Growing up, I had nightmares about being in a small room on a boat, slowly filling up with water, with no way to escape. The room was only dimly lit, so I couldn’t tell clearly what was happening but I knew that the water would keep rising and there was nothing I could do about it. Thankfully, I always woke up before it got to that point. I don’t know why this particular scene carved itself a firm spot within my imagination from such a young age (let’s be honest, James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster probably had something to do with it). Whilst for me it was just a dream, many actually lived through this, aboard the famed ocean-liner, the Titanic. I am far from the only one who remains captivated with the ship, now over a century old. But what is it about the ship that continues to fascinate?
Since the sinking of the RMS cruise ship on 15 April 1912, the Titanic has continued to capture our collective imagination – evoking images of grandiosity and ambition, alongside suffering and destruction. Scale-wise, the incident is significant but not astronomical – estimates for casualties vary from 1,490 to 1,632. Conceivably, the sinking could have been overshadowed by World War One, which erupted only two years later – devastating the world and killing approximately 17 million people. But it hasn’t been – we still remember the Titanic, which has arguably gained iconic status.
The historical dent the great ship’s sinking has made is demonstrated through the myriad representations of the event. Starting almost instantly with Saved From The Titanic, released a mere month after the disaster, there has never been a shortage of depiction or discussion about the ship. But with every film, story, interview or artefact, what is it that we are really engaging with? Sure, we love to swoon over Leo but how are we collectively engaging with the tragedy? Are we commemorating the lives lost or imagining ourselves aboard? What are the ideas buried amongst the disintegrating bulkheads of the ship?
The values and structure of fin-de-siècle society – classism, racism, sexism
One idea that is regularly tied with the Titanic is that of la belle époque society – replete with strict decorum, rigid gender roles and an entrenched class system, which were manifested to perfection aboard the Titanic. In his book The Titanic, Michael Davie suggests that the overt class structure is central to the Titanic’s ability to fascinate – Davie describes the ship as a “floating microcosm of society”, showing “social inequality at its most extreme and… most vertical, with… the richest visibly on top and the poorest visibly at the bottom”. The sinking showed just how real the implications of an arbitrary class system can be – with a 61 per cent survival rate in first-class and only a 24 per cent survival rate in third-class.
The sheer amount of wealth concentrated aboard the ship is another part of its myth. Much of the press coverage following the event focussed on the wealthy and famous passengers – the deaths of famous individuals, including Isador and Ida Strauss, Benjaman Guggenheim and Mr John Jacob Astor, received huge amounts of media attention. Some newspaper articles of the time almost read like gossip columns, expressing the amazement of the masses that these hugely wealthy individuals – veritable celebrities of the time – could be touched by death and disaster. Even today, the name John Jacob Astor, the richest man aboard, is recognisable and perhaps epitomises the astronomical wealth on the ship (Astor’s estimated wealth in 1912 was over $20 million, making him the fifth-richest American of all time, according to Forbes.com).
To get a sense about what interests the public about the Titanic today, I spoke to Rod McNeil, who works for Museum Victoria and was part of the travelling Titanic exhibition which showed in Melbourne in 2010. He says the wealth and class are huge draw-cards in the appeal of the Titanic as a morality tale. He describes the almost unbelievable disparity in wealth.
“The poor people suffered so much more [than the rich],” he told me. “While children in third class drowned, first-class passengers escaped with their… Pekinese [dogs]… and two fur coats.”
The dangers of technological hubris
The Titanic can also serve as a warning against arrogance and unchecked faith in technology. The ship has come to represent both the pinnacle of Industrial Age ambition and confidence in technology, and the repercussions of technology and ambition going wrong. Though at the time of its creation, the Titanic was certainly awe-inspiring, perceptions of the ship following its demise have become ever more superlative and grandiose. As Richard Howells says in his book The Myth of the Titanic, the ship “only really became ‘unsinkable’ after it had in fact sunk”. The lesson about the danger of arrogance and the limits of technology has been applied to the Titanic in retrospect, as the tragedy has become an iconic example of man taking on nature and suffering a fatal loss.
