Titanic: One Interpretation

by KE Monahan Huntley

This historical event continues to compel the imagination and provide material for documentaries and fictional accounts. The latest film offering, hyperbolic hype notwithstanding, engages its audience on many levels--James Cameron's well-documented meticulous attention to detail, the modern day sequences depicting actual footage of the Titanic, the charming love affair, marked with romantic comedic moments, between heroic Jack Dawson (heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (winsome Kate Winslet), a supporting cast comprised of the fabulous, famous rich and the assorted accented lower classes.

Visuals that are particularly breathtaking allow the audience to fully contemplate the tragedy of Titanic, for example, the lifeless bodies buoyantly floating in the still black ocean. Obvious images (the hand print smacked up on the rear window of the Renault touring car) and uncharacteristic actions (Rose flipping off Cal) trip up the storytelling. Winslet is captivating throughout, and unfortunately, DiCaprio's poetic potential is wasted on his vagabond character, invigorated only when he appropriates his Romeo intensity.

The Dramatica perspective of Titanic reveals an underlying story structure that eerily mirrors that of the ship's. It appears seaworthy--it is constructed of the four throughlines required for a Grand Argument Story--but it does not completely hold together. What follows are two possible storyforms, or blueprints, for Titanic. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but both point out flaws in Titanic's structural integrity.

Titanic Storyform #1: Problematic Endeavors and Activities

For this storyform, the objective story throughline is physics, the endeavor of Titanic's maiden voyage. The story goal is doing; all are concerned with the Titanic's performance. Problems occur because of the high expectations set forth for the ship, principally that it is unsinkable, and are not resolved because possible solutions that are determined are not, for a variety of reasons, implemented. The thematic argument of experience versus skill is illustrated as the ship's captain ignores his extensive practical knowledge to comply with the director of the White Star Line's subtle command to use full power--accelerating the disaster--compared to the skills (or lack thereof) of the crew in grappling with 2200 passengers facing certain death.

Actions drive decisions in this story, exemplified by the ship's collision with the iceberg, and from that point on, the Titanic fails to perform as originally presumed. Although how much time it will take to submerge is discussed, the only option the Titanic has is to sink or to sail.

Rose is the main character. With ladylike demeanor, Rose is a doer who confronts difficulties directly. She shares the objective story problem of living up to expectations, crystallized in the scene in which her mother, Ruth DeWitt Bukater, reminds her of the family's financial circumstances that compel her to marry Cal Hockley. When at any point she stops trying to fulfill expectations, she is directly threatened. The thematic issue of threat versus security is examined through Rose, and it is her unique ability of security--the key she holds to solving the objective and relationship story problems--that fails her and the objective story. Recall her discussion with the Titanic's architect when she asks about the limited number of lifeboats. Rose's female mental sex intuits the tragic consequences of an accident. Despite Rose's loss of her first love, she is at the end at peace, indicating a story judgment of good. She has relinquished her place in society, and fulfilled her desire to experience new life.

The relationship story, the romance between Rose and Jack, is recounted in the psychology domain, where different ways of thinking are delineated. The concern is being, the star crossed lovers' courtship set against the fleeting nature of the shipboard romance. They suffer from the expectation that the "splendid" society princess will disassociate herself from the pauper, however, more relationship storytelling attention is given to their symptom of trust and response of test. Ability versus desire is a balanced thematic exploration--Rose is highly motivated to change her situation and Jack is particularly well suited to help her achieve this end.

The fixed attitudes regarding class distinctions are imposed on Jack Dawson in his influence character throughline. His concern of preconscious is evidenced in the reflexive actions he takes and instinctual responses he makes to any given situation, as seen when he dines with Cal and company. His symptom of accurate, defined in this case as what is allowed or tolerated, parallels the objective story symptom of accurate and subsequent response of non-accurate. Jack is steadfastly his own man. His unique ability of confidence effectively compels Rose to confront her internal distress resulting in her fundamental change.

Because the story structure of Titanic is tenuous, it can be viewed from another Dramatica perspective. In this next storyform, the character and plot dynamics remain the same, except for the character dynamic of growth. Rose must start to venture out on her own, apart from the societal restrictions imposed upon her.

Titanic Storyform #2: Problematic Mix of Fixed Attitudes

In this storyform, the objective story throughline probes fixed mindsets as the arena of conflict. This is evidenced in everything from the Titanic's purported unsinkability, to the snobbery of the upper classes and White Star staff, to the belief that wealthy passengers, especially women and children, have more rights to seats in the lifeboats than lower class passengers. Rose and Cal's impending wedding is one of the story's ongoing examples of this clash in attitudes (women as people v. women as property), and the preconscious responses that arise from this difference in opinions. Ruth is determined to see the wedding through. When she believes Rose is deviating from this course of action, her immediate response is to remind her daughter of their dire financial straits--she resolutely laces up Rose's corset, constricting her literally and figuratively. Observing Cal's patronization of Rose, Molly Brown, not one to politely keep her own counsel, wastes no time speaking her mind. Cal's reflexive responses are violent, he lashes out at Rose for cavorting with the lower classes; when he discovers how far she has taken her relationship with Jack, he strikes her face. Value versus worth is the thematic conflict illustrated by the luxurious ocean liner that ultimately proves to be unseaworthy. If the fact that the Titanic's seaworthiness was unproven had been taken into account prior to its first ocean voyage, lives may not have been lost.

Rose represents the physics domain--her attentions are on doing. A small but telling scene illustrates this concern as she observes a little girl, her mother admonishing the young lady in training's performance at the tea table. This reflection of her own existence causes Rose to focus on the hunch(mc symptom) her life is terribly wrong, and provides the impetus to take the direction of devising a theory(mc response) in which to cope or change. What has already been proven as her future way of life--the endless repetition of high society rituals--is problematic for Rose. Her solution lies in the untried, as in the spirit of flying machines.

The relationship story throughline offers the most support for this storyform. The domain is universe--the situation of a first class falling in love with steerage. The progress of their romance is heavily monitored by Ruth, Cal, and his menacing henchman. Rose and Jack play out the thematic conflict of the reality of their differerent class levels (fact), of which they remain unmindful, versus the fantasy life they fabricate for the future--the benchmark by which they measure how their relationship is developing. The symptom of non-accurate and response of accurate is critical throughout the relationship story, beginning with Jack coaxing Rose off the railing, then hoisting her up after she inadvertently slips overboard. Later, Jack is falsely arrested and shackled. Rose takes an ax to his handcuffs--and after two off the mark practice attempts--the whack is dead on. With love and life at stake, there is no margin for error.

The weakest area of this storyform for Titanic is the influence character throughline. Jack's domain is psychology--he represents a different way of thinking; a different way of life. Ruth exposes his concern of being, when she confronts him at the dinner table. Undaunted, he regales the party with his resume of odd and varied jobs, entertaining all in the company but Cal and Ruth. They do not tolerate the penniless young man without social standing, and they are accurate (the problem that serves as his personal drive) in their assessment of his influence on Rose--which ties into the relationship story catalyst of threat.


Up on screen Titanic is spectacular. Its underlying story structure, however, like the ship itself is not infallible. Appreciations in the first storyform such as the main character's symptom of theory and response of hunch and the influence character's problem of result and solution of process, are not easily illustrated. In the second storyform, objective story catalyst of worry, and influence character critical flaw of skill do not seem to fit. Furthermore, Cameron's storytelling does not invite in-depth analysis and the flat dialogue offers little to quote from, except perhaps, "Make every day count"--advice I take to heart as I determine this review is at "The End."

About the Author

KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.

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