The Ziggurat -- Ending Interpretations

This story has generated multiple interpretations and controversy, especially in the interpretation of the ending and the character of Emery. The three most common theories are the "Maximum Delusion" (endorsed by John Kessel, Michael Swanwic, and others), the "Barbaric Happy Ending" (believed but condemned by Publishers Weekly reviewers and others), and the "Flawed Hero Unhappy Ending" (endorsed with variations by Robert Borski and others).

Here is the "Maximum Delusion" theory, as summarized by Nicholas Gevers here, on Urth archives:
"THE PRACTICAL MEANING: It may seem presumptuous to equate John Kessel, Michael Swanwick, and others with Dorcas’ ploughman; but they have proposed the MaximumDelusion theory, which is the most obvious, and therefore least consequential, hypothesis in play. Emery may be a madman. He may have molested his stepdaughters. He may have dreamed up the ziggurat as a fantastic sublimation of his criminal actions. The killings of the two time-travelling women may in fact stand for Emery’s murders of Jan and Aileen. If Henry James and William Hjortsberg, among many others, can do this sort of thing, why not Wolfe? An SF story becomes a case of maximum delusion. There’s easily enough evidence in the text to justify this view, and it has been intensively cited. Upshot of 1): Emery is destined for the electric chair, a life term, or an unpleasant few decades in a mental hospital.

The problem with this theory is that it ignores the plain third-person narrative. If this were a first-person story, told to the police, it might work as an unreliable narrator story, like The Walking Sticks. Even though it focuses on Emery's point of view, the story cannot be made to fit this theory without doing violence to it. The theory also says that Emery killed his son with the ax, even though the story clearly shows Emery wondering what happened to him.

Here is the "Barbaric Happy Ending", summarized in a review by Publisher's Weekly on Amazon:
"...While Wolfe's prose is exceptional and there are a few gems here, such as 'Useful Phrases,' which delights in how words lead us to and reveal mysteries, there are also several tasteless and misogynistic entries. Chief among them is 'The Ziggurat,' in which a mother coaches her daughters in the art of false accusation and the father--whose wife leaves him broke- eventually regains all by finding a woman he can dominate and a technology he can steal. All too frequently in this volume, even when women show men "the pleasures of Hell," biting them till they bleed, men emerge loutish and triumphant."

If Emery is a good action hero, falsely accused by his evil wife, then the ending leaves a bad moral taste in the mouth. Emery will lie to the police and attempt to cover up the truth about a series of killings, destroy a major scientific discovery, and exploit a woman he has stranded outside of her time. That seems unworthy of Wolfe.

The "Flawed Hero Unhappy Ending" makes use of a number of internal clues:

  1. Two of the women from the future are identical and bear strong resemblance to Aileen and Alyana. They have similar size and brown complexion.
  2. The time-travelers may have some medical purpose with Aileen. They take off her clothes and put her in a sleeping tube. They give her what may be an intelligence test.
  3. The name Emery gives to the last woman is "Tamar," a biblical name with connotations of incest (one Tamar had twin sons by her father-in-law, and the other was raped by her half-brother).
  4. It seems likely that the time-travelers gather genetic material from the past, and that Tamar and her twin are clones. They may in fact be clones of Aileen. The name "Aileen" is a near-anagram of "alien."
  5. Emery's attraction to Tamar sheds light on the accusation that he molested his step-daughters. He probably did fondle them inappropriately, in a way that he didn't consider abuse but that his wife and his lawyer did.
  6. Emery seems to be mentally unstable in the beginning (strongly considering suicide, for example). His ordeal may have further unhinged his mind.
  7. The story Emery has concocted will probably not fool the police. He is likely to be arrested.
  8. The taming of the coyote ended in tragedy. It is likely that the taming of Tamar will also.

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