Study Guide

Rear Window Themes

  • Dissatisfaction

    Jeff is bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored beyond all possible limits of boredom. That's what leads him to his creepy voyeurism to begin with. But he's not the only one who's dissatisfied. Lisa doesn't like the way he blows her off; she wishes he'd take her along on his assignments. Even Thorwald is dissatisfied—fed up with his marriage and willing to kill his wife to run off with another woman. These are the three most important characters in Rear Window, all driven by discontent and eventually risking life and limb—quite literally—in order to be happier.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Would Jeff have spotted the murder or kept up with the investigation if he weren't so bored? Why or why not?
    2. How does Lisa's dissatisfaction with Jeff lead her to participate in his investigation?
    3. What does Jeff's boredom say about the neighborhood he's living in, and by extension the kind of life he normally leads?
    4. How does Thorwald's crime reflect his own unhappiness with domestic life? How does that make him different from Jeff? How does it make him the same?

    Chew on This

    Everyone's dissatisfaction here is reflective of life in the 1950s: a stifling conformity that none of them can stand.

    Jeff's dissatisfaction (a man of action being stuck in a chair) is the complete opposite of Thorwald's (a man stuck in his life eager to try some action).

  • Perseverance

    No one believes Jeff when he first suspects that Thorwald murdered his wife. He has to fight through that and painstakingly assemble the evidence that Thorwald is a killer. Lisa, for her part, desperately loves Jeff and goes to great lengths to prove it. In both cases, these two demonstrate extraordinary perseverance in order to reach their goals.

    Perseverance makes for good drama, and in the case of Rear Window, it reminds us that it takes more than the ability to throw a punch for the hero (or heroine) to get what they want. That's doubly important because Jeff can't really do more than watch. If he wants to see this through, he's going to have to stick with it despite his personal obstacles. As we learn in the first scene, he'll do anything to get the picture.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Is Jeff's perseverance the most important quality toward successfully solving this mystery?
    2. How does Lisa demonstrate perseverance? How does Stella? Doyle?
    3. What are the obstacles that Jeff gets through with help from his instinct to persevere?
    4. Is Jeff's snooping justified because his persistence ends up solving a murder?

    Chew on This

    Perseverance in this film is ultimately seen as a good and beneficial quality.

    Hitchcock is suggesting that there's something unhealthy about Jeff's persistence—something bordering on obsession.

  • Morality and Ethics

    There's something unwholesome about obsessively spying on your neighbors from the rear window, even if it does lead to a killer's capture. Jeff gets a voyeuristic thrill out of secretly intruding into people's privacy, and the film raises (but doesn't answer) the question of whether or not that's crossing a moral line.

    It's not the only morally dubious thing Jeff does: he takes the law into his own hands, writes fake notes to Thorwald, and gets other people involved in his questionable caper. Is he justified in doing it? After all, it leads to Thorwald's capture, so don't those little moral questions become irrelevant? Do the ends justify the means? Rear Window never answers those questions. Hitchcock didn't like making moral judgments. Lots of Hitchcock protagonists find themselves operating in a moral gray zone; that's what makes them interesting.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Why is it not okay to look in on, say, Miss Lonelyhearts' despair, but it is okay to look in on Thorwald disposing of evidence?
    2. Are Lisa and Stella any more ethical than Jeff?
    3. Does Jeff's accident reflect a moral lapse on the job?
    4. Does a murder committed in an ordinary, normal neighborhood by an ordinary salesman in an ordinary marriage say something about all of us in general?

    Chew on This

    Jeff is on a slippery ethical slope with his spying, and he knows it.

    By giving Thorwald a motivation for killing his wife, i.e., he's desperately unhappy, Hitchcock presents a moral gray area.

  • Community

    The apartments around the courtyard in Rear Window represent a community. The funny thing is, they're a pretty detached and self-absorbed community. They live their lives quite separate from each other, even though they're joined by a common courtyard, and as we learn in one tearful accusation, they don't seem to be particularly caring.

