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Exploring the Ghostly Lover: “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” (Part I)

Ava GardnerThe film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) illustrates the archetype of the Ghostly Lover. An archetype is a symbol or pattern that consistently recurs and is recognizable as a part of human experience, often seen in myths or fairy tales.

Viewing Pandora as if it were a fairy tale helps shed light on the dynamics of the Ghostly Lover who keeps us in the realm of dreams, not of earthly life. This lover can be someone for whom we “carry a torch,” the one that got away, or a fantasy ideal of a soul-mate. He or she often resides in the land of “what if” or “what could have been,” creating what Linda Schierse Leonard calls an “impossible possibility.” This dynamic can set up an infernal longing for something that does not exist or can never be.

This phantom lover will keep us living in the illusion that our completeness or sense of self is to be found outside of own our experience, trapping us in an endless cycle of desire, longing, and disappointment. He or she will turn us bitter and frustrated, or dreamy and ungrounded. Keeping us perpetually dissatisfied and looking for our idealized mate, this archetype can drive a wedge between ourselves and our partners or potential partners.

Not only linked to our own individual psychological dynamics, the Ghostly Lover also ties in culturally to many of our cherished notions of ideal romantic love. As author Terrence Real writes: “The romantic love story is a paradoxical fusion of two extraordinarily potent messages. The first is that love, deep connection, is the most important, indeed the only truly important matter in the world. And the second is that true love cannot exist in this world.”

At the beginning of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, the narrator, Geoffrey, tells us that “the measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it,” one of the themes of this story. In this case, Pandora will be willing to give up her life for her love, a collective idea of romantic love as a love that is greater than life itself. However, it is useful to have a look at that belief and ask ourselves if it is all that healthy. As a child, I saw this movie many times over, setting up an idealized fantasy within me and a search to find a “love worth dying for.”

Pandora (played by Ava Gardner) is a femme fatale pursued by a number of suitors quite smitten with her. One of them even kills himself over her while in her presence, to which she has no emotional response. She is cold, unfeeling and self-contained. Another character says to her, “You’re only interested in sensation not sentiment.”

One evening, from shore, Pandora sees the yacht of the Flying Dutchman. Legend has it that, having killed his wife in an Othello-type situation in the 17th century, the Dutchman pronounced his own fate: “Let a man and his eternal soul sail till Doomsday, he will find no woman faithful and fair.” We often doom ourselves through the “curse” of our particular beliefs, wounds, and fixations, and at times, our vanity and arrogance. The Dutchman is doomed to sail the seas for eternity until he can find a woman who is willing to die for him so that he might know the meaning of love.

Hearing the myth, Pandora is intrigued. Additionally, on the beach, we see dismembered statues of women, symbolizing the cut off parts of Pandora, something missing, incomplete.

Stephen, one of her suitors, sees what is happening and says, “Why don’t you come down to earth – happiness lies in the simple things.” This is one of the problems with the Ghostly Lover, who is the antithesis of the mundane and simple things of life. As writer Anais Nin said, “Everyday the real caress [must replace] the ghostly lover.” When this phantom resides in our psyches, we are prohibited from wholly inhabiting our own day-to-day lives.

Pandora swims out to the yacht and meets Hendrick (James Mason), the Flying Dutchman himself, who has been working on a painting of a woman who looks just like Pandora. The way she is portrayed in the painting is not as she has ever been, but as she would like to be. “It’s not me as I am at all. Why am I not like that?” she asks, reflecting her desire for soulfulness, depth and character. Sometimes the longing we feel for a romantic Other can actually point to parts of ourselves that are dormant or even repressed. Hendrik sees her as she would like to be seen (perhaps a more authentic, less defended self) not the cruel and unfeeling person she has become.

When we fall “in love,” the Other seems to offer us our own beauty and depth. We might have the feeling that many of the hibernating parts of ourselves are engaged, awakened, enlivened. The question is: can we experience those aspects of ourselves without an Other? Can we be our full selves without a catalytic, “romantic” object in the form of another person?

To be continued in Part II

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alexandra Gutiérrez Fúnez

Exploring the Ghostly Lover: “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” (Part I)

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2011). Exploring the Ghostly Lover: “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” (Part I). Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Jun 2011
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