The bravery and heroism of the every-man
Perhaps a direct juxtaposition to the warnings about extreme pride and arrogance is the celebration of the ‘everyman’, those passengers aboard the Titanic who helped others in small ways and are often framed as the real, unsung heroes of the tragedy. Examples include Mr Harold Lowe, the only person to take a lifeboat back to find survivors in the water and the orchestra, who continued to play to the passengers as the ship sank into the Atlantic, breaking all our hearts every time we watch the film.
One recent story to emerge is that of seaman Robert Hopkins. Hopkins was posthumously recognised this April for bravery during the escape. Hopkins prevented the potentially fatal collision of two lifeboats, which were being lowered into the water, preventing the loss of up to fifteen lives. These personal, largely unknown stories all add to the broader Titanic story, says Stephen Frazee, a member of the Titanic International Society, and give us hope for the good of humanity in an otherwise bleak tale.
Although I cannot deny the Titanic’s association with ideas like classism, technological arrogance and heroism, I have to wonder about the nature of our engagement with them. Frazee says the ship will remain relevant because it encapsulates “universal and human struggles”. He regales me with tales of his great uncle, Weston Frazee, who almost bought tickets to accompany his friend George Wright (Wright was subsequently killed in the disaster). Weston Frazee, who instead travelled aboard the Laurentic, apparently sighted 20 icebergs within the ice-field on his journey to Halifax. Following the disaster, Weston Frazee joined the committee to oversee the recovery, identification and burial of the victims. This personal connection has clearly made an impact on his great-nephew Stephen, who remains actively involved in ‘perpetuating the memory’ of the ship. He says remembering the Titanic is important because it cuts through divisions and speaks to us on a fundamental, human level. “Anyone who reads the story of Titanic can almost picture themselves aboard this luxurious ship on the fateful night… wondering if they would have been a survivor of the sinking… or not”.
It would seem that this personal connection and the projection of ourselves onto the ship, is central to our fascination. Perhaps more than an interest in the passengers themselves is a use of the disaster as a backdrop to examine our own lives and imagine how we would respond in that situation. Rod McNeil, who helped organise the Melbourne showing of the internationally touring Titanic exhibition, says that this personal connection is fundamental to how people engage in the story.
The exhibition, which showed in Melbourne in 2010, attracted approximately 484,000 visitors, making it the most visited exhibition in Australia when it closed. One notable aspect of the exhibition was the handing out of boarding passes with the details of a real-life Titanic passenger to each museum-goer at the start of their trip. McNeil said this element of the museum was “extremely popular” and really helped forge a connection with the ship on an emotionally resonant level. I certainly remember my experience with the passenger cards at the exhibition – my three young children and I all died on the way to meet their father in New York, leaving me distraught for weeks (seriously). One particular event McNeil recalls with a chuckle is when a punter received a passenger card with the same name as his, a coincidence that “totally freaked him out” and took the idea of personal and emotional connection with the event to another level.
McNeil reflects on the nature of people’s engagement with the Titanic, recalling how so many people had loved getting their photos taken on the grand staircase – one of the key elements of the ship itself and James Cameron’s film. “We even had people get married in the exhibition and take their photos on the grand staircase,” he tells me. “You couldn’t say that it’s commemorative of… people on the ship, it’s definitely an emotional and personal connection.”
This self-referential (even narcissistic?) engagement with the Titanic seems to be the norm – and I have to ask if this is where it should end. Have we mythologised and romanticised the era to the point that any lessons we could learn from it are also relegated to the past? Are we more concerned with debating whether Leo could have fit on that door with Kate than we are with understanding the disaster, unpacking why it happened and ensuring that we prevent them from repeating themselves?
Although we may feel disbelief at the idea that wealth and class could determine one’s survival, or scoff at the arrogance and unshakable faith that technology could overcome all, can we really claim to be so different? I’d argue that although it appears different, our society now isn’t hugely different than back then. Class divisions may be less overt and dispersed globally, rather than existing on one ship but it would be naïve to suggest that we’ve achieved equality. And certainly, our technology has improved but our reliance on it has also increased and we are far from immune to the risks. So, although the personal connection and grappling with one’s own mortality are a valuable part of remembering and imaging the Titanic (and other disasters), our engagement shouldn’t stop there. These tragedies should serve not only as a window through which we look into another time and congratulate ourselves on our progress but also to hold a mirror up to today.