[Image source: http://www.sodahead.com/]
Titanic truly is the greatest movie of our times: the beauty of the ship breaking the water apart and cruising the sea, the grandiose of the interior, the thrill in the direction, the embodiment of Jack Dawson in Leonardo DiCaprio, the people falling off the ship, the ship itself standing vertically about to sink in the water and the great love story of Rose and Jack are things that are hard to replicate even now, more than fifteen years later. Yet one can’t help but think why Jack had to die, for Rose had known him less than four days, and there was great scope to portray the Happily Ever After that goes down so well. I battled with this ending for years before I realized that it was indeed a better decision to let Jack die primarily for two reasons:
Rose’s core struggle as a character was her desire for freedom, which she would never have gotten had Jack been allowed to live, and secondly, Rose, as an aristocrat who had grown up in the lap of wealth would not have been able to adjust to Jack’s ways of living.
Rose DeWitt Bukater, seventeen years old from Philadelphia, has been engaged to Cal Hockley, son of Pittsburgh steel tycoon Nathan Hockley, to maintain their high society status after Rose’s father died and left them debt-ridden. The first time we see the seventeen year old Rose, she walks in, opulently dressed, as the fiancée of aristocrat Cal Hockley- and as an aristocrat herself. “I don’t see what the fuss is all about,” she comments about the Titanic, walking past the third class passengers queued up for health inspection , leading the trunks and trunks of her luggage, straight to the parlor suites, aboard the Ship of Dreams.
“To me it was a slave ship,” she declares, “taking me back to America in chains. Inside I was screaming,” referring to her engagement to Hockley, articulating the first tenets of her desire for freedom.
One of the first things that we hear from twenty year old Jack Dawson is, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” And indeed, Jack had nothing to lose: once his parents died when he was fifteen, Jack ‘worked from place to place, on tramp steamers and such’ managing to scrape together enough money to secure himself a meal and few blank sheets of paper to maintain his cheery disposition, and his will to take life as it comes. In the spur of the moment, at a lucky hand in poker, Jack along with his friend Fabrizio, wins two tickets on the RMS Titanic which will take him back home to America, as they run to get aboard, contending that they are the ‘luckiest sons of bitches alive’.
Conversely, as Jack jumps the lice inspections that other passengers of his class are subjected to, and gets straight to his third class bunker beds, Rose is busy arranging art of Pablo Picasso who was just ‘Picasso something’ at the time, and quoting Dr. Freud, hearing which Molly Brown addresses Hockley, “She’s a pistol Cal, I hope you can handle her.” We are shown, right from the beginning, that even at seventeen years of age, Rose has a strong voice of her own which will not be silenced.
Rose, forcibly engaged to Hockley, who makes sure that Rose that there is nothing he could not giver her, sought to escape this first class world in which she was unfortunately born. “I saw my whole life as if I already lived it. An endless parade of parties and cotillions, yachts and polo matches..”, the ‘inertia of her life’, thoughts which make her run to the deck and contemplate on whether she should throw herself into the icy waters of the Atlantic.
When Jack goes after a running Rose who is now hanging at the edge of the ship, we know that Rose would never have jumped. Maybe in a few years when she would have been driven crazy enough by Hockley, but not now- here she was just testing her guts. “Don’t presume to tell me what I will or will not do, you don’t know me”, one of the first things Rose says to Jack, reminding him of his class, as he attempts to dissuade her from jumping. She only warms up to him once Jack begins to narrate his story about the time he had gone ice fishing.
That is the point when her fascination with Jack begins- “You are rude and uncouth and presumptuous,” she tells him, a little before she sees his drawings, just a little before she’s intrigued by him because he can do anything and go anywhere he wants- within his limited economic means, of course. He tells her about the one-legged prostitute he meets in Paris, the naked women he draws, the portraits he does at a pier in Santa Monica and the squid boat he worked on in Monterey, as she falls in love with his freedom. “Why can’t I be like you, Jack?” Rose asks him, “just head out for the horizon whenever I feel like it.”
Once again, Rose pauses, thinking, daring, “Say we’ll go to that pier, even if we only talk about it..” she says, waiting out on his response. Jack shrugs like its no big deal, which in all honesty for him, was not-“No we’ll do it,” he says. “We’ll drink cheap beer, we’ll ride on the roller coaster till we throw up. Then we’ll ride horses on the beach, right in the surf”, he proposes, as Rose looks on at him in glee, for Jack promised her what Hockley never could, despite his claim. Restricted and constrained by being cultured into the high society since her birth, Jack lays bare a world in front of her which cannot be bought, a world where one does not need a first class status to live life- the cheap thrills which are more often than not, free. This contrast further acts itself out in the third class party that Rose goes to, ‘below the decks’, the first ‘real party’ that Rose has ever attended.
The next morning, Hockley confronts Rose about her night with Jack, instructing her to never act the same way ever again. “I’m not a foreman in one of your mills that you can command. I’m your fiancée.” Rose demands respect and authority, and in Hockley’s show of anger, she gets the opposite- subdued only for the moment, Rose’s desire to break free is ever so strong.
”I’ve nothing to offer you, I know that” Jack says, but he’s never been more wrong- Jack offers her adventure, and Rose, young, naïve, impulsive jumps at that. In the famous ‘Titanic scene’, Jack gives her a glimpse of the life that she could have with him. It might have been a glimpse, but it was all she needed.
She takes Jack back to her suite, and shows him the Heart of the Ocean- the diamond of Louis the XVIth, bought by Hockleys, inherited by Rose’s fiancée Hockley, and given to Rose as their engagement gift, and is in fact, also the heart of the story. She tells Jack she would like him to draw her wearing only that necklace. The scene particularly becomes the core of the entire story, as not only does it become a turning point in the movie, it is also the very thing that causes Rose to recollect this tale 84 years later.
