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Watchmen | Themes

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Identity

As masked crime fighters, all of Watchmen's main characters have dual identities. In some cases the alter egos are the personalities each vigilante wishes they had in "real" life. Dan Dreiberg, for example, feels more confident and powerful when he's dressed as Nite Owl. When he snaps on his utility belt, he no longer worries about nuclear war or unrequited love. Rorschach, whose vigilante work often ends in violence, is better equipped to acknowledge and address the evils of society when he disappears behind his mask. As Walter Kovacs, he couldn't deal with the way he brutally murdered Gerald Grice's German Shepherd, but as Rorschach the gore doesn't bother him at all. It's a necessary means to an end.

Rorschach eventually comes to find himself identifying more with his vigilante persona than his everyday self, which is why the persona of Rorschach supersedes that of Walter Kovacs to become his primary identity. The same thing happens with Adrian Veidt. For Rorschach, leaving behind Walter Kovacs is symbolic of his decision to move past the difficulties of childhood. For Adrian, embodying the role of Ozymandias outside of work represents his belief that he is an all-powerful ruler on par with Alexander the Great and Ramses II. Both men view their "regular" personas as disguises of their true selves. These disguises of normalcy are imperative for gathering intel and, in Adrian's case, building fortunes and good will, but each man prefers to wear the personalities of their crime-fighting alter egos.

Some of the characters in Watchmen also lose their identities. Sally Jupiter, nee Juspeczyk, does it on purpose. She changes her last name to "Jupiter" to erase the Polish part of her heritage at a time when Poles were looked down upon in the United States. Dr. Manhattan slowly and inadvertently loses his human identity after his transformation from blond scientist to blue superhuman. He is more in tune with atomic structure than human emotion, and as the years pass, he becomes less and less able to empathize with individuals and humanity as a whole. By 1985 he sees himself as separate from the people he's there to protect. Only Laurie Juspeczyk treats him as if he were mortal. She refers to him by his original name, Jon, and continually implores him to think about the emotional impact of his actions. Their breakup cuts the last string tethering him to humanity, and he departs Earth for a world devoid of human emotion and convoluted logic.

Ethics and Morality

Each of the masked vigilantes in Watchmen has a different set of morals and ethics. Ethics are the moral principles that influence a person's behavior, while morality determines whether an action is right or wrong. As there is no universal guideline for morals and ethics, it is up to each person to decide what is best for them. In Watchmen that means several different viewpoints about what makes an action acceptable or not. These differences are best described by three different ethical philosophies.

  • Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is the belief that an action is right if it results in happiness for everyone affected, not just the person who instigated it. Adrian Veidt subscribes to this theory. Even though he knew his plan for world peace would result in the deaths of millions of people, he also knew millions and millions more around the world would benefit from it.
  • Egoism: Egoism is the belief that people should pursue actions that are in their own self-interest. They do not care about the fate of anyone else affected by the action. This theory applies to the Comedian. He couldn't wait to leave Vietnam when the war was over even though his Vietnamese girlfriend was pregnant with his child. She pleads with him to stay, saying she can't forget the child that grows inside of her. He tells her, "Well, that's unfortunate, because that's just what I'm gonna do." She attacks him with a broken beer bottle, so he shoots her. Her death (and that of her unborn child) was in only his best interest, not hers. Until he figured out the magnitude of Adrian's plan, he cared only for himself.
  • Deontological ethics: Utilitarianism and egoism fall under the category of teleological ethics, which state that the "rightness" of an action is determined by result of that action. If the result of the action is good, then the act is morally good. The opposite of that is deontological ethics, which separates the morality of the action from its outcome. A moral action can still have a negative outcome. That's how Rorschach operates. He feels morally obligated to tell the world about Adrian's plan. That would undoubtedly disrupt world peace, but it's still the right thing to do. His version of morality is very black and white, and he has no patience in the gray areas in which Adrian dabbles.

