Our Hearts Will Go On: An Application of Karl Marx’s Theory of Alienation in James Cameron’s Titanic Essay
Our Hearts Will Go On: An Application of Karl Marx’s Theory of Alienation in James Cameron’s Titanic
Titanic, released in 1997 and considered to be the biggest film ever produced and viewed in history, is a tale of romance and disparity of social class against the backdrop of one of the world’s biggest maritime disasters. Heralded by Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet as the ill-fated lovers Jack and Rose, Titanic is a clear example of Marx’s Theory of Alienation.
Typically Marx, this theory refers to the effects of capitalism on the harmonious relationship of things that connect or are deemed to be together, specifically pointing to the alienation of humans from their nature, or the inadequate provision for human needs (Garcia, 2004). In Titanic, it is the dissonance between the respective economic statuses of Jack and Rose that alienates each from himself or herself, and from each other (Marx, as cited in Cox, 1998).
Jack, the young Irish man who manages to claim a ticket on board the great ship out of sheer luck, sees the destination, America, as the solution to his desolate life.
Born into the proletariat class, Jack’s talent as an artist is never adequately fulfilled; people of his kind are always expected to perform manual labor, and not skills attributed to intelligence—validating an aspect of alienation given by Marx (as cited in Bramann, 2008). On the other hand, Rose is an American ingenue who had been promised in marriage to a wealthy man, and her own preferences according to her needs fail to be addressed. According to Marx (as cited in Cox, 1998), the difference of alienation in the propertied class and the proletariat lies in the perception of estrangement; in Rose’s case, her impending marriage to a man she has no affection for will ultimately bring her to a higher level of comfort and success—qualities that are desired and aspired for by her kind. A validation of this argument is the attitude conveyed by her mother, whose knowledge of Rose’s discomfort is often dismissed, only to claim the benefits of the union. The propertied class, in this example, finds strength in the self-estrangement afforded by alienation, for it at once empowers their status and establishes an ideal of human existence. Estrangement, as seen through the experience of the proletarian Jack, renders a person powerless and directed towards an inhuman existence. Jack’s lack of choices, because of the cold reception to his artistic abilities, forces him to view the Titanic as a symbol of hope, literally a means to raise him from the gutters life had given him.
Naturally, the inevitable attraction between Jack and Rose is considered taboo; the fact that Jack is given a jacket just to dine in the ballroom emphasizes the construct created by the capitalist society, in which certain rules and social traditions are imposed on everyone regardless of class. The mere act of eating, which is a normal human function to answer a need, is transformed into a performance acted out within the space defined by the bourgeois. That the jacket, later containing the precious necklace that represents property and class, is used as an instrument to finally accuse Jack of the stereotype alluded to him provides the consistency of estrangement and powerlessness experienced by the proletariat.
On a bigger scale, the film provides more examples to confirm the alienation within the working class, as seen primarily in the assignment of location according to economic status. The rich, who can afford the costs, are given the prime spots on the upper levels of the ship, complete with the luxury of space and condition. The working class, on the other hand, is herded by the hundreds into the bowels of the vessel, packing families of six into tiny cabins and left to fend for themselves. This, once more, is alienation in action—the proletariat has to make do with whatever has been conceptualized and deemed proper by the capitalists, based on the economic capacities they themselves had assigned to further the distance between classes. Another example can be observed in the dining areas allocated for the two disparate classes, with the rich given a huge venue for never-ending feasts and consumption of pricey wines amidst the apparently superficial talk. The steerage occupants were to be found in a room too small to accommodate the whole number, yet they managed to turn the deprivation into moments of celebration. In other scenes, the obvious disgust of Rose’s mother towards Jack is seen early on as she happens upon him with Rose, as he appears wearing what could only be viewed by the bourgeois as beggar’s clothes. Immediately, Rose’s mother gives her final judgment of Jack’s character solely based on appearance, and later through his uneducated language. Seeing him in the dining hall at a later time, dressed according to the norms of her own social class, Rose’s mother expresses silent contempt for jack’s ability to conform to their standards. Once again, the alienation is attempted, yet surpassed by the intended subject.
The theory can also be applied in the behavior adopted by the ship’s crew, who are also of the proletariat—yet functioning as representatives of the bourgeois culture. This coincides with another of Marx’s aspects of alienation, wherein the worker or laborer is alienated from his own product because it is owned or paid for by another (Cox, 1998). Taking into consideration their knowledge of the conditions given to the poorer passengers, the crew had to shift their own reality to measure up to their roles as workers on the ship, dependent upon the salaries given them by the capitalist owners and guests. Even the man who had arrested Jack had acted only on two things: the specific instructions of Rose’s fiance, and his own beliefs in social segregation gleaned through experience. This echoes yet one more aspect defined by Marx, in which the proletariat’s lack of control over their own economics results in indifference or even hostility among themselves (as cited in Bramann, 2008). The later scene showing one of the film’s most controversial portrayals depicted First Officer Murdoch accidentally killing a passenger. Because this takes place during the confusion leading to the sinking, the people in the area were mostly working class, and Murdoch’s suicide after the shooting may refer to his own guilt at not being able to provide safety for the people in steerage. This could be correlated to Melvin Seaman’s theory (Garcia, 2004), in which Murdoch’s feeling of powerlessness, considering his position and role in the ship’s organization, became the reason for alienation.
The final segment of the film, the grandest re-enactment of the actual submerging of the ship, begins with the rush to board the few safety boats available. This may be discussed as a literal example of alienation, based on the human instinct for survival. The rich passengers’ access to the boats gives them at least a percentage of assurance that they would survive, thereby excluding the people levels below of their own chances. Rose’s mother even demanded that her boat be removed of extra people, protecting her own interests without any regard for others. Had the steerage passengers’ economic capabilities allowed them to occupy the higher levels of the ship, they would have been first on the safety boats. Hence, survival in this case is also equated with one’s wealth or productivity, since those with less are subject to nothing except fate. A moving scene showing a father and his young daughters shows the powerlessness of the proletariat, as they decided to stay together in their room for they knew they had no chances to survive.
The film, while built around the fictional love story of Jack and Rose, is a real-life account of the social structure that existed within the Titanic environment. From the outset, the ship’s design was purposely created to impose the alienation against the working class, and the ensuing activities and events correctly confirmed the objectives set.
Bramann, Jorn (2008). “Marx: Capitalism and Alienation”. Frostburg State University
website, accessed on 03 September 2008 at
Garcia, Lisette (2004). “The Evolution of Work”. June 29, 2004.
Cox, Judy (1998). “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation”. International
Socialism, Issue 79.