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Commentary on the film "Titanic"

from a Jungian Perspective

by Ross White*

A review and interpretation of the 1997 film

Many films have been made of the tragic sinking, in 1914, of the British liner Titanic on its maiden voyage from the United Kingdom to the United States.  The most recent was released in 1997 and was hailed as one of the greatest blockbusters ever made.  I was reluctant to see the film because I heard it focused on cinematic effects rather than on the story, and it was overdone.  There was criticism of its authenticity and concern expressed by the way some crew had been portrayed.

By the time that I decided to watch the film it was not showing in the cinemas, and so I watched it on video.  I was stunned at my reaction and have since seen it many times.  I didn't notice the effects, I didn't worry about whether it was overdone nor about its authenticity.  Instead, I became absorbed in the story of the transformation of a young woman from repression to individuality.  The journey of the Titanic was a symbol of the trials and tribulations that challenged her as she went through her transformation process. 

She evolved from being someone who was hopelessly oppressed and enslaved by the cultural norms of the upper class society of the day, to a woman with her own mind and sense of personal freedom.  This was possible through the development of her relationship with a fresh young man from another cultural class, a lower one which was not inhibited.  He challenged her attitudes and encouraged her need for self-expression.

It was as if her positive animus had come to the fore, come out of the bowels of the unconscious and assisted her to grow in herself by challenging her and she being able to meet those challenges.  I saw her at the beginning as under the influence of her negative animus in the form of her fiance, and the challenge of the journey for her was to face her own turmoil, and through incredible upheaval to eventually survive and be transformed in an independent person.

The upheaval was represented by the battle between the ship, representing Man's desire to conquer Nature, and the power of the sea, representing Nature.  I saw this as a symbol of the battle going on in the psyche of the woman as she fought for her own individual survival.

The film opens with scenes of the Titanic about to embark on its maiden voyage.  This was a historic moment and the ship represented the power of the Industrial Age.  The scene shifts to modern day in a submarine searching for and finding the wreck of the Titanic on the bottom of the sea. 

Even though the Titanic represented the might of Man, it didn’t survive the power of the sea.  Could this be the oppositeness of the masculine/feminine, the battle of man against Nature and man’s belief at the time that he could conquer nature and not work in collaboration with it?  The film illustrated that that wasn’t so.

Next we meet an old woman, potting, in touch with the earth, in harmony with nature.  Her name is Rose Dawson, a former actress.  There is a story on the news about the finding of the remains of the Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic, and from that we come to learn Rose was a survivor of the sinking.  Connection was made between her and the discovery group and she was transported to the site of the wreck to meet the salvage team.  The team describes the sinking, focusing on a blue diamond that in fact the men are after.  The scene is technical and forensic - masculine.  Attitudes in life haven't changed since the days of the Titanic.  For Rose, the old lady, the actual experience was somewhat different.  Rose tells her story, and we're taken back to the beginning of the maiden voyage.

There was bustle at the wharves as people were boarding the ship.  Passengers consisted of wealthy travellers, businessmen and poor European migrants in search of a new life in the USA.  Rose Dewitt Bukater, her maiden name, alights from the motor car of her fiancé, Calvin Hockley.  She is dressed formally in upper-class travel clothes of the day and comments that the ship doesn’t seem any bigger than its rival ship, the ‘Moratoria’. Calvin assures her that the Titanic is at least 100 feet longer.  Even at this stage we have a strong emphasis on competition in the Industrial Age.

As Rose boards the ship, she reflects that at the time she felt that she was being carried away in chains onto a slave ship, not the ship of dreams.  Inside she was screaming, while outside she presented as a girl of her upbringing and status should behave.  We are introduced to the suppression of the feminine in the industrial age.

The film jumps to a scene in a public bar on the wharf, where a card game is in full swing.  I see this as the first encounter with the unconscious and in contrast to the conscious world of the First Class Promenade deck of the ship.  We meet Jack Dawson, a free-spirited American who had been studying art in Paris.  He wins tickets in the card game for a passage to America on the Titanic.  He and a mate rushed off to the ship and board just in time.  They weren't recorded as passengers as their tickets weren't in their names.

