Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Dishonesty of Authority Figures
Chinatown suggests that the very notion of an honest, trustworthy leader is a myth. In Chinatown, people in positions of power are never what they seem to be, and their true nature is always harmful to the people beneath them. Cross, who has no official power but who has used his money to essentially run most of the city and the outlying area, uses the people he controls as pawns for his personal gain. The district attorney in Chinatown is legendary for his instruction that the police ignore any crime that is committed. Russ Yelburton, a polite, highly respectable family man, manipulates the public for personal gain and is involved in the slandering and murder of his boss. Even Lieutenant Escobar, a man whom Jake has worked with and respects, is willing to let injustice occur without punishing the people who brought it to pass. In the world of Chinatown, anyone with any authority becomes a mere cog in a machine that maintains corruption.
The Corruption of the American Dream
One basic element of the American dream is the idea that common people can move into unclaimed wilderness and transform it into valuable land. Water, and the irrigation systems that provide it, first helped the American West blossom into the rich and thriving area it is it is today. Cross calls Hollis Mulwray a genius for using water to help turn Los Angeles from a wasted patch of desert into an ever growing metropolis. Cross, however, turns this approach into an excuse for murder, killing Hollis when he interferes with Cross’s plans for the new reservoir. Similarly, Russ Yelburton is persuaded to betray both the public and a man he admires in order to gain greater control of the water.
Part of the allure of America is its promise of success for the common person, the chance to control one’s own destiny with the help of available resources. Cross, however, corrupts the American dream by stealing the most valuable of resources from the struggling farmers, pushing them into bankruptcy in an attempt to further line the pockets of his already rich associates. Chinatown shows the promise of America’s future betrayed by the desires of its corrupt present.
The Helplessness of Common People in the Face of Evil
No matter how good a character is or how noble his or her intentions are, Polanski is careful to show how impossible it is for the common people to overcome or even escape the corruption that is so pervasive in the world of the film and the world itself. Unlike what Jake and so many other characters tell themselves, corruption isn’t confined to just one area. Jake, who years before lost a woman to evil forces in Chinatown, loses Evelyn in nearly the same manner. Evelyn, despite her money and earlier flight from her father, proves unable to run far or fast enough to escape death. Hollis, who tried to free himself from evil by cutting ties to Cross, nevertheless loses his life to his former business associate.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Many of the people in Chinatown claim ignorance of the corruption that surrounds them, often with tragic results. Throughout the movie, Jake remains stubbornly incapable of putting the pieces of the case together properly. Evelyn pretends to know nothing about the woman her husband is seeing, in the process keeping information from Jake that may have saved her life. Ida Sessions professes her ignorance to the full scope of the crime she helped commit and therefore cannot see that she is in deep enough to be murdered. At the end of the movie, Jake naïvely tells Evelyn to “[l]et the police handle” it, only to discover that the way they handle it is to kill Evelyn. As Polanski demonstrates, being ignorant of the crime that surrounds you offers no protection from its ravages.
Jake makes several key misidentifications throughout the movie. This inability to see the truth beneath the surface of things serves only to drag him further into the conspiracy. First, he believes Ida Sessions to be Evelyn Mulwray and accepts the case to follow her husband, a decision that leads to his disastrous involvement with Cross and the land conspiracy. Later, he is unable to recognize Detective Loach as the man who tells him to go to Ida Sessions’ house, a mistake that leads to Evelyn’s death. Most important, though, he is unable to see Evelyn as the victim she truly is rather than the murderer he believes her to be, a waste of his attention and resources that leaves him unable to solve the case in time.
Most of the characters in the movie have some dark shame or secret haunting their past, a situation that on a larger scale echoes the hidden corruption of the world in which they live. When people live too long in a city with deep-rooted darkness, they will naturally end up with a bit of it in themselves. Some past misfortunes, like the dam Hollis Mulwray built that later collapsed and killed people, show that even innocent mistakes bring about deadly consequences. Others, like Hollis’s former partnership with Cross, show that even good people are capable of being involved with corruption, while Evelyn Mulwray’s rape and resulting child show how innocent people can be dragged into helping cover up such corruption. Jake’s past and his inability to protect the nameless woman in Chinatown repeats itself to show how impossible it is to escape the evil nature, or tendency toward evil, inherent in many people.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Chinatown, a place where secret organizations rule, the law is meaningless, and good intentions are brutally suppressed, serves as the symbol for the true nature of every city. Corruption not only exists but has become so much a part of the way societies work that even good men like Lieutenant Escobar do not attempt to fight it. Noble leadership is a lie, civic leaders like Yelburton are willing to do anything to the public in order to line their pockets, and men like Cross are above the law.
The injury Jake sustains at the reservoir serves as a symbol for Jake’s limited heroism. While the typical movie hero quickly shakes off an attack, Jake wears the marks of his injury throughout most of the film. The bandage portrays Jake as subject to human frailty and fallibility. Jake deflects questions about the injury with sarcasm, echoing the way he uses his cynicism and occasional crassness to hide his sense of decency. The scene where Jake and Evelyn sleep together begins with Evelyn tending his injury, suggesting that this sign of weakness is in fact what makes Jake appealing.
The Saltwater Pond
The saltwater pond serves as a symbol of the inherent duality of human existence. On one level, the saltwater pool found in the Mulwrays’ back yard is a source of life, a duplicate of an ocean tidal pool that supports a variety of plants and creatures. On another level, the pool brings about death, slowly seeping outward to poison the surrounding grass and any other plant incapable of tolerating the salt. The pool was also used to bring about a much quicker death when Noah Cross drowned Hollis Mulwray in it, filling Hollis’s lungs with the deadly salt water. The duality inherent in the water serves as a symbol for corruption, showing it both as the means by which a city lives and grows and as a spreading disease that taints everything it comes in contact with. Like the grass, anything that cannot adapt to the corrupt environment is eventually destroyed.
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