Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Oedipa’s search to find the meaning of her legacy is not only a quest for a philosophical explanation of existence but also a search for a valid social, national ethos, for values that clarify, for better or for worse, “the legacy that was America.” That legacy is not necessarily one of despair.
Though Oedipa’s quest takes her through an American society of the maladjusted, the fantasy-ridden, the dropped-out, the “intellectual,” and the materialistic, this stream of humanity does not provide Oedipa with a solution to the meaning of things. Even though a large segment of the disinherited seems to communicate by depositing letters in boxes marked WASTE (We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire), even though the social fabric seems tottering on the verge of anarchy—an entropy of both body and mind, a paradigm of the modern scientific notion of the entropy of nature—and even though Tristero’s own name seems to connote a universal “triste,” a sadness, it is the very uncertainty of a solution that holds out for Oedipa some random hope, a hope symbolized at the novel’s end by Oedipa’s waiting for the auction to begin. Indeterminacy is hope.
In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asks the ghost of Christmas future, “Are these the things that will be, or only the shadows of things that may be?” Similarly, Oedipa’s discovery of America is ghostlike—a specter of what is, and yet possibly only a shadow, a hallucination, a paranoia.