The ship was under way, with scenes of settling in.  Rose was unpacking in her first-class room and she had a significant amount of contemporary art such as Picaso and Monet.  Calvin thought the art was a waste of time and money.  He was more interested in traditional art.  This was a contrast between the free spirit of the feminine Rose and the conservative controlled masculine of Calvin.

We now meet Molly Brown.  She was a woman of new money, brash and outspoken, the link person.  Is she Hermes, the connection from the underworld?  We meet the Captain and officers on the Bridge and the crew in the engine room.

The engine and motors start, reflecting the might of the industrial age.  It is full speed ahead and dolphins play at the bough, paralleling the untapped youthful energy of Jack and his mate at the bow of the ship.  Contrast the freedom of the dolphins and Jack with the British and controlled Captain, drinking his cup of tea.

At a scene at the table on the promenade deck, the master ship builder, Mr Andrews, explains the Titanic's superiority and supremacy, which has never been challenged.  Rose is already revolting.  She is smoking contrary to her mother's wishes, and makes a sarcastic comment referring to Freud.  "His ideas about size may be interesting to you".  The response "Who is this Freud, a passenger?" indicates ignorance of the psychological world which was in its infancy then, in contrast to the concreteness of the industrial age.

In the next scene Rose comes across Jack for the first time.  He is sketching on lower deck and Rose looks down at him from the upper deck where she is promenading.  Jack sees Rose watching him.  Is this the first encounter for Rose of a positive animus figure who is about to help her in her own awakening?  She is momentarily attracted to Jack, but Calvin calls her.  Is he the negative animus figure, the representative of masculine suppression of the feminine in this era?  There is a contrast between the stringent society that she is living in and a more free spirited society represented, if only briefly, at this point by Jack.

Later, at dinner, Rose is oppressed by the idle chatter and feels that she is standing at the edge of a great precipice.  She leaves the dinner and rushes to the stern of the ship in tears.  She starts to climb over the railing in order to jump into the sea and kill herself.  If the sea is representative of the unconscious then at this point Rose, who has denied her more unconscious self and had been living in the world of the ego-conscious, is about to be overwhelmed by the unconscious and to be drawn into it to her death.  This would appear to be a fate of someone whose life is not in balance and who cannot cope with the power of the unconscious.

She had run past Jack who had been sleeping on a chair on the deck - the animus who had been "asleep "in her psyche and to date had not been operating to balance the oppression of the conscious world.  Her running and obvious extreme upset has awakened him.  He comes up behind her and tells her not to jump.

Rose is not yet ready to accept Jack's advice and retains the trappings of her social upbringing, even in this time of great stress.  She rebukes him for presuming to challenge her, even though she is so desperate.  She changes her mind quickly once he reasons with her using logic such as the temperature of the sea and its impact on her if she were to jump.

They introduce each other.  He offers his hand and she grabs it, but she slips and almost falls.  He grabs her tighter and pulls her onto the deck where they fall in a heap.  Crew arrives attracted by her screams, as she is scared that she might fall into the sea during the rescue by Jack.  The crew think that Jack has assaulted Rose and grab him.  Calvin arrives and he also accuses Jack.  But Rose comes to Jack's rescue saying that she had slipped and Jack saved her.  The comment was made that one should not mix women and machinery.  Calvin begins to pay Jack off with 20 pounds to which Rose asks sarcastically, "Is that the going rate for saving the woman you love?"  Instead, Jack is thanked by Calvin and is invited to dinner the next night.  Calvin's Minder, Spencer Lovejoy, who is protecting the status quo, suspects that there is more to what happened.

Later, Calvin presents Rose with a beautiful necklace containing a large blue diamond.  It was the Coeur de la Mer.  The giving of a significant material gift is the accepted means Calvin knows to impress her.  It is nevertheless superb and she accepts it gracefully.

