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Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher

The last chapter of Ship of Theseus is entitled Ships of Theseus. The chapter title contains the book title with the addition of an S.  The last letter of the last chapter is S. In the last scene, S., while standing next to Sola on his ship, looks through a spyglass and sees another ship with “what looks like two people standing on the quarterdeck and sharing the wheel.” The implication is that the two people are S. and Sola.

This type of literary device is known as self-reference. Escher’s work above is an example as well – a form of recursive artistry. The subject of self-reference is examined in detail in Gödel, Escher, Bachwhich appears to be a major influence of “S.” The author, Douglas Hofstadter, even created a self-referential law to demonstrate self-reference…

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Another prominent work that demonstrates self-reference is Don Quixote. In Chapter 1, when S. first meets Sola, he notes that she is reading a rather large book – “as thick as Don Quixote” (p16). The book turns out to actually be The Archer’s Tales by Arquimedes de Sobreiro. In Chapter 9 (The Obsidian Island), S. opens a book entitled “S.” and sees drawings of his ship. In every drawing of the ship, S. can make out the name SOBREIRO (p292).

Self-reference appears to be everywhere in “S.” – from the first chapter of “S.” when S. walks through the city with an “S” in his pocket and walks into a tavern with the emblem “S” on its brick and meets Sola reading the self-referential Don Quixote, to the final chapter when S. sees himself through the spyglass.

Other examples of self-reference in or surrounding “S.”

  1. The Mckay’s Magazine Review of Ship of Theseus says it is a “a vulgar ouroboros of a novel.” An ouroboros is a dragon eating its own tail – a symbol for self-reference.
  2. That same review (in fact the same sentence as the reference to the ouroboros) says that Ship of Theseus is “filled to bursting with apathy, anomie, and omphaloskepsis.” Omphaloskepsis means “navel-gazing”, or contemplatings one’s self.
  3. The titular Ship of Theseus Paradox can refer to the problem of understanding the true identity of the self. The entire book seems to be the story of S. trying to understand himself.
  4. S. sees himself more than once in “S.” Consider p370, where S. sees a younger version of himself in another boat with Sola.
  5. On page 419, Sola says to S., “Listen. We are we, and we have been we for a long, long time. And in that way, I am you.”
  6. Does S. stand for SELF?

Self-reference is clearly used intentionally throughout “S.,” yielding tantalizing clues to the endgame. I will leave it at that for now, because I am working on a blog post on how S. sees himself in “S.”