The Shadow of Mal: Gothic Romance and Victorian Ghosts in ‘Inception’

Christopher Nolan is acclaimed for his cinematic hybridization of multiple genres, ranging from thriller and science fiction to heist drama and superhero narratives. His use of literary themes in movie-making is especially prominent given that Nolan often writes character-driven stories with psychological depth and moral complexity. In his 2010 heist film, Inception, Nolan experiments with the narrative mechanics of Gothic romance through the story of Dom Cobb, a professional thief who extracts information by infiltrating his subjects’ dreams. Cobb’s inability to overcome the guilt of feeling personally responsible for his wife’s death prevents him from moving beyond the past. By repeatedly dreaming, he keeps Mal alive in the depths of his subconscious, but loses control over his own sense of reality. Cobb is a victim of his own grief in that his mental projection of Mal becomes the haunted ghost he cannot put to rest; a manifestation of his love and suffering. In this short essay, I indicate that Dom’s haunted relationship with Mal resembles a Gothic romance in that his journey towards redemption requires him to confront the deeper memories of his soul in order to finally face Mal’s ghost and return to the life he left behind.

The Gothic romance exists as a subgenre within Victorian literature that ranges from the complex and destructive entanglement of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) to the sexualized obsession of Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The emphasis these works place on grief, distrust, and tragedy enables one to see how Victorian literature often presents love as a precursor to suffering and guilt. The relationships found within Gothic literature do often result in tragic outcomes that entail confronting loss and yearning for reconciliation. Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) adopts the narrative form of Gothic romance through the tortured protagonist of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who seeks redemption after committing an unholy act: implanting an idea into the mind of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) that her world was not real. Cobb’s feeling of guilt over Mal’s death reflects not only his love for her, but also the suffering that comes from his own attempt at using dreams to keep her “alive” within his subconscious. Nolan’s focus on exploring issues of guilt and redemption in dreams represents how the film characterizes Mal as a quasi-Victorian ghost whose pervasive Gothic presence haunts Cobb and his actions until he is finally ready to confront her.

The science-fiction component of Inception appears in the form of “speculative technology”: a machine which enables several people to “share the same dream” by way of a “mind-altering drug.”[1] Cobb uses the machine to infiltrate his targets’ dreams in order to steal valuable information. After he fails initially to steal top-secret files from a powerful Japanese businessman, Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), largely due to Mal’s influence, he is hired by Saito to perform a job involving inception; implanting an idea into a person’s subconscious. Saito asks Cobb to perform inception on Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son of Maurice Fischer, who happens to be Saito’s main energy competitor. Completing the job will ensure Cobb’s legal exoneration and safe return back to America where his children are waiting for him. What complicates the heist is Mal’s constant interference on every level of the dream and Cobb’s emotionally fraught attachment to her, which culminates in finally coming to terms with his sense of personal guilt.

Figure 1: Mallorie Cobb (Left) and Dominick Cobb (Right). Source:

In the setup leading to the main heist, Nolan includes several key scenes to emphasize Cobb’s complex relationship with Mal. Rather than offer information voluntarily to the team, he gradually reveals pieces of his past through conversations with Ariadne (Elliot Page), the architect responsible for drafting and designing each layer of the heist dream. Shortly before the heist, Ariadne notices Cobb dreaming alone, thus prompting her to follow him into his subconscious. She discovers Cobb talking with Mal, where the two lovers discuss what must happen for them to reunite. Cobb must decide whether to make this projection of Mal his reality by neglecting the “real” world and choosing to spend an eternity with her.

Mal: Do you remember when you asked me to marry you?

Cobb: Of course, I do.

Mal: You said you had a dream.

Cobb: That we’d grow old together.

Mal: And we can. [2]

