It took me quite some time to get ‘round to watching Violet Evergarden. There are two reasons for this: the first is that, for the longest time, I was much too poor to be able to afford a Netflix subscription and the second is that I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype surrounding it… Whilst I was spot on about being broke, I was dead wrong for suspecting it of being undeserving of the attention that it (still) receives! Violet Evergarden is one of the most gorgeous shows that my eyes have ever had the pleasure to behold, its sweeping, orchestral soundtrack is bewitching, and everything about its story and characters is designed to move you (mainly to tears)! It became an instant favourite of mine and I would be remiss if I didn’t record some of my thoughts on it. Whilst there’s no shortage of topics that I could discuss, during today’s blog post I would like to dig deep, really deep, into just one of them: the show’s fire motif.
Before I really get to the meat of today’s post, let me set the scene… Violet is a young, former child soldier. We don’t know much about her past, save for the fact that she was treated as little more than a weapon by the people around her, that she was deadly on the battlefield, and that her former caretaker, Diethard Bougainvillea, would verbally and physically abuse her. In light of these facts, it is unsurprising that Violet has withdrawn into herself and is unable to express nor identify emotion. As a result, she has yet to process what has happened to her or the evil that she committed as a soldier.
During episode one of Violet Evergarden, as Violet struggles to adapt to her new job and communicate with other people, her new employer, Claudia Hodgins, makes the following speculation: “You’re going to learn a lot of things, but it might be easier to keep living if you didn’t learn them, if you didn’t know them. You don’t realise that your body is on fire and burning up because of the things you did. You’ll understand one day. And then you’ll realise, for the first time, that you have many burns.”
At this point in the show, Violet is unable to comprehend what Hodgins means. She (mistakenly) thinks that he is speaking literally, of literal burns. But over time, as a result of her interactions with other people, Violet’s emotions begin to resurface. It is then that she asks: “Do I have any right [to be happy] after I killed so many people as a weapon? I must have prevented them from keeping promises of their own! Promises they made to loved ones of their own! Everything I’ve done so far has sparked a flame that is now burning me up.”
These are just a couple of the references that Violet Evergarden makes to fire. But why fire? What could fire possibly symbolise? And how do these things tie into the show’s story? Well, let’s take a look…
Fire, when left unchecked, can be destructive. All it takes is one spark to start a fire that utterly destroys everything in its wake – just look at the sorry state that the Notre Dame cathedral’s in! Guilt is much the same. It eats you up from the inside, causing terrible, sometimes irreparable, harm. Guilt can be responsible for sleepless nights, ruined relationships, and the tendency to punish oneself (the Dobby Effect). Violet might not be able to put a name to the emotion that she is feeling, but her reference to the “spark” that is “burning [her] up” as well as her (unsuccessful) attempt to strangle herself during episode nine clearly suggest guilt.
Fire can also leave terrible, lasting scars – on buildings, on landscapes, and on people. The same can also be said of trauma. Through neuroimaging we have learned that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) profoundly alters both the structure and functionality of the brain, with sufferers displaying changes to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus (the brain regions responsible for the regulation and processing of emotions and memory, respectively). It is unsurprising, then, that PTSD sufferers, Violet included, often experience extreme fear, stress, and anxiety when presented with things that remind them of their trauma, vivid flashbacks, and have trouble distinguishing between the past and the present.
That said, fire can also be considered transformative in a positive sense! Think of a refiner’s fire. This is a fire that purifies gold by burning away the dross (or impurities in the metal). In this instance, fire is used to bring out something pure and beautiful. Pain can perform the same function. I firmly believe that the trials I have endured have made me a better person: kinder, more patient, and more grateful… Fire can also bring about new life. Just as some forests need fire to bring about new life (see fire activated seeds), sometimes pain is needed to birth compassion and empathy. These things help us to relate and minister to other people in the midst of their pain. Violet is a brilliant example of these principles in action. It is the loss that she experienced that caused her to want to learn about love, which, in turn, brought about the gradual revival of her emotions. This loss also helped Violet form many meaningful connections, e.g. to Leon (the boy who lost his parents), to Oscar (the man who lost his wife and daughter), and to Irma (the woman who lost her lover), and set people on the path to recovery.
To conclude… Whilst fire can symbolise wholesale destruction, and whilst Violet’s past, the guilt, pain, and loss that she went through, may have damaged her, almost driving her to the brink of madness and despair, it can also serve several beautiful purposes… Likewise, the fiery trials that Violet endured and the feelings that they brought about in her caused her to grow in emotional range and maturity, made her want to better understand other people, and helped her help others overcome their own pain. It was a remarkable transformation, one that anybody struggling to overcome trauma should derive great comfort from.