The Pleasure Principle in Ice by Anna Kavan & Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

In this essay, I will be analysing two novels. The first is called Ice, published in 1967 and written by British writer Anna Kavan, and the second is called Picnic at Hanging Rock, written by Australian writer Joan Lindsay, and published also in 1967. The reason I have chosen these books is because of the detailed descriptions of the environment both contain. I will be focussing on the historical and cultural context, how these books reflect the lives of the authors and the period they were written in, and how the environment of these books can affect the psyche of the characters and lead them towards doom. To achieve this, I will be using Psychoanalytic criticism, more specifically Freud’s pleasure principle.

Freud has theorised in his 1920 article about the pleasure principle, as explained by Loose (2002): ‘sometimes people pursue something more and beyond the limits of pleasure’. He called this ‘the death-drive’. The reason he gave it a name like this is because ‘as a pursuit, it is neither in the service of human life nor in the service of the common good’. The pleasure principle is deemed to be a failure for the society as well as for the individual (Loose, 2002, p. 61-62). Ever since writing this piece, Freud has understood that, as described by Loose, ‘pleasure is not the only aim in human life and that the compulsion to repeat can be compulsion to suffer’ (p. 65). He further stated in The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924) that if unpleasure and pain are aims and not only warnings, ‘the pleasure principle is paralysed – it is as though the watchman over our mental life were put out of action by a drug’ (p. 159). The watchman in this case tends to get easily distracted when he is promised the drug and this can lead to a conflict, because humans are ‘compelled to go beyond the limit of pleasure into a realm that causes them suffering’ (Loose, 2002, p. 65).

The 1960s was an era of change, hope, protests, and an enormous shift in culture in America. Women protested discrimination and unequal work opportunities, African Americans fought segregation, and other marginalised groups demanded equal rights. Not only America, but many other countries, such as Britain and Australia, have gone through significant shift. Britain, like America, shifted towards more liberal ideals and people demanded equal rights. Australia also experienced major shift in terms of the civil rights movement and fight for equal rights for women in the workplace. Demand for change has also extended for the environment, as first issues of pollution were raised. Effect of these issues often reflected in the literature of the time, as it is in Ice and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Ice, written by the British writer Anna Kavan, follows a narrator that is obsessed with the pursuit of a ‘glass girl’ (Kavan, 2017, p. 9) that is not really treated as a character but as an object of narrator’s desire. The surroundings in this book are heading towards an environmental disaster, which is portrayed in a form of, as the title suggests, ice. The world is getting colder and colder, and the catastrophe is closer than ever. It is presumed that catastrophe’s cause is nuclear, and it is certain that the humanity is to blame. It is potentially linked to a ‘secret act of aggression by some foreign power’, as there is ‘steep rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device’ (p. 23). As the book progresses, the setting is progressively getting worse and so does the narrator’s mind. 

The connection can certainly be made between the setting of this book and the real-life events. Ice obviously points to one of the crucial issues of the time, which was pollution of the environment and how it will continue to worsen if no action is taken. This is one interpretation of the book. I will however primarily focus on another interpretation, another issue of the time that the author herself battled with as the narrator himself does.

The author of this book, Anna Kavan, has struggled with heroin addiction. Not only were the 1960s a symbol of a widespread change for the better, but the era also symbolized the widespread use of drugs, heroin being amongst many. Heroin was criminalised in the 1950s and Kavan ended up stockpiling it. She had a debilitating depression, which has caused her to spend time in asylums, however it is believed that the drug has helped her write and escape her illness. She has struggled with her addiction until her death and when her body was found, ‘it is rumoured that there was enough heroin in her flat to kill the entire street’ (Freeman, 2011). 

Although Anna Kavan spent some time in asylums, mental hospitals of the time did not assist their patients with integration back in the society. As Bechtel (1997) states, ‘no one gave very careful thought as to what would really happen to these mental patients once they were on their own’ (p. 372). As he further states, many communities have preferred to exclude than to integrate mental patients into society (p. 373). Therefore, it is possible that Kavan’s surrounding had further worsened her addiction.

As Rhys Davies, Kavan’s friend, claimed in her 1970 essay called The Bazooka Girl, which was a remembrance of Anna Kavan, ‘she wrote in mirror’. Her stories have reflected her life. Kavan’s addiction can be linked to the narrator’s obsessive search for the girl. Despite the weather conditions, all he wants to do is to be near the young girl. Arguably, because of the cold and sad surroundings, he wants to pursue her as she is the only thing that brings him happiness. This girl is the narrator’s heroin.

