Titanic: why it still fascinates us 100 years later

As most people know, on this night, exactly a century ago, the Titanic sank.

Over the past few weeks, as the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage and subsequent sinking have approached, there have been countless articles, documentaries, and news stories. James Cameron’s epic film “Titanic” was re-released in 3D. After a century, the ill fated ship is a story which still fascinates me, and so many others. But in the weeks leading up to this infamous anniversary, one question has continually returned to the forefront of my thoughts.

Why?

Why the obsession with Titanic?

Is it because of the number of deaths?

1,500 people died on Titanic. It seems like a lot. But twice as many people died in the San Fransisco earthquake of 1906. In 1918, over a half million Americans died in an influenza epidemic (which killed millions more worldwide). And Titanic happened just a couple of years before the outbreak of World War I, which killed over 15 million people. And let’s not forget that every year, we hear news stories of earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters killing thousands and tens of thousands of people.

And none of those captivate the American imagination like Titanic.

Why?

I think there are two major reasons: human decisions and tangibility.

If a major earthquake suddenly hits a third world country, it’s unfortunate. Unlike Titanic, it’s not something that can be avoided. The best we can do for places who are venerable is hope that they are sufficiently prepared for when calamity strikes.

But with Titanic, it took over two hours to sink. The passangers had opportunities to think, to consider actions, and to feel. Some people heroically worked to save lives, others worked only out of self interest. We can put ourselves in their shoes. Would we put the lives of others above our own? Or would we be like Billy Zane’s character in Titanic, find a stray kid, and pretend to be their parent to save our own skin (and yes, I realize Billy Zane isn’t based off of a real person).

If Titanic would have sank more quickly and the people would have died instantly, I don’t think the great ship would captivate our imagination.

Titanic has interesting contrast. On the one hand, there was glamor. Considering that it was the maiden voyage of what was the grandest ship ever built, there were a lot more famous passengers on board than what would have been expected under normal circumstances. Some of the wealthiest of the wealthy were on board. And some, like John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America at the time died in the wreck. Furthermore, there were prominent political figures. Dorothy Gibson, who was one of the most famous silent film actresses of her day survived and actually later starred in a movie about Titanic (which was released just a month after the ship sank.)

But there were more than twice as many passengers on Titanic in third class. Many of them immigrating to America to attempt to live the American dream, as millions of other immigrants had done in the preceding generation. For them, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, but hundreds would never make it to the U.S. We contrast the optimism which we project onto the passengers while looking at it through the fatalistic lenses of what we know inevitably happened.

It’s very easy to make the Titanic’s evacuation procedures about classes and the rich vs the poor. But when you look at who survived and who died, statistically wealth wasn’t your greatest asset. Being a child or a woman gave you much better odds. For instance, of the men traveling first class, 2/3 of them still perished with Titanic.

“Women and children first.”

This notion became a standard going back to about the middle of the 19th century when the HMS Birkenhead sank in 1845. There were a number of British soldiers and sailors on the ship which – like Titanic – didn’t have enough life boats to save all on board. Out of honor, the military refused to board before the women and children. This mentality became standard. This extreme chivalry is very much a social trait of the Victorian Era.

While the Titanic technically sank 11 years after the end of the Victoran Era, in terms of sensibilities, culture, and fashion the passengers of Titanic still lived in what was very much a Victorian world. There’s a certain charm and class with this period. If instead of an orchestra playing hymns, the ship had gone down to blue grass music, again, we might not find the story quite so interesting.

Another reason why I think Titanic captivates us is because the story is tangible.

It’s easy to have a basic familiarity with the events that led up to Titanic. And we know of the ship’s shortlived history.

In terms of hitting the ice berg and sinking, we can wrap our minds around what happened during this two and a half hour period. Even people with the shortest of attention spans can grasp the story of Titanic. It’s not like studying a major event like World War II or the American Revolution where there are complicated factors and countless people who are significant to the story.

While other events in history can potentially lead you into a bottomless pit for greater knowledge and insight, Titanic is pretty straightforward.

It’s not a story that traverses years and has countless significant events. There’s only one major event. The fact that Titanic struck an iceberg. Had that not happened, the ship would have arrived safely in New York a couple of days later and James Cameron would be a few million dollars poorer.

Part or the folklore surrounding the Titanic is that people said the great ship was unsinkable. There is debate about how accurate that is. But with Titanic, one thing which has withstood the test of time and ultimately proved to be unsinkable is her legacy.

jrb

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