The Luminaries Themes
by Eleanor Catton

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The Luminaries Themes

The main themes in The Luminaries are patriarchal attitudes toward women, revenge, and death and the supernatural.

  • Patriarchal attitudes toward women: Though both Anna Wetherell and Lydia Wells are initially labeled by the narrow affordances of patriarchy, the women ultimately act in ways that assert their agency and complex identity.
  • Revenge: Much of the novel’s plot hinges on vengeance and retribution for past actions.
  • Death and the supernatural: In The Luminaries, death is ever-present, though its intersection with life remains mysterious.

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Patriarchal Attitudes Toward Women

The misogynistic attitudes portrayed in The Luminaries contribute to the shaping and erosion of female identity. Anna Wetherell and Lydia Wells are referred to as “the whore” and “the widow,” respectively. Both women are therefore given labels that reflect their identities in the eyes of the patriarchy that dominates Hokitika. Anna, both a prostitute and a drug user, is particularly vulnerable to being categorized by the male gaze. Joseph Pritchard, the town’s chemist, took a marked liking to Anna when she was pregnant, appreciating “the round belly, the swollen breasts.” In this maternal image, Pritchard could begin to reconcile Anna with a more wholesome visage. However, Catton’s use of synecdoche to itemize Anna’s body demonstrates that Pritchard has reduced her to her physical attributes—once an instrument of male pleasure, now the vessel of an unborn child.

Patriarchal attitudes towards women are also interwoven in Catton’s intertextual reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Charlie Frost, a banker, recalls being galvanized by the powerful speeches of the male characters—God, Adam, and even Satan—but neglected to learn Eve’s speeches due to her being “feeble” and dull. Ironically, the feebleness Frost scorns in Eve is exactly what he desires in his ideal match, with traditionally female hobbies and sensibilities comprising what he calls a “priceless collectible.”

Lydia Wells, the madam of the House of Many Wishes, is also subject to male imposition. Aubert Gascoigne, a law clerk, refers to Lydia as being akin to “the lady with the lamp . . . ministering kindness,” and his oblique allusion to Florence Nightingale connects Lydia to authenticity and tenderness. Yet Lydia utilizes this benign persona to coax girls like Anna into a life of prostitution, thus making Lydia complicit in patriarchal practices.

Both women ultimately institute their own sense of identity, rising above those prescribed to them by men. In becoming sober and renouncing prostitution, Anna rejects the labels of “whore” and “opium-eater,” instead carving her own identity. When Anna signs the deed from Crosbie Wells and Emery Staines, entitling her to two thousand pounds, she begins the process of empowerment that will enable her to escape prostitution and poverty.

Lydia Wells, though an avaricious and unkind character, is revered by men for her beauty, and she is able to use their perception to her advantage. In using both Alistair Lauderback and his half-brother Crosbie Wells for financial purposes, she utilizes the beguiling female charms that some of the male characters associate her with to achieve quiet retribution.


Francis Carver’s desire to seek revenge on Crosbie Wells by murdering him is one of the three crucial events that has brought together the twelve men of the council. Carver had worked hard to conceal his true identity through impersonation, blackmailing, and forgery, but when Wells disfigures Carver by engraving a C into his face, Carver is indelibly marked. This physical sign is not something that Carver can hide behind lies, impersonation, or deception. As such, it impedes his ability to continue his deceit.

Carver’s act of revenge in murdering Crosbie Wells has unforeseen consequences, as it sets in motion another revenge plot: Tauwhare determines to murder Carver for deceiving him into becoming an...

(The entire section is 1,334 words.)