Modern Times Analysis

Quite a lot of symptomatic meaning takes place in Charlie Chaplin’s film, “Modern Times.” Chaplin’s character is constantly failing to meet society’s expectations of a successful working man. Despite his determination to complete his tasks and his cunning ways to avoid getting in trouble, Chaplain never truly fits  in, as shown through the film’s form.


At the beginning of the film, Chaplain works in the steel mill with the monotonous job of tightening bolts on an assembly line. As Chaplain gets further behind in his work, he affects the workers next in line- this is easily seen through the use of continuity editing, as a shot-reverse shot technique is used to switch from the angry stares of the other workers and Chaplain’s hastiness to catch up. The exaggerated facial expressions and movements in this scene contribute to the comedy of the film. I also gathered that, ironically, the tools that he uses are supposed to help him make money, but ultimately by using them he becomes unemployed.

Even when Chaplain is held down so that he cannot possibly mess up, he still fails to show the success of the dinner machine when he serves as a test dummy. Again, the scene is made comical through the failure of the machine, especially when the corn on the cob goes haywire. Perhaps if the machine had successfully fed him, he would have redeemed himself for his previous mishap at the assembly line; however the machine makes more of a fool of him as expected from the audience. The machine could be another symptomatic meaning for society not being able to fix him. Repetition of Chaplain’s failures emphasize his difficulty in being successful in the work force.



3 thoughts on “Modern Times Analysis

  1. I really like your analysis and the scenes you chose. In regards to the bolt tightening scene, as hilarious as it was, this scene could easily stand as one of the most powerful imagery in the film. Not only is it shown at the beginning of the film, but it is also layered with all four primary forms of meaning. Referentially, we are introduced to a factory in a period that has been established as the depression. A factory in the depression. Even today that strikes something of a sour note. The audience is immediately met with an understanding that times are tough and jobs are scarce. Factory work probably is not the Tramp’s first career choice. But we know from a historical perspective that it was probably the only job available. The meaning is also explicit. We see the character performing menial tasks that require concentration. We understand how unpleasant it is to have such a job. Meaning is also suggested implicitly by what actually happens to the man. He goes crazy! The scene is yes, funny, but also holds some serious weight. He is described to have had a mental breakdown. This suggests that such work in this period actually led to insanity. Finally, in a broader sense, the scene holds symptomatic meaning. The Tramp is the common man finding work in a tough time. And the common men of this time are simply cogs in the great machine of society (which makes the small sequence of Chaplin “becoming part of the machine” even more important). All this imagery is representing a society becoming more hopeless and impoverished.

  2. When you mentioned how monotonous Chaplin’s job was, automatically “Metropolis” came to mind. Similar to “Metropolis,” “Modern Times” tried to portray the working man as a slave to society, having to succumb to the boss’ requests in order to make the company look good. Unlike Freder, who proves successful in the factory, Chaplin just does not have what it takes to be the ideal working man. As hard as he tries to fulfill his duties, he cannot keep up with the other workers and ultimately gets in the way instead of being productive. Like you said, this character flaw contributes to the symptomatic meaning that Chaplin cannot live up to society’s expectations of a hard worker that gets the job done correctly and efficiently. As it has been pointed out several times, the repetition of Chaplin’s struggles to fit into society is conducive to the comedic storyline.

  3. Symptomatic meaning is everywhere in this film. We see Chaplin constantly struggling to find a fitting place within society and man, does he fail. The poor guy can’t make it more than 5 minutes on the assembly line without some how messing up.

    I find it interesting how you compared the tools he uses along with what purpose they are meant for to how Chaplin is unable to fully utilize them and become one with the rest. This idea resonates with him being some sort of tool in society that hasn’t found he’s use for. Chaplin continues to get himself into trouble until ironically, finds peace and comfort in a prison cell. However, as the story progresses Chaplin is let go and get the opportunity to perform for a restaurant and does an outstanding job.

    Finally Chaplin finds a sense of unity with society; through entertainment and performance only to run away again due to the women he cares for. Although this leaves the viewer with the curiosity of what would’ve been of Chaplin’s life as a performer I believe we are left satisfied with the idea he found someone that relates to him no matter what situation he is in.

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