Among the outstanding filmmakers of the twentieth century, Alfred Hitchcock stands out for his exceptional talent for creating an unprecedented atmosphere of suspense and developing the plot through a range of complicated psychological turns. Hitchcock’s interest in psychoanalytical ideas brought forward by Sigmund Freud finds its reflection in the film Rear Window (1954). At first sight, the action unfolds through the eyes of Jeff, a photographer who watches various courtyard scenes of daily human life.
However, from the point of view of psychoanalysis, the film can be considered as a representation of the photographer’s dreams revealing his inner impulses and fears. The interpretation of Jeff’s dreams according to Freudian theory of dream symbolism discloses the photographer’s fear of marriage based on the primary castration anxiety.
Jeff’s unwillingness to marry his girlfriend Lisa reveals itself both explicitly and latently. The open and unambiguous explication of Jeff’s negative attitude to marriage is stated at the very beginning of the film when the photographer is talking to his employer: “If you don’t pull me out of this swamp of boredom, I’ll do something drastic. […] I’ll get married” (Rear Window).
And after this statement, a whole range of symbols unfolds in support of Jeff’s negation of marriage and his emphasized commitment to his masculinity.
On the one hand, Jeff’s leg is broken: a broken bone, according to Freud’s interpretation of dreams, symbolizes a broken marriage vow and suggests the photographer’s initial inclination towards infidelity in marriage (Freud 256). On the other hand, Jeff constantly employs the main instrument of his work, his photo camera with an enormously long lens.
In Freud’s dream symbolism this lengthy object stands among the male member representations and becomes a necessary support for Jeff in assertion of his masculinity (Freud 230). Other symbols are scattered through various scenarios of courtyard life representing the possible developments Jeff envisages for his relationship with Lisa.
The first and the main scenario that unfolds in the courtyard is the situation with a married couple, where the husband gets so much tired of the wife’s constant complaints and demands for attention that he decides to kill her. Since the very beginning, Jeff shares the husband’s aversion towards female fragility. In his talk to his employer he refers to a wife as “nagging”, and his mental image of a nagging wife is immediately reflected in a visual perception of a scene in the opposite window (Rear Window).
Thus is created the link between imaginary and existing, dreams and reality. The events that take place further on illustrate Jeff’s fantasies on what might have happened and what might have been the solution of the situation when the husband is plagued with his bothersome wife.
The two key symbols of Jeff’s dream over the wife’s murder become the knife and the handbag. According to Freudian theory, the knife, as a sharp and elongated weapon, serves as a representation of a male member (Freud 230). Assaulting the wife with the knife symbolizes the victory and the triumph of the male dominance over femininity. On the other hand, the purse, as any container, is symbolic of female organs (Freud 230).
Thus, it is no mere coincidence that the murdered wife’s purse attracts so much attention both from the murderous husband and from the people trying to solve the mystery of the murder. The significance of a purse to a woman is paralleled in the handbag belonging to Jeff’s girlfriend. Lisa not only carries everything she needs in her handbag but also lectures Jeff on the meaning and role of a purse for a woman.
By stating that a woman would never part with her favorite handbag, not to mention leaving it anywhere on her husband’s territory, Lisa outlines the essential border between men and women (Rear Window). And therefore, capturing the wife’s handbag symbolizes the full and final victory of the husband over the female who bothered him so much.
By showing the supposed murder as happening in a family other from Jeff’s and at the same time making Jeff so interested and involved in the situation, Hitchcock hints that this murderous situation is in fact a projection of Jeff’s secret dreams. The only secure way of getting rid of the bothersome relationship is destroying the object causing this conflict.
However, Jeff himself would not break the norms by committing murder and therefore merely plays it over in his mind. The idea of terminating the undesired relations becomes an obsession, and in order to secure himself against the murderous tendencies, the self-reproachful Jeff employs a mechanism of substituting real people with imaginary characters (Freud 283).
Apparently, the only activity Jeff involves with while his leg is broken is looking out of the window and literally spying on the private life of the others. In psychoanalysis, this enjoyment at watching the others and identifying oneself with them is termed as “scopophilia” and signifies the desire to see the forbidden (Lemire 60).
Too afraid to involve in a normal relationship himself, Jeff projects his fears and fantasies in his dreams, each developing a different course of disappointing spousal life. The seemingly happy newlywed couple appears only to involve in intercourse which is nothing more than tiring for the spouse. Their initial dream of happiness turns out to shatter against the ugly truth of the reality when the wife finds out that the husband is jobless (Rear Window).
The elderly couple has no children, and their only joy is the small dog, a symbol of little children according to Freudian theory (Freud 231). The killing of the dog by the murderous husband signifies the impossibility of having children within a disagreeing couple and realizes another marital fear of Jeff’s, the fear of being childless.
The other participants of various scenarios reflect Jeff’s fears that are associated not with marriage but rather with single life. The songwriter who attracts Lisa with his melodies appears to give big parties but he is still lonely. Even in the biggest and merriest singing crowd he stands alone smoking his cigar (another symbol of male organ).
The lonely woman reflects the double-sidedness of human attitude to maintaining relations. On the one hand, she dreams of having a partner and designs a whole imaginary candle dinner. On the other hand, she rejects any attempts of physical closeness from her one-evening suitor, defending her female honor.
By showing the man out, the woman demonstrates aversion for the assaultive nature of male power and dominance. Last but not least, the female dancer who makes a daily show of her morning exercise in a bikini top, symbolizes female attractiveness and sexuality that are parallel to those of Lisa.
All those separate scenarios reflect different sides of human relationships in married and single life. Despite their variety, they all blend together to produce a multifaceted impression, as the multiple experiences and events of human life merge in the entity of the dream (Freud 121). This successful blending of scenarios is made possible by the symbolic setting of the action: according to Freud’s theory, rooms are representative of female organ, and ladders symbolize a sexual act (Freud 230).
Jeff’s excited scopophilia is first aimed at rejecting and terminating the female origins from his life. But gradually his girlfriend becomes more and more involved in the process of tracing the events and solving the mystery, and finally she climbs the ladder up to the crime scene.
By crossing this barrier, Lisa puts her into position of trespasser and victim of the inevitable punishment, and thus repositions Jeff towards her. Now she is seen by Jeff through the lens of sadistic scopophilia and therefore his castration anxiety is gone, giving place to attraction to the weak female (Lemire 63).
The intricate imagery and symbolism of Hitchcock’s Rear Window provide opportunities for viewing the film from the point of Freudian psychoanalysis as a story that illustrates male castration anxiety.
The separate dream scenarios are saturated with symbolical representation of relationships between men and women and blend into a single entity representing the fears and desires of the main character. The initial aversion of the male to the female is gradually transformed by involvement of the woman in the male sphere and by her trespassing the traditional borders and assuming a subordinate role of a victim.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1933. Print.
Lemire, Elisa. “Voyeurism and the Postwar Criticism of Masculinity in Rear Window.” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”. Ed. John Belton. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 57–90. Print.
Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Film.