    At the same time, we do see evidence of neighborly feeling here and there. Miss Torso looks devastated at the death of the dog, for example, and Miss Lonelyhearts tells the discouraged songwriter that his music saved her life. Jeff, with his globetrotting job, probably hasn't been very involved with his neighbors; he only knows them by his nicknames for them. If he knew them, we doubt he'd be spying on them. That's the kind of thing that requires anonymity.

    The movie raises the question of what's more appropriate: minding one's own business, or giving a darn about what's happening in your neighborhood.

    Questions About Community

    1. What are some of the ways the community shows no interest in each other? What are some of the ways they show that they care?
    2. How do Jeff's activities hurt the community? How do they help the community?
    3. Is the woman's accusation at the death of her dog indicative of what this community is like? Or, is it just a woman grieving over her pet?
    4. How and why does Thorwald represent a danger to this community, and not just to his wife?

    Chew on This

    There is no real community here, just a bunch of people who live in the same neighborhood.

    Hitchcock gives us some hope of community. Even if it's because of the death of the dog and the murder of Thorwald's wife, people will now pay a little more attention to each other.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    In Rear Window, Jeff is used to going all over the world, picking up stakes whenever there's a new assignment, and moving at the speed of his lens shutter. Now, suddenly he's stuck in his apartment, unable to go anywhere. He finds ways to move and explore, creepy and off-putting though they may be, and eventually finds his way out of his confinement.

    There's a strange parallel there to Thorwald, who's also trapped by his circumstances.

    After Jeff's actual immobility, this film seems to portray marriage as the next worst thing. Jeff sees marriage as the ultimate ball and chain. He's afraid that his relationship with Lisa would rob him of his freedom to pursue his career and he'd be stuck in a boring, ordinary life dominated by his wife. That's another parallel to Thorwald, who resorts to murder to get rid of his nagging wife. We're picking up a slightly 1950s, misogynist idea about marriage here—even the newlywed husband is portrayed as being "henpecked," as they used to call it.

    The audience is trapped right along with Jeff; our vision is limited to the view from his apartment. This allows us to engage with the character because we can feel his frustration. But Lisa? We'd marry her in a second.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What's so important about limiting the action to this one courtyard? What does that choice say about freedom and confinement?
    2. How does Jeff view marriage in terms of freedom and confinement?
    3. In what ways is Thorwald more free than Jeff?

    Chew on This

    Jeff's career allows a degree of freedom that most people can't even imagine.

    Jeff's career only gives him the illusion of freedom because it's very limiting in other ways, like preventing the formation of lasting relationships.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Rear Window is essentially a battle of wits, with Jeff trying to uncover the truth about a murderer and said murderer doing everything in his power to keep from getting caught. From a purely plot perspective, Rear Window is a kind of chess game: Thorwald takes extra-special steps to avert suspicion (like planting a phony postcard from his dead wife), while Jeff finds places where Thorwald slips up. Jeff thinks of ways to lure in Thorwald and ramp up his anxiety that someone is on to him. It's up to Lisa, though, to put all of those clever plans into action; Jeff is stuck in his chair. Lisa is also pretty clever in knowing that joining Jeff in his sleuthing might show him that she's as adventurous as he is.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. How do Lisa and Stella contribute to Jeff's detective work with their smarts?
    2. Jeff misses the sight of Thorwald leaving the apartment with a woman in black. Why is that so important to the mystery, and what does it say about Thorwald's cleverness that he thought that step through?
    3. Do you think that Jeff is smarter than Thorwald?
    4. How does Doyle's cleverness serve to hinder Jeff, however inadvertently, in his investigation?

    Chew on This

    Jeff is not as smart as he thinks he is because he can't foresee how his little schemes put those around him in danger.

    The film's last scene suggests that Lisa has really been the more clever schemer.