Alienation to Anomie in ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times’

The Alienated and the Anomic in ‘Modern Times’

““Modern Times” A story of industry, of individual enterprise ~ humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”

Modern Times (1936) is considered by most to be Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece. This film was made in the post-silent era of films and is not specifically a silent film. Although there is not a lot of talking, when there is spoken dialogue the dialogue comes from a machine, either a PA system, a recording, etc. At the core of the film are two characters trying to reclaim their humanity in an industrial world. The first character is “A Factory Worker” (Charlie Chaplin) the second is  “A Gamin” (Paulette Goddard). Within these two characters are a sense of Marxist Alienation and Durkheimian Anomie (A sense of Normlessness and or hopelessness). While A Factory Worker begins with Alienation, his alienation transforms into Anomie throughout the course of the film

What distinguishes man from animal according to Marx is that our faculties, capacities and tastes are shaped by society (Giddens, 1971, p. 13). Therefore each individual by this logic is a product of the culture he was born into and the generations that preceded him or her. Durkheim similarly argued that individuals were moulded and constrained by their social environments. This was because their behaviours were regulated by social norms through institutionalized values (Abercrombie, Hill, & Turner, 1984, p. 107). This essay will investigate how these theories are distinct and yet have a logical connection and development within the isolated individual’s of A Factory Worker and A Gamin.

Part 1: ‘A Story of Industry’


The relationship between human characteristics, productive activities, and products of these activities, allowed Marx to define alienation as any reification of men’s objects. The more Chaplin’s Factory Worker creates for ‘Electro Steel Corp’. The more they expect of him and the faster he is expected to work. The more of the product that is created the less power he has. He has no way out. Being alienated from one’s essential nature is to be other than what one is in essence. This is something other than what a man ideally could and ought to be, a free, creative, conscious man with willful control over his life activities. The despair of self-alienation is juxtaposed between a person’s actual life circumstances and his essential nature (Macfarlane, 1978).

This loss of control that he faces by attempting to adhere to the demands of the machinery spins him out of control. This propels him through the levels of Marxist Alienation from his alienation of the product of his labour, to the alienation from the act of production and eventually cuts him off from his ‘species being’.  This is the Marxist ideal of human nature. He cannot create at this point and when he cannot create something in the world he has no place to go but to allow himself to be objectified. This propels him into further torment in his commoditized sense of self in a capitalist world.

The ‘velocity of life has been speeded up by capitalist endeavours and space has been reduced between men’ (Sinai, 1965, p. 20) to the point where they pull away just to get a sense normality, but this normality no longer exists because stepping out of the line of production removes the Factory Worker from his self-created world (Sinai, 1965, p. 20). He can either be alienated by the work or alienated from society and in this case he eventually becomes Anomic.

By Marxist Standards the Factory Worker may be responsible for the creation of his alienation. This leads to the dehumanization that we see in Modern Times where he see him behaving in a mechanized manner when attempting to fix the buttons on the ladies blouse Thus man is his activity, the objects or products of this activity, and his society. Thus, alienation from man’s activities of production, his products, and his social relationships nullifies the development of human potential (Plasek, 1974). The factory worker cannot develop as a human being but can only exist as a tool within a system and alienation becomes unavoidable. It is at this point man where he ceases to be a man and therefore becomes an Alienated object.

The product becomes alien and as the creator of an alienated product the man becomes alienated. The process of production is socially organized under industrial capitalism. The products of human labor are objectified and transformed into commodities for exchange and profit. The more the worker creates the cheaper the commodity he becomes. “A commodity is a mysterious thing. This is because the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor” (Knight, 1959, p. 67).

Therefore the Factory Worker logically becomes the creator of his own alienation and this manifests itself in his psyche and filters out into the world. There is hopelessness in powerlessness. Therefore anomie could exist within alienation and be born from the womb of Marxist alienation.

