One hundred years ago, on the evening of April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg. A few hours later, on April 15, the great ship went down, taking the lives of 1,514 people.
The Titanic sinking was the very model of tragic disaster, and it has spawned a host of speculation, inquiry, exposition, and entertainment (in particular, film) ever since. For this anniversary, we have the re-release of the blockbuster 1997 movie Titanic (in 3-D, no less), and a host of articles, including one by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New Yorker, in which he discusses the place of the Titanic disaster in legend, and compares it (among other things) to the myths of Iphigenia and Oedipus.
That sounds much worse, and much more portentous, than Mendelsohn’s article really is. Actually, his piece is quite good–except for one interesting error, an error widely shared. That misunderstanding (which is really only a partial error) has to do with the role of class in Titanic survival.
Here’s Mendelsohn on the subject:
The class issue is one major reason the Titanic disaster has always been so ripe for dramatization. And yet the way we tell the story reveals more about us than it does about what happened.
I’m in complete agreement with Mendelsohn on that–although he, nevertheless (like most people) falls prey to the very phenomenon he describes. He writes:
But overshadowing everything is the problem of money and class. The Titanic’s story irresistibly reads as a parable about a gilded age in which death was anything but democratic, as was made clear by a notorious statistic: of the men in first class—who paid as much as four thousand three hundred and fifty dollars for a one-way fare at a time when the average annual household income in the U.S. was eight hundred dollars—the percentage of survivors was roughly the same as that of children in third class. For all his sentimentality about gentlemanly chivalry, Lord [the author of A Night To Remember] doesn’t shy away from what the sinking and its aftermath revealed about the era’s privileges and prejudices…The book traces a damning arc from the special treatment enjoyed by the [first-class passengers'] pets to the way in which third-class passengers were, at the end, “ignored, neglected, forgotten.”
This is the well-known narrative. But truth is more complex.
To try to learn what may have actually happened, go to the survival figures, broken down by class and gender. And there we find something curious, which reveals that Mendelsohn has picked his statistics rather carefully. While it is true that the percentage of survivors among first class male passengers (34 percent) was “roughly the same as that of children in third class” (31 percent), Mendelsohn ignores the other statistics that undercut the preferred class narrative.
A more careful study of the charts reveals the surprising fact that third class women passengers had a far better chance of surviving (49 percent) than first class males (34 percent). Yes, first and second class women had a much greater chance of survival (97 percent and 86 percent, respectively) than did third class women (49 percent). But the corresponding figures for men were abysmal, even in first class–and, curiously enough, second class men fared even worse than those in third class (8 percent to 13 percent). What’s more, there were logistical reasons why third class passengers may have had reduced chances of living through the disaster; it was a far more lengthy and difficult process to get to the upper decks from their accommodations on the much lower ones.