Thinking About the Floating Dead

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

The painting above is a depiction of Shakespeare’s Ophelia from Hamlet. The haunting scene describes how Ophelia, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, falls into a stream and drowns:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii

The Tate gallery explains the symbolic significance of all the plants in this scene, Ophelia’s floating body is tangled with flowers each representing a part of her character, and therefore, this portrayal is also the depiction of her identity. We are expected to feel her profound loss:

The roses near Ophelia’s cheek and dress, and the field rose on the bank, may allude to her brother Laertes calling her ‘rose of May’. The willow, nettle and daisy are associated with forsaken love, pain, and innocence. Pansies refer to love in vain. Violets, which Ophelia wears in a chain around her neck, stand for faithfulness, chastity or death of the young, any of which meanings could apply here. The poppy signifies death. Forget-me-nots float in the water.

Millais wrote to Thomas Combe in March 1852: ‘Today I have purchased a really splendid lady’s ancient dress – all flowered over in silver embroidery – and I am going to paint it for “Ophelia”. You may imagine it is something rather good when I tell you it cost me, old and dirty as it is, four pounds’ (J.G. Millais I, p.162).
Aside: Similarly, Mirza Ghalib in his letters would describe how expensive hats were becoming, and how difficult it was to maintain his style.

In art as well as literature, flowers have often been metaphorically utilized in all their botanical details. One famous instance is Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), which is filled with references to blooms, from Mrs. Dalloway buying them herself, to the evocative enlisting flower names. “There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises”. I also remember reading Pushp ki Abhilasha by Makhanlal Chaturvedi as part of the CBSE Hindi literature high school curriculum. Chaturvedi personifies a flower to express its wishes for celebrating patriotism.

As much as we seem to love the petalled wonders of nature, we also seem to have a morbid fascination for drowning women and floating bodies in general. I can think of the Dead Marshes in the Lord of the Rings, the drowning in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (2014), the film Prestige (2006), and also refer to a million scenes from tubs (Dexter), rivers (Law & Order SVU, Twin Peaks), ponds (The Killing), lakes (Top of the Lake, Criminal Minds), in which bodies have been discovered and recovered. Adrienne Rich in ghazal “5/4/69” writes: “Sometimes I dream we are floating on water / hand-in-hand; and sinking without terror.”

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

I have often wondered about this allure, and have come to the conclusion that the event of being submerged has several references emanating from it. There is the element of faith — baptism per say involves an immersion that suggests purification. With the Kumbh Mela currently taking place, the significance of a holy dip stretches across religions.

There is also the foetal state in which we are innocently afloat within a protected membrane. This would relate to a psychological understanding deeply entrenched in corporeality. There is something horrifically innocent about a corpse wandering on water’s surface.

Photo by Irina Iriser on

There is also a letting go, which comes from floating. If we were to look at it from a spiritual standpoint, the soul moves away from the body, and the hovering expresses itself through the buoyancy on water. It is gravity defying.

If you have any references you would like to share about the floating dead; or on subjects related to this topic, please do leave a comment.

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