The Piano (1993): the underwater lullaby and the dream-like ending

Double exposure of piano keys and desolate forest.

Decoding the meaning of the piano and the ambiguous ending of Jane Campion’s film.

There’s a haunting, iconic image at the end of The Piano. Having lost a finger but gained her freedom, protagonist Ada (Holly Hunter) sets sail with daughter Flora, new love George, and the piano she can’t live without.

Then once the shore is far behind them, Ada demands the instrument is thrown over the side of the longboat. As it falls, she ties herself to its tethering rope and is pulled into the depths of the ocean.

For a few moments, she seems dead. She hovers like a ghost in the dark, hair and clothes floating free. Then comes the real horror: at the brink of true death, Ada changes her mind.

At first she can’t kick free of the piano’s weight. Finally she breaks away and swims to the surface, into the arms of loved ones.

In the epilogue, Ada’s inner voice says the three of them live in Nelson, New Zealand. Ada teaches piano. George has fashioned a metal finger to replace the one her husband removed with an axe. They’re in love, and Ada is learning to speak again. Flora turns cartwheels in the garden.

This final scene shines bright, dispelling the horrors of the deep and of Ada’s former marriage. And yet, as writer and director Jane Campion revealed years later, perhaps Ada’s true fate was to stay under the water – with her true love, the piano.

“It would be more real, wouldn’t it, it would be better? I didn’t have the nerve at the time. What if Ada just went down, she went down with her piano – that’s it.”

The Guardian

This almost-ending is an intriguing dream. Inevitably you might wonder what would it mean – to Ada, us and the narrative as a cultural artifact – if things had ended differently?

The many functions of Ada’s piano

Ada’s piano is more than an instrument. It’s the heart of her, the thing she obsesses over – sometimes even more than daughter Flora (Anna Paquin).

At a time when women had few rights and many obligations, her piano is a rarity. It’s a private obsession, a possession that signifies life beyond motherhood.

As such, it’s also dangerous: it represents a feminine internal life unconcerned with men and babies. It’s subversion laid out in 88 black and white keys. No wonder it captivates and frightens the men around her.

Ada’s piano, then, is also a mirror. It reveals women are the product in society – things that can be bought, sold, packaged and shipped to the other side of the world.

The first transaction is marriage. The agreement is between Ada’s father and husband Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), and Ada has no say in it – quite literally.

Later, Alisdair trades the piano with George Baines (Harvey Keitel). George intuits what Alisdair can’t: the piano represents Ada herself. Thus Alisdair sells his wife without knowing it. Later, of course, he has seller’s remorse.

George meanwhile turns the piano into currency and, through it, tempts Ada to sell herself. By sharing her music, body and intimacy, she can buy back the instrument, bit by bit, on the never-never. Later he regrets it too, recognising the trade is “making a whore” of her.

Still, Ada falls in love with George. Or perhaps the transaction gains her ownership of self as well as piano. Either way, it breaks the bonds of possession: she’s free to choose her own life … or death.

Finally, the piano is the voice Ada lacks. It speaks because she can’t. Or rather, because she isn’t ready to.

The symbolism of silence

In the film’s opening voice over, Ada reveals she no longer speaks aloud:

“The voice you hear is not my speaking voice but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why, not even me.”

This doesn’t sound like a choice. Indeed, if it’s what we’d now call selective mutism it’s possibly a symptom of trauma, one that leaves someone literally unable to speak.

While the story doesn’t say if this is true, there are hints of trauma. For instance, Flora’s father was the piano teacher who seduced Ada “telepathically” … then got frightened and fled.

Yet again, Ada’s piano is a symbol of beguile. Does she or her playing fascinate the men she encounters, and who want to possess her as she possesses the piano?

That first seduction also evokes a parallel with the Greek myth of Philomela. The story goes: Tereus raped Philomela, then cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell on him. Finally the gods freed her by turning her into a nightingale, a bird known for the beauty of its song.

Incidentally, Alisdair also experiences Ada’s so-called telepathy. After physically and sexually violating her, he says her “voice” orders him to let her go. In other words, he too is frightened and abandons her. Both times, fear offers Ada’s abusers a convenient escape … but implies the victim calls the shots.

As in the myth of Philomela, Ada’s voicelessness is ultimately quite telling. It mirrors a social truth of the time: most women had no voice, either in society or their own families. Thus the piano speaks for Ada … until it no longer needs to.

Why discard the piano?

Ada and the piano are both entirely separate and the symbols of each other. Hence:

  • George uses the piano as a lure, then trades its keys for sexual intimacy with Ada
  • When Ada sends a piano key in place of a love letter, it’s a piece of herself, a physical manifestation of her soul
  • Wild with jealousy, Alisdair attacks the piano, then removes Ada’s finger – i.e., a substitute for the piano key she’ll never give him.

Like the piano, Ada doesn’t belong in this place of mud and interminable rain. Eventually, she has the chance to leave, and yet ditches her precious instrument en route. The question is: does she intend to discard the piano, or stay with it?

All Ada wants is to be at peace, and to play – and no man will let her alone to do so. Perhaps they can’t stand her to own something they can’t control (“it is mine”, she notes).

“I think of my piano in its ocean grave, and sometimes of myself floating above it. Down there everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep. It is a weird lullaby and so it is; it is mine.”

In the film’s opening voice over Ada tells us: “My father says [not speaking] is a dark talent, and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last.”

So, Ada decides today will be her last, and drops over the side of the boat. The piano is marred, physically and as an avatar of self: both belong in the watery depths.

But it’s only as she sinks that Ada makes an active, authentic choice: dying isn’t so easy, after all.

Of course, this only counts if you believe the film’s epilogue isn’t merely the dying hallucination of a woman trapped at the bottom of the ocean.

The imagined ending

The film’s final scene is touching and redemptive; it’s the life Ada deserved all along but was denied until this moment.

Note the economic aspect of this freedom, mind. As a working woman, Ada can choose to be with George in her own right, rather than as a possession traded between father and husband.

George isn’t like other men, at least not in the end, when it counts. Perhaps he and Ada cure each other along the way.

And yet, happy ever after is an ambivalent construct. Deep under water and finally free of transactions of male desire, Ada makes a contract of her own – to live. But once back on land, life and happiness are once more dependent on a man.

There’s no greater emblem of this than the finger George makes for her. He completes her. Her body, once traded like an instrument, now has a maker’s mark.

George cures her so much that Ada is even learning to speak again. George is a world that feels safe; he shuts the door on trauma.

This is happy ever after – but, as such, we can never quite take it as face value. As per fairytales, happy ever after is rooted in feminine obedience, and the destruction of women who step out of line.

Of course, the almost-ending, the one under water, is no simpler. It encapsulates female agency. But if Ada escapes the men who would own her, it’s pretty Pyrrhic.

Ultimately, though, that female agency mediates the two endings and the possibility of a third, hallucinated death dream. Whichever it is, Ada gets her heart’s desire. In a world dictated by male desire, that’s a rarity.

The Piano (1993), directed by Jane Campion

What to read or watch next
  • The Story of a New Zealand River, by Jane Mader (said to be the inspiration for The Piano)
  • Wide Sargasso Sea (similar themes)
  • The Shining (the Bluebeard story trope)
  • Ad Astra (the ambiguous ending)

Picture credit: Sebastian Unrau, Johannes Plenio, Houcine Ncib (hue only) – composite