Tag Archives: How Fiction Works

Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

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Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 2 – Dick and the Illusory War: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


The final part of my Cold War/sci-fi/American history essay. I was especially pleased with some of the analysis of Dick’s characterisation in The Man in the High Castle but disappointed that I had to rush Do Androids Dream Electric sheep due to word limit constraints:

 

DICK AND THE ILLUSORY WAR

 

In his 1955 talk Pessimism in Science Fiction Dick argued that the collapse of belief in progress had led to an unavoidable preoccupation with doom. Hence the science fiction writer was “absoluted, obliged” to “act out the Cassandra role” of giving early warnings of the grim times to come[i].”

Huxley was not alone in believing that science fiction could act as cautionary prophecy. He was also not the only one to recognise the stagnation of genuine progress during the Cold War period. Here we see that in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, Phillip K. Dick also asserted that ordinary people’s cosy everyday realities were menaced by “grim times to come”. He felt “obliged” as a writer to highlight what he saw as the main threats.

            For Dick the most important threat seemed to be the manipulation of reality. The “doom” that fascinated him was not simply nuclear destruction but the exposure of reality as a fabrication. Again and again his enormous body of work deals with the idea of life not being what it seems and conspiracies maintaining the status quo. Often his protagonists uncover seemingly pointless and elaborate fabrications that lead them to question their own sanity. “The paranoid theme manifests itself in Dick’s novels through the discovery of institutional conspiracies to promote versions of reality for often ultimate purposes often left unspecified[ii].”In The Penultimate Truth (1964), Dick raises the idea of a ruling elite maintaining the illusion of a long since ended war, in order to maintain their positions of power. The unsuspecting public is imprisoned underground, believing a nuclear war to be raging on the surface. They are kept busy producing lead robots to fight the fake war. The illusion is maintained through state controlled media and the speeches of the “Protector”, a President-like figure “who legitimates the regime by casting the administration as selfless guardians willing to brave the dangers of radioactivity for the public good[iii].”Clearly Dick is drawing a parallel with the ideological conflict sold to the American people at this time. It’s no wonder writers like Dick questioned the Cold War, as by its nature the conflict rarely went “hot” and provided concrete evidence of fighting and if skirmishes did occur they were in far away lands. Dick would also explore the theme of illusion extensively in other novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and in so doing comment on the political fabrications of the period.

 

There were countless events that may have triggered Dick’s suspicions during the Cold War period. I have chosen two examples of illusion that seem particularly relevant to his work. The first example of Resource War as a stimulus for illusion is linked to ideas raised by Dick’s characters in The Man in the High Castle. In this novel Dick has created his own Cold War betweenGermany andJapan and superficially the reasons for their rivalry are mainly ideological, just like the real conflict. However through his characters musings on the Nazi Party’s grand schemes it emerges thatGermany’s aims are primarily the extension of its own wealth. The most imaginative scheme described is the conversion of theMediterranean into arable farm land. This project clearly has the intention of expanding the resources of the German people and improving their living standards. Ideologically driven projects of genocide are also mentioned but the emphasis is on the lifestyle available inGermany as a result of their material conquests. Dick is clearly commenting on the political conflicts of the time and questioning whether it is in fact greed rather than idealism motivating confrontations with Communism.

            The second example I give as a likely influence on Dick’s work is the myth of the Missile Gap. Dick seems to deal with the idea of producing unnecessary weapons directly in The Penultimate Truth. In this novel an illusion of war is maintained in order to control the awareness of the population and maintain a power structure. In real lifeAmerica produced nuclear weapons, rather than the robots of the novel, to deal with an invented technology gap with the Soviets. This myth was sustained by the media and Dick reflects this in the novel too.

