Totems, Symbols, and Reconciliation in Inception



Spoiler Alert – Inception was an intellectually stimulating and engaging combination of sci-fi action movie, ensemble piece about corporate espionage, and an introspective drama about guilt, loss, and reconciliation. The premise of extracting and planting ideas in the subconscious through dreams and the idea of group dreaming was a fresh approach.

Inception seemed to invite the audience into it’s multi-layered dream and keep us there until the very end. Though the dreamers in the movie were the architects and very intentional in their dreams, watching Inception felt more like having a real dream.  It felt off kilter and sometimes confused and very in the moment.

Real dreams, the ones that come to us as we sleep, the ones we don’t control, allow us to unravel our mental, emotional, and spiritual knots. We need to dream in order to remain sane. Even though we don’t remember all of our dreams or understand the ones we do remember, our dreams allow us our sub-conscious minds to reorder and reinterpret our lives.  We don’t have to know what happens in our dreams in order for them to heal us.

Perhaps the movie, like a dream, is meant to be personal and individual. There are lots of ways to look at the ending. It felt a bit like waking up in the middle of a dream. We each will draw individual conclusions and interpretations in order to try to make sense of it. Like the dreamers in the movie, each member of the audience brings a collection of beliefs and ideas to interpreting Inception.

Mal’s top which Cobb adopts, Arthur’s loaded dice, and Ariadne’s chess piece are personal totems that each uses as a distinctive identifier to distinguish reality from dream. In a way their totems also help them remember who they really are. All of us have totems. They can be places or events in our pasts – items like wedding rings, souvenirs, or trophies that act as reminders of who we are and what makes us that way. Our totems help us reset to reality when our perceptions become confused.

Robert Fischer’s pinwheel acts not only as a totem but as something more. It redefines him. This item represents, as Cobb explains, “a single idea from the human mind [that]…can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” The pinwheel represents the shift in perspective which becomes the lynchpin for altering Fischer’s perception of his relationship with his father. For Fischer, finding that pinwheel in the safe is the proof that he mattered to his father. The actions and decisions that proceed from knowing that he was loved, valued, and accepted will differ from those that might be made by a bitter man who feels like a disappointment to his father.

I found myself thinking about a symbol in my own life that tells me I am loved. It redefines who I am. Like the pinwheel in Inception, the cross of Christ is a symbol of the father’s love and reconciliation. What I might have become, decisions I might have made, and directions my life might have taken are altered by the cross. It acts as a totem that reminds me of who I am and what is real. More than grounding me in reality, it redefines my reality with the idea of redemption; an idea that did not originate with me but that changes me.

Cobb says that “We are all looking for reconciliation.” Reconciliation alters reality. It replaces guilt, suspicion, selfishness, and hopelessness with grace, peace, forgiveness, and hope. Fischer becomes different once he knows his father loved him. When we are freed from proving ourselves and protecting ourselves, we are able to live different lives.

Though defined by guilt and grief Cobb says that “negative emotions are always trumped by positive emotions.” He says this in the context of planting an idea in Fischer’s mind, yet he can’t control his own negative emotions. He’s defined himself by his complicity in his wife’s death and his inability to prevent it. He’s diminished his relationship with her to their shared dreams and her disconnect from reality for which he holds himself responsible.

Mal (pronounced Moll) is French for evil. Cobb’s dreams are plagued by Mal as a construct of his subconscious, who continuously tortures his mind and sabotages his work. He can devise punishment for himself but not reconciliation. Cobb can’t escape this evil he’s created alone. He can’t repair the memories he has of his wife to capture the whole of their relationship, rather than just the shattered parts. He loves his children but he can’t go to them because Mal has trapped him in both dream and reality.

In Greek mythology Ariadne  guides Theseus out of the Cretan labyrinth. It is Ariadne’s intervention that helps Cobb recognize that the Mal he keeps encountering in his dreams is “just a shade, a shade of my real wife. How could I capture all your beauty, your complexity, your perfection, your imperfection, in a dream?” At least in part, Inception is about the trumping of Cobb and Fischer’s grief and guilt. Each finds reconciliation through an idea that is planted by someone else.

Negative emotions can cause us to lose sight of what’s important and real. We doubt the validity of the very things we once used to define ourselves or mark what’s real. These are the times I most need to feel the weight of the cross in my hands and to recognize the totem that tells me who I am and what is real.

3 Responses to “Totems, Symbols, and Reconciliation in Inception

  • Peter DeMaio Says:

    Disregard what i said I misread hahha

  • Peter DeMaio Says:

    It is a great article but one problem I found while reading was that Cobb does not say that negative emotion always trumps positive emotion. It is in favt just the opposite. The idea planted in fischers mind was for Fischer to make a man of himself and not be like his father but be his own man with his own accomplishments. You were correct about the totem however fishcer only feels positive emotion towards his father actually caring for him. while we see Fischers uncle peter’s motivations surrounding self ownership of the company created by Cobb and his team secures the idea of self success into fischers mind.

  • Christina Brown Says:

    Good article. Amazing movie. I love that the ending left me hanging.