Rose and Jack's relationship continues to blossom.  She invites him to the on the Promenade deck to thank him for saving her.  Is this the animus coming to the conscious?  She pours out her heart to him commenting that she sees inertia in her life and it amounting to nothing.  For example, there are 500 invitees to her wedding but she feels like she is standing in the middle of a crowded room screaming and no one looks up.

At this point Rose notices Jack's art in his sketchbook and realises that he is very talented.  She sees his drawing of a naked woman and says he sees people.  His response is that he sees her.  They connect even deeper and probably for the first time, Rose allows herself to see the beauty of the female form.

While they are together on the deck, Jack teaches Rose to spit just as her mother, Ruth Dewitt Bukater, comes past with a group of women.  Jack is introduced and Rose's mother looks at him as if he was an insect, a dangerous insect to be squashed.  Insects are symbols of transcendence and it is as if Rose's mother suspects Jack's power to transform Rose to a person that the mother does not want her to be.  If Rose does not marry Calvin there will be no wealthy alliance.

Molly, the go-between the upper and lower classes, fits Jack out for dinner with a dinner suit she had bought to take home for her son.  Jack arrives at dinner with a persona of respectability just like the First Class passengers.  He watches and copies the stance of other men, doing it so well that Rose's mother and Calvin walk past him and do not recognise him.  Once they do meet up with him and Rose, Calvin comments that Jack almost looks like a gentleman.

Of course people from all levels of society have a shadow side and Rose points out to Jack the dark side of the people assembled, such as the rich old man with his child bride, the underwear seller and his mistress.

During the dinner Ruth tries to humiliate Jack but he rises to the occasion, assisted by the ever-attentive Molly.  She also assists him with the appropriate cutlery to use.  There is an interesting repartee between Jack and Calvin.  Jack says he lives on luck while Calvin retorts that a real man makes his own luck and has control over his environment.  Jack describes the free spirit, saying that we should take life as it comes to you.  This is yet another statement of the tension between the controlled and free-spirited worlds.

The men go off for a brandy but Jack invites Rose below decks to a party, which she accepts.  It is a huge contrast to her usual environment and dancing is lively and free.  Back in the upper decks men are having their cigars and brandy.  The Minder comes down to the lower decks looking for Rose and sees her dancing with Jack and enjoying herself.  He reports this to Calvin.

The next morning Calvin attacks Rose at breakfast when she stands up to him and says that she is not a foreman at one of his mills.  He says that as his wife he will not have her dishonour him in this way.  Once more the suppression of the feminine is illustrated.

In the next scene Rose's mother, Ruth, helps her to dress by doing up her corset and tells Rose that she is not to see the boy again.  Rose retorts that she will do as she pleases.  Ruth then explains to Rose that their situation is precarious and that they need the money they would have once she is married to Calvin who Ruth sees as a fine man.  She asks why Rose is so selfish, for if she does not secure their financial future through marriage, Ruth would have to be a seamstress.  "We are women, our choices are never easy", says Ruth as she tightens the corset.

The corset scene is a key scene of the film, perhaps a statement of the theme of the film.  It is a time of lack of freedom, or of security for women. They are chattels of men and Rose discovers that she is also her mother's superannuation policy.  But Ruth is also caught in the repressed and controlled values of the masculine society.  She and other women like her have had the life force driven out of them.

They are but shells of women with no inner substance.  The mother is terrified she will have to become a seamstress if Rose does not marry well.  We may ask what is wrong with such work, but for her it is total failure.  She blames her late husband, a gambler - is she negative animus driven and totally out of touch with her own feminine? 

The act of tightening the corset is symbolic of the need to repress the spirit and freedom of the young girl.  She must join the world of the adult female in upper class society and restrict her emotions for the good of her well being and security.  We might reflect back to the earlier breakfast scene when Calvin literally stated to Rose that she is "owned" by him and she will do as she is told and not go her own way.

At a Sunday service in First Class with a prophetic hymn, Perils of the Sea, Jack is refused permission to enter.  Church services are only for the upper classes, and Mr Lovejoy instructs the crew to stop him.