 

We have already seen through Huxley’s criticisms that economic factors were crucial to the rivalry betweenAmericaandRussia. The notion that the Cold War was a purely ideological struggle between democracy and Communism is nonsense.Americawas concerned by the expansion of Communism because it was a system of governance that would ultimately be controlled and exploited by the Russians. The primary motivation for the Cold War was not a moral disapproval of Communism and its failings, but to sustain an economic system and therefore a way of life. The Second World War merely removed all the other competitors for the resources of the world, weakening them to such an extent that to acquire anything they must sit at the table of one of the superpowers. A century before the Second World War, it had already been observed thatAmericaandRussiawould one day be direct and supreme competitors by Alexis de Tocqueville, in De la Democratie en Amerique:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.[iv]

The Cold War fulfilled this prediction of Americaand Russiadetermining the fate of at least half the world, as there are few regions the division did not in some way consume. One of the areas particularly embroiled in competition was the Middle East. This was because oil was now the resource everyone craved, just as gold, sugar or coal had been for the competing empires of the past. As Americamade the transition from the world’s largest oil producer to its biggest importer, it scaled up its military presence in the oil rich region. In 1940 Middle Eastern oil only accounted for 5 % of world production, but by the 1950s Americahad moved to secure its potential[v]. It took advantage of British weakness following the Second World War to replace them as the dominant power in theMiddle East. TheSuez crisis of 1956 forcedAmerica to choose between her Allies taking on a dictator who was flirting with the Communists and the oil of the Arab world; it chose the oil. It also repeatedly stopped short of fully supportingIsrael, despite the power of Zionists in American politics, in order to maintain relations with oil abundant Arab states. OperationAjax, a CIA led overthrow ofIran, was carried out in response to the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There were worries about Soviet plans forIran but these were concerns about the flow of oil, not the method of government or the welfare of Iranians. The Americans knew full well that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company could be influenced or replaced by American firms like ARAMCO or Standard Oil. The Russians, once in place, would be less accommodating.  

The Cold War was a resource war on a global scale and the resources involved were not simply fuels like oil.Americagained immensely from friendly, prosperous governments. Therefore wars like the Korean War, whilst not fought to secure control of a particular treasure, were carried out with the aim of acquiring an asset. They were also preventative, in that they halted the Russians from advancing any further and seizing land that may yield future benefits. Importantly they were clearly not ideological, as the Korean War was fought in support of a cruel dictator as tyrannous as the northern alternative, with the exception that he would do business with suited money men.

 

A recent article in The Times analyses the world’s current stockpile of nuclear weapons. The article is prompted by Iran’s efforts to join the nuclear club and is headlined “Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas[vi]”. The main message of the article is “the world already has enough nuclear weapons to destroy every single nation on the planet.” Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for daring to suggest a world without nuclear weapons as President of theUnited States. However the world seems locked into a situation that makes it impossible to get rid of the destructive devices, despite a commitment by the Cold War powers to reduce their own stockpiles. This is because the hysteria of the Cold War arms race was not controlled and now the technology is far too freely available. The origins of this ludicrous ability to destroy humanity several times over lie in the pressure cooker of American politics at the beginning of the 1960s.

            The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik is partly responsible for the sheer number of nuclear armaments produced. It was not just the initial launch in 1957 but a whole series of satellites that shocked and amazed the world. The Americans had dismissed the Russian plans as propaganda but Sputnik’s radio bleeps provided the world with solid proof; Russiawas winning the technological race. The scientist Edward Teller said on television that Americahad lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbour[vii].”American pride took a severe beating and its military were also given a nasty shock at the realisation that Soviet missiles could soon be reaching US cities. The result of immense public pressure was a flurry of reactionary schemes to close the missile gap, the “technology gap, and behind that an education gap. A lasting legacy of the panic generated by Sputnik was the passing of the National Defence Education Act of 1958, in which at last the case for federal involvement in education was accepted by Congress[viii].”However not all of the schemes enacted in the hysteria were so harmlessly beneficial in the long run. As well as thousands of new university places the panic spawned thousands of new nuclear weapons. In 1959 the defence budget was increased by President Eisenhower to more than $40 billion, over half the entire federal budget. The press saw this as a long overdue response to the Sputnik crisis but a reluctant President Eisenhower had been more realistic. He knew from intelligence reports comprised of detailed photographs by U-2 spy planes, that the missile gap with the Soviets was a myth. However the top secret nature of this information meant he could not use it to ease political pressure on himself and as a result he was forced to increase the production of nuclear weapons anyway. His silence on why he felt reluctant to increase spending had already damaged his administration beyond repair. The American people turned to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in the election of 1960 instead of Eisenhower’s deputy Richard Nixon. Kennedy placed great emphasis on restoring America’s lead in the technological race, only to find on taking office that America was in reality already far ahead of the Soviets.

