower and courage. Perhaps women find their strength through suffering throughout their lives, allowing them to put other’s well being and safety over their own. If men express their strength through dominance and power, then women express theirs through love and noble meekness. Not only does this happen in this particular film and myth, but it is a common characteristic among many other stories. These archetypal expressions also reflect the shared heritage of our human condition.

To conclude, the similarities and difference between Shape and C&P reflect the plight of women throughout the centuries. “Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul” (Jung, 1905-1961) Despite being millennia apart, Shape and C&P are interconnected and at its core, very similar. The film and myth show that women’s suffering gives them unparalleled strength. Like men, they too can assert power, albeit differently. The reason why similar stories such as these continue to be reproduced is that humans need them to. They share a universal reaction of familiarity with the story and see aspects of themselves in the characters. As the stories are retold, the human condition unfolds accordingly. They are specific archetypal stories that resonate with us as a species, as our shared memories and heritage. They are ageless, told and retold, across all channels because that is how humanity weaves the fabric of storytelling.

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Extended Essay: the Woman’s Shared Heritage: Cupid & Psyche and the Shape of Water. (2019, November 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from
“Extended Essay: the Woman’s Shared Heritage: Cupid & Psyche and the Shape of Water.” GradesFixer, 26 Nov. 2019,
Extended Essay: the Woman’s Shared Heritage: Cupid & Psyche and the Shape of Water. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2021].
Extended Essay: the Woman’s Shared Heritage: Cupid & Psyche and the Shape of Water [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Nov 26 [cited 2021 Nov 29]. Available from:
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