‘Suddenly it seemed neither sensible, nor even sane, to continue a search based solely on vague surmise; particularly as my attitude to its object was so undefined. When I considered that imperative need I felt for her, as for a missing part of myself, it appeared less like love than an inexplicable aberration, the sign of some character flaw I ought to eradicate, instead of letting it dominate me.’ (Kavan, 2017, p. 25)

In this passage, we can see the narrator question himself, as to why he is even searching for the girl. But the obsession, the addiction, overwhelms his personal watchman, who is ‘put out of action’ by the promise of the ‘glass girl’. He even refers to this feeling as a ‘character flaw’ and ‘aberration’, something unnatural. His ‘need’ for her is most certainly like a drug, he cannot stop himself from wanting her and the need is dominating him. He continues the search for the girl ‘based solely on vague surmise’, which means he would do anything for the smallest chance of finding her. Severe addicts would do anything for the smallest chance of getting the next hit of the drug – as the narrator does to be close to the girl again. He would follow her to the edge of the world even if it kills him. This can be certainly linked to Freud’s pleasure principle, more specifically death-drive because the narrator is pursuing the girl beyond the limits of pleasure and into a world that will certainly cause him to suffer even more. 

The landscape of this book is progressively getting worse, as the ice walls are approaching, and the catastrophe is imminent. ‘The situation was alarming, the atmosphere tense, the emergency imminent’ (Kavan, 2017, p. 23). This is symbolic of Kavan’s addiction getting more severe and heading for certain doom.

‘If the melting Antarctic ice cap flowed over the South Pacific and Atlantic oceans, a vast ice-mass would be created, reflecting the sun’s rays and throwing them back into the outer space, thus depriving the earth of warmth.’ (Kavan, 2017, p. 23)

This is also a possible reference to Kavan’s addiction. ‘The melting Antarctic ice cap’ could represent her awareness of the progressive spread of her addiction. As it is spreading, it is depriving her of warmth, therefore of her life, and she is heading towards death. This is an example of the pleasure principle being paralysed – her pain is not only the cause but her goal, as she goes beyond pleasure and into the world of suffering.

As the book progresses, the narrator is becoming increasingly more unreliable as he is becoming increasingly more obsessed by the girl, which is symbolic of Kavan’s addiction getting worse and heroin being the only thing bringing her pleasure. She is the only thing that brings happiness into the narrator’s life, which is otherwise only surrounded by destruction, but it is simultaneously destroying him as he is consumed by her. He even considers her to be the missing part of himself, which refers to heroin addiction and dependence on it getting worse. Thinking of her distracts him as he is associating her with warmth and happiness, in comparison to the cold surroundings. This is again, link to heroin – the surroundings of Kavan’s life seem so bleak, sad and cold that she prefers being addicted to something that will bring her warmth and momentary happiness, even if it destroys her.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is the exact opposite from Ice in terms of settings. It is warm, colourful, rich and full of life in comparison to the bleak, cold, devastating and depressive surroundings of Ice. However, looks can be deceiving and the setting of Picnic at Hanging Rock can be devastating as well, depending on the situation.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, written by the Australian writer Joan Lindsay, is set in 1900 and tell the story of upper-class girls from a boarding school in Australia, who take a trip to a volcanic formation called the Hanging Rock on Saint Valentine’s Day. Unlike the setting in Ice, Hanging Rock refers to a real place in Australia. During the trip, a group of three young girls and their teacher mysteriously go missing in this enchanting nature spot.

Although this is not story about a natural disaster, it can also be linked to the fear of the pollution. The language used to describe the setting is idealistic and mystical, as if it were something out of this world. The idea of writing a novel in 1967 that is set in 1900, before World War I and II that certainly contributed to the pollution with bombs, is very telling. This can certainly be interpreted as writer’s nostalgia and wish towards the improvement of the environment.

The author of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay, has painted her whole life and this can be seen in her descriptive and artistic writing style. Even in the book itself she refers to a real painting of the Hanging Rock, which has the same name as the book title. The book parallels her life in many ways. Lindsay grew up in the suburbs, which is a setting very similar to her book. Even the school in the books, Appleyard College is in many ways based on the school Lindsay attended, Clyde Girls’ Grammar School. Lindsay has described her childhood in an unpublished memoir as ‘outwardly happy, uneventful, button booted pinafores childhood, under the straggly plum coloured roof of St. Margarets’ (Lindsay, 1979, as cited in Frith, 1990, p. 14).

