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Gravity's Rainbow | Context


World War II

World War II lasted from September 1939 to September 1945. Gravity's Rainbow is set during the latter years of the war; the first chapter starts in December 1944. World War II involved many nations of the world, and its battles were fought in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The two main sides were the Allied powers (or the Allies) and the Axis powers. The principal nations of the Allies were Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and to some extent China. The chief Axis powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan.

In large part, World War II resulted from the events of World War I (1914–18). The terms of peace were particularly harsh on Germany, which lost territory and was forced to pay reparations. During the difficult economic times after World War I, some Germans increasingly turned to fascism (form of authoritarianism where the government controls industry and forcibly suppresses opposition), which promised a renewed, strengthened, racially purified Germany. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany at the request of the ruling government.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Poland had alliance agreements in place with England and France, so on September 3, 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. Hitler also conquered or annexed Austria, Belgium, and France. In 1941 Hitler instituted a program of imprisoning and killing Jews in Germany and in the countries under German military occupation, with an eventual goal of extermination of all Jews. Other minority populations, such as homosexuals and Roma people, were also confined in the concentration camps and executed.

In 1941 Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union. The German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad on January 31, 1943, was the turning point in the Eastern Front of the war. On June 6, 1944, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, beginning the fight to take back Europe from Hitler's control. In September 1944 Germany launched its first V-2 rocket from the Netherlands, first aimed at Paris, and then at Great Britain. The V-2 was 47 feet long, held 1,600 pounds of explosives, and acted as a kind of self-propelled bomb. Finally, in April 1945, Berlin fell, Hitler committed suicide, and Germany surrendered. The war concluded with the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, in August and Japan's surrender on September 2, 1945.

World War II in Gravity's Rainbow

In Gravity's Rainbow, in September 1944, the American soldier Tyrone Slothrop hears the explosions of the first V-2s to fall on London. Slothrop's journey carries him through many of the sites of the European war. Rather than just using World War II as a backdrop, Gravity's Rainbow reinterprets the war through paranoia. The war is not just a fight between aggressor nations and righteous defenders, although Gravity's Rainbow shows no sympathy for Nazis. Instead, the war is also an opportunity for shadowy powers on both sides to extend their reaches and increase their profits. The most shadowy of these powers are international cartels and corporations. Thus, Gravity's Rainbow emphasizes German corporations that survive the war, such as IG Farben.

Gravity's Rainbow also emphasizes the swift realignment of the conquered Germany as an ally of the United States against the communist Soviet Union. In the book, the war also sets up the postwar world, even as the war is still being fought. The cartels and corporations are again the beneficiaries.

The lack of battle scenes in Gravity's Rainbow does not mean the war is ignored. It is mainly a comic novel, so armed combat is transposed into comic equivalents: a pie fight, a pillow fight, a tank that fires dud artillery at a party. But Gravity's Rainbow is not only comic; it also considers war from angles other than the battlefield. It tracks the machinations of power far above the battlefield, not only those of cartels but of angels. The novel also takes a wide view of the victims of war: not just the fallen soldiers, but the bombed civilians of London and Lübeck and the inmates of concentration camp Dora. By providing a sprawling view rather than merely focusing on battles, Pynchon is able to represent war more fully.

Protestantism and Preterition


In Gravity's Rainbow the narrator frequently refers to "the preterite" and "preterition," as well as "the elect." These are all concepts of Protestantism. The Protestant movement is an umbrella term and so there is not just one set of Protestant doctrines, but in general, Protestants wanted independence from the Catholic pope. They also wanted less focus on idols and relics. In place of Catholic hierarchy and ritual, Protestants wanted an experience of faith.

Catholics believe someone who confesses their sins can be absolved of (forgiven for) them by a priest. In the late medieval period, Catholics had a system of indulgences—similar to a "get out of jail free" card in the board game Monopoly. For example, in the early 11th century, a pope granted the knights of the First Crusade a plenary indulgence, which canceled all existing obligations in full. The indulgence system became corrupted because a wealthy person could pay for indulgences, buying the way to salvation. Protestants rejected this practice.

In Protestantism, "the elect" refers to those chosen by God to be saved and to enjoy everlasting life. The opposite of the elect are the preterite, those whom God has passed by. Their souls are damned. Some Protestants believed in predestination, which means God had decided, eternally long ago, whom to damn and who to save. The decision was made long before a person's birth.

Preterition in Gravity's Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow is loaded with references to preterition. When some passengers fall off the ship Anubis, the narrator says, "The white Anubis, [has] gone on to salvation." But, he says, "back here, in her wake, are the preterite, swimming and drowning." In Protestant theology, the preterite are those denied salvation. In Part 3 Katje and Pirate attend a supernatural or dream ball, a kind of "dancing Preterition." However, Gravity's Rainbow is not about the history of doctrinal disputes within Christianity.


Beginning in the 16th century, the seafaring European powers began to explore and conquer large areas of the world, particularly in Africa and the Americas. They established settlements called colonies, hence the name colonialism for this political and economic system. Economically, the colony supplies the colonizing nation with extractable resources, cheap labor, and new markets. Politically, the colony becomes part of the colonizer's empire. Gravity's Rainbow is mainly concerned with European and American colonialism, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Often through pairs of characters, such as Blicero and Enzian, Gravity's Rainbow uses the theme of colonialism to show what a dominating person or power gains from the dominated.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European colonialism intensified. This period is sometimes called "the new imperialism," as new powers were also hoping to establish global empires. One such power was Germany, which had designs on parts of Africa. In the character of Weissmann/Blicero, Gravity's Rainbow shows the allure of the colonial venture. Blicero finds a Herero youth erotically compelling, though he also seeks to Europeanize him. Gravity's Rainbow is particularly attentive to the psychological dynamics of colonialism. In a discussion of Herero history, the narrator says German political theorist Karl Marx tries "to make believe [colonialism is] nothing but Cheap Labor and Overseas Markets." (Karl Marx was a 19th-century German philosopher and economist who developed the theory of communist economic development where the means of production are controlled by the government.) In contrast to these Marxist ideas, the narrator describes the psychological or cultural value of the colony: "Colonies are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax," the narrator says.