We are now introduced to the beginning of the peril.  There is a message that icebergs are ahead.  The Captain says, "No need to worry, we are speeding up".  There is no concern but rather an attitude of complacency and superiority of man and machine over nature, even to the extent of there being insufficient lifeboats.  Rose asks the architect why there are only enough lifeboats for half the passengers, to which he responds that he wanted more but he was overruled - they would make the decks look too cluttered.  The masculine superiority is such that appearance is more important than safety - SOS- style over substance.

Then Jack appears - disguised in a coat he took from the deck -and he pleas to Rose - "They have you trapped, you'll die without your freedom".  She says, "It is not up to you to save me Jack".  He says, "Only you can do that".  At this point Rose is fluctuating between complying with the social mores and taking her own freedom.  She is later at afternoon tea and she observes a child who is overdressed in clothes representing the fashion of the day, and who is perfect in her manners and behaviour.  Rose is reflecting on her future plight if she stays in her current circumstances.

We then see Jack at the bow of ship and Rose appears behind him and comes up to him saying that she has changed her mind.  He invites her to step up onto the railing of the bow of the ship and to close her eyes.  She does so, trusting him.  He puts her arms out wide and then she opens her eyes.  She says that the experience feels like she is flying.  He gives her a sense of freedom and strength.

I have experienced a similar exercise called the Camera Exercise where someone leads you with closed eyes  to a position and then gives you a signal to open your eyes.  The perceptual experience is quite profound as you are focussed entirely on what you see immediately.  I can imagine for Rose, the experience would be reinforcing of her desire to be free.  On opening her eyes, she is in front of the ship with nothing between her and the sea to the distant horizon.  It would give her an immense sense of openness and freedom.

The first part of the film ends there having taken us through Rose's movement from a woman who felt totally restricted by the requirements of society to someone who has broken through these restrictions and is about to gain her own sense of freedom.  She has gained inner strength ably assisted by the young man from the lower decks, as I see it, an animus figure.

The second part of the film reinforces Nature's power over Man and reminds us that we must respect Nature and live in harmony with it.  It is the chaotic part of the film as the Titanic begins its inevitable journey to the bottom of the sea.  It illustrates how people cope, or fail to cope, in tragic and disastrous circumstances.  It shows how such situations can bring out the best and the worst in people. 

In terms of the transformation story of Rose, the second half of the film is a series of trials for her.  These trials are to test her developing independence of mind and her willingness to maintain her resolve to put the trappings of society behind her and to continue to be a free woman, with its own restrictions and difficulties.

We begin the second part with a scene in Rose's suite on the Promenade Deck.  She is showing Jack her paintings and then takes the necklace out of the safe and asks Jack to draw her only wearing the diamond.  H agrees to do so and this becomes the most erotic moment of her life so far.

Meanwhile, on the ship's bridge the crew comment that they have never seen such a flat calm.  It is like a millpond - it will make icebergs hard to see with no breaking water at the base.  This signifies a metaphor in terms of the society of the time - on the surface is calmness and serenity but underneath emotions and feelings are bubbling and sizzling away.

Rose's absence is of concern to Calvin and ever watchful and aware of danger, the Minder goes looking for her.  He finds her with Jack and chases them around the ship, including to the engine room and to the storage area.  They evade him and make love in one of the cars.  They went to the stars.  Rose is burning her bridges, thumbing her nose at the establishment.  They make a total connection, even though the establishment is hell bent against it and has done everything possible to prevent it.

Back in their room, Calvin finds the picture of Rose in the safe with a note, which has written on it - "Darling you can now keep us both locked in your safe".

We then see Rose and Jack on the deck.  Rose says she is getting off the boat with him.  She has left the establishment and has taken her destiny in her hands.

At this point the iceberg is sighted.  Crew is running around on the bridge and a cup of tea is knocked over - is this a sign of the imminent disturbance of the order of the society of the times?  There are wider implications in the sinking of the Titanic in terms of the challenge to British establishment.  There are a series of scenes showing the iceberg looming and subsequent damage to the ship after hitting it.

