The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This novel is a giant mind-trip mixing alternative history, elements of the spy/thriller novel, dystopia, and surrealism. Philip K. Dick’s novel takes place in an alternate history where Japan and Germany won WWII, conquered the world, and split America. The novel follows many characters living in the occupied West coast of America under Japanese rule: an antique dealer named Robert Childan who specializes in American relics of the past for the large market of Japanese collectors, Mr. Tagomi a Japanese diplomat trying to acquire plastics to keep pace with Germany’s technological innovations, a German spy going under the alias of Mr. Baynes traveling to America for a secret meeting about the Nazi’s future plans, Frank Frink a Jew hiding under an alias who has recently lost his job and is considering going into the jewelry business, his estranged wife Juliana who is always searching for something new and better for her own life who accidentally gets caught up with a German assassin, and many others.

Dick does a wonderful job at capturing the nature of Nazism. I remember in undergrad when I took a history class on Nazi Germany. The professor posed the question of whether Nazism needs a constant threat or boogeyman to survive; she wondered if Nazism could survive in a state of peace. The Nazis always linger as a specter of war and destruction in the novel. In this world, there atrocities have been multiplied a thousand fold. Not only did they kill all the Jews, opening up a concentration camp in New York after conquering the United States, but also the novel hints that they committed mass genocide in Africa. The internally chaotic Nazi empire uses their rocket technology, which the real Nazis were attempting to develop during WWII, to colonize the planets. Characters living in the Japanese part of Occupied America joke that the Nazis will probably find Jews even on Mars. As amusing as this statement is in the novel, it captures very well the nature of Nazism and the constant paranoia needed to fuel its existence.

Philip K. Dick convincingly weaves the small tales about life in an occupied America into a single story that transcends traditional alternative history. A typical alternative history about the Axis powers winning World War II might speculate about what differences would have taken place in history had events gone differently, but then only attempt to write a fun story in said unique backdrop. Dick does so much more by having a book-within-a-book to serve as a metafictional commentary on the whole idea of alternative history and our understanding of history itself. Several characters in the novel read the book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is an alternative history that outlines what would have happened had The United States and Britain won the war. This history is different from our own as Britain and America become the worlds two superpower and the world’s two major capitalist nations vie for control of the world with Britain eventually defeating the U. S. At least three possibilities for history exist for the reader to consider surrounding the events of WWII: our own, the world within the text where the Nazis and Japan won, and a history where the allies won but Britain and the U.S. conquer the world. Much like Foucault’s postmodern understanding of history in which no event necessarily had to happen at any given point, therefore, making history a complete accident that could have transpired in any number of ways, Dick’s novel isn’t simply writing an alternative history, but looking at the very idea of alternative history on a deep metaphysical level that questions the necessity of historical progression.

The I-Ching, a Chinese book important to Taoism, and as common as the Yellow Pages in this speculative world, intersects with this theme of history. The various characters consistently turn to the book for guidance and predictions of their futures. Supposedly, Dick actually used the I-Ching to write the book, turning to it to decide his character’s fates. Then he would quote the actual passages they received in the book. This motif ties into Dick’s postmodern critique of history by questioning the very idea of fate. Although all the characters turn to the I-Ching to learn what their future holds, the predictions are ambiguous and could refer to a thousand different possibilities. Dick is suggesting that the future is not decided; we only like to believe it is. His story shows how even the lowest people on the social totem poll can take control of their own lives, not bound by fate.

John L. Simons calls Dick’s method of countering control the “pursuit of smallness.” This pursuit of smallness is how Dick’s characters in the novel find a little space in their own lives for self-invention and self-determination against the all-encompassing horrors of history and tyrannical power that dominates their lives. In his novels, it is how his characters react to small things, objects that seem insignificant, that allows us to judge them. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? it is the androids dissection of the spider that forms the crux of the novel, a small insignificant event loaded with meaning and symbolism. Elaborating on this point, Simons tells us that Dick’s novels are about the insignificant made significant. In The Man on the High Castle, it is Frank Frink’s jewelry that provides hope, especially for Childan who fears all his historical American antiques are fake copies. Childan suffers an immense existential dilemma, at times imbibing Nazi racial ideology and trying to fake his way in the upper echelons of Japanese society; he shifts about trying to find meaning for his life, uprooted by the conquest. It is through Frank Frink’s jewelry, an authentic American art, that he finds that missing meaning.

We are told that the jewelry lacks aesthetics or historicity, the two most important factors when judging the merit of art. However, we are also told the jewelry has wu. I am not a hundred percent sure what that term actually means, but for our purposes here the novel identifies this with meaningfulness.

Often we forget that there is more to art than simply its aesthetic value or historical importance. I have engaged in many impassioned debates on the internet over this issue. The third and I believe the most important quality of art is its meaning. The jewelry represents a genuine modern American art unlike all of Robert Childan’s historical relics which embodies the glory of cultural past imprisoning the modern American society in cultural stagnation. The jewelry embodies the possibility of a New American culture, one not trapped in the stagnant past. Dick not only comments on how small things can possess significance in a time of need, but also he is making a statement about art. He hints here that art is not only about aesthetic merit or historical significance, but the most important quality of art is its meaning and what that can offer us by either giving us hope or revealing the nature of reality. Robert Childan has a choice between cheapening the jewelry into a commodity or discovering the beauty of this new American art in its meaningfulness and chooses the latter path, which ends his existential quest. He finally finds meaning in his life beyond a mere monetary existence.

This novel is about how people try to cling to life, hope, the small joys of existence in the face of existential crisis and cultural decay. The insignificant made significant indeed, for the true joys of life are not the grand abstractions of ideologies, but rather finding love and happiness in quotidian existence. However, Dick through his critique of history reveals that even the smallest man can make decisions that can change the world even in the worst of all historical possibilities. The novel ends without resolution, symbolizing that history goes on and that life goes on whether we are there to see it or not. We never find out if Germany nukes Japan in its quest to rule the entire world. We never know the fate of the characters. The characters actions, however, offer the possibility of change and hope in the worst of all possible worlds, ending not with a concrete resolution, but an open ending teeming with possibilities where fate doesn’t exist, only individual choices.

Work Cited:

Simons, John C. “The Power of Small Things in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.”Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. 39 (4).


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