Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 1 Episodes 1 2 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 1, Episodes 1–2 : Beyond the Zero | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Episode 1

The epigraph, or introductory quotation, to Part 1 is attributed to World War II German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He explains he believes in "spiritual existence after death" because "nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation."

The beginning of Part 1, Episode 1 is enigmatic: "A screaming comes across the sky." The rest of the episode describes the journey of a particular train during an evacuation of London, in wintertime, during the World War II. The journey is described close to the perspective of an unnamed "he." The evacuation seems to be a sham; the narrator says it is "all theater." The character notices "this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into." The character wonders, "When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light?"

Then it is morning and the character who has been thinking or dreaming of evacuation is Captain Geoffrey Prentice, known as Pirate. It is dawn. Pirate is in an old maisonette, or small house, in London. Above him his friend Teddy Bloat, drunk and asleep, is about to topple from a balcony. Pirate notices in time and kicks his cot over to break Bloat's fall. Bloat goes back to sleep.

Pirate grows bananas in a greenhouse on the maisonette's rooftop. He has become famous for his "banana breakfasts," which other military men attend. A young man named Osbie Feel also uses the rooftop greenhouses to grow "pharmaceutical plants." Looking out the bathroom window, Pirate notices a vapor trail in the sky. It is not like any he has seen before. He realizes it must be from "the new, and still Most Secret, German rocket bomb."

Part 1, Episode 2

Pirate starts making the banana breakfast. Bloat enters the kitchen, "slips on a banana peel and falls on his ass." Pirate and Bloat discuss the V-2 rocket Pirate saw from the rooftop. Pirate calls it by its other name, A4.

The narrator describes at length all the banana dishes. There are "banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles" and a "banana blancmange," a dessert with a saying spelled out on top in French: "It is magnificent, but it is not war." The saying is attributed to an observer of the failed Charge of the Light Brigade, which occurred during a battle between British and Russian troops during the Crimean War (1853–56).

Pirate gets a phone call from his "employer," a military man Pirate has met only once before, at a briefing long ago. The man says a message for him "came over in a rather delightful way" and landed in Greenwich, England. The message is inside the V-2 rocket. A driver takes Pirate to the bomb site.

The narration swerves into an unfamiliar perspective. Someone is saying he knows those who pretend to be "narodnik" (a Russian word for an early kind of socialist) are actually loyal to Codreanu, a Romanian fascist leader. The narrator explains, "Heh, heh, here comes Pirate's Condition creeping over him again." Pirate has the ability to experience other people's fantasies, and this ability has been put to military use. Pirate "take[s] over the running of [the] exhausting little daydreams" of important people, leaving them free to concentrate on the war. A song about this condition interrupts the narration.

Pirate initially had this condition while he dreamed. In 1935, he had someone else's fantasy while he was awake, a sexual fantasy not his own. "The Firm" then became interested in Pirate. (The Firm is what Pirate calls the Special Operations Executive [S.O.E.], an actual British spy agency in charge of resistance activities in Europe in World War II.) Pirate had a fantasy belonging to Lord Blatherard Osmo, who was in the Foreign Office. Osmo fantasized about a "giant Adenoid" (a gland found in the roof of the mouth). It terrorized London and needed to be pacified with huge amounts of cocaine.

Analysis

The epigraph attributed to Wernher von Braun, the chief scientist in the development of the Nazis' V-2 rocket, foreshadows themes and events of the novel. Von Braun mentions "extinction." Here he means death, but later in the novel "extinction" is revealed as a technical term in behavioral psychology. Extinction refers to the process of eliminating a conditioned reflex created by psychologists. For example, a dog is conditioned to salivate when it hears a bell ring. At the end of the experiment, the habit of salivating in response to the bell is "extinguished," so the dog will no longer have the behavior. As we will later discover, the novel's protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, was experimented on as an infant. His conditioned reflex is to have erections in the presence of some unknown stimulus. (It is unknown because the scientists kept it a secret.) It appears Slothrop's response was never extinguished. Thus Slothrop's experiment also "does not know extinction."

The "screaming" that comes across the sky in Part 1, Episode 1 is the path of the V-2 rocket. The descriptions in this episode are detailed and somewhat distant and technical. The emotional tenor is a bit paranoid: unnamed masses cower before scornful authorities. The complexity and density of this opening passage establish the book's tone, gravity, and authority. Readers do not initially know whose fantasy, dream, or memory they are reading. When the focus switches to Pirate, it remains unclear who has been thinking or dreaming about this "screaming" rocket. Pirate can have other people's fantasies.

The progress of the evacuation of London in Part 1, Episode 1 mirrors Slothrop's progress in the novel. The evacuation is "not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into." Slothrop leaves London and then goes AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave; absent without permission) in France. But as he moves through Europe, he does not escape. Instead he becomes further entangled in "Their" machinations.

Pirate's talent and his breakfast illustrate two ideas about entropy. Entropy is a term from physics. In a closed, thermodynamic system, entropy represents the quantity of thermal energy unavailable for conversion into work. The larger that quantity, the more disorganized the system. Entropy also has a more general meaning: the descent of a system into increasing disorder. The government uses Pirate's special talent to make the government more efficient. If the government is considered as a closed system, by analogy, the official distracted with fantasies about a giant adenoid is an entropic quantity. The envoy to Novi Pazar (a city in Serbia) wastes energy that could go into governing. So Pirate's talent makes the system—the government—less entropic and more efficient.

The description of Pirate's talent also demonstrates the stability of many systems and their resistance to entropy. Pirate has had other people's fantasies about atypical sexual interests (such as young girls) and illegal drugs (the Adenoid's cocaine use). Just as "the Firm" finds a use for Pirate—converting his talent into work—so too does the culture absorb the counterculture.

Pynchon's novel injects tremendous entropy into the closed aesthetic system called a novel. It does this in the form of far-reaching, seemingly extraneous cultural information. To a story set in World War II, Pynchon adds a 1960s-style drug enthusiast (Osbie Feel), banana dishes of every description, comic songs, and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Later episodes add a host of behaviorists, anarchists, performers, and psychics (among others). The impressive part is that he was able to create a novel out of this.

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