Every one of the Watchmen does their vigilante work under a constructed identity. For some of the heroes, their masks are only a convenient way to hide their given names—but for many of the Watchmen, their alter egos become a convenient way to cope with their own insufficiencies. This is particularly apparent for Walter Kovacs, who finds a sense of power and control in his heroic identity as Rorschach. Walter Kovacs uses his secret identity as Rorschach to feel a sense of power and control in a dark and chaotic world, suggesting that constructing a powerful identity can help one cope with one’s own fear or powerlessness, though one may eventually lose oneself in that identity.
For Walter Kovacs and people like him, the world feels grim, violent, and beyond their control, leaving them fearful and with a keen sense of their own powerlessness. Walter Kovacs grows up in an abusive home, surrounded by drugs, prostitution, and violence. Walter’s mother hates him and treats him so monstrously that when Walter hears that someone murdered her, he simply responds, “Good.” Other boys constantly beat Walter up and mock him. From this beginning, his life is rife with fear and violence. Throughout his childhood, Walter is only a victim. He suffers and has no control over his own safety or the world around him. People like Walter who grow up weak and defenseless in a chaotic world are often left feeling fearful and keenly aware of their own powerlessness even in adulthood.
Creating an alter ego allows Walter to feel powerful and capable of doing what he believes must be done, suggesting that constructing such an identity can empower one to feel confident and capable amid grim circumstances. When Walter is 18, he reads about Kitty Genovese, a woman who was raped and tortured to death in New York, within earshot of at least 40 people. No one tried to help. Walter is so disgusted with the world—both its criminals and its apathetic civilians—that he begins roaming the streets at night as Rorschach, hunting down petty criminals as a way to feel empowered and assert some sort of justice in the world. However, Walter describes himself in his early years as “soft” and “naïve,” since he lets criminals live after he punishes them, indicating that he has only partially embraced his new identity as Rorschach. Walter’s full transformation into Rorschach occurs when he discovers that a man kidnapped a six-year-old girl, cut her into pieces, and fed her to his dogs. When Rorschach is about to butcher this kidnapper and his dogs with a meat cleaver, he feels a moment of hesitation. But as he strikes and feels blood cover his chest, Rorschach recalls, “under [the mask], it was Kovacs who closed his eyes. It was Rorschach who opened them again,” suggesting that he has fully embraced his new identity. Doing so allows him to commit violent acts that he would be incapable of as Walter Kovacs. Walter’s use of his alter ego, Rorschach, suggests that one can use their constructed identity to feel powerful amid the world’s chaos. Additionally, such an identity can enable people to do things—especially if they seem necessary—that they would otherwise be too afraid to do, such as retaliating against a violent criminal.
However, Walter’s struggle to maintain his sense of self, independent from Rorschach, suggests that such identities can consume a person and cause them to lose sight of their true self. Walter loses himself in Rorschach. As a free man, he rarely removes his mask; even the other Watchmen never see his face or know his true identity. When the police ambush and arrest Rorschach on a false murder charge, he spends weeks talking with the criminal psychiatrist Malcolm Long. Rorschach tells Malcolm that Rorschach is his true identity, and that Walter Kovacs is nothing more than the disguise he wears during the day. Although Malcolm believes that Rorschach is an “unhealthy fantasy identity,” even he finds himself calling the man Rorschach, rather than Walter. Rorschach effectively consumes Walter Kovacs, eliminating his former self. This suggests that one’s constructed identity may help them cope with fear or powerlessness, but at the cost of them losing sight of who they truly are.
It’s only when Rorschach is about to die that he’s ultimately forced to recognize his own limitations, and admit that he is only Walter Kovacs. When Rorschach realizes that Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) is about to kill him to stop him from disrupting Adrian Veidt’s plot, Rorschach pulls off his mask, tears streaming down his eyes. This signifies that he chooses to recognize his own limitations, to die as Walter Kovacs the man rather than Rorschach the hero, powerless to prevent the world’s chaos. Walter’s character arc ultimately demonstrates how although a constructed identity may help one to cope with fear, powerlessness, and a chaotic world, one ultimately cannot escape one’s own limitations.
Identity and Empowerment ThemeTracker
Identity and Empowerment Quotes in Watchmen
Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things that people say. We were also doing something because we believed in it. We were attempting, through our personal efforts, to make our country a safer and better place to live in. Individually, on our separate patches of turf, we did too much good in our respective communities to be written off as mere aberration, whether social or sexual or psychological.
They explain that the name [Dr. Manhattan] has been chosen for the ominous associations it will raise in America’s enemies. They’re shaping me into something gaudy and lethal… It’s all getting out of my hands.
My things were where I’d left them, waiting for me. Putting them on, I abandoned my disguise and became myself, free from fear or weakness or lust. My coat, my shoes, my spotless gloves. My face.
Black and white. Moving. Changing shape… But not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.
[The Comedian] understood man’s capacity for horrors and never quit. Saw the world’s black underbelly and never surrendered. Once a man has seen, he can never turn his back on it. Never pretend it doesn’t exist. No matter who orders him to look the other way. We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we are compelled.
Shock of impact ran along my arm. Jet of warmth spattered on chest, like hot faucet. It was Kovacs who said “mother” then, muffled under latex. It was Kovacs who closed his eyes. It was Rorschach who opened them again.
Looking back, it all seems so… well, childish, I guess. Just a schoolkid’s fantasy that got out of hand. That’s, y’know, with hindsight… on reflection.
It’s this war, the feeling that it’s unavoidable. It makes me feel so powerless. So impotent.