Dick chose to reflect the illusory aspects of the Cold War period in his writing. He did this in a number of ways and in many of his works, but I am choosing to focus on two of his best known novels, The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the most obvious illusory element is the fake animal industry. Status within society is determined by whether or not you own an animal. This had led to a supply of fake electric animals in order to satisfy the demand. Dick may have taken inspiration for this fake industry from government reports during the Cold War that recommended the construction of futile nuclear shelters and sanctioned the sale of “private family fallout shelters” by companies at a cost of “$2,395-installation extra[ix]. Here we have a clear example of government orchestrating an illusion in order to gain profit and control. Official reports calling for nuclear shelters served the dual manipulative purpose of keeping the public in fear of attack but also making them feel that they were empowered to do something about it, thus avoiding hysteria. Allowing companies to sell private shelters to families would also have wrongly made people feel that they were taking positive action to protect their loved ones. It also allowed nuclear protection to commercialise and create an entirely new industry based on a fiction. The government directly instigated an illusion for profit.

 

The Man in the High Castle presents an alternative ending to the Second World War, in which the Axis powers triumphed. Whilst this would be a drastically different reality in many ways Dick makes a comparison with his own world by setting up Japan and Germany in a similar superpower standoff to that between the USA and USSR. He comments on the Cold War by creating an alternative one of his own, with arguably more extreme opponents. He reveals shocking snippets of information regarding world affairs in his alternate world, only through the individual musings of his characters. Indeed I think the believable characterisation in The Man in the High Castle is an important part of Dick’s representation of the theme of illusion.

The first character we meet in the story is Mr R. Childan, proprietor of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. It is interesting to analyse the way Dick introduces us to Childan, as the novel goes on to introduce us, in my view successfully, to a number of different characters. All of these characters allow us to view Dick’s alternate world from a different angle, but they are all ordinary, accessible people with narrow viewpoints. The result is a tremendously varied novel, with intertwined narrative strands converging upon one ultimate revelation.

            Dick does an excellent job of establishing Childan as a character very quickly. We soon realise that Childan is a proud business minded man firstly because he is thinking about the upcoming business of the day and then from his actions in tidying up the shop. He takes “a cup of instant tea”, which suggests he is unwilling to stop, he likes to be busy. There is also an attention to detail in his preparations that serves the dual purpose of establishing the setting of the shop in our minds and features of his character like pride and tidiness. There is some further background detail about businessmen hurrying to work, purely for purposes of realism, before a more telling detail about Childan’s character.

Women in their long colourful silk dresses…he watched them, too.[x]

Dick does several things to show us that this detail is telling. Firstly the three adjectives, “long colourful silk”, without commas, give the sentence an elongated, seductive sound. They highlight in what way Childan is looking at the women by drawing attention to their “dresses”. Dick also adds in a suggestive pause as Childan’s thoughts wander. Finally there is the “too” tagged on to the end of the sentence, which further sets it apart from other background details. Later in the novel, with Childan’s character more firmly established, Dick hints again at his vulnerability.

I always give satisfaction, Childan thought. To my customers.[xi]

Here it is the “To my customers” that Dick highlights as a telling detail. Just three words tell us an awful lot about Childan’s character and how he has allowed his professional and public appearance to dominate his life. There is a strong indication that something is missing, or of a sense of inadequacy when it comes to real relationships with people. Dick continues to drop hints relating to this theme throughout the novel, particularly when Childan has conflicting feelings about his attraction to the Japanese wife.

