“To Be or Not To Be”

This is a painting by the 20th Century American Painter, Edward Hopper.  It is titled, “Night Hawks.”  To ask in the spirit of Captain Obvious: is this real?  The answer, though, is not so obvious.  It is “real” in the sense that it is a painting that one can see, touch and even smell.  In other words, it is some-”thing” that is composed of a variety of material elements.  However, it is not “real” in the sense that the people depicted (!?) are only artistic representations,  though the depictions may be based on “real” people who can be seen, touched and even smelled.  The same is true of the diner and everything else in the painting. 

Or is it.  If one starts to wonder about the nature of the couple, one sees hints as to their mood.  This is no party.  There is a somber, determined, maybe even desperate, quality about them.  If we were given to speculation, we might guess that they are not only alone, but maybe on the run.  They gambled, perhaps—whether in a casino or in some other fashion—and lost, and now are forced to escape and see if they can somehow return to play once again.   

Or not.  The red of the redhead stands out from the greys and blacks of the painting.  There may be a hint…just a hint…of a smile on her lips.  His face is harder, possibly braced against the force of what she has just said to him. The cook is talking—whether they want more coffee?  The man has yet to respond, if he will at all.  She may be relieved that the worst is over.  She has said what she has had to say and the cook has, inadvertently, broken the tension—for her, at least.   

Which is it?  Couple on the run from a mob boss bent on collecting a debt?  Couple about to unexpectedly separate?  Something else entirely?  For some, such questions are purely academic; even foolish.  After all, there is no way of knowing just what Hopper had in mind in creating this painting.  For that matter, this “couple” is not a “couple” at all.  Looked at closely—even with a microscope—one will see that they are nothing more than an amalgam of different colored oils. 

And yet.  Despite all that, anyone with any degree of sensitivity will look at “Night Hawks” and feel something.   If one has ever risked something important and lost, one may recognize that determination to continue even after defeat.  If one has experienced a divorce, one may remember when that previously hidden decision came out in the open.  If one is an artist, one may marvel at the nuanced use of color.  Of course, it can be argued that all these interpretations are just projections of feelings and experiences that have no objective relationship to the painting itself.  On the other, it is those projections—illusory though they may be—that establish a personal connection with the painting that make it more…well… “real” to us. 

In Chapter 28 of the Biblical Book of Genesis, the patriarch-to-be, Jacob, is to meet his brother, Esau, the next morning—a brother Jacob has cheated and has every reason, and the wherewithal, to kill him.  Jacob is all by himself in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.  It is just then that he has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder from heaven to the earth.  At the top of that ladder is God Himself who says, ““I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.” (Gen 28:13)  After he wakes up, Jacob says: ““How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:17)  Of all the reactions one might have on reading this story, is the most meaningful one: “Did this ‘really’ happen?”? 

The Buddha tells the story of a man who goes into his hut.  He is terrified because he sees a snake in the corner.  On closer inspection, however, he realizes that this “snake” was just a coiled piece of rope.  This perception was all too real to him—in fact, he almost had a heart attack—but now he dismisses the snake-like rope as a nuisance.  Now, imagine if the situation were reversed: that this man “saw” a coiled piece of rope that turned out to be a venomous snake.  If the measure of “meaning” is about the consequences of perceptions, those perceptions can have “real” consequences, whether they are based in reality or not. 

In English, there is today the admonition to “Keep it real.”  Note that that is not the same as “Tell the truth.”  Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not the same thing. The harder, more real, question is: “Which is the more worthwhile?”


  1. I have seen this painting before and formed my own interpretation, of course. But the painter did name his painting and that leads us down a path to begin with. People of the night that people of the day do not see. For me it is a contrast of what day people see in the electronic media of today with the actualities of the night people after their moment of expressions — the party, the casino. The night hawks that live in the dark of day and the night hawks who serve them. It expresses the pensiveness of the characters after the bursts of emotions. They seem to be processing their experiences.

    1. Wow…what an interesting take on the topic. You seem to be saying that night people see a life that is more real than those who live in the day–and, usually, it is thought to be the other way around. Typically the night is a place/time of fear and/or ignorance whereas, during the day, people can “see the light.” “Processing” is another intriguing word. I would be more likely to agree if the couple were talking to each other. hmmm….I have to think about that. Thanks!

  2. Not looking into anything too abstract, but this seems almost obvious to me.
    I’m wondering what the painted lady is studying so closely between her fingers. It’s green… possibly cash ….for an assignation from the guy to her right?
    Is “cookie” warning him off her?

    1. Interesting. It could be money in her hand, or it could be anything to focus her attention in the midst of an awkward conversation. The cook is warning him off her? Could be…although it is not clear to me that the man is even listening to him. In any event, what we bring to the painting in the expression of our reactions may be as significant as anything the artist may have intended.

  3. Edward Hopper’s oeuvre painted in realistic settings is about loneliness and isolation in the human condition. His paintings are both visually engaging, arresting, and thought-provoking. He has addressed the existential existence of human life in visual painterly terms. He is an outstanding artist and painter. The four (4) subjects are frozen in time in the middle of the night in an ordinary diner.

    While the author of this treatise focuses on the “couple,” I think there are at least four (4) other elements in the painting he/she ignores. The other man sitting at a distance from the “couple” at the counter, the cook, the simply detailed “diner” itself, and the night. If “Nighthawks” has evoked the response reported by this person, so be it! In my opinion, the treatise reported by the author is very individualistic, and personal and ignores the more universal message in Hopper’s painting. Gary W. London, MD

    1. Hi. Thanks for your comment. Yes, there is much more to the painting than I have indicated. My observations are indeed “individualistic,” which is the point. When it comes to such interpretations, the contention is that there is no “objective” reality and that they are all subjective–“very individualistic.”

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