Updated: Apr 11
by Katarina Spaic
The Relationship with the Father
”And I here make a rule-a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting-only the deeply personal and familiar.” ~John Steinbeck
There are two father-son relationships that are portrayed in the esteemed film Inception. One is an actual biological father-son bond between Robert and his father. The second bond is a a not-so-obvious connection between Saito and Cobb (who represents the Ego, see Part 1 for more information). To break down the characters a bit, Robert himself represents the Puer/Eternal Child archetype and Saito represents the actual Father archetype.
The relationship with a father figure is not as obscure a concept as some of the other Jungian terms. Everyone has their own idea of what a father symbol is to them, and we have all felt our own real-life connection or absence of connection to a father figure in some way. Interestingly enough, there is not a finite definition of what the Father Archetype entails in Jungian Psychology. I have found many little articles and podcasts on the internet regarding archetypes and the “father figure”, but there is not much about the “father archetype” that Carl Jung himself elaborated on. He does delve into the Father Complex and the concept of Logos (which is more of a masculine energy that embodies structure, judgment, and insight). Logos is commonly talked about within the realm of fairy-tales; the King figure is often the Logos aspect in the story. We will explore that concept more in a future blog post, so stay tuned. Due to this lack of concrete ideas around the Jungian father archetype, I have decided to take a turn and simply explore the idea of a father figure being a source of stability (or instability if it is a negative father figure) and structure in a child’s upbringing, and how these concepts can be reflected back to the archetypal characters seen in Inception.
The idea of discernment and therefore the ability to justly discipline has been traditionally viewed at as being a masculine role. A father figure looms over a child as they are growing up, and serves as an ideal “way to be” when they are grown. This allows the child to have a goal in mind, obtain structure in their upbringing, and enables a feeling of security. But what happens when we grow up? We are not our father, and we were never born to be our father in every way. Therefore, a time must appear where we have an internal conflict with our father figure. There develops a cognitive dissonance between what we believe we should be according to our fathers standards, and what we want to be of our own accord. If we do not get some kind of “permission” from this figure to live the individualized role we were born to fulfill, then we may not complete the individuation process. It’s important to state here that a “father figure” and an “ideal way to be” does NOT have to come directly from a paternal parent in childhood. If a child grows up without a biological father in their life, it is my understanding that a father archetype will be developed from someone that they idealize or look up to.
The idea of obtaining permission from an internalized father figure is not just in Jungian psychology. John Steinbeck brings up this concept in his novel East of Eden as well. This intricate book, which follows the lives of several generations of a fictional family in the United Sates, has a culminating point in the last chapter where the father is given the chance to release his son from his expectations before death. The actual word the father utters to his son on his death bed is a Hebrew phrase that translates into “Thou mayest”. How I interpret this is that the father had to tell his son that he could live his life on his own terms; and in doing so, he was no longer beholden to something his parents did before him. This symbolic act of the internalized father giving the son permission to be his own man opens up a completely new path for the young man (it just so happens that he was a man in the Steinbeck story, but this concept is not attached to any gender) . Whether this is the actual individuation process or the kick-start of one, I am not sure.
Bringing it back to Inception, there are two distinct scenes where Robert and Cobb get “permission” to live their individual lives from their “father” figures. For Robert, this instance occurs when he is in the third dream layer, at his father’s deathbed. His father stutters out the words “…disappointed”, and Robert takes this instantly as proof that his father was disappointed in him until the very end. However, his internalized father (this film especially highlights the power of internalized figures because it takes place in the “dream world”) is able to correct Robert’s viewpoint and he tells him that he was disappointed that Robert tried to follow in his footsteps. This pinnacle of a moment transforms Robert and he ends up opening the safe which is by the bed and discovers the alternate will that his father left him; allowing him to dismantle the company in order to embark on his own personal journey of individuation.
Cobb’s encounter with the “Father’s permission” is the promise that Saito will make a call that will free him from his charges and will allow him to go home a cleared man. Cobb’s whole mission is centered around this goal. He goes to desperate lengths to make it happen, and in the end it all seems for naught when the Father archetype falls into the abyss of the subconscious. The Ego (Cobb) follows him there and encounters many archetypal figures in this space, what they call “limbo” in the film. Yet the last character he has a connection with is in fact the Father archetype. His purpose is to rescue him, to find him again in order to get the Father’s permission to live his life the way he wants to.
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.
Steinbeck, J. (2017). East of Eden. London: Penguin Books Ltd
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.