Exploring the Universal Aspects of Ourselves through the Characters of Inception (Part 1)
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
by Katarina Spaic
The Dance of the Ego and the Shadow
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken. — Oscar Wilde.
There’s a reason the movie Inception was such a hit, intriguing audiences world-wide. Not only is it just trippy enough to captivate our attention, stringing us along and twisting and turning before we even see the bend approaching; but it also has numerous characters involved, all developed as their own beings yet merging together to create a whole, imperfect unison. Together they complete the mission. Together, they are as relatable as our own selves if we dig deep enough. According to Carl Jung, our psyche is made up of numerous different patterns of psychological processes, almost like several different personalities. Each “personality” has been portrayed by an Archetypal figure; an inherent character that almost has a life of its own within ourselves. Because these characters symbolize universal aspects of us as humans, they can be identified in almost every book, movie, and play. It’s just a matter of exploring the depths and representations of the characters, and then recognizing patterns and similarities.
In Inception, there are some characters that have a pretty obvious correlation to an archetype, and others that are a little more questionable. Mal for instance, Cobb’s late wife who keeps showing up as a projection from his subconscious, has a pretty strong correlation to the Shadow archetype. She is the most suppressed of the characters; showing up again and again when least wanted, seemingly wreaking havoc in her wake, and unraveling every success the team makes. Cobb himself represents the Ego. The Ego is the part of ourselves that most people identify with. This is not the same thing as having a “big ego” or being “arrogant”. Although all of the archetypal personalities are within us and we portray each one at different times, the Ego is what we consciously tend to identify with. He has a plan, a mission, and he is constantly being pulled this way and that by each archetypal figure in the movie. This mission of his has a strange likening to an Individuation process; which is the idea of confronting the unconscious components of ourselves and making them conscious in order to transform into a unified and unique individual. The Ego is caught up in a game that forces him to go deep into the recesses of his mind, the prize being he can go home. In the movie he is going home to his children, finally freed from his false charges. He can finally be the person he was meant to be.
Some of the other characters represent the Hero archetype (Arthur), the Puer/child archetype (Robert), the Father archetype (Saito), the Anima archetype (Ariadne), and the Trickster archetype (Eames). For the purposes of avoiding an exceptionally long and drawn-out blog post, I have decided to encounter a few of these archetypes in separate blog posts. For part 1, we will explore the relationship between the Ego and the Shadow. So let’s venture into the world of the unconscious, keeping our little lights of consciousness close by.
To me, this relationship between the Shadow and the Ego is the most intriguing of them all. In the movie, Cobb (Ego) and Mal (Shadow) were once lovers, as close and connected as two people could be. They literally built their own world together, they grew old together, they shared each other’s realities. And then one day Cobb (Ego) decided to challenge Mal’s (Shadow) perception of reality. In the movie, the form of “reality” is symbolized by the spinning top that Cobb always has on him. He clearly mentions towards the beginning of the movie that the top used to belong to Mal, suggesting that their reality was indeed shared at that time. When Cobb reached into the recesses of Mal’s unconscious and planted the idea that her reality was not real, it seems to be synonymous to saying that the Ego declared what was real and not real to the Shadow. In a way he denounces the Shadow’s perception of reality. When I watched the movie yet again last night to refresh my memory before writing this, I wondered if possibly the relationship between Cobb and Mal before she died represented an initial union between the Ego and Shadow aspects, and then when Cobb coerced Mal to rethink her reality he actually pushed her into becoming the Shadow archetype. Murray Stein mentions in his book “Jung’s Map of the Soul”, that the Ego forms its own Shadow from rejected fragments of itself. This often goes on quite unconsciously and cannot be avoided. Everything that the Ego can’t accept within itself it throws into a dark dusty corner, which in turn is the act of breathing life into a Shadow character. Among the rejected fragments is often the Ego’s desire to completely separate itself from others, and this too is cast onto the Shadow. It is very apparent in Inception, that Mal is constantly trying to bring Cobb down with her. She tries again and again to separate him from the others, from what he views as “reality”. It’s also interesting that Mal keeps mentioning, especially towards the end that Cobb “promised they would be together”. And you can see that Cobb wants to be with her, but something in him still views her as different than himself and he believes that to separate is the only way he can live in his reality and truly go home.
The idea of reality, and what is real or not real comes up again and again in this story. In fact, even the ending leaves us hanging on whether Cobb is actually in reality or still in a dream. I think it’s important to recognize that Cobb initially plants the idea in Mal’s head because he believes this is the only way they can survive. He has chosen his mode of getting back to reality and he stops at no means to get there because he whole-heartedly believes it is right. Likewise, when the Ego casts away aspects of itself and forms the Shadow, it is doing that for survival. Everything has a function, and in order to grow up in this world and effectively be able to mingle with others there are parts of ourselves we feel the need to repress and close off. But those parts of ourselves never retire for good, or even disintegrate and go away. As we see in the movie, the Shadow is always there. No matter what the Ego does he cannot effectively control it. The last scene with Cobb and Mal together show the eventual confrontation of the Ego to the Shadow. Cobb admits that he was the one who planted the idea in Mal, unconsciously spelling out her transformation into the Shadow character. He allows himself to acknowledge the overwhelming guilt from this act and he recalls how alike he really is to the Shadow. He recalls that they were once a unified system and they had grown old together. He sees her for who she really is. Only when this is done, is the hold the Shadow has on the Ego able to relax. And as we see in the end of the movie, Cobb is finally able to make it home.
This is simply an individual’s interpretation of a great film. My viewpoints have been formulated from several books on Jungian psychology, as well as an interpretation given by Dr. Lahab Al-Samarrrai, a clinical psychotherapist. It is quite possible and even expected that not everyone will agree on the interpretations. It is merely one mind putting things together and rearranging them in a way that makes sense to me. Enjoy!
Al-Samarrrai, L. (2020). Screen Analysis Inception. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Na4UkwrH9-c
Stein, M. (1998). Jungs map of the soul: an introduction. Chicago, IL: Open Court.
Thomas, E. & Nolan, C. (Producers), & Nolan, C. (Director). (2010). Inception. [Motion Picture], United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Young-Eisendrath, P., & Dawson, T. (2008). The Cambridge companion to Jung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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