Rose and Jack return to the suite to warn her mother and Calvin of danger but Calvin is enraged with jealousy and is not interested in the immediate danger to him.  Mr Lovejoy plants the necklace in the coat pocket that Jack is wearing and then it is discovered.  Jack is arrested and taken away, pleading with Rose not to believe them as it was a plant - "You know me, Rose", he calls out as he is led away.  Calvin slaps Rose and calls her a slut.  This is the first test on Rose.

Mr Andrews, the ship builder, explains to the captain that the ship will sink as five bulkheads were damaged.  The maximum that can be damaged for the ship to remain afloat is four.  The ship will sink in one, maybe two, hours - this statement is met with disbelief.

No one is aware of the danger yet - there is a false sense of security.  Mr Andrews tells Rose that the ship will sink and reminds her about the number of lifeboats - "Get to a boat and don't wait".  Jack is chained below decks and Mr Lovejoy keeps a gun on him.

The Captain instructs SOS messages to be sent.  The closest ship is four hours away - no hope.

On the lower decks the gates are locked as the evacuation of the ship is done by Class structure.  The crew starts to lower women and children in the boats, but the boats are only half filled.  Ruth Dewitt Bukater gets in a boat, but Rose chooses not to.  Calvin tries to make her but she retorts that she would rather be a gutter rat's whore than his wife.

Rose goes looking for Jack and is helped by the architect to locate him below decks.  Her support for Jack is tested but she finds him in a half-submerged room handcuffed to a pipe.  I see this as a symbol of the means by which the establishment tries to control him and keep him down, as he is a wild card.  Symbolically, I see it as Rose descending into her unconscious in order to rescue her animus figure.  She has begun to find her own inner strength but more is required of her in order to have long lasting connection to her animus.

A series of tests illustrates Rose's commitment to this inner strength, symbolised by her desire and attempts to rescue Jack from his cell in the lower decks.  She goes for help, is unsuccessful, but finds an axe from a fire hose which, with Jack's guidance, she uses to break the chain of the handcuffs on Jack's wrists.  They escape from the lower deck and with great difficulty make their way to the upper decks.  The handcuffs are a metaphor of the suppression of the free spirit in women, men, society and culture of the day..

Lifeboats are still only being half-filled so as not to upset the First Class ladies.  Meanwhile, Third Class passengers remain locked in below decks.  Chaos and confusion reign everywhere, but seemingly oblivious to the imminent danger to all, Calvin gets money out of his safe to bribe the crew for a seat on a lifeboat.  The Minder has his gun and is still in hot pursuit of Jack.

Up on deck, the band plays Orpheus.  Calvin arrives and Rose says she is not going but staying with Jack.  Calvin puts his coat (with the diamond in the pocket) around Rose and with the combined efforts of Calvin and Jack, she is convinced to get into the lifeboat.

At this point Calvin tells Jack he has bribed an officer and is getting on a boat on the other side of the deck - he says to Jack that he always wins.  That is, the ruling elite has the final say.  The superiority of the ruling classes has been restored even in this very difficult situation.  Jack is the one who has lost out to Calvin, who now has Rose in a boat and safe.  He will bribe his way onto a boat while Jack will be left to die.

However, as the lifeboat is lowered down the side of the Titanic, Rose she looks up at Jack and jumps off at the deck below.  They run to meet each other and it is as if she has once again passed a test of her new found freedom and personal integrity.  She was almost brought back into the fold of the establishment but now stays with Jack, saying, "If you jump I jump, Jack". 

Calvin is enraged and as a last ditch grabs the Minder's gun and chases them.  They manage to escape him by going back down through the water filled decks.  Calvin's bullets run out and he leaves them, defeated and now realising that he left the diamond in the coat he gave Rose.  He has lost on many counts.

Rose and Jack are trapped downstairs again but fight their way back.  Is this another emergence into the unconscious and another test of Rose's determination to stay with her positive animus in the form of Jack? 

Calvin locates the officer he has bribed for a seat on a lifeboat, but the officer throws the bribe back at Calvin, and shoots himself.  But Calvin is not yet defeated and using a lost child as a subterfuge, boards another lifeboat.  He has become instinctual and cowardly, determined to survive no matter what the cost.

