It took Daniel Mendelsohn’s discursive and insightful essay on the enduring appeal of the Titanic story for me to realize that it wasn’t my raging teenage hormones that drew me back to the Riviera movie theater over and over again (even if tickets were just $3.75). Rather, it was my inner feminist.
Mendelsohn elucidates in The New Yorker:
Cameron gave his film a feminist rather than a patriotic spin. Rose, of a “good” but impoverished Main Line family, is being married off to the loathsome Cal Hockley, who seals their engagement with the gift of a blue diamond that had belonged to Louis XVI. (“We are royalty,” he smugly tells her as he drapes the giant rock around her neck.) “It’s so unfair,” she sighs during a conversation with her odiously snobbish mother, who, in the same scene, is lacing Rose tightly into a corset. “Of course it’s unfair,” the mother retorts. “We’re women.” Small wonder that nearly half the female viewers under twenty-five who saw the movie went to see it a second time within two months of its release, and that three-quarters of those said that they’d see it again.
Yes, that was me. Except worse; and more so. It also explains, at least in part, why it was worth director James Cameron spending an additional $17 million to transpose the film into 3-D.
Cameron’s picture is about breaking the bonds of family, a point made by means of a clever contrast between its two leading ladies—Rose and the Titanic. At the start of the movie, the ship speeds confidently forward while Rose is described as being “trapped” and unable to “break free” (that corset, that mother); by the end, the ship is immobilized, while the girl strikes off on her own, literally and figuratively. She has to abandon the piece of panelling she’s climbed onto—and tearfully let go of Jack (now a frozen corpse), which she’d promised never to do—in order to swim for help.
Rose, in other words, saves herself; in the end the Titanic is the sacrifice, the price that must be paid for Rose’s rebirth as a girl who acts by and for herself.
Comparing the Titanic story with classic Greek tragedy, Mendelsohn identifies two powerful archetypes that keep luring audiences back to the ill-fated tale.
...the most obvious thing about the Titanic’s story: it uncannily replicates the structure and the themes of our most fundamental myths and oldest tragedies. Like Iphigenia, the Titanic is a beautiful “maiden” sacrificed to the agendas of greedy men eager to set sail; the forty-six-thousand-ton liner is just the latest in a long line of lovely girl victims, an archetype of vulnerable femininity that stands at the core of the Western literary tradition.
But the Titanic embodies another strain of tragedy. This is the drama of a flawed and self-destructive hero, a protagonist of great achievements and overweening presumption. The ship starts out like Oedipus: admired, idolized, hailed as different, special, exalted. Sophocles’ play derives its horrible excitement from a relentless exposition of its protagonist’s fall from grace—and from the fact that his confidence and his talents are what prevented him from seeing the looming disaster. Cameron understood this… The director knew that there is an ancient theatrical pleasure, not totally free of Schadenfreude, in watching something beautiful fall apart.
All this is why we keep watching Cameron’s movie, and why we can’t stop thinking about the Titanic. The tale irresistibly conflates two of the oldest archetypes in literature.