The Fifth Head of Cerberus Essay - Critical Essays

Gene Wolfe


Richly symbolic, allusive, and very literately written, this novella explores boundaries and borderlines: reality versus imagination or dream, free will versus fate, freedom versus constraint, lawfulness versus crime, human versus nonhuman, past versus future, childhood versus adulthood, and self versus other. The novellas most pervasive symbol among its many, the mirror, expresses several of these themes.

The fathers library, prohibited to the narrator, is mirrored by the public library, which allows free access. Its main central spiral ramp ascends to a magically suspended dome, suggesting the imaginative power of knowledge and the dome in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816). The “helix” housing the collection, which the narrator loves to climb and explore, suggests the upward spiral of knowledge and the basis of human life, DNA. The fathers laboratory is concealed behind the wall mirror of his library, in the same way that his motivations and cloning are concealed from the narrator. The viewplate image on the head of Mr. Million seems a mirror reflection of the father and the narrator, though it is actually the great-grandfather. The mirror in the slave warehouse invites the criminals to consider who they are and what they are doing, as well as later providing a weapon to kill a deformed mirror image of the narrator. The brothel, also nicknamed “Cave Canem” (referring to the Cerberus statue), is pervaded by spotted mirrors, reflecting the...

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