Messages from the Deep: Psychoanalyzing "Dune"

Curator's Note

Like a symptom, Paul Atreides’ dream-vision of Chani, an indigenous warrior woman, appears early in Dune. She is the object of desire, guiding the hero’s journey. The two eroticized close-ups of Chani are the first of many psychosexual images. Probably the most astounding are those of the Shai-Hulud, the gigantic sandworm of Arrakis, a sublime chimera fusing the phallus and the vagina dentata. Paul’s unconscious is expressed with such intensity – those monsters symbolically breaking the surface of the undulating sands before plunging down into the fathoms of the desert – it does seem he would benefit from “the talking cure.” In his review for the London Review of Books, Michael Wood cursorily mentions the film’s “Oedipal romance,” describing the love between Paul and Lady Jessica as “benign.” It is actually a charged, complicated, fraught mother-son relationship. When Paul practices his mind-control with Lady Jessica, her directive says it all: “Command me.” 

Paul’s frustrated entry into the patriarchal order is evident in Villeneuve’s version of the primal scene, when he is put to the test by the witchy Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. She presses a phallic needle against his neck as he suggestively pushes his hand into a dark, painful box, her hand above his, his mother right outside the chamber, telepathically projecting her words into his mind. This fear of castration is visible, too, in the form of the sandworm tooth-knife, passed cross-culturally from Mapes to Lady Jessica in a metonymic demonstration of women’s collective visionary strength through mythic beliefs. 

No such ties connect Paul to his three paternal figures (Duke Leto, Gurney Halleck, and Duncan Idaho), who are dutybound by fealty. Because all three are dispatched via combat and political violence, Lady Jessica momentarily occupies the place of the absent father within a cosmopolitical settler colonial hierarchy. (While Paul does defy her wish to return to their home-world of Caladan, she is pregnant with a potential adversary, who may turn out to be even more gifted than Paul.) Fittingly, then, for a film fascinated with, and fearful of, various facets of female power, Lady Jessica implicitly faces off against Chani, after Lady Jessica deftly unmans the Fremen chief, Stilgar. Chani is both a rival for Paul’s libidinal affections and, as a fighter-leader, an ego ideal for him to identify with as he haltingly progresses through a vexed maturation process. Echoing his encounter with the Reverend Mother, Chani implicitly requires Paul – whom she refers to as a “boy” – to prove himself. She evens hands him a knife, as he prepares, as Lady Jessica’s “champion,” to duel with Jamis, who has lost confidence in Stilgar. The knotted spectacle of authority, eroticism, and aggression is thus restaged once again.


Freud, Sigmund. "Family Romances," in On Sexuality, translated by James Strachery and edited Angela Richards. London: Penguin, 1991.

Wood, Michael. "Dune," London Review of Books, 43/24 (December, 2021): 18.



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