"The Piano" _is_ a metaphor, but not just for the 19th Century woman, as
the story goes, but for all women.
As with any metaphor, the reasons for things happening aren't as important
as why those things are expressed. Silence as a symbol of oppression is
an age-old device in literature. The character's silence symbolizes
cultural, societal, and sexual oppression. Not only is she stifled by the
sleazy "white males" who decide she will be married, the stuffy UK culture
from which she comes demands that she wears those ridiculous constricting
clothes. Maybe you recall how much attention was paid to the native New
Zealand women in their men's clothes or loose dresses. Keitel's character
(forgive me for forgetting their names) is often shirtless and he's
obviously comfortable with nudity. His life doesn't know the boundaries
of English society which is plain through the tatoos and manner in which
he approaches Hunter's character.
Sam Neill's character is a mockery of "civilized" society... he spends his
time building fences to mark his territory, he's constantly figiting with
his greeeazzy hair, he insists upon wearing his English clothes (no matter
how impractical or battered they are), and of course, he boards up his
wife and child in the house.
All the elements of oppression are exaggerated through the environment in
which these characters interact. It's raining, it's muddy, everything
seems like it's uphill from everything else. EVERYTHING is a struggle. I
mean, what would the movie be if it was "The Harmonica"? That's the point!
As far as the drowing scene goes... it can mean a lot of things. In
literature, for instance, drowning yourself is worse than regular suicide
because there's no hope for afterlife (if you believe in that sort of
thing), and it's a pretty common symbol for the ultimate oppression...
drowning, being suffocated by a substance you can feel, but can't push
away. Virginia Woolfe, the classic feminist writer, drowned herself when
she thought she had nothing more to say. Another thing to be considered is
when Hunter's underwater, it's the only time she's alone in the whole film.
The fingers, the daughter, the play, the beach, and the natives all play a
big part in rounding out the metaphor.... but I've definitely said too
Thanks for listening.