The Prisoner in the Asylum: The Girl Who Was Death Part 2

The introduction and master post to this series of posts about The Prisoner can be found here.

In my last post I considered some of the possible interpretations, mainly with a psychiatric bias, of this episode. Now we come to the final possible interpretation I suggested.

(6) Symbolism

The episode begins by showing us the story book and so clearly suggests that what we are about to see may not be strictly speaking true. However this is one of the episodes of the show which is most full of symbols which can represent other things and a number of totally bizarre experiences, so it clearly isn't intended simply to be taken aa an entertaining story. I would suggest that one of the reasons this episode comes late in the run and lacks a set interpretation for the symbols and narrative, is that we are being invited to interpret them for ourselves. You've got it, exactly as in therapy. However I want to go through some of the symbols and tie them up to other things mentioned in the show and suggest some possible significance or interpretations for them. This won't be particularly earth shattering!

I think the main symbolic meaning is an apparently minor one, but one which would be very important from the perspective of the show, and it is the symbols in the show which represent the state (including Big Ben elsewhere) and thus the way psychiatry is embedded in the state and legally sanctioned.

It strikes me that in bringing in cricket and the pub it contains two of the three things which are real tests of whether you're actually native British. The third is of course how to make tea, and I think I can truthfully say that getting your head round these three things is a mark of Britishness. Incidentally I only recently realized that pub culture isn't understood by everyone else. I was in a pub a few weeks ago and just before me in the queue was a man who asked the barmaid for a glass of beer. He was doing quite well up to that point and hadn't just sat down expecting to be served, but it was at that point I knew he hadn't read all the way through the guides on what to do in the pub and just sat down at a stool at the bar to wait while she helped him pick. Bless him, I don't know what he was expecting but he looked a bit awestruck by the actual pint of proper craft ale he got.

The significance of references to the nation and national culture when understanding the show from a mental health point of view, is that psychiatry is culturally conditioned and decided. I have mentioned the Mental Health Act 1959 (which has now been superceded) which is an example of how a nation enshrines the treatment of mental illness in its law, and this is of course decided high up in the state. It also differs between states. If you're a general nurse and want to go travelling the world is literally your oyster but if you're a mental health nurse you're going to have to do some reading up and sitting exams to practice elsewhere. Incidentally as an aside I love the culturally specific mental disorders that you never come across. For example, you can only suffer from Jumping Frenchman if you're a French Canadian because that's part of the diagnostic criteria (I'm not making this up) - you can't even have it if you are actually French!

From the point of view of The Prisoner the national defining of mental health can also indicate the national definition of how you care for mentally ill people. For example in Britain Section 136 of the current Mental Health Act allows a police officer coming across a person in a public place who he believes to be mentally disordered and in need of immediate care and control (these four words are a direct quote from the Act), to remove that person to a place of safety for assessment.

It may seem like I'm stretching the cultural reference too far to attach it to my frame of reference, but the state is an essential part of the show, and the state is an essential part of psychiatry. And tea, cricket and the pub are essential parts of Britain.

In fact since this blog aims to be instructive as well as entertaining have a handy chart to understand what British people really mean. I was astounded when I found it by its accuracy and also floored by the fact we colonised so much of the world and still succeeded in failing to let anyone understand our culture!

This picture of Hollymoor Hospital water tower is here for absolutely no reason, doesn't represent anything, and if you think it does it's all in your mind.

The other main symbolism I want to talk about is the possible sexual symbolism - this bit is at least tongue in cheek and mainly for fun to do a spoof Freudian analysis of the episode. I think it is a weakness of The Prisoner that relationships and sex don't really come into it. In fact I think it is a weakness of Patrick McGoohan's acting career that he would never be seen with any other woman than his wife - it means his roles lack a whole dimension of human life and personally I would have loved to see McGoohan having a domestic. It's also to my mind a bit strange from his wife's point of view. Really not being funny, but if your husband is offered the role of James Bond you encourage him to take it, because from there on in you're the one sleeping with James Bond. Honestly, who the hell turns down that role.

However when I was watching the episode looking out for possible symbols (to my surprise I filled three pages of a notebook with possible symbols, not all of them relevant to my agenda) I was amazed to find how many of them were possibly sexual references. Not just the lighthouse, literally every blog post ever about this episode mentions that and the Napoleon syndrome.

There are other phallic symbols: the various weapons that Sonia tries to kill (penetrate?) Number 6 with, Sonia's long cigarette holder, the spikes under the floor in the baker's shop, and the exploding candles. The fact they explode could represent an orgasm, as could every other explosion in this episode.

I was even more surprised when looking at this episode to find a number of images which could be symbolic of the vagina and womb. To my surprise one of them was the frequent walk Number 6 takes down the corridor the office where he confronts George Markstein and slams his fist on the desk. He is going in towards the containing room so this is clearly an inward journey here, not a birth, and would suggest that (to step away from the psychiatry motif for a moment) the office he is going into, and thus the organisation he is said to have resigned from, are in some way a mother or nurturing factor in his life.

Further vaginal or womb symbols are the way he hides in a hole in the baker's shop. The fact that it has electrified spikes can of course represent the inconsistent or ambivalent mothering that would likely lead to difficulties in later life. It is even possible that it could represent the medical condition which would then have been called by the wonderfully bizarre name of hostile uterus, a hormonal problem which makes it difficult to bear children. He also hides in another hole (which looks like a drain) when Sonia blows up the tank. Then, most obviously, there is the Tunnel of Love where he enters a cave (how obvious can it get?) - of course it is mixed with the usual violence and abuse.

Finally I would suggest that the abandoned and neglected village set is a counterpart of the other Village that the show is known for. You could take the neglect to represent parental neglect and you could take the better presented other Village as representing care for Smith/Number 6.

As I am watching the show in production order rather than the usual order I have already considered Once Upon a Time, the episode which would normally come next. I suggested that it could be interpreted as a very odd Village-style type of psychotherapy. Since that episode normally comes after this one it may be considered a direct continuation and so I am going to conclude that the best interpretation from a mental health point of view of The Girl Who Was Death, is that it represents a therapy session and Number 6 disclosing various traumas and relational problems. I think this is strongly suggested by the strange way the Village story book doesn't have any actual stories, just pictures, which would suggest that the story actually has to be told.

So with this episode we essentially reach the end of the account of Smith/Number 6's stay in the hospital and all that remains is the fall out...

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