One of the themes that Freud finds in the relationship between humans and society is that “taboos, laws, and customs impose … restrictions, which affect both men and women” (27). According to the philosopher, there exists a constant struggle between one’s drive to reach happiness by means that may clash with societal expectations and the civilization’s effort to bring people together. It achieves that by curbing and limiting the desires of its members or channeling them into other spheres and onto foreign cultures (Freud 31). In Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the idea of a certain taboo, voyeurism, is explored, presenting the foundational struggle between societal norms and human libidinal desires and death drive.
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In Rear Window, Jeff is the main character who is confined to a wheelchair and has to stay in his apartment. Limited in his choice of activities, Jeff starts watching his neighbors, slowly becoming more and more obsessed with their daily lives. Interestingly, the man’s nurse, Stella, comments on Jeff’s behavior and says that he would be punished for spying on his neighbors “in the old days” (Hitchcock). Here, one can see that Jeff’s curiosity in other people’s lives is perceived as crossing the boundaries established by a civilization that prohibits intrusion into private lives. Freud’s analysis argues that the “civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security” (33). This sense of security that the movie’s characters have is exploited by Jeff, who does not follow the implied norms of his group by indulging in spying on and creating stories about other people.
The voyeurism, while being continuously condemned by Jeff’s friends, attracts more and more people, eventually encouraging Lisa, Jeff’s girlfriend, to further breach the security of one of the neighbors and enter his house. In this scene, the suspicions of murder make Jeff and Lisa disregard any societal norms to satisfy their curiosity, thus fulfilling their desire for knowledge. The main characters’ actions, however, cross the line of simple interest and support the idea of death drive – self-destruction and aggressiveness. Jeff does not merely observe the suspicious neighbor; he also incites others to act to find out whether his thoughts are correct.
The inability to act aggressively towards the potential murderer can be viewed through the lens of destructiveness being suppressed by civilization. Freud argues that “any restriction of this aggressiveness directed outwards would be bound to increase the self-destruction” (35). Lisa’s actions demonstrate the power of this “death instinct” over the civilization’s laws (O’Connor 430). Lisa breaks into the apartment of the suspected murderer, who presents a real danger to her life (Hitchcock). Nevertheless, she is saved and feels happy because she ignored the conventions and found the information that she wanted. The reward of pursuing one’s wishes overwhelms the potential guilt of not following the rules.
Hitchcock’s story in Rear Window shows the tension between one’s Eros and the death drive, as well as the limitations created by civilizations to curb people’s desires. The taboo activity of voyeurism is an example of people satisfying their desires outside the conventions of society. The film portrays the main character’s behavior as invasive, but it also poses that the satisfactory result of such actions can overweight the necessity to conform to the established norms. Thus, Freud’s ideas are supported by showing how people achieve happiness, not because of societal expectations but only despite them.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
Hitchcock, Alfred, director. Rear Window. Paramount Pictures, 1954.
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O’Connor, Brian. “Freud on the Death Drive as Existence without Tension.” The Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 103, no. 3, 2016, pp. 423-443.