It is easy to get lost in a world of fiction to avoid reality and fantasy is frequently utilized by humans in art to make sense of harsher, more realistic subjects.
Acclaimed director Guillermo Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth centers on the story of eleven year old Ofelia’s fight between real life issues concerning her mother and soon to be born baby brother, as well as fantastical problems such as completing three challenges to fulfill her role as Princess of the Underworld. Her first challenge is to kill an obscenely large toad and retrieve the key in its stomach. Although the toad appears to be just one of the unsightly, wretched monsters that Ofelia simply must defeat, it is actually representative of Ofelia’s unborn brother.
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A significant part of understanding a monster is assessing the physical environment in which it exists in. The book given to Ofelia by the Faun says that the toad inhibits a fig tree. It explains, “Tree is dying. Its branches are dry, its trunk old and twisted” because the “monstrous toad has settled in its roots and won’t let the tree thrive” (0:31:46-0:31:56). Upon closer examination, the tree’s outward appearance resembles the female reproductive system; its trunk represents the curvature of both of the fallopian tubes, the tree hollow Ofelia enters through serves as the vaginal opening, and the texture of the tree is similar the texture the cervix has. The inside of the tree is also dark, slimy, and wet like a womb. The yonic composition of the tree significantly connects to Ofelia’s mother because she is the only character in the plot that is struggling with her reproductive system. She bleeds, aches, and is unable to function the way she is supposed to because of her strenuous pregnancy. In addition, aside from the physical connection to her mother’s reproductive organs, the tree has a nurturant, behavioral comparison as well.
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Mothers and trees are frequently depicted as nurturing figures, with even the personification of nature being attributed as “Mother Nature”. The concept of Mother Nature goes hand in hand with tending to children or new life forms. The book claims that the tree once provided shade to all of the magical creatures in the forest before the toad began to kill it. In the beginning of the movie, and prior to when Ofelia’s mother experienced severely detrimental challenges with her baby, Del Toro shows the audience that she tries her best to support Ofelia; she reassures her, encourages her interest in fantasy and reading, and is essentially the only person Ofelia has to rely on. Both the tree and her mother are fostering beings that are causing destruction, thus hindering them from fulfilling their roles as providers. Monsters may not always be inherently evil, but monstrous behavior includes inflicting damage at the expense of others, to which the toad clearly does. The tree is important to connect to Ofelia’s mother because it aids the audience in understanding the parallel relationship between the tree and the toad and Ofelia’s mother and her baby.
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Since the tree portrays Ofelia’s mother’s uterus, the toad somatically acts as a fetus does in the womb. Despite their comparability, the way that Ofelia treats the toad varies greatly from her attitude towards her fetal brother. When the toad regurgitates a sticky, orange colored lump and dies, the lump bears a resemblance to the amniotic sac that a fetus is enclosed in. The way the toad moves is slow, with its tongue jutting out roughly that mimics a fetus’s mannerisms when it shifts inside the uterus, evoking contractions and pain. Not only does Ofelia judge the creature by where it lives and how it looks, but by what it does. She says to the toad, “Aren’t you ashamed living down here, eating all these bugs, and growing fat while the tree dies?”. Ofelia negatively expresses disapproval to the toad for what it is doing even if her brother is committing the same act. Another contradiction is that she tells the toad that she is not afraid of it, yet she is afraid of her baby brother and what he will do to her mother. One night, she rests her face on her mother’s belly and solemnly pleads to her brother, “You’ve made Mama very sick. I want to ask you a favor when you come out. Just one: Don’t hurt her”. Ofelia’s mother is already doomed predominantly because of the lack of medical advances for pregnant women in the 1940’s. Holistically, the tree and toad figuratively reveal the way that pregnancy can be a biological war between a fetus and carrier. Like the toad depended on the tree, a fetus is invades the human body. And Ofelia’s fear for her mother and lack of fear for the frog shows that real life can be a more fearful experience than fantasy. Often times, pregnancy is glorified as a beautiful occurrence. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for every mother, namely Ofelia’s. Many pro-life believers in the conversation concerning reproductive rights fail to consider the implications of choosing to have a child when the enviroment for a child is unsteady or turbulent. There are a multitude of factors that go into a pregnancy and it can be a traumatic scenario that can lead to life or death. Despite Ofelia’s successful fight to save the tree from the toad, her mother and siblings still die.
There are a number of details in Ofelia’s interaction with the toad that foreshadows the death of her mother, and subsequently her brother. Firstly, Ofelia symbolically rips the key from the frog that was located in the center of it, where the human heart is located. And without the vital organ, a toad nor a fetus can live. Furthermore, Ofelia hangs up a dress that the sun shines on before she enters the tree hollow. She meticulously hangs it so that it does not fly off the branch and into the mud. Surprisingly, once Ofelia leaves the tree, she finds that her dress has fallen to the ground and is covered in mud. The sun is no longer out. The change in weather from sunshine, indicating positivity, to dark grey skies, with a negative connotation, paired with the ruined dress, all serves as signs that regardless of the toad’s fate, Ofelia’s baby brother or the tree might not end up alright after all. The foreshadowing is important because it not only further strengthens the presence of the binaries between toad and baby, but mirrors how in present day, doctors are now able to predict how a pregnancy will unfold and possible complications. Proper prenatal care and loving support was unfortunately not given to Ofelia’s mother, ultimately resulting in death. Though reality did not have a happy ending, Ofelia’s fantasy world did.
Even though Ofelia is turning to her fantastical duties to the underworld to escape from the situation her mother and her are in, the fantasy world is still the embodiment of what plagues her in reality. Del Toro effectively draws inspiration from the female body to make to comment on the conversation surrounding reproductive rights. The filmmaker does not necessarily take a specific stand on the debate, but he does use his characters to indirectly demonstrate societal concerns through the magical story telling about a little girl.