In the Land of the Lotus Eaters

How HBO’s hit show The White Lotus uses literature to critique capitalism.

The hit HBO show The White Lotus has been winning critical acclaim from many quarters, and deservedly so. The six-episode series, a blistering satire on our class-divided society, is wittily written, well-acted, and darkly comedic. Undoubtedly, the show owes a large part of its success is its unsparing vivisection of elite privilege, which is put under a microscope by its island resort setting, where class dynamics can play out under laboratory-like conditions. But the show’s triumph lies not only in its righteous politics and brilliant mise en scène. It is also a result of the sophistication with which these are presented: The White Lotus achieves truly literary proportions, artfully mobilizing a spate of literary and cultural allusions to lay bare the reality of class domination in all its horror.

From the beginning, it is the island setting itself that suggests two allusions that persist in the background throughout the show: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, if these two novels were combined and set at a Hawaiian resort, The White Lotus would probably be the result. The tone of Golding’s novel is set early on, as the boat carrying the resort’s soon-to-be guests approaches the island. College sophomores Olivia and Paula—“the scariest girls on TV,” according to The New York Times—mercilessly size up their fellow guests, imagining their backstories and personal flaws in unflattering terms. The girls’ seeming contempt for those around them—notwithstanding their pretensions toward holding a higher ethical standard, on which more below—establishes the atmosphere of status competition and petty infighting that will prevail throughout the series.

As in Golding’s novel, the island’s remote setting, while not cut off from civilization per se, allows the resort’s patrons to indulge their most antisocial urges as they act out their class privilege with particular ruthlessness. This is especially evident in the relationship between Shane, a newlywed whose coddled upbringing by a wealthy family has turned him into an insufferable asshole, and Armond, the hotel manager whose five years of commitment to a sober lifestyle gets radically tested by Shane’s persistent expressions of dissatisfaction. After Armond accidentally double-books the coveted Pineapple Suite, relegating Shane and his new wife Rachel to a palatial room that unfortunately lacks a plunge pool, Shane relentlessly badgers Armond at every chance he gets. Unlike in Lord of the Flies, it is not children who are allowed to act on every impulse, unrestrained by higher authority or social norms, but the rich, who might as well be children, as Rachel finally says out loud to Shane in a satisfying (and long-overdue) moment of reckoning. Repeated images of a conch shell being blown to summon the guests to dinner solidify the allusion, and as in Golding’s classic, rivalrous animosity culminates in deadly tragedy.

The White Lotus has rightly garnered praise for its infectious soundtrack, which supplies a steady but frantic rhythm that complements the tense relationships which unfold on screen. The relentless beating of drums does more than offer an aural counterpoint to the dramatic action, however. The constant percussion and whooping of the music impart a Conradian ambience that fits well with the show’s themes of imperialism, colonialism, and descent into insanity. Indeed, Marlow’s description of the drums in Heart of Darkness —“the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild”—is an apt characterization of Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s score.

In addition to providing the backdrop for the show’s stories and relationships, imperialism and colonialism are also the occasion for one of its most compelling subplots. When Paula, who has accompanied her friend Olivia and her wealthy family, the Mossbachers, on vacation, begins a romantic relationship with Kai, a hotel employee and native Hawaiian, he tells her that the resort occupies land formerly owned by his family, and that they can’t afford a lawyer to contest the resort’s claims to the area. Paula is unwilling to stay behind and continue her relationship with Kai, as he suggests she could, but she devises a different means by which to help him. After using a rather obvious ploy to learn the code to the Mossbacher’s hotel room safe, she gives it to Kai, who possesses a hotel master key, and urges him to steal Nicole Mossbacher’s $75,000 bracelets, which have been placed there for safekeeping while she and the family are out scuba diving.

Kai expresses doubts about the plan and seems confused by Paula’s proposal: aren’t these people your friends, he asks her. But Paula disassociates herself from the Mossbachers, aligning herself with Kai’s struggle against the resort’s corporate imperialism. She convinces him by invoking the acts of expropriation to which his family has been subject to justify the theft and suggesting that the bracelets can be used to purchase the services of a lawyer to help with the land dispute.

W. E. F. Britten’s illustration of Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Predictably, the theft goes horribly awry, Kai is caught in the act, and though visibly shaken and concerned for his wellbeing, Paula decides to cut ties with him, tossing the necklace he has given her into the ocean. The irony of all this is heightened by the fact that Paula is seen reading Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a book whose anticolonial prescriptions she evidently has trouble translating from the undergraduate seminar room into the real world, which is just one example of Olivia’s and Paula’s larger pattern of espousing social justice rhetoric while maintaining their affiliations to the status quo and their place atop its hierarchies. Paula ultimately returns to her college education and the cocoon of privilege that, while perhaps not quite as encompassing as it is for the Mossbachers, nevertheless insulates her from the consequences of her actions.