Morals also affect the lives of some of the minor characters in Watchmen. Those who congregate at the newsstand (Dr. Malcolm Long and his wife, Gloria; Joey and Aline; Bernard and Bernie) can be divided into two groups: those who feel a moral obligation to help others and make things right and those who believe everyone must fend for themselves. Aline tries to help Joey by giving her a self-help book, and when they fight, Dr. Long goes against his wife's wishes and tries to break it up. It turns out, however, that it is the Comedian who is right: it doesn't matter if people try to help each other or not. We are all going to die in the end.

Fate

The idea of fate plays a large role in the actions of Watchmen's characters. Some, like the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, are fatalists. They believe everything that happens is preordained and therefore cannot be changed. That's why the Comedian isn't interested in being part of the Crimebusters: "You think [catching criminals] matters? You think that solves anything?" he asks rhetorically. "Inside thirty years the nukes are gonna be flyin' like maybugs." He doesn't see the point of crime fighting when the world is going to end soon anyway.

Dr. Manhattan takes a similar yet slightly less pessimistic view. He can see all aspects of time, which means he can experience the future at the same time he's experiencing the past or the present. He knows what's going to happen before it happens. Laurie Juspeczyk and Janey Slater both get angry with him for not preventing tragedies like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but Dr. Manhattan says he "can't prevent the future. To [him], it's already happening." Instead he makes sure the present matches the preordained future.

There are, of course, plenty of characters who don't believe fate to be immovable. Rorschach and Dan Dreiberg track down the Comedian's murderer and try to convince him to rethink his master plan. Adrian also believes fate can be changed. He does everything in his power to prevent nuclear war between the United States and Russia and establish peace between .

rival nations.

Flawed Heroes

Watchmen differs from the superhero comics that came before it in that author Alan Moore insisted on making his characters three-dimensional. Unlike the early versions of Batman and Superman, Rorschach, Adrian Veidt, Dan Dreiberg, and Laurie Juspeczyk all have good qualities and bad qualities. Some are darker than others, but none, not even Adrian, can be considered a villain. Moore has said in interviews that he "went out of [his] way" to give even the most unpleasant characters positive characteristics. By doing so, the reader can better understand each character's motivations.

Rorschach, for example, is noticeably unkempt and ill-mannered. He breaks into Dan's house without a second thought and eats vegetables straight from the can; he's never clean-shaven and he always smells a little rank. It's hard to sympathize with someone like that. Moore's inclusion of Rorschach's backstory—his negligent mother, his upbringing in a group home, his lack of career training—helps the reader understand why Rorschach is the way he is, which makes it easier for the reader to connect with him.

Likewise, none of the characters are all-out heroes. Dan, who rescues his partner and gets the girl, comes the closest to taking on the classic hero role in Watchmen. Yet he, too, has his bad points, lacking self-confidence out of uniform to the point where he is unable to take any action at all. Only Laurie's prodding gets him into the owl suit and back on the streets. Flawed superheroes are, of course, incredibly common now, but only because of the work Moore did in Watchmen.

Time

The subject of time is a frequent theme in Alan Moore's body of work. In Watchmen Moore proposes that time is a meaningless construct devised for the inferior human mind. In Chapter 9 Dr. Manhattan compares time to "an intricately structured jewel." He can see every side of the metaphorical jewel, but humans "insist on viewing one edge at a time." While regular people can experience only the present, Dr. Manhattan lives through the past, present, and future at the same time. This is one of the reasons he believes the future is preordained. He has already experienced it, so it therefore cannot be changed.

This can be difficult for other characters—and the reader—to understand, which puts an enormous strain on Dr. Manhattan's personal life. He knows before he even meets Laurie that she will someday leave him, yet he feels he must go through the motions of the relationship so its end plays out just as he had already experienced it. The same thing happens when he is accused on national television of causing his ex-girlfriend Janey Slater's cancer. He can see what will happen but cannot take steps to prevent it. The knowledge of what is to come is more of a burden than a blessing, and it brings a certain sadness to Dr. Manhattan's character. He is always aware that his good fortune will someday end.

Questions for Themes

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