Everyone remembers the tragic true life story of Titanic, the doomed ocean liner that sank during her maiden voyage almost a hundred years ago.
But why? Not why did it sink, but why do we remember the story?
According to some experts, an average of two large ships sink every week. That’s about 100 ships per year. Titanic sunk almost 100 years ago. Out of the roughly ten thousand ships that have sunk since then, why is it the first ship we think of when someone says, “Name a ship that sank”? Why have so many books and movies and museums been made to tell its tale?
My trip to the Titanic Museum in Pidgeon Forge, Tennessee this past summer (click here for last week’s review of the museum if you missed it) was thought-provoking and emotional. As a writer, one of the things I wondered about was how this story captured the public’s attention — and how it continues to hold it nearly a century later.
So, here it is. My list of story elements that I think makes Titanic unforgettable…
Why Titanic’s Story Lives On
1. Irony. Titanic was huge. It and its sister ship, Olympic, were two of the largest ocean passenger liners ever to sail. I’m not sure why, but people usually think the bigger the craft, the less likely it is that it will go down. (I’ve seen this same thinking with respect to airplanes; some people are afraid to fly in small airplanes because they perceive them to be less safe than commercial airlines, but the same rules of physics apply!) My nine-year old daughter studied Titanic in school this past year. I asked her why Titanic’s story captured her interest. Without hesitation she said, “They said it was unsinkable, and it sank anyway.” I think humans are naturally drawn to stories that show our own hubris.
2. Tragedy. Titanic was a disaster. Over fifteen hundred people died. This makes the sinking one of the deadliest in peacetime ever to have occurred.
3. True Story. Titanic’s sinking was a true story. Real people died that night, people like David Vartanian, Alice McCoy, Jane Richards Quick…. (The Titanic Museum has a page devoted to telling the biographies of these people, both famous and not). Why do people love true life stories? Two reasons: One, they are always amazed that the ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ True stories are immune to claims of melodrama. Second, with true life stories, the “What Would You Do If…?” factor is high. And with Titanic’s story, it was very high. There were all kinds of reported situations within which you could imagine yourself and wonder: would you act admirably or shamefully? The gated stairwells (someone had to have locked them), the band that played on while the ship went down, the captain who pushed the ship ever faster even though it was a calm night and icebergs had been spotted in the area, Ida Straus‘ plucky and poignant refusal to leave her husband (“Where you go, I go.”)
4. Famous People. Titanic was full of the rich and famous. Everyone’s always reading about these people under normal circumstances. On board were John Jacob Astor, Molly Brown, Lady Duff Gordon, Isador Straus, Frank Millet, et al. It was an illustrious crowd, one that generated headlines no matter what they did.
5. Opulence and Glamour. Titanic was a luxury liner, one of the finest ones in her day. It had telephones, elevators, a library, barber shop, swimming pool, Turkish baths, fine cuisine, and beautiful artwork, furniture, and features. First class tickets were expensive and people dressed up for dinner. Ocean going voyages on luxury liners were celebratory. Passengers were on holiday. These elements give the story added interest and drama when juxtaposed against the stark reality of what happened later.
6. Horror. The images immediately conjured up in your mind are scary and easily understandable. The flickering lights that then go out a few moments later, plunging everyone into permanent darkness. Can you imagine being inside the ship when that happened? The tilting ship decks pointing toward below freezing water. It may have well have been boiling water for all anyone could survive it. The water rushing down the stairwells. Even if you can swim, the thought of being trapped in a sinking ship is incredibly, horrifyingly frightening. The fact that there weren’t enough life boats for everyone. People panicking, yelling, pushing, shouting.
7. Timing. Disaster struck during Titanic’s maiden voyage. This was the ship’s debut. All eyes were on her. Attention hadn’t had a chance to wander yet. If Titanic had been an older vessel with scores of past successful voyages, her sinking would have been newsworthy, but not nearly as much. Maybe it’s the shameful waste of it all, or the incredulity of realizing that something as spectacular as Titanic could be destroyed before experiencing its day in the sun. But the indisputable fact is that Titanic sailed once — and only once — and that, in and of itself, is memorable.
8. Hope. Some people were rescued. Some passengers survived. There were harrowing tales, but some had a happy ending. Not everyone died. And that, I think, is the key. If everyone had died, the story would still be told, but not in the same way. The stories of those who died are awful, but they’re tempered by the stories of those who made it. There’s the story of Leah Aks, the mother whose infant son was torn from her arms and then thrown overboard — only to be caught, thankfully, by Selena Cook. There’s the story of the Navratil boys who, after being kidnapped by their father, were reunited with their mother after the sinking. And what about the Unsinkable Molly Brown? She’s an unforgettable character if ever there was one.
Titanic may be the first ship you think of when someone asks you to name a ship that sank, but it’s a story about life as much as death. It’s a story of tragedy, but it’s also a story of rescue. And rescue stories are some of the most appealing and enduring stories around.
Related Link: Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, just launched a new Titanic miniseries, which premiered March 25th. Click here for clips of Digital Spy’s interviews of cast members telling us their thoughts on why Titanic’s story endures.
What about you? Why do YOU think Titanic’s story is so enduring?