            Dick explores the theme of illusion through Childan in several ways. One of these I have touched on in that Childan has an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness compared to an outward professionalism. Another is the way in which Childan can recognise and dismiss one aspect of society as fabrication but not others.

The radio of the pedecab blared out popular tunes, competing with the radios of other cabs, cars and buses. Childan did not hear it; he was used to it. Nor did he take notice of the enormous neon signs with their permanent ads obliterating the front of virtually every large building.[xii]

Here Childan seems to dismiss the culture of advertisement as artificial and false. He lets it wash over him, an unavoidable aspect of his routine but not an influence upon him. He also doesn’t hear the “popular tunes”. The implication of that phrase is that the music is mass produced, lifeless rubbish, worthy merely of the background. However whilst Childan refuses to buy in to the illusion of advertisement, he readily embraces the struggle to climb the ladder of social status. At various points in the novel Childan recognises the fixed nature of the social system, determined almost entirely by race. He appears to acknowledge that his race means he will never advance beyond a certain position. And yet all of his actions in the novel are geared towards how he can advance himself and “have, even for a moment, higher place”.

            Dick also uses Childan to show how illusion can be imposed from above. He has Childan blame the Germans for the racial social structure which is constraining him and then praises them for their vision. Childan describes Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing as works of progress. He even defends what the Nazis have “achieved” in arguments with others. He reflects the theme of Resource War through Childan by having him describe ideological motivations in a way that shows they are actually material. He convinces himself Aryans are better because “Those fellows certainly looked happy. And their farms and cottages were clean[xiii].” Dick suggests that it is the strain of being occupied and ruled by the Japanese that has led Childan to hold such contradictory views at the same time. Dick’s way of showing the enormous influence the occupation has had on Childan is to have his internal monologue mimic the speech patterns of the Japanese he both hates and admires.

Has he stumbled onto correct notion, Childan wondered, that certain of the historic objects in stores such as mine…are imitations?[xiv]

 Here Dick is commenting on the long term effects of American occupation on the minds of people. Dick’s awareness of Japanese culture would have made him mindful of the effects of American occupation on the country and others likeGermany. In particular Dick must have worried about the legacy of resentment that accompanied the dropping of the atomic bombs. He was also fully aware of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the First World War that only lead to greater slaughter. By changing Childan’s speech patterns Dick is suggesting how people can be psychologically altered under occupation in ways they don’t even realise. In a more recent examination of the issue, David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel Ghostwritten has a Japanese character who has become a terrorist partly as a result of the American legacy. Today the resentment felt by many in the Muslim world towardsAmericamay have been caused by a similar process of American superiority.

Despite the various narrative strands at work in The Man in the High Castle, such as Operation Dandelion, a Nazi plan to launch a nuclear strike against Japan and Julia Frink’s relationship with a volatile Italian; it is ultimately The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within a novel, which gives the story its illusory message. Of course there are other elements of the narrative that are linked to the theme of illusion, such as the fake jewellery and antiques business and the uncertainty regarding the identity of agent Baynes, but it is the hope of an alternate future that provides the novel’s key illusion. The revelation at the end of the book is that the truth behind an illusion may be extremely disappointing, perhaps so much so that we might wish to return to the illusion. Here we can draw parallels with Huxley, in how the Savage fails to appreciate the Brave New World. As part of that theme of disappointment Dick deliberately leaves the fates of characters we have come to care for hanging in the balance.  This though is part of the message of The Man in the High Castle. We cannot be sure of anything.


[i] Seed, D. American Science Fiction and the Cold War. Edinburgh University Press 1999, page 135

[ii] ibid, page 136

[iii] ibid, page 137

[iv] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009

[v] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 109

[vi] Binyon, M. 2009 Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas. The Times 6 October page 28

[vii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 173

[viii] ibid, page 175

[ix] ibid, page 178

[x] Dick, P. The Man in the High Castle. Penguin Classics 2001, page 9

[xi] ibid, page 27

[xii] ibid, page 27

[xiii] ibid, page 29

[xiv] ibid, page 175