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Sinking the Jack Dawson Debate

In honor of the movie's 20th anniversary

Kallina Sims, Editor

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Could Jack Dawson have survived the sinking of the Titanic?

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Ever since James Cameron’s 3-hours-and-15-minutes long movie came out in 1997 a debate has been haunting the nation about the ending of The Titanic. If you have never seen this masterpiece, it is from the point of view of an elderly Titanic survivor, Rose Dawson Calvert, telling her story about the sinking for the first time like a flashback. Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet), a first class girl, boards the Titanic with her mother and fiancé. While attempting to jump from the ship, she is stopped by third class Jack Dawson (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). Many events unfold during the movie and, much to Rose’s mother and fiancé’s disapproval, Rose and Jack fall in love. When the ship hits the ice burg and begins sinking, Rose and Jack jump through many hoops to get out not only alive, but together. They make it off the sunken ship together, but in the minutes between the full submergence of the stern and when a rescue boat came to pick up survivors, Jack unfortunately dies. Rose survives the sinking because she uses a large wooden piece of rubble to float on the surface of the water. Rose says to Jack’s frozen corpse “I’ll never let go, Jack”, just before inevitably letting go of his hand and watching him sink into the ocean below. This very emotional realistic-fiction ending still sprouts debate among fans: Could Jack have fit on the wooden rubble with Rose and would he have survived by being on the wood? Let me thoroughly explain why Jack Dawson, self-proclaimed king of the world, could not have.

It doesn’t matter if Jack could or couldn’t have fit on the wood because he wouldn’t have survived. Jack Dawson is an entirely fictional character. His complete story is in the movie because, as fulfilling as it would be, he isn’t a real person. Jack was written to die and to leave viewers heart-broken. Jack Dawson’s story isn’t one of a real person’s. Although neither Jack nor Rose’s characters were based on real people, others in the movie were.

Realistically, Jack probably could have fit on the wood with Rose. It would be physically possible for both people to fit on the makeshift raft. Despite there being enough surface area, it wouldn’t be possible for both people to remain afloat on the wood. Their combined weight would push the wooden door frame under the water, therefore defeating the purpose. The purpose of their little raft was to keep out of the water. Jack, despite not wanting to die, knew he was going to die; that’s why he tells Rose to promise him that she would grow old. So he fought for life as long as he could so he could help Rose get out alive (again). He loved Rose so he wouldn’t risk holding the wood under water a few inches simply so they could both be mostly out of the water, it would be counterproductive to do this as they would both be stuck partially in the freezing water. He would prefer to let Rose be almost entirely out of the water.

Briefly, you can see Jack attempt to get on the wood with Rose immediately when they find it, but it begins to flip over. He knew that the size was an advantage because it would hold all of Rose, but he also knew it wasn’t buoyant enough to support their combined weight. Taking turns would be impractical because they wouldn’t have time to switch places and get dry between switches, so they would both be equally freezing. They wouldn’t get warmer. It took the rescue ship three hour to arrive; there is an extremely slim chance someone would survive those conditions in the water. Swimming wouldn’t be able to raise a person’s internal body temperature in enough time to save that person’s life. Rose had to let go of his hand after he died because when she said “I’ll never let go, Jack,” they didn’t mean it literally; it was symbolic of her emotionally not letting go and continuing to fight to live.

The movie even says that Rose survived because she was lucky. There were 706 survivors of 2209; all survivors were lucky, and Jack wasn’t one of them. Rose was also 17 in the movie, so she probably wouldn’t be thinking on the best of terms after a traumatic event like that.  Calling her “selfish for not letting Jack on the wood” is illogical. Although Rose was head-strong, sassy, and independent, as a 17 year old first class lady, she was raised letting people do things for her and she trusted Jack with her life already; she was going to do whatever Jack said to get out alive. Jack Dawson, a 20 year old man trying to earn the love of a woman who was socially considered to be too good for him, wouldn’t have allowed himself to take away even a part of something that might help Rose live (he was gentlemanly). Jack got that wood to float on because he knew they would both get hypothermia or one of them might not; he made the decision to let Rose be the person who might not.

Jack didn’t die because he couldn’t be on the make-shift flotation device. Jack died because he got hypothermia and froze in the 28°F Atlantic Ocean waters, and because he did what he could to stay alive and the rescue boat didn’t come in time. Rose was barely alive at time the rescue boat came, she had to rob a corpse of his whistle to get the rescuer’s attention. Jack was also wearing less clothes than Rose, again reinforcing the fact that he was too cold.

MythBusters looked into this very debate and came to the conclusion that Jack and Rose’s life jackets could be removed and tied onto the bottom of the debris to add buoyancy so they could both stay out of the water. James Cameron did research for this film and was very accurate’ and even addressed the MythBusters in an interview with Today. Jack wasn’t even wearing a life vest.

Recently in an interview Cameron elaborated that Dawson had to die for artistic reasons because the whole point of the film is about death and separation, and that Dawson’s death made the film meaningful. Cameron also reveals that he spend days trying to get the buoyancy accurate between holding one character above the water without allowing two characters on the wood.

Definitively: No, Jack Dawson’s death was never a matter of available space on the wooden door frame. The King Of The World had to meet his fate. Although Rose was rescued by a passing life boat then the Carpathia, Jack’s corpse still wasn’t part of the 23% of victims discovered by the Mackay-Bennett (the ship that sailed back to the sinking site and retrieved corpses) because Jack’s body sank down after death since he wasn’t wearing a life vest. At least Jack and Rose were reconnected in the afterlife, and back on the Titanic. While Cameron believes the debate is silly, he is glad to have written a character that resonates so deeply with fans. As disheartening as it is, Jack had to die; our hearts will still go on. Now stop bringing it up.

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Sinking the Jack Dawson Debate