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Exploring Covert Incest in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”

Camilla Belle 2Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) presents an intimate look at how father-daughter relationships can cross the line into covert or emotional incest. Rose (Camilla Belle) is the 16-year old daughter of terminally ill Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis). They have been living in isolation, just the two of them, on a small island, the site of a failed commune; Rose’s mother had long since left.

From the start, we get the feeling of a complicit, intimate, and closed system between father and daughter. Not only has Rose taken the role of “wife” in the household, but having home-schooled her, Jack has shut her off from developing relationships with others.


The dictionary definition of complicity is “Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or crime.” In French, the word complicité means the same, but also has a secondary meaning: “entente profonde, spontanée et souvent inexprimée, entre personnes.” Translated, this means a profound understanding, spontaneous and often unexpressed, between people. In both cases, it is a kind of collusion. In the first, it is negative, destructive, or dark. In the second, it is the feeling of two people being attuned and aligned with one another. Psychologically, it can be seen as an “urge to merge,” to remain in or return to a fused state, in this case with the parent, and can impede movement towards autonomy.

Throughout the film, Rose’s comments reflect her extreme attachment to Jack. When asked if she ever wants to leave the island, Rose replies no, a metaphor for not wanting to grow up, reflecting her desire to stay fused. She lets Jack know that when he dies, she will kill herself: “When you go, I’m going” and “I’m never going to leave you, you know.” To another character she mentions suicide and says “I’m going to do it when my dad dies.” She is so merged with her father that she would rather die than face life alone without him; life on her own is unimaginable.

Jack has been having a relationship with Kathleen (Katherine Keener) who he visits regularly on the mainland. He has kept this a secret from Rose, until the day Kathleen and her two teen-aged boys move in (Jack, knowing he is soon to die, feels like having a “family” will help Rose after his death). This naturally shocks Rose; she feels angry, jealous and betrayed. She does all she can to chase Kathleen off (scaring her with a snake and with a gun) and starts acting out sexually with Kathleen’s sons.

The film opens with the song I Put a Spell on You,  an apt metaphor for what can happen when a daughter becomes “enchanted” by too much closeness with her father. As a result, she may have problems in her relationships with men later on in life. Kathleen tries to make Jack see what is really going on between him and his daughter, saying, “You raised her so she couldn’t love anyone else.”

Feeling Special

Such a relationship may make a girl feel like she is special and above all others, especially her mother, whether absent (as in this film) or present. Jack is a social activist and during one of his rants about society, he says to Rose, “Decline and rot, my angel, that’s the way of the world. Except for you. You are exempt. Remember that.”

It’s one thing for a father to help his daughter develop a healthy self-esteem. It’s another altogether for him to foster in her a sense that she is above the ordinary world and therefore not subject to its terms, and that she is entitled to special treatment. This can lead to a sense of inflation or grandiosity; “Daddy’s Little Girls” have a difficult time learning that deflation is not the end of the world because they have been shielded from it. All of which can hobble her in becoming an autonomous adult.

Jungian analyst and author Pittman Mcgehee states that “too much attention turns daughter into a Daddy’s girl; she gets so much that she never gets over it” and that an addictive need for adoration through seduction or hysteria may result.

Romantic and Erotic Templates

In addition, early erotic templates may be set in such a way that the following dynamics develop: a taste for boundary crossing; an attraction for situations that reenact the father-daughter pattern; triangulation; and the splitting off of love and lust (because of the incest taboo).

Rose seems to come out ahead in the Oedipal triangle, winning out against her rival, Kathleen. Rose runs away and, when Jack finds her, says, “We should never have let the world in. I wish it could be just us, like it was before…the happiest man in the whole, wild world.” Jack replies, “I was the happiest man, Rosie. I was.” Jack then proceeds to end his relationship with Kathleen by paying her off, writing a check and asking if she “could move out for that [amount].”

In the scene towards the end of the film where Rose kisses Jack in a passionate way, we see his face as it registers the enormity of what he has created. Click here to watch

Although seldom talked about, sexual feelings may naturally arise between parent and child, but it’s how the parent handles it that counts. It’s the adult’s job to insure that he or she is not letting their sexuality spill over into their relationship with their child and to set good boundaries with the child without shaming or rejecting.

Author Marion Woodman explains how love and lust come to be split off in women with a too-strong attachment to father: “While the daughter experiences herself as the beloved of the father, consciously she knows she dare not share his bed, yet instinctively her energies remain incestuous. Thus her love is split off from her sexuality.” Awareness of the “wrongness” of incestuous impulses tied to the man she loves (father) can create a version of the “Madonna-Whore” complex for women.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Jack dies in bed at home, Rose prepares their home as a huge funeral pyre for both of them. She lies down beside him after she starts the house on fire. In the end she chooses life; she leaves out the window, and sails off towards the mainland. The film ends two years later, showing Rose working in a “collective,” potting plants, silent and solitary. Even though she chose life, we are left wondering if hers is going to be a half-life only, without the part of herself that may have died along with her father, or if she will be able to grow beyond her emotionally incestuous relationship with him.

Creative Commons License photo credit: sheksays

Exploring Covert Incest in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2017). Exploring Covert Incest in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Jun 2017
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