If the core of Conrad’s (admittedly problematic) critique of western imperialism in Heart of Darkness is his observation that the architects and executors of imperial policy are no more “civilized” than the natives they purport to be enlightening, then the same basic lesson is on display in The White Lotus, which, in offering a glimpse into the sordid private lives of the rich alongside their savagery, hypocrisy, and blithe disregard for those whose land has been expropriated to make way for a resort, similarly indicts the moral vacuity of today’s elites.

In conjunction with the themes of imperialism and colonialism that frame The White Lotus, class antagonism lies at the heart of the drama. The contrast between the hotel’s wealthy guests and its staff is one of the main ways this antagonism is represented, but it is by no means its sole articulation. In the first episode, new hotel staff member Lani tries in vain to cover up the fact that she is at an advanced stage of pregnancy, refusing to go home despite her increasingly obvious birth pangs because “I really need this job.” That there exist hierarchies within the staff is further demonstrated by hotel manager Armond’s use of his authority to coax a younger hotel staff member, whom he has had his eye on, into a sexual relationship, promising him preferential treatment.

Yet Armond is victim as well as perpetrator, and it is he who perhaps most clearly expresses the reality of the situation in which all the characters find themselves when he quotes Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” at the end of the series’ penultimate episode. Sitting across from fellow employee Belinda, whose position at the hotel’s spa opens her to emotional exploitation by another rich guest, the somewhat sympathetic but ultimately fickle Tanya, Armond characterizes the hotel patrons as lotus eaters before launching into lines from the sailors’ chorus in Tennyson’s poem, which recounts the episode from The Odyssey in which Odysseus’s crew is tempted by the narcotic effect of the lotus fruit:

Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o'er the dark-blue sea. 
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labor be?

Not only does this allusion—already evident in the show’s title—perfectly capture the promises of intoxication proffered by the resort, where guests are invited to forget their troubles amidst the luxurious surroundings and copious amounts fine food and alcohol, it also sums up the classed contrast between leisure and labor on which the resort depends: the guests relax and luxuriate while the staff toils to cater to their every whim. It is hardly surprising that Armond is on the brink of tipping back into addiction, so harried is he by Shane and the need to keep everything with the guests “copacetic,” as he says.  He craves a drug-induced release from the obligation to constantly perform his uptight role. As apparently voracious readers of critical theory—in addition to Fanon, we see them reading Judith Butler, Freud, Nietzsche, and Aimeé Césaire—Olivia and Paula would no doubt be reminded of Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic reading of the lotus eaters episode in Dialectic of Enlightenment, were they only around to hear Armond.

As Adorno and Horkheimer suggest, and as Marx also makes clear in his famous passage about religion as the “opiate of the masses,” however, narcotic intoxication is an unsatisfactory substitute for actual emancipation from a class-divided society—an emancipation that appears out of reach for most of the White Lotus’s guests and staff members.

Indeed, the show’s conclusion leaves precious little room for optimism. When Armond learns he is to be fired because of Shane’s determination to register his complaints to higher authorities at the hotel, Armond ingests a cornucopia of substances and abandons all inhibition. He lets himself into Shane’s and Rachel’s room—they have finally moved into the Pineapple suite now that its other occupants have vacated—and defecates in a suitcase.

But before he can make his escape, Shane returns, and he is forced to hide. Shane sniffs out what Armond has done, and when he realizes that he is not the only one in the room, he grabs a knife that he had put aside earlier after hearing about Kai’s attempted burglary of the Mossbachers. As Armond tries to make a run for it, Shane comes around the corner and accidentally drives the knife into Armond’s chest. He stares at Armond, mouth agape, and manages to sputter the words “I’m sorry” before Armond collapses into the bathtub and dies.

Shane predictably suffers no consequences, and we are thereby put in mind of another literary allusion, this time to Nick Carraway’s famous line about careless rich people from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

If there is any hope, it is offered by Quinn, the Mossbacher’s sixteen-year-old son. Forced by his cruel older sister Olivia to sleep on the beach, he befriends a team of Hawaiian canoers who train at daylight every morning. They invite Quinn to join them. He protests that he will only slow them down, but they reply that that the drag will benefit their training regimen.

Quinn joins the crew and expresses his desire to stay behind after his family leaves and participate in their plan to row around the islands. His parents reject this proposal, but he abandons them at the airport, and in the series’ final scene, we see him rowing into the sunrise with his new companions.

The scene, which arguably recalls Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (“Come, my friends/‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world”), is a contrast to the otherwise bleak conclusion of the drama. The ethic of teamwork espoused by the canoers is contrary to that which prevails among the Mossbachers and the hotel’s other rich guests, who only know how to domineer and compete with each other over status. In their shared endeavor, the canoers proclaim the utopian ideal of a classless society.