Part 2: ‘Individual Enterprise’

Alienated to Anomic

Chaplin’s Factory Worker is powerless against the machinery that dominates the world and he can either be part of it, as a tool or he can be atomized in an unfulfilled, anomic and alienated existence. There is an absence of unity in alienated individuals. They are divided and ‘Alienated labor turns people against each other and themselves’ (Knight, 1959, p. 165). Good examples of this in Modern Times include the Factory Workers fighting on the production line and the prisoners turning on each other. In the second half of the film, once The Factory Worker moves to an anomic state, he finds a kinship in the department store with the robbers who were once his factory workers. They find a commonality in their despair. They have moved beyond alienation to a point where they begin to understand that there is no place for them in the world. As Gamin says in the final moments of the film ‘what’s the point in trying?’

The Individual

Marx’s conceptions of human Nature were that we have a need to create and this manifests itself in the self-creating aspects of labor. The means of work that humanity comes to create are essential, self-defining characteristics. Not only the products of labor, but also the labor activities, are extensions of Man’s own nature.

The key difference between Durkheim and Marx would appear that the Durkheim-Individual goes through a process of internalization where he absorbs the environment and eventually comes to the realization that he has no way out and no hope. Whereas it is the external forces that sculpt the Marx-Individual. The Marxist alienated individual is a man who has been overpowered by the force of another. He has been oppressed to the point of being powerless in the world. Anomie is to be cut off from the social sphere.  Anomie is the breakdown of norms in social interactions. It is the breakdown of a community in that the individuals have no place in the world.  They are detached from the collective that they were born into. Therefore, Durkheim’s anomie follows the theme of hopelessness and Marx’s Alienation follows the theme of powerlessness.

In simpler terms, Anomic individuals are ‘sponges’ and alienated individuals are ‘marble’. To be Anomic over Alienated by this argument would mean that the Anomic individual has a greater degree of insight into his own nature and his own situation. This would perhaps make the Anomic individual the more tragic figure. Charlie Chaplin’s Factory worker for example begins his journey as an alienated man but along the way he matures and after meeting ‘A Gamin’ begins to absorb the world.

This transference takes him from Marxist Alienation to Durkheim’s anomie. By the end of the film he is smarter and has developed his instincts for getting by from the influence of A Gamin but his Anomie has propelled him further from society than where he began. He is no longer a part of the herd of the working class. There is a sense of hopelessness and dread beneath the surface of the man who has nowhere to go and no way of defining his identity.


In a world where an identity is defined by vocation the individual without a respectful vocation will not only become powerless in his alienation from production but he will also be without hope, as he cannot fit into the world without a vocation. Charlie Chaplin is credited as “A Factory Worker”. There is no name to this character. Similarly, his employer has a glass door that reads “PRESIDENT… ELECTRO STEEL CORP.” there is no name attributed to this character outside of his title. Yet there is enough space between his job title and company to make it obvious that something is missing. What is missing is the identity that one should have outside of their job. In the modern world our professions define us. This hopelessness is Anomic despair because there is only one way to fit. This is to be part of the social machinery that can be seen in Modern Times.

A Gamin’s Anomie

What separates Gamin from Chaplin’s factory worker is that Gamin is not cut off from her work; she is cut from her family. She was robbed of the ones she loved by the bureaucratic system and ‘Without the duration of families no society can be stable’ (Durkheim, 1897, p. 160). This took her from a place of social alienation to a state of anomie where she became aware of the world and the way it worked. She had the insight to know that the cards were stacked against her while Chaplin’s Factory Worker was still going through the motions and not necessarily understanding the world he lived in or why it was not working for him. Thus you have the alienated worker and the anomic Gamin.

Amongst the herd of the working class and of the socialised animal that man supposedly is, is the lone individual. Thus to be an individual is not an easy task. The difficulty involved in individuality is what makes it an enterprise. It would appear that it is easier to be a part of the system. A part of industry, so why would a person want to be individualised if this makes them powerless and hopeless? What hope is there for the man without power? It is argued that anomie results from blocked opportunities. The individual is prevented from achieving his objectives and the powerlessness of alienation is replaced by a sense of hopelessness (Wilkins, 1965).  This hopelessness is an unquenchable thirst.

Part 3: ‘Humanity Crusading in the Pursuit of Happiness’

The Thirst

As Durkheim stated “Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture” (Durkheim, 1897). This thirst arises for novelties, nameless sensations and pleasures and yet they lose their savour once known. Therefore, “Humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness” is in the Durkheimian sense the crusade for the pursuit of happiness is an inextinguishable thirst. Therefore man is constantly in search of new ways to quench his thirst and ‘Reality seems valueless compared to the dreams of fevered imaginations; reality is abandoned and possibility is abandoned when it becomes reality’ (Durkheim, 1897).