The plot of Picnic at Hanging Rock came to Lindsay in a dream, and she knew right away that this would make a good book. The dream felt so real that when she woke up, she could still feel the breeze and hear the laughter of the people in her dream (McCulloch, 2017). This can be linked to Freud’s theory of dreams, in which he states that dreams act as wish fulfilments and unconscious desires. This can be linked to Lindsay’s ‘uneventful’ childhood and how she secretly wished it had been more exciting (Freud, 1961, p. x). 

The book includes a huge mystery plot, that is never really resolved in the book, but in a chapter released after Lindsay’s death. Because she had ‘uneventful’ childhood as she states herself, it is possible that she was in a way rewriting her childhood through this book by making it quite similar to her own but incorporating a mystery plot. The description of what led to the disappearance of the four people can be linked to Freud’s pleasure principle. 

‘The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb. The splendid spectacle, as if by special arrangement between Heaven and the Head Mistress of Appleyard College, was brilliantly illuminated for their inspection. On the steep southern façade the play of golden light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, others grooved and fluted by prehistoric architecture of wind and water, ice and fire. Huge boulders, originally spewed red hot from the boiling bowels of the earth, now come to rest, cooled and rounded in forest shade.’ (Lindsay, 2011, p. 29)

The author purposefully makes the surrounding irresistible, like when Eve was tempted by the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In Ice this was portrayed by the girl who the narrator was chasing even when it meant his doom, and here it is portrayed by an environment that is too tempting and difficult to resist. The girls that are hypnotized by this environment are seeking an adventure – escape from their mundane life filled with rules they must obey by. This is quite comparable to Ice, where the narrator sought escape from a life filled with destruction through obsession of an unreachable object.

Lindsay describes the environment as unearthly, hypnotizing and enchanting by using religious references and language that could be interpreted as magical. An example of this could be ‘impregnated with powerful presence’, which stands out so strongly with the use of word ‘impregnated’, which is a human function often referred to as magical because of the ability to create life. The paragraph is ended with a sentence about volcanos, known for the opposite of creation, the destruction. This is such a strong opposition, that it emphasises the magnificence of the picture before the girls.

The view and adventure are what tempts them to continue into the dangerous and unknown and ultimately causes their disappearance. The girls do not consider the consequences, because by being confronted with the monumental view of nature, their ‘human eye is woefully inadequate’ (Lindsay, 2011, p. 29). It can be said that the view acts like a drug and their watchman is ‘put out of action’. The girls end up going beyond pleasure and into an environment that will eventually cause their suffering. This makes the beauty of the setting devastating, because it leads the girls towards doom.

In conclusion, analysing these books with the use of pleasure principle has proven to be very useful. Both books are very well written, and the language used to describe the environment is quite unique. Perhaps judging from the first read of these texts, they don’t have much in common except their descriptiveness of landscape. But by reading and applying the pleasure principle, we can observe quite a few similarities in relation to pursue beyond pleasure. Although the writers’ lives vastly differ and the books are very different in terms of the plot, both texts take strong inspiration from the lives of the authors, who explore their dreams and desires through their characters. The possible reason for this is either to stop or lessen the destruction of their own lives by acting out the desired scenarios in their books.


Bechtel, R. (1997). Environment and Behavior : An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA; London: SAGE.

Davies, R. (1970). The Bazooka Girl. The London Magazine.

Freeman, H. (2011, December 21). ‘Winter reads’: Ice by Anna Kavan. The Guardian.

Freud, S. (1924). The Economic Problem of Masochism. In: S.E., XIX. London: The Hogarth Press.

Freud, S., & Strachey, James. (1961). Beyond the pleasure principle. (Rev. ed., The international psycho-analytical library; no. 4). London: Hogarth Press and IPA.

Frith, S. L. (1990). Fact and fiction in Joan Lindsay’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. [Masters Coursework thesis, The University of Melbourne].

Kavan, A. (2017). Ice. Penguin Books Ltd.

Lindsay, J. (2011). Picnic at Hanging Rock. Random House.

Loose, R. (2002). The Subject of Addiction: Psychoanalysis and the Administration of Enjoyment (1st ed.). Routledge.

McCulloch, J. (2017, March 30). The extraordinary story behind Picnic at Hanging Rock. The Age.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *