Dear Esther: Critical Analysis
Dear Esther’s meandering and ponderous narration has many valid interpretations, and the following is simply how I viewed the story. I have strived to stay away from other analyses on the forums, and the only tool I’ve used other than my own insight and the game itself is a script of the possible monologues and a couple of wiki entries on the Bible. It’s taken me longer than I anticipated to really get this together, so I apologize for the delay, but without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the story of Dear Esther.
Dear Esther, at its core, is a story about a man, the Narrator, who lost the woman he loves, Esther, and his struggle to come to terms with her death. He had been drunk when the accident occurred, and he feels responsible. The course of the game provides a metaphor for his psychological journey toward acceptance of his guilt, and his reunion with her through the only conclusion he can see: suicide.
There are several characters mentioned throughout Dear Esther: Donnelly, Jacobson, Paul, the Hermit, and Esther herself. With the exception of Esther, each of the characters represents a facet of the Narrator’s mind, fractured by the grief and guilt of Esther’s death. The most important facets are Donnelly and Paul. Donnelly represents the Narrator’s alcoholic, irrational side. Again and again, the Narrator speaks of Donnelly as unreliable, even mad. Speaking of Donnelly’s book, he says:
If the subject matter is obscure, the writer’s literary style is even more so, it is not the text of a stable or trustworthy reporter.
Several times, the Narrator compares Donnelly’s madness to drunk driving, and the Narrator even admits his own guilt in this passage:
What to make of Donnelly? The laudanum and the syphilis? It is clearly not how he began, but I have been unable to discover if the former was a result of his visiting the island or the force that drove him here. For the syphilis, a drunk driver smashing his insides into a pulp as he stumbled these paths, I can only offer my empathy. We are all victims of our age. My disease is the internal combustion engine and the cheap fermentation of yeast.
Donnelly’s book serves as a guide to the Narrator, because it is Donnelly who in fact created the island; the Narrator’s shattered psyche is a direct result of his drinking. The Narrator wishes to be free of Donnelly, but this aspect of his mind cannot be shaken:
When the oil lamps ran out I didn’t pick up a torch but used the moonlight to read by. When I have pulled the last shreds of sense from it, I will throw Donnelly’s book from the cliffs and perhaps myself with it. Maybe it will wash back up through the caves and erupt from the spring when the rain comes, making its return to the hermits cave. Perhaps it will be back on the table when I wake. I think I may have thrown it into the sea several times before.
Even near the end, Donnelly is with him, making the excuses of an alcoholic, trying to pretend it wasn’t his fault:
Dear Esther. I find each step harder and heavier. I drag Donnelly’s corpse on my back across these rocks, and all I hear are his whispers of guilt, his reminders, his burnt letters, his neatly folded clothes. He tells me I was not drunk at all.
Paul represents the part of the Narrator that is rational, remorseful, searching for answers. The connections drawn to the biblical Paul are obvious; a man on a journey is transformed, his questions answered by divine revelation, the path of his life forever changed. The Narrator is an electrical engineer by trade, and throughout the island, some of the repeated symbols are the electrical diagrams of a transformer and an LED. The former’s implication is obvious, but the second may require a bit of explanation. As well as referencing the biblical Paul’s experience:
And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven…
it also underscores the finality of the change; a light-emitting diode can only pass an electrical current one way.
The Narrator feels disconnected from the accident, and that is why Paul is represented as the “other driver”, but is actually the Narrator’s sober self. The Narrator says Paul is dead for 21 minutes in the crash, and is revived:
When Paul keeled over dead on the road to Damascus, they restarted his heart with the jump leads from a crumpled hatchback; it took twenty-one attempts to convince it to wake up.
But the 21 minutes mirror how long it took rescue vehicles to arrive at the scene, and the narrator mentions Paul here again, in a very disconnected way:
They had stopped the traffic back as far as the Sandford junction and come up the hard shoulder like radio signals from another star. It took twenty-one minutes for them to arrive. I watched Paul time it, to the second, on his watch.
The island itself represents the landscape of the Narrator’s mind. The south side, which the player travels through in the first two chapters, is dominated by narrative regarding Donnelly. The Narrator mentions that Donnelly never found the caves, and never saw the north side:
Reading Donnelly by the weak afternoon sunlight. He landed on the south side of the island, followed the path to bay and climbed the mount. He did not find the caves and he did not chart the north side. I think this is why his understanding of the island is flawed, incomplete. He stood on the mount and only wondered momentarily how to descend. But then, he didn’t have my reasons.
Talk of sickness, death, and solitude are pervasive on the south side of the island, highlighted by Donnelly’s stories of an all-seeing hermit who hid within the island and refused to share his wisdom, and a shepherd named Jacobson who died alone and was unceremoniously thrown down a hole into the island. Descending from the bothy toward the caves is dangerous, and Donnelly was content to never try. The Paul aspect of the Narrator, however, is willing to face the trials, to let himself fall into the island in the hopes that he will find another way out.
The player’s willingness to fall into the caves is a leap of faith, and comes with an understanding that you cannot go back the way you came, again highlighting the one-way nature of this journey. The system of caves represents the Narrator’s internal search for answers, and the scrawlings on the walls reflect his struggle to work it out logically. We begin to see, however, more and more biblical scripture intertwined with the diagrams, and when we emerge onto the north side of the island, the Narrator is firmly Paul, on an inevitable path to Damascus and transformation. The Narrator releases his paper armada, letting go of his attachment here, and begins the ascent to the aerial, which had guided him from the beginning, at first hazy, but now stark and clear against the night sky. The aerial is Esther, calling to him from the afterlife; and his Damascus, the end of his journey through life after the revelation of her death.
At the end, when the tower is reached, only one option remains: freedom from this world of guilt and grief; reunion with his beloved Esther. As you ascend the tower, the Narrator gives this passage:
Dear Esther. I have burnt my belongings, my books, this death certificate. Mine will be written all across this island. Who was Jacobson, who remembers him? Donnelly has written of him, but who was Donnelly, who remembers him? I have painted, carved, hewn, scored into this space all that I could draw from him. There will be another to these shores to remember me. I will rise from the ocean like an island without bottom, come together like a stone, become an aerial, a beacon that they will not forget you. We have always been drawn here: one day the gulls will return and nest in our bones and our history. I will look to my left and see Esther Donnelly, flying beside me. I will look to my right and see Paul Jacobson, flying beside me. They will leave white lines carved into the air to reach the mainland, where help will be sent.
He speaks of relinquishing his earthly belongings, of his impending death, and of legacy. The other he speaks of is the player, reliving his steps, piecing together what he left for us. To his left, Esther Donnelly, a symbol of his emotional highs and lows, his darkness forever paired with his love. To his right, Paul Jacobson, his journey both moving and sorrowful; transformative, but ultimately ending broken and alone. And indeed, as he falls, he is transformed; soaring free on the wind as a bird. Others will walk this path again, and know his pain; but for now, he is free from guilt, and pain, and suffering.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and as always, I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts. Leave your opinions in the comments section below.