A good example of this can be seen in the dream sequences of Chaplin’s Factory Worker where he fantasises about the house with all the latest modern luxuries and the department store sequence where they utilize the comfortable beds and modern utilities to excess. Luxuries and commodities were of the highest value in the world of Modern Times.

The Continuum of Despair

There would appear to be two fundamental disparities in the means-ends continuum: first, between people’s existing life circumstances and their generic human capacities.  Second is inability to believe in objects and the inability to function without them (Knight, 1959). The life of The Factory Worker is dejected and heavy laden, oscillating between fatalism and frenzy, tossed between the despotism of the factory and the anarchy of the outside world (Sinai, 1965, p. 30). This denies or thwarts his natural human capacity for free, spontaneous, self-realizing activity that is an assumed part of his essential nature. The notion of self-alienation emerges here as a strategic concept which underlies all forms and manifestations of alienation in society (Scheitzer, 1991).

The themes of despair were cleverly constructed not only in the character of ‘A Factory Worker’ and ‘A Gamin’ but also from the usage of black and white. Good examples include the clock in the opening credits; the white hand is counting the seconds while the Black Hand is barely moving, the white cattle with one black member plodding through, and the subway with variations of black, white and grey hats but no faces. Then there is the work place where the employees are clocking on. Here we see white hats, one black hat and no faces. The individual is rare in this world and they stand out like a black sheep.

What reason would a man have to want to live a life that is regulated, where his freedoms are lacking and where he can only act in accordance with what is expected of him? The answer that Chaplin proposes is that the need for normality in your life and wanting to fit in is based on the desire for love and affection from a partner or family.  Therefore, if as Durkheim argues ‘People are only happy when their wants are proportionate to their means’ then how can an alienated worker not be anomic?

Does this despair not go hand in hand between alienation and anomie? The criteria for the community would be that there is a collective force behind the community and sense of fellowship to live united but there is no fellowship in the anomic community. So, would one man create an anomic community or become a threat to the way of life established such as The Factory Worker ceasing to function and needing to be reformed and rehabilitated as a member of society.

‘We’ll get along, as long as we stick together’

Can two anomic individuals ever be happy together? There is an absence of norms here and nothing to contain them but the neglect of the outside world. The anomie is not going away and by the close of the film with their backs to the camera they may appear to be walking of into the sunset with the myth that two people can complete each other but this not a reality. The most likely outcome is that they are walking to their doom. The police want them and there is nothing on the horizon. The anomie is actually growing. It is almost as if the despair of Gamin’s anomie has infected The Factory Worker. The romanticised cheeriness of “we’ll get along” will soon fade once the reality that even together the anomic person is still isolated. Therefore, the story ends and alienation may pass but Anomie goes on.

The End.


Abercrombie, N., Hill, S., & Turner, B. S. (1984). The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. London: Penguin.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide. paris: Routledge Classics.

Giddens, A. (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Universirt Press.

Herzog, W. (Writer), & Herzog, W. (Director). (1974). The Enigma of Kasper Hauser [Motion Picture]. Germany.

Herzog, W. (2009). Werner Herzog Interviews.

Knight, E. (1959). The Objective Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Macfarlane, A. (1978). The Origins of English Indivualism. Great Britain: The Camelot press.

Plasek, W. (1974). Maexist anjd American Sociological Conceptions of Alienation: Implications for Social Problems. Social Problems , 21 (3), 316-328.

Scheitzer, D. (1991). Marxist Theories of Alienation and Reification: The Response to Capitalism, State Socialism and the Advent of Postmodernity. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy , 11 (6/7/8), 27-52.

Sinai, J. R. (1965). The Challenge of Modernisation. London: Ghato and Windus.

Wilkins, L. T. (1965). Social Deviance. New Jersey: Tavistock Publications.

About Soylent GreenScreen Podcast

Australian podcaster, writer, teacher and film reviewer.

Posted on June 21, 2012, in Essays and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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