Culture

These Violent Delights: Parsing Westworld’s Literary References

Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson in Westworld/Image © John P. Johnson/HBO

What do Gertrude Stein, John Donne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and John the Evangelist have in common? Very little, except they were all cited in the series premiere of “Westworld,” a show so dense with literary references that every new episode seems to inspire its own slew of articles trying to track them all.

With just a few episodes left in the first season, we’re all equally behind in terms of a reading list for digging deeper into the show. However, while some of these references are just fleeting allusions, others are almost certain to persist as inspiration throughout future seasons. Who knows? If you knuckle down now, you may end up catching wind of certain developments before the rest of us clods.

Below you’ll find a sort of syllabus, steering you first and foremost toward the authors directly alluded to in the show itself. Beyond there you’ll find a few titles that may round out your awareness of the period that Dr. Ford and various shadowy corporate entities have chosen to render in warm, synthetic flesh.

William Shakespeare
When it comes to questioning the nature of reality, few authors have gotten in as many digs as this one. Consider his oft-quoted line from As You Like It, which seems to have been written with uncanny foreknowledge of Dr. Ford’s amusement park: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.”
We still don’t know much about Ford’s erstwhile partner Arnold – except that he too was a rabid Shakespeare fan. The keywords that serve as a consciousness-contagion amid the park’s hosts are a reference to Friar Lawrence’s lines in Romeo and Juliet:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Meanwhile other characters have quoted King Lear, The Tempest, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar (you’ll find a breakdown of all these individual quotes here). Shakespearean references are a safe bet for any writer who wants to infuse their script with big ideas – the difference here being that “Westworld” isn’t just appropriating these ideas. The show’s writers have buried them like acorns throughout the plot, and nurtured the tender seedlings that have begun growing from them. That’s the difference between a mere quotation and a proper tribute!

westworld-origin100Julian Jaynes
Who could have predicted that a controversial psychological theory from the 1970s (published just three years after Crichton’s original “Westworld” movie was released) would become pivotal to understanding a TV series in the twenty-first century?

As expressed in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes’s theory supposes that early humans experienced auditory hallucinations in the form of commands from gods or elders, which they’d obey without question. While our consciousness gradually evolved in ways that caused bicameralism to fall by the wayside, Jaynes theorized that vestiges of this function persist today, manifesting in mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

Westworld’s scientists regard bicameralism as a debunked theory of evolution that has nevertheless served as a handy roadmap to designing consciousness. Jaynes’s tome was itself a ’78 National Book Award nominee, and thanks to its numerous printings can often be found weighing down the Psychology or New Age shelf in bookshops.

westworld-alice100Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has enjoyed a nice bit of screen-time thanks to Bernard’s obsession with the book – one he used to read with his dying son, and now imparts to Dolores, whom he treats as a sort of adopted child. Here’s the first passage he guides her to:

“Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I am not the same, the next question is, ‘Who in the world am I?’”

Carroll’s work is cited often in philosophical inquiries, such as Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. While quite amusing to children, the absurd utterances of Wonderland’s inhabitants reveal a deep-seated unease with the subjective and arbitrary nature of reality. Like Wonderland, Westworld is a place where concepts like time, identity, and morality lose all their meaning. No wonder visitors have to undergo a mental health screening in order to enter: In such a disorienting environment, it would be quite easy to lose one’s grip on reality entirely (just look what’s happened to Ed Harris’s spooky Man in Black).

westworld-divine100Dante Alghieri
Aside from the October 30 episode, “Contrapasso” (the term for sinners being served forms of punishment directly related to their offenses), the show has yet to pay explicit homage to the Divine Comedy author’s work. If you look closer, however, you’ll find it in the architecture of the park itself, which gets bloodier and more intense as guests travel farther away from the central depot at Sweetwater. Dante’s vision of Hell was organized into concentric rings where various types of sinners could be found, and occupants of Westworld such as Teddy (played by James Marsden) end up playing Virgil to the guests who want to venture deeper into park.

See also that glyph signifying The Maze, which one Redditor cites as further evidence of Inferno-influenced events to come: “At the center of Hell (and the world), a three-headed Lucifer is chained. Dante literally needs to climb down his body to get through Hell and into Purgatory. Halfway down Lucifer, Dante’s world is turned and he starts climbing upwards, up the mountain of Purgatory.” Without knowing what Arnold (or Ford) may have left waiting for voyagers at The Maze’s center, there’s no telling where this particular allusion might lead.

westworld-andromedaMichael Crichton
There’s tons of comparison between “Westworld” and “Jurassic Park” flying around out there, and for good reason. Crichton not only wrote and directed the original ’73 film, he also penned the novelization of it the following year. While that title is almost impossible to find these days, many of the same ideas persist throughout his later books — and not just the ones that take place in doomed amusement parks. His ambitious, tech-savvy protagonists can be found stumbling over the limits of their own awareness in the face of microbiology (The Andromeda Strain), alien intelligence (Sphere), or even human/animal relations (Congo). While the show’s writers are already steering this Crichtonian paranoia in entirely unexplored directions, his body of work is sure to cast a long shadow over events to come.

Now let’s take a look at a few that aren’t canon, but which may greatly enrich your perspective:

westworld-american-indianAmerican Indian Trickster Tales edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz
Native legends abound about Westworld’s elusive Maze, and about the “shades” who walk between worlds (i.e., maintaining the park). This early in the series, it’s hard to say whether these tales have arisen organically through robotic sentience, or are just part of the script – in which case, we can’t imagine the narrative designers researched actual Native American myths very faithfully for their spaghetti Western storylines.

This volume of stories selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz is a much better window into the time and place that future technicians try so hard emulate. Among them is one with interesting insights into how mankind was created by the trickster Coyote in his own image. He tells Falcon: “The new human beings look exactly like us. So now we must assume a different shape. We must become animals.” Something tells me Dr. Ford has heard this one before.

westworld-soiled-dovesSoiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West by Anne Seagraves
Historian and author Anne Seagraves packs a lot of gritty detail into this small-press offering, including photographs wherever possible and citing sources to help distinguish as cleanly as possible between history and folklore. It appears Clementine’s real-life counterpart would have found herself isolated by society and cut off from family. “Her rights as a citizen were also removed,” Seagraves writes. “Since she worked outside the law, she had no protection. Her constant moves from one location to another and many sexual partners, or ‘husbands,’ dramatically affected her children’s lives. It was a harsh world for them, where existence was a constant struggle.”
That sounds like the version of reality Maeve believed she could wake up from — but the new position she’s found herself in is sadly no different.