A Masterpiece of 1960s Social Commentary: The Man in the High Castle

One can argue that The Sixties began with the end of World War II. After all, life was never quite the same again for people all over the world after the war. A new world had emerged: a scary world where millions of people had just died from mechanized weaponry that still has the potential to kill millions more. A world where the greatest acts of human cruelty known to man had just been committed. A world where so many families had been displaced, so many boys forced to become men by the horrors they had seen. In short, people felt lost in this new world, and very few people knew how to put their overwhelming disillusionment with the world into words. Philip K. Dick was one of those few. Through The Man in the High Castle, Dick was able to express the sentiments that millions of Americans were feeling after the war and as The Sixties mentality was beginning to form. Through the use of allegory, recurring motifs, and symbols and through the structure of his novel, Dick captures the uncertainty and loss of control and direction felt by many after World War II in a way that is thought-provoking, effective, and masterful and that fully captures the essence of the birth of The Sixties.

The mindset of the American people is reflected in the actions and desires of the characters in The Man in the High Castle. Take, for example, Tagomi and Frank’s almost obsessive need to consult with the I Ching before any major event in their lives. The I Ching is an oracle of ancient Chinese origin that first appears when readers are introduced to Frank Frink in the first chapter. Frank is inquiring as to how he should approach his boss so he does not get fired from his job, and he receives the Hexagram Fifteen, a favorable response. Immediately Frank reasons that “he could not compel [Wyndam-Matson] to take him back. All he could do was the adopt the point of view of Hexagram Fifteen” (11). Because of the I Ching, Frank does not have to make his own decisions with regards to the future; the oracle is telling him exactly how to behave and what will result from his behavior. The motif of the I Ching is ironic given the uncertainty that surrounds the world Dick lives in. The future is clouded, and people have just witnessed atrocities they could not have even imagined. Given what has just occurred, there is an overwhelming fear of what other horrors could potentially happen, especially with the looming threat of Communism. The future, in the real world, is more unpredictable than it has ever been, and there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who would be able to reach a peace of mind if they had their own I Ching. This irony, as well as the pervasiveness of the motif throughout the novel (many of the most suspenseful plotlines of the novel occur under the guidance of the oracle) makes the I Ching a very effective tool to forward the allegorical significance of Dick’s novel.

Another recurring image in The Man in the High Castle are American antiques, including Tagomi’s revolver, the Mickey Mouse watch that was gifted to Baynes, and FDR’s lighter. In the world depicted in Dick’s novel, antiques are coveted items, sought after by collectors or as diplomatic or congratulatory gifts. The value of antiques in Dick’s fictional world is symbolic of some Americans’ desires to go back to the way life was before World War II, when things were much simpler. Take family life, for example. Whereas women worked during World War II, during The Sixties there was a strong desire to revert to the traditional family values of the father as the breadwinner and the mother as the homemaker. And yet, there is more to Dick’s metaphor, for he writes, “No one could possibly estimate the percentage of forgeries in circulation. And no one—especially the dealers and the collectors themselves—wanted to” (44). The characters in the novel want something they cannot have, for there are not enough real antiques in stock anymore, just like the American people are yearning for something that is impossible to return to. Change is happening, and it is happening fast. What is needed is an acceptance of the here and the now, for there are positives that came as a result of the aftermath of the war, including economic stability and a revitalized American Dream. This new American lifestyle is represented in Dick’s novel by the Edfrank Jewelry, which Paul describes as “authentically a new thing on the face of the world” (186). Further, Paul says that “an entire new world is pointed to by this,” referring to the piece of Edfrank Jewelry gifted to him by Childan (186). Dick’s inclusion of these two heavily-involved symbols to represent the two Americas that he has lived through is clever and masterful and further serves to draw parallels between the real world and his fictionalized America.

Another aspect of post-World War II society in the real world is the realization that the entire course of one’s life can change due to changes completely outside one’s control or, in some cases, one’s realm of understanding. For example, nuclear weapons could completely decimate an entire region without warning. Dick very cleverly depicts this loss of control over one’s life through the structure of his novel, thereby advancing the allegory of The Man in the High Castle as a whole. There are several main characters in the novel, including Frank, Juliana, Tagomi, Childan, and Baynes. Some of these characters in the novel interact with one another while others never even meet. However, despite some of them not knowing one another, all the characters impact one another’s lives. For example, Frank and Tagomi never meet over the course of the novel. However, when Frank is arrested for being a Jew, Tagomi refuses to sign to Frank’s extradition papers, an act which Frank later describes as a “miracle…a fluke of some kind” (255). Similarly, a gun that Frank made will end up saving Baynes’s life at the end of the novel, yet Frank and Bayne will never meet. In the case of Childan, he will never know that it was Frank who informed him that the vast majority of the products in his store were forgeries. By choosing to adhere to this structure of the novel, Dick perfectly encapsulated the idea that our lives are shaped in large part by forces that are outside our control, and that many people most likely will never fully comprehend.

Whereas Dick is masterful at crafting an allegory that is representative of the sentiments felt by contemporary Americans, no novel is without its faults. While the structure of the novel is perfect to advance Dick’s purpose, it seems to lack some clear direction from a storytelling perspective. From a reader’s perspective, it is hard to follow the plot at times, for the characters’ thoughts tend to wander in a way that is distracting and misguiding. For example, Tagomi’s reaction toward the piece of Edfrank Jewelry that he receives in Chapter 14 is extremely drawn out. For eight pages, Dick focuses on the emotions that the jewelry makes Tagomi feel, yet it is hard to discern the meaning of some passages. For example, Dick writes, “Like frog pulled from depths, he thought. Clutched in fist, given command to declare what lies below in the watery abyss. But here the frog does not even mock” (242). Dick goes on in a similar fashion for several paragraphs, and yet there is no clear meaning to be drawn from these paragraphs. It could be argued that the confusing style of storytelling that Dick employs is further evidence that the novel is an allegory, for a confusing storytelling format could mirror confusion in contemporary life. However, when an author tries to advance an allegory at the expanse of the plotlines, it is not effective. After all, literature is a form of escapism, and it loses its magic when it becomes difficult for readers to understand.

Overall, there is no denying that Dick is a creative genius. To fully be able to encapsulate the mindset of a whole nation within a short novel is truly amazing. Through symbols, motifs, and narrative structure, Dick provides a representation of the confusion, uncertainty, fear, and nostalgia felt my millions of Americans after the war. Even from a storytelling standpoint, the basic idea of the Nazis and Japan winning World War II and completely taking over the United States is fascinating on its own. Add the layer of allegory and The Man in the High Castle becomes a masterpiece. Even with its minor faults, there is no denying that Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle deserves to be hailed as a classic of the 1960’s.