As Jack draws Rose wearing the Heart of the Ocean, multiple things happen: not only does Rose become one of the subjects of Jack’s drawings, all of whom fascinate Rose, she gets herself immortalized wearing her own slave chain- the Heart of the Ocean, her engagement gift from Hockley. If she was so eager to break away from what confined her, why did she get herself drawn wearing the very emblem of that confinement? “We are royalty, Rose” Hockley had told her, while giving her the necklace- in a way, she immortalized herself as royalty.
Rose’s thirst for adventure and her wonder to escape to far away places is further articulated when in the next scene, Lovejoy, Hockley’s manservant, begins following Rose and Jack. As he walks behind them, Rose grabs Jack’s hand and yells ‘Run!’, in a wannabe police-thief chase. Why does she run? Lovejoy was just a sidekick, he wouldn’t possibly dare to drag her away forcibly, and he had already seen them together and would be reporting that to Hockley- Rose ran for the adventure of it, letting him chase them as they ran up and down the ship.
Additionally, once Rose and jack find the car in the famous scene, Rose sits at the back while Jack sits at the driver’s seat asking her, “Where to, miss?” to which Rose replies, “To the stars.”
The point where all these instances come together to furnish the final argument on why Jack had to die for Rose to be truly free comes once the shipwreck has happened, and Rose is standing on the deck with her mother and Hockley, waiting to get on a lifeboat, while Jack is locked at the bottom of a sinking ship for a crime he didn’t commit. “Will the lifeboats be seated according to class?” her mother asks out loud, turning to Rose and saying, “I hope they’re not too crowded.”
This proves to be the final straw as Rose refuses to get on the lifeboat and moves to rescue Jack. “Where are you going?” Hockley asks in anguish, “To him? To be a whore to a gutter rat?” Without a flinch, Rose answers, “I’d rather be his whore than your wife.”
I’d rather be his whore than your wife- that in itself is symbolic of the freedom Jack offered to Rose, which was only relative, and not absolute, and hence for Rose to be truly free, which I believe to be the core of the story, Jack needed to die. Passed from one man to the next, Rose’s independence would not come about, if Jack hadn’t died.
For if we suppose that Jack had survived, and the two of them reached New York City, harrowed and cold, but alive and intact, it is interesting to imagine what would have been. The appeal of cheap beer and roller coaster rides can only hold out till the day the vomit doesn’t drain every bit of energy out of you, and the hangovers don’t cripple you. Adventure remains adventure only till the time you have a stable centre to return to. Rose, growing up in luxuries and dressed by personal maids, obviously longed for ‘spitting like men’ and going to Paris with Jack, surviving on only ten cents a day, because it was romantic idea, and solely that.
Could Rose possibly know what paucity can truly entail? What would have happened when the seventh night in a row, Rose, along with Jack, would have to sleep under a bridge, on a stomach filled not with the sumptuous first class meals that she was used to, but with only promises of grand adventures. The adventure endures thrill when you are not running for your life, when every other day, you are not on the lookout for a temporary job for a loaf of bread.
This argument has a counter- for even when Jack died and Rose had a chance to return to Hockley, she did not. She still chose to struggle as an actress and start from scratch, refusing to back to her. However, the difference must be noted- if Jack had lived and they had to sleep under bridges and makeshift tents, Rose could have easily grumbled and fumbled and blamed Jack for leading her into a life of poverty. But when Rose refused to be a rich slave and instead chose to be a poor but free worker, she took her fate upon herself and geared herself for the consequences. We can’t speculate how her acting career went, but we do know that she married a certain Calvert and did not too badly for herself.
“I’m a survivor, Rose” Jack tell her, and indeed he is- he would have survived had Rose not been with him at the time that the ship sank. “The ship is going to suck us down,“ he tells her, “Take a deep breath when I say. Kick for the surface and keep kicking. Do not let go off my hand.” But he forgets the primary difference between them- Rose is wearing a life jacket and Jack is not, and when you see the suction created by the sinking of the ship, you realize that it makes a hell of a difference.
While in the water, a jacket-less Jack holds on to Rose, hoping to get back to the surface on the force of her jacket. That doesn’t happen, as he sinks and she rises. Rose cannot sink, for she is wearing the jacket- flailing after drawing air, she looks for him. Jack finds a wooden plank and tells Rose to get on it, realizing that if the both of them try to get on the plank, it sinks. Rose gets the plank, and we see it in the briefest of looks, in the briefest nod of resignation, of ‘if this is how it must be’, Jack proves to be more of a gentleman than the entire first class put together.
Jack, white and hypothermic and drenched in freezing water, reassures Rose that the boats would come back and that she needs to hold on just a little bit longer, “You must do me this honor,” he asks of her, “You must promise me you’ll survive. You’ll never let go”, asserting that never letting go implied precisely the opposite- for Rose to survive, she had to let go off Jack. Similarly, to be truly free, to truly be able to gain her independence, it was essential for Jack to not weigh her down.
Titanic was best left at this, as an unfulfilled love story, as is said in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, only unfulfilled love is romantic. “He saved me in all the ways that a person can be saved,” an old Rose recounted 84 years later. If Jack survived, who is to say the epic nature of the story would have survived- maybe it turned out that perhaps Rose did not find Jack’s rootless existence that charming. Throughout the movie, we see Jack leading Rose out of tricky situations which a courageous Rose managed quite effectively but at the end of the day, courage is one thing and slick is another.
How would Rose have ever found her own way if she always lived in Jack’s shadow?