Cobb’s projection of Mal asks if he remembers the marriage proposal. Not only does he answer in the affirmative (reassuring Mal that he has not forgotten about her), but Cobb also reveals a dream he had that the two would “grow old together.” Given that Mal died from suicide (after Cobb failed to prevent her from leaping to her death), his line about “growing old” represents his guilt. Cobb cannot reconcile with the role he played in causing Mal to question her reality. However, when Cobb’s projection claims “we can” still grow old together, she insinuates that his rejection of reality will bring about their delayed reunion. Mal’s proposition is characteristically Gothic in that she frequently haunts Cobb from beyond the grave, forcing him into a situation of “reflecting, expressing, or processing already existing anxieties and traumas in the ‘real’ world.”[3] He cannot function without obsessing over the failure of his marriage and the inability to protect his wife. As Ariadne states at one point in the film: “Your guilt defines her. It’s what powers her.”[4] Cobb’s deep mental trauma is strangely reminiscent of Victorian-Era characters like Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff. Much like Cobb, Heathcliff is also haunted by a former lover (Catherine Earnshaw) who lives in his dreams and overwhelms him with guilt. Likewise, there exists a comparison between Cobb and Mr. Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). Ariadne descends into the basement-level of Cobb’s subconscious finding the hotel suite where Mal and Cobb would spend their anniversaries (and where Mal committed suicide). Cobb’s projection of Mal almost kills Ariadne before they manage to retreat into the elevator, slamming the cage-door shut and locking Mal in the basement. Like Mr. Rochester who locks his wife Bertha in the attic of Thornfield Hall, Cobb imprisons Mal and his most traumatic memory in the deepest portion of his soul with nothing more than, “I’ll come back. Promise” (4:50-4:54). In each example, Cobb and Mr. Rochester’s guilt overshadows their actions with morally dubious decisions that prompt them to conceal the most fractured dimension of their psyches.

Figure 2: Movie screenshot of Mal directly before she leaps to her death in the anniversary hotel suite.

Mal’s function as a femme fatale whose intelligence can outsmart Cobb’s talent as an extractor is also an essential part of her Gothic appeal. Despite Cobb’s skill at corporate espionage, Mal can anticipate his actions and adjust her plans accordingly. For example, in the opening scene of the movie (Cobb’s heist of Saito), Cobb encounters Mal during the first mission and ties her down to a chair in order to prevent her from interfering. However, she quickly escapes, assists Saito, and intercepts Cobb before he is able to leave undetected. By devising a character who can predict and sabotage Cobb’s elaborate infiltration methods, Christopher Nolan establishes a persona with intellectual and psychological control over the protagonist. But unlike so many sexualized iterations of the femme fatale archetype (such as the seductive fairy in John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” ballad), Nolan’s multi-layered construction of Mal is more about developing a character whose strength exists in her capacity to overwhelm and outsmart Cobb’s team. While Keats’ fairy is strikingly similar to Nolan’s Mal in that she too possesses the powers of dream infiltration (‘And there she lulled me asleep/And there I dreamed—Ah, woe betide!—’), Mal does not rely on sexual subversion to defeat Cobb.[5] Rather, she uses psychological persuasion to prove to him that his guilt over her death is reason enough to join her in the eternal infinitude of the “dream.”

Once the main heist begins (Fischer’s dream), Mal’s influence becomes immediately recognizable from the first level of the dream. Shortly after Cobb’s team assembles on level one (a downtown intersection in a city), a mysterious train spontaneously barrels through the city streets.[6] Ariadne, who designed the level, remarks, “this wasn’t in the design. Cobb? Cobb!?” (0:52-0:58). While Cobb is certainly surprised, he instantly recognizes the train from his time sharing “the dream” with Mal when they were trying to understand the concept of multi-layered dreams. When Mal started to reject the real world in favor of their dream world, Cobb implanted the idea that her world was not real and used a train to “kill” them, thereby returning to the real world. By having the train appear so early into the heist, Nolan reveals to the audience that Cobb has no control over Mal (or his own subconscious); she operates independently of his will and can burst through his mind at any moment, potentially sabotaging the mission. The use of the train effectively means that any associated memory of Mal (not limited to the person herself) is capable of threatening Cobb’s team and jeopardizing the entire heist. Mal’s presence is both ubiquitous and quasi-supernatural in that she cannot be contained and will act suddenly regardless of the situation.

Figure 3: Film screenshot of a Mal projection on the third level of the dream before she shoots Robert Fischer and takes him to “limbo” (‘unconstructed dream space’) where she waits for Cobb to face her.

On the third level of the dream (a mountain snow fortress), Mal’s presence almost sabotages the whole mission. In an attempt to finish the heist on time, Cobb convinces Ariadne to reveal the location of a shortcut within the maze for Fischer to take (who is now working with Cobb’s team). By revealing the shortcut to Cobb, Mal learns of its existence as well and intercepts Fischer to shoot him. Despite Cobb having a clear shot to snipe Mal, he hesitates to fire not knowing whether she is either real or imaginary:

Ariadne: Cobb, no. She…she is not real.

Cobb: How do you know that?

