In Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? when Deckard goes to Oregon at the end of the novel, what is all that about? Did he have an epiphany? What exactly was the epiphany? Is he Mercer? If yes, how does that work? He never knew he was Mercer himself until the end of the novel?
I think the ending is open to interpretation. Here is my take:
Deckard lives in a world of forgeries: androids are fake humans, electric pets are fake animals, and even Wilbur Mercer -- a messiah-like character who serves to emphasize mankind's capacity for empathy -- might be a fake himself. It is alleged by some androids, which might be lying themselves, that Mercer is an actor who was paid to play a role, and that his "plight" was filmed in a television studio.
This is in keeping with Phil Dick's themes of "fake vs real" and "what makes us human?".
So in the end, Deckard indeed has an epiphany of sorts. Or at least a big moment for him. He finds a living toad in the desert, which is extraordinary and has multiple implications:
- A living animal is in itself an oddity in a world where most animals are extinct, very sought after, and extremely hard to come by.
- Deckard has been shown to want a real animal, or at least a decent replica, through the whole novel.
- The toad is also said to be Wilbur Mercer's favorite animal. Finding a toad "connects" Deckard to Mercer, which is meaningful for him. I don't think this means Deckard is Mercer, though; that's just a figure of speech.
Of course, you know the toad turns out not to be real at all, which is a twist typical of Phil Dick.
I don't know what PKD meant by this. Maybe that it is ultimately futile to try to distinguish real from fake? Maybe that it's mankind capacity for empathy that's important, regardless of the object of that empathy? Or maybe that empathy cannot tell us apart from the androids at all, as shown by the fellow cop who doubts his own humanity because he cannot feel empathy (and who is, ironically, shown to be human after all)?
My take -- the book itself is all about Deckard's journey of self discovery. This by extension comments on "what it means to be human."
Deckard's specific interactions with Mercer are meaningful to me in this light. Deckard clearly shows the human trait of "empathy." Unlike the "cold bounty hunter," he even has empathy for specific androids -- even before Rachel he has empathy for the opera singer.
Yet when he interacts with Mercer, Mercer tells him, essentially: "it's wrong to kill, but you've got to do it anyways." Thus, Deckard evolves beyond the simple stereotypes of human or android. Here's how:
a. He is not just a cold killer...he does have real empathy, even toward some androids. The androids, while deserving of some sympathy, are still lacking this crucial component (pulling the legs off of a spider one by one is just sadistic).
b. BUT...and this is key...he doesn't JUST have empathy. Rachel's key mistake was thinking that by sleeping with Deckard, he would empathize with Pris and by unable to kill her. Basically, "human's empathy makes them weak and incapable of tough actions."
What makes Deckard a transcendant "human" creature is that he can "violate his own nature" for the sake of the greater good. He can empathize with androids but ALSO "do his duty" by killing them.
My sense with Dick is that even though he paints nightmarish worlds, he is essentially optimistic about humanity and the universe (he's had his own Christian philosophy for instance).
This internal journey of Deckard is also why there is no contradition between Mercer being "fake" and "real" at the same time. For Dick, "reality" always somewhat exists subjectively within the minds of his character. There is no contradiction that Mercer may be an "actor" yet to Deckard what he represents is entirely real subjectively within his mind.
What is emphathy? What is love? Can you point to it? Can you touch it? Does that mean it doesn't exist? If empathy and love are what makes human's special, we have to be ready for some folks to tell us "they aren't real" and still believe they are real anyway...
Some seem to be forgetting that Mercer shows up "miraculously" and not only saves Deckard but brings Isidore's spider back to life. Mercer is real even though he was an alcoholic actor that is part of an elaborate hoax. It is as the first response by 22nd Century Fza--PKD blurs the line between fiction and reality. Even though the androids aren't real humans, some show and deserve empathy accorded to "real" humans and are arguably more "human" than some of the "real" humans we meet. Even though "Mercer" is a fictional character, he is real.
I think he goes up to Oregon because it's on the way to Seattle where Rachel is. He's mixed up after retiring all those andies and also sleeping with one. (He thinks he shared something with her.) He heads off because he can't just decompress back into his home life and just needs to split. So heads towards Rachel.
Is he Mercer? Who is Mercer anyway? The actor who played him? No, he's not Mercer. It's weird though that he sees Mercer at the conapt building and then later in the desert. Like maybe the whole story is really just some empathy box vision. I mean, he even gets hit by a rock climbing that hill. Or maybe he's just freaking out in the desert after killing 6 people in one day. He comes to empathise with these robots, even though he knows they're machines.
At the very end, after his wife tells him the toad is a machine he's disappointed, he's really only consciously interested in an idealistic real, living toad. But when he's sleeping, his wife tells the girl on the phone that he's devoted to it (the toad). She knows that eventually he'll form a bond with it, just like he did with his electric sheep (and the androids). Will it make him happy? Probably not. It's ersatz love. Like everyone else, Deckard is missing something crucial to him.
They all fill the gap with animals (real or otherwise), mood organs, empathy boxes, androids, Mercer and the Buster Friendly show. It's maybe the one thing they all have in common.