Piranesi: philosophical meditations on freedom, horror and the mystical sublime

Helen De Cruz
5 min readFeb 4, 2021
The Gothic Arch, from Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), MET

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Piranesi. I enjoyed Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a large-scope ambitious novel, and an enthralling read. I picked up Piranesi with no particular expectations, noting it is a much slimmer volume than her previous book.

Anyway, Piranesi blew me away. It kept me thinking at night after I finished reading it, and I went back and re-read some parts this morning, and it led me to write this blog and to procrastinate on admin, teaching and research. The novel treats a lot of really interesting philosophical themes. It was also strangely emotionally intensive and difficult to get through in places, because of the emotional punch it packs.

So I thought it would be useful to write a philosophical book review of it. I am a professional philosopher, interested in how fiction can help us explore ideas in an emotionally-engaged way, and my review will focus on that. The book has so many philosophical topics, I will only focus on a subset of them.

Stop reading right now if you haven’t read the book.


I know there’s debate on whether spoilers spoiler but in this particular case they do.

OK. You are still reading. You’ve been warned.

Whatever I was expecting, I didn’t expect to read a psychological horror novel, and this is how I read Piranesi, though it is a mix of genres. It is also fantasy, mystery, magical realism. There is a strange duck-rabbit experience when you read this novel. On the one hand, it deals with the sublime and the mystical, and tells of a wondrous place of large statues in a labyrinth with the sea, that you discover through the eyes of the protagonist. On the other hand, it’s a story that fills with the reader with a constant sense of dread, as you glimpse disturbing background about grooming, abuse, and unscrupulous people locking up hapless victims in a secret room in their house in order to perform their magical experiments.

In that respect, the first-person perspective is very aptly chosen. The protagonist we first get to know as “Piranesi” (in fact a biracial academic named Matthew Rose Sorensen) is innocent and full of wonder, exploring the House (the labyrinth) in which he has been imprisoned. We get occasional glimpses of the horror of the loss of the protagonist’s former self as he is in that labyrinth, fishing, washing clothes, and occasionally talking to a man he only knows as Other.

Is freedom a feature of our own minds, or is it a feature of our external circumstance?

Lockdowns and Covid restrictions have made me think of this question a lot lately, and Clarke’s book addresses it masterfully. At first glance, that’s all there is to it: the protagonist lacks freedom–he is imprisoned, at the mercy of his captors, and there are painful hints of this throughout the book (hence, psychological horror), notably when the unscrupulous Other (Ketterly) only gives him shoes when doing so will further using Piranesi as a mere means for his experiments. Piranesi seems unaware of this (at least initially) and is just grateful for the shoes.

And yet, the protagonist feels free. According to existentialists, notably Sartre, freedom is a feature of our existence. Sartre famously held that even if you are held in chains you can be free. It is closely tied up to the notion of authenticity: “Existence is authentic to the extent that the existent has taken possession of himself and… has moulded himself in his own image”. You must make your own values, and live by them, and make your own future to the extent possible living those values. This was exemplified in Sartre’s personal life, as a member of the resistance against the Nazi occupants of France, and in his refusal of a Nobel Prize. In this respect, Piranesi is truly free. He honors the House and he lives in line with his values, taking care of the birds, taking care of the few skeletons of the dead people he has found in the House.

For all their daring, crossing boundaries and transgressive thinking, Piranesi is in a sense more radical and free than Valentine Ketterly or Laurence Arne-Sayles who perform magical experiments on their subjects and use people as mere means to an end. Piranesi, rather, sees himself as (he puts it) “the beloved child of the House”. I often had to think of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (see a review of the book that also picks out this mystical element). The House can be seen as the interior castles of the soul, where we go on a mystical journey, a journey of discovery of the self and of mystical union with God, in Teresa’s view.

Teresa of Avila's interior castles, an interesting parallel to the stormy sea labyrinth in Susanna Clarke's novel

Piranesi only makes indirect reference to religion, for instance, to pagan ritual, but nevertheless has this mystical dimension. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the sublime through the use of fantasy in the novel, which I think heightens the internal tension of the story, at tension between the innocent protagonist and his mystical journey in the labyrinth, and the unscrupulous Ketterly and Arne-Sayles. The latter characters’ utilitarian stance prevents the kind of spiritual maturity and growth that the protagonist displays under the adverse conditions he is in.

Finally, the book deals with the question of the self and how traumatizing events can transform the self, to the point of shattering and destroying it. Again, keying in to the horror genre, we see how Matthew Rose Sorensen’s personal memories, and even likes and dislikes, have been destroyed by the traumatizing experience of being locked up in the labyrinth for years. We hear his former self described as an “arrogant little shit”, we learned he cared a lot about nice suits, all these traits have disappeared.

The protagonist himself says that Matthew is asleep within him, hinting at the possibility of a restoration of (something of) his former self.

Perhaps, as one gets fundamentally altered and shaped by experience, you don’t want to go back to your former self. Perhaps there is continued value in dwelling in the soul’s interior castles, in the kind of mystical reflectiveness that does not require optimal external conditions but rather, depends on putting oneself in the right kind of relationship with one’s environment, drawing upon one’s values.

The novel’s ambiguous, but optimistic ending hints at this, and I love how the protagonist takes both Sarah Raphael, the brave police officer who frees him and John Ritter, a former victim of Arne-Sayles to the labyrinth.

I’ve seen some discussion about how to read this novel in the light of lockdowns, pandemics, chronic illness etc, and I think all those experiences are relevant because the novel ultimately is existential in character. It’s about how constraints shape and mould us, and open up possibilities to be truly free, to be truly authentic, no matter the circumstances.