Ariadne: She’s just a projection! Fischer…Fischer is real! [7]

Cobb’s hesitation to shoot his projection reflects the extent to which his guilt over Mal erodes his own sense of reality. Her ghost clouds his judgment and prevents him from making clear decisions. Ariadne has to remind Cobb that this version of Mal “is not real.” Cobb’s interrogative response reaffirms that he not only lacks control over his subconscious, but also feels uncertain about whether he can decipher what is real. However, Ariadne’s claim that “Fischer is real” reflects how she remains tethered to reality and can bring Cobb back from the brink of indecision. If Mal represents self-doubt and the ambiguities associated with the Gothic imagination, then Ariadne embodies a firm resistance to the fears that work from within to dismantle the fine line between ghastly memories of the past and a focus on the present.

After Mal shoots Fischer, Cobb must follow her into the limbo level to rescue him and finally confront the memory of his wife. The limbo level represents the deepest (and most complicated) layer of Cobb’s psyche, given that he must reconcile with his guilt and decide whether to choose Mal over reality. Their final conversation represents Mal’s last attempt to convince Cobb to choose her and “the dream” over his actual life as an exile on the run from “anonymous corporations and police forces.”[8] During Cobb’s last meeting with this projection of Mal, he acknowledges his guilt and decides that he must let her go:

Mal: You don’t believe in one reality anymore, so choose, choose to be here. Choose me.

Ariadne: You can’t stay to be with her.

Cobb: I can’t stay with her anymore because she doesn’t exist…You’re just a shade. You’re just a shade of my real wife.[9]

Mal proposes that Cobb no longer believes “in one reality” since his pursuit of dreams has created the very thing he cannot escape from – a fabricated doppelgänger of his real wife that continually torments his psyche. However, Cobb finally admits that he cannot “stay with her anymore” because she is purely imaginary: a “shade of [his] real wife” who “doesn’t exist.” By having Cobb differentiate between what is real vs. imagined, Christopher Nolan uses Mal as a vehicle to address the underlying Gothic aesthetic of the whole film – despite the possibilities and verisimilitude of Cobb’s dream world, it cannot replace or heal the traumatic wounds of guilt that plague the mind. The catharsis Cobb yearns for can only be attained by acknowledging his personal failure and believing in the possibility of life beyond the dream.

Figure 4: Movie screenshot of Mal and Cobb in limbo before the end of the film. Mal tries to convince Cobb that she is the only element of his world that is real. Source:

By superimposing a Gothic aesthetic onto a film about dream infiltration, Christopher Nolan develops a narrative about love, ghosts, and guilt, that echoes key thematic aspects of the early-Victorian cultural context. Whereas Victorian novels like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are concerned with the pervasive concept of haunted love, the tragic romance of Mal and Cobb actualizes haunted love as the expression of yearning for emotional reconciliation. Even after Mal’s suicide, Cobb never stopped loving her. But his guilt over her death is what prevents him from seeing a life beyond the fabricated dreams he created to keep her alive. In essence, Inception expresses itself as a form of pseudo-Victorian fiction with Gothic sensibilities given Cobb’s inability to escape the invisible, yet extraordinarily powerful, influence of his deceased wife. In addition to working as a Gothic character who haunts Cobb’s memories and dreams, Mal’s existence reveals that personal redemption can only occur by confronting the shadow of oneself.

Julian Whitney (@JulianSWhitney) is an Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN. His research interests include British Romanticism, law and literature, Gothic fiction, and critical race studies. At Wabash, Julian teaches courses on composition, poetry and short fiction, and English Literature in the nineteenth century. Currently, he is working on an article manuscript titled “Poltergeist Hunter: Gothic Horror in Noriyuki Abe’s Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files,” which examines how elements of the Gothic influence narrative storytelling in Japanese anime.

Notes & references

[1] David Carter, Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV: Inception (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2019).

[2] Christopher Nolan, director. Inception. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2010. YouTube, uploaded by CinemaTop, 30 March, 2021,

[3] Catherine Spooner, Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic (New York: Bloomsbury 2017): 11.

[4] Carter, 88.

[5] John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad,” Keats’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Jeffrey N. Cox (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009); 338.

[6] Nolan, Inception, YouTube, uploaded by Movieclips, 9 April, 2021,

[7] Nolan, Inception, 01:52:10-1:52:20.

[8] Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012): 166. This quotation is spoken by Mal when she claims that Cobb’s current reality is not much of a life given that he is always evading the authorities. In her mind, she is the only object Cobb can now desire since his actual life has been ruined by his work with inception.

[9] Nolan, Inception, 02:07:45-02:08:27.

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