Colonization is also a process of destruction of the local culture. The colonized people are viewed as inferior to the colonizers. The only way for the colonized person to be "elevated," wrote the Martinican 20th-century anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon, is through "adoption of the mother country's cultural standards." In Gravity's Rainbow, this process is represented in Enzian, the Herero rocket engineer.

World War II destabilized European colonialism and began to bring about its end. Gravity's Rainbow is concerned with the way the Allied powers in World War II set the stage for the postwar order.

Hereros and German South West Africa

German South West Africa (Namibia) was a German colony from 1884 to 1919. From 1904 to 1907 the Nama and Herero peoples rebelled against German rule. Germany responded with a brutal genocidal campaign. As would happen later under the Nazis, the German army used concentration camps to confine the Hereros and Nama slated for genocide. By the end, about three-fourths of the Herero people had been executed (or had died trying to escape the camps by fleeing into the desert). The Nama likewise suffered, their entire population reduced by half by the end of the rebellion's suppression.

In Gravity's Rainbow, Enzian is a Herero from South West Africa, now living in Germany. Enzian leads a group of Hereros called the Schwarzkommando (German for "black commando group"). They work on their own V-2 rocket project even after the war in Europe ends. The gathering of the Schwarzkommando in Germany is a kind of reversal; the crimes committed by Germans in the colonies come back to haunt them in their own land.

Literary Movements


Modernism was a late 19th- and early 20th-century artistic movement that included music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature. It began after the Industrial Revolution and especially flourished after World War I, predominantly in Europe and North America. Modernism rejected the styles and forms of the past and sought to invent new ones. Modern architecture rejected exterior ornament and the overstuffed interiors of the 19th century in favor of sleek, machined forms. Modern painting and sculpture turned away from traditional notions of representation, becoming increasingly abstract and self-reflexive. Modern dance rejected the schooled and rigid beauty of ballet for wilder and more expressive movements. Examples of modernist literature include the spare prose of American writer Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1924) and English writer Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room (1922). In all this, there was an implicit rejection of what people were used to finding pleasurable.


Like modernism, postmodernism is a movement in numerous arts, including architecture, visual art, theater, and literature. Postmodernism arose after World War II, and it turned away from modernism's insistence on entirely new art forms. Instead, postmodern art and architecture often quote elements of numerous traditional styles in one work. Characteristics of postmodernism include parody or pastiche, flattened emotions, complicated artifice, and self-reference or recursion. In American literature after World War II, postmodern novels by John Barth, Robert Coover, Kathy Acker, and Don DeLillo emphasized the construction of fiction and the possibly fictional nature of reality.

Gravity's Rainbow is also in this postmodern mode. It plays with parody and pastiche, inventing fictional war departments with absurd names like PISCES and ACHTUNG. It restages World War II as the invasion of a lone tank with a dud gun into a hash-addled party on the French Riviera. Gravity's Rainbow meticulously builds up the realism of its depictions with encyclopedic detail. However, it also swerves into ridiculous songs and surreal wanderings such as the story of Byron the Bulb, a preternaturally long-lasting light bulb. In Pynchon's hands, these elements are part of a shifting and unstable world in which paranoid theories of control might be accurate.


Cybernetics is the study of communication and control processes in living organisms and technical systems. In particular, cybernetics studies how creatures and machines adjust in response to environmental input, or feedback. These machine cybernetics include guided missiles. Unlike bullets or cannonballs, these missiles have internal guidance systems capable of correcting the missile's course in flight. These missiles are the descendants of the German V-2 rocket.

The study of cybernetics began in 1948, when American mathematician Norbert Wiener published his book Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Gravity's Rainbow mainly takes place between 1944 and 1946, but Pynchon was thinking about cybernetics when he wrote it. The word cybernetic comes from a Greek word referring to steering. Further, cybernetics is also called control theory: the study of how a system's guidance mechanism monitors what is happening, compares it to what should be happening, and adjusts the system accordingly. Gravity's Rainbow is concerned with control, and especially with who or what controls the technological, economic, and political systems of contemporary society.

Pynchon thematizes cybernetics and control theory by having psychics at the White Visitation communicate with a "control" or otherworldly spirit, and by having these "controls" or spirits talk about control. One spirit, Roland Feldspath, proposes a paranoid theory: the disastrous German inflation of the 1930s was deliberately instigated, "to drive young enthusiasts of the Cybernetic Tradition into Control work." There is no "cybernetic tradition" in 1944, when Feldspath is speaking. But Pynchon planted this clue to emphasize the V-2 was the beginning of guided missiles and cybernetics.

In the 1960s and '70s, as Pynchon was writing Gravity's Rainbow, the Cold War (1947–91) was underway. The Cold War was an ideological war between the United States and the Soviet Union over the spread of communism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. German American rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun contributed to the development of systems that could annihilate the earth. The paranoid theories of Gravity's Rainbow use the V-2 to ask questions about whether people can control the weapons that threaten global extinction.

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