The end of The Man in the High Castle consists of:
Julianna Frink visiting Hawthorne Abendsen and asking the Oracle why it wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel-within-a-novel that suggests, contrary to Dick’s story, that Germany and Japan lost World War II. The Oracle responds with the Chung Fu hexagram, meaning “Inner Truth”, implying that Grasshopper was actually true and the world Julianna and Hawthorne inhabit is fake.
Understanding all that (and I’m assuming I’m interpreting it correctly), what did Dick want the reader to get out of this? What’s he saying? My initial thought was that Germany and Japan failed to conquer the US because the arts and culture remained, albeit dimmed, so the new world order they thought they created wasn’t really that strong, but that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me. Does anyone have a better understanding than me? Am I interpreting the ending wrong?
Disbelief in reality
Disbelief in reality is a recurring motif in Dick’s literature. In “Man in the High Castle”, his characters are seeing through parallel worlds on occasions. In the ending, his characters are on the brink of realizing that they’re themselves fictional. There is a world to which their parallel worlds – the “real” Nazi-ruled world plus an “alternative” world ruled by Great Britain – are also parallel (our world). So the ending is not some sort of a conventional conclusion of the story – we have gone beyond the story.
Tagomi, the Japanese businessman who is interested in antiques, while examining the iron jewel briefly “passes” to an alternate world which is similar to our own, where the post-war Japanese are discriminated against (because they presumably lost the war), instead of being the rulers of part of America.
Tagomi briefly perceives an alternative world upon meditating over a pin containing a Wu (Satori) form of “inner truth”; said Frank Frink artifact transports him to a San Francisco city where white folk do not defer to the Japanese, possibly the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In this world the Embarcadero Freeway runs through downtown San Francisco, whereas in Tagomi’s world it does not exist. This suggests that the world might in fact be our own.
What is real?
In The Man in the High Castle the characters get a hint that the world that they are living in is fictional, and they get a glimpse of the truth.
But Dick himself believed—or at least he described having a religious experience that revealed—something similar about our world: that we are still living in the first century, and that the twenty centuries of history are in some sense false or fictional. He was fascinated with Gnosticism—in particular the idea that the universe was created by a demiurge, an “inferior or false god”, and that religious experiences (theophanies) result from the true god breaking through the veil of the false world.
This idea of the world being a false or shoddy subcreation, and characters experiencing the truth breaking through, shows up in various forms in many of Dick’s works: in religious form in late works like VALIS and The Divine Invasion, but in various transfigured forms in works like The Simulacra, The Penultimate Truth, and Ubik.
Is the reader’s reality fake?
Juliana interprets the hexagram to mean that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy represents the truth — that Japan and Germany lost the war, and she inhabits a fictional construct. She does, in fact, occupy a fictional construct created by Dick — which he constructed by consulting the I-Ching. But the fictional construct of the world in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not in fact the world in which we and the author live — it’s similar in the outcome of the war, but diverges: FDR’s adviser Rexford Tugwell succeeds him as President, and the Cold War is between the US and an intact British Empire instead of the Soviet Union. But if that alternate history is real, then the upward implication from book within book to reader is that we ourselves live in a fictional construct — one which might betray its fictionality through consulting the I-Ching for a window on the next level up. This is irresistibly delicious stuff, classic Philip K. Dick: think of Dekkart not knowing if he’s a replicant or not in Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or the layers of ambiguity about what’s real in Total Recall/We Can Remember it for you Wholesale. In this case, however, he’s tied his metafiction to a 3,000 year old book that exists in our world and imbued it with a power to glimpse beyond the fourth wall.
I’ve written more on the meta-fiction’s relation to the I-Ching here, and cited every one of the hexagrams mentioned in the book. Some of the hexagram readings by different characters are linked in ways that they cannot know — only the reader from outside the meta fiction could see the pattern. He’s playing around with perception and dimensionality, messing with our minds. Love it.
How about a straightforward meaning to it. The inevitable war between Japan and Germany leaves them both in ruins with America ascendant. The theme of America ascending is established with the Ed Frank jewelry. Instead of succumbing to the Japanese conglomerate making trinkets, Childan decides to promote them as new art. Childan steps beyond the Japanese culture by pushing the sale of these items. The unresolved nature of the conflict between Germany and Japan hints that they will go to war and possibly destroy each other.
Juliana enters our reality
My take on the ending: After I Ching revelation that they are all living in a false reality, Juliana begins to see world as it is: the surroundings in the end look more-and-more like early 60’s America of our reality, thus it is likely that Juliana walks out of false reality into our reality. This conclusion is supported by Mr. Tagomi’s experience when he for a brief period of time enters a world where Embarcadero freeway exists and cars are monstrous limousines of early 60’s era.
Philp K. Dick’s Books in General
Is breaking (or at least leaning up against) the fourth wall also something he does regularly?
I believe breaking the fourth wall is too narrow of a term, it implies – following its literal meaning – that the characters become aware of the viewer/reader, while Dick likes to create this encompassing uncertainty in the heart of the reader himself. “There is no spoon”. Sometimes his characters don’t even know whether they’re humans or robots, or dead or alive; etc. This theme is still somewhat toned down in “Man in the High Castle”, making it look a bit like a conventional alternative history thriller, but it’s false appearance. I recommend “Ubik” or “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”
I also recommend reading Second Variety which is out of copyright and is available on Gutenberg. Films adapted from his works also strongly feature the theme of questioning reality: Total Recall (the first movie, especially the ending), A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck etc. Movies from his works are some of the most memorable movies I grew up with.