Turmoil reigns.  As Rose runs through the sinking ship, she sees the architect who apologises for not building her a stronger ship.  He gives her his life jacket, as he knows that he will not need it.

The Captain locks himself in the bridge and drowns when the sea surrounds it and the windows explode around him.  The band plays "Nearer my God to Thee".  Calvin continues to reinforce his cowardice by pushing people off the lifeboat.  Jack and Rose make their way to the highest point at the rear of the ship - back to where they first met.

People are running everywhere and falling into the water.  A Priest has a group gathered around him and he says that the former world has passed away -reflecting the symbolism of the supposed might of this ship and the Industrial Age.  The ship breaks in two and the rear drops down to the water, before being pulled back up into a steep descent.

Jack tells Rose how to survive the pull under water and to hold his hand and don't let go.  "We are going to make it Rose, trust me".  "I trust you", Rose replies.  She does let go and loses him in the turmoil, but they find each other again amongst the debris in the water.  They swim to a piece of flotsam but only Rose can get on while Jack hangs on to it in the water.

There is an eerie silence and the survivors in the lifeboats can hear people in the water calling out.  But they won't go back, even though they know that their own husbands may be alive and calling them.  What more can be expected of these women who have no inner sense of self but are just shells of themselves?  Molly Brown is upset and cannot understand the women.  She pleads with them but she is threatened with being shot by the crewman if she does not sit down.  Eventually, one boat is organised by an officer to go back to look for survivors.

Rose and Jack wait in the water along with other survivors.  Jack says the boats will come back.  Rose says goodbye to him but Jack tells her not to give up or say goodbye and that she shall have lots of babies and live a long life.  She won't die.  He says meeting her was the best thing that ever happened to him.  She must promise she will survive, not to give up no matter what happens.  "Promise now, Rose, never let go".  Rose replies, "I'll never let go Jack, I'll never let go.

Most people are dead.  Rose lies on the flotsam and Jack is in the water holding her hand but he is now dead.  The boat comes near but goes past.  "Come back", she calls weakly.  She lets go of Jack's dead grip, saying, "I'll never let go, I promise". He sinks into the depths of the water.  She grabs a whistle from a nearby corpse, blows it with all of her might, and is saved.

Rose might have let go of the dead body of Jack, but she does not let go of his spirit.  She is transformed and from this point on calls herself, Rose Dawson.  It is as if Jack as animus has integrated into her unconscious self, where he will remain for the rest of her life.

Only 700 of the 2200 passengers on the Titanic survived.  They had 'nothing to do but wait - waiting to die, to live, for an absolution that would never come'.

We next see Rose on a lower deck of a rescue ship,.  Calvin is also on the ship and he looks for her, but she hides from him.  He later married someone else and also inherited his millions.  He lost it all in the financial crash of 1929 and put a pistol in his mouth and killed himself.  He was not able to nurture himself outside the external trappings of wealth and prestige.

Finally Rose sees the Statue of Liberty as she arrives in America.  The statue is a strong symbol of the free world and of the freedom of women.

There is no record of Jack ever being on the Titanic and he was now only in Rose's memory.  She commented that he saved her in every way a person can be saved.  She didn't talk of him for 84 years.

Meanwhile, back in the present and on the search boat, the elderly Rose walks to the stern of the boat and climbs the rail.  She opens her hand to reveal the diamond, and drops it into the water.  She returns to her cabin where she dies peacefully.

The final scene shows Rose returning to the shipwreck underwater and meeting up with Jack in the ballroom, and he holds her hand.  She is in white and they kiss.  The crew and passengers who have drowned surround them, clapping and cheering.  This is the final reconciliation of the Ego and the Self moving to the Soul and to a state of being One With God.

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This article was first published in the Jung Society Newsletter of Jan-June 2002.

* Ross White is a Psychologist with a strong interest in Jungian Psychology. 
He has been practising Psychology in the Canberra and surrounding districts
for close to a quarter of a century, and is a Life Member of the Canberra Jung Society.

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