Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 1 Episodes 15 17 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 1, Episodes 15–17 : Beyond the Zero | Summary



Part 1, Episode 15

Slothrop is released from St. Veronica's Hospital, where he had been undergoing examination while on sodium amytal. Over the course of several days he has a paranoid feeling: "He could almost swear he's being followed, or watched anyway."

Slothrop hangs around the East End of London, "seeking places the followers might not follow." There he runs into a woman he has dated before, a nurse named Darlene. She brings him home to the apartment she shares with an old widow, Mrs. Quoad. She devotes herself to teas and peculiar-tasting English candies in "grease-hazy jars." She offers Slothrop some "wine jellies," a gelatin candy flavored with wine and "just a touch of menthol." Mrs. Quoad and Darlene enjoy the candies. Slothrop soldiers on, gamely eating candies tasting of "mayonnaise and orange peels" and "pure nitric acid." They wash it down with a "ghastly-bitter" tea. The flavors overwhelm Slothrop: "Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice."

Later Slothrop and Darlene lie in bed after lovemaking. Slothrop is "hunting across the zero between waking and sleep," his body still entwined with Darlene's. A V-2 rocket explodes nearby, and in an instant "the room is full of noon ... rattling the building to its poor bones." The sound arrives after the blast. Slothrop reacts to the V-2 in his customary way and soon he and Darlene are making love again. The episode concludes by asking, "Who's that, through the crack in the orange shade ... watching?"

Part 1, Episode 16

The episode begins with a series of memories of the early days of Jessica and Mexico's relationship. Then Mexico wonders, jealously, about Jessica's relationship with her boyfriend, Beaver, "or Jeremy, as he is known to his mother." Mexico wonders if Jessica is "Doing The Same Things with Jeremy."

At the White Visitation one morning, Mexico wakes up with an erection and one of Jessica's hairs in his mouth. However, "he hadn't seen her" for some time. He has paranoid feelings about his colleagues at the White Visitation. He wonders, can they read his mind?

Meanwhile, at her dormitory, Jessica tries to sort out her feelings for Jeremy and Mexico. "When she's with Roger it's all love," but when they're apart, "he depresses and even frightens her." Jeremy is "safer."

In the episode's final scene, Jessica and Mexico attend a church service. It is Advent, the period before Christmas, and a vespers (evening prayer) service. The music moves them. The choir is all male, apparently soldiers, and includes "one black face, the counter-tenor, a Jamaican." The episode shifts to a lengthy consideration of the war and of the birth of Christ. These meditations are all related back to the vespers service in Kent: "This is the War's evensong, the War's canonical hour, and the night is real."

Part 1, Episode 17

The episode starts in the second person, addressing a "you." The thoughts are Pointsman's. He observes in himself the "paradoxical phase," a Pavlovian term. During the paradoxical phase, "weak stimuli get strong responses": a faint bell makes the experimental dog salivate strongly, for example. Thomas Gwenhidwy knocks faintly on Pointsman's door, awakening him immediately, though Pointsman slept through the sounds of British airplanes, "Mosquitoes and Lancasters tonight en route to Germany." Pointsman has been dreaming of "a round white light" and a landscape of home, and of a woman he assumes is his wife.

Gwenhidwy has come to report "the news about poor Spectro." St. Veronica's Hospital was hit by a V-2 shortly after Slothrop was released. Kevin Spectro is among the dead.

Pointsman considers now Spectro is nothing but a pinpoint on a map of V-2 bomb sites. And someday the map will be taken down and the pins removed. Five of the seven original owners of "the Book," a rare translation of Pavlov's lectures, are now dead. Only Pointsman and Gwenhidwy are left.

Pointsman's Nobel victory thoughts turn mythological. He used to imagine himself finding "a Minotaur waiting for him." (The Minotaur was a creature of Greek mythology, partly human, with the head of a bull. He dwelled inside a labyrinth, waiting to attack anyone who entered.)

Pointsman wonders if Slothrop can renew his Nobel hopes. He thinks, "Slothrop ought to be on the Riviera by now, warm, fed." Pointsman considers this coincidence: "Spectro is dead, and Slothrop (sentiments d'emprise) ... was with his Darlene" just blocks from the hospital two days previously. "Sentiments d'emprise" is a French term of Pavlov's, meaning "feelings of external influence." Pointsman wonders how Slothrop could have influenced the rocket.


The "Disgusting English Candy Drill" in Part 1, Episode 15 is one of Pynchon's set pieces in Gravity's Rainbow. (A set piece in a novel or other work of art is a self-contained passage that has been elaborately structured or patterned for maximum effect.) In a bravura performance, Pynchon holds the reader's attention throughout a lengthy and intense description of disgusting sensations, the horrible tastes of Mrs. Quoad's English candies. (The level of gustatory disgust will soon be surpassed, in the scene between Brigadier Pudding and Katje.)

This scene is not just about Pynchon showing off his powers of observing sensory detail. It is also a depiction of the war. The candy eating is a "drill," which is how soldiers practice (or play at) fighting a war. This is a war scene, transposed into a key of childhood sweetness. Darlene is compared to an "ingenue," an innocent young female character in a book or play. Slothrop too comes off as the male equivalent of an ingenue, writing home about the wine jellies, "That's their idea of candy, Mom!" If they could figure out how to feed this candy to Hitler, he says with boyish innocence, "I betcha the war'd be over tomorrow!" Even some of the candy is military: "a .455 Webley cartridge of ... taffy, a six-ton earthquake bomb ... and a licorice bazooka." For a novel set in wartime, Gravity's Rainbow is striking for having no scenes set on a battlefield. Instead, events like the candy drill—and later the pillow fight with Katje and the pie fight with Marvy—suggest the war is everywhere. It has even infiltrated innocent games.

The last time Slothrop was with Darlene was September 1944—when the first V-2 rockets fell on London, and when he first had his peculiar reaction to them. Now on this night the erection and the bomb explosion are closer together than ever, as a bomb falls while he and Darlene doze. Pointsman thinks, like Jamf, an erection is a "binary, elegant" piece of data "that's either there, or it isn't." But Part 1, Episode 15 shows Slothrop experiences it otherwise: lying next to Darlene, his penis is "halfway limp."

In Part 1, Episode 16 the theme of childhood innocence returns, but in a menacing mood. In the midst of a long meditation on wartime England, an "88" (a German 88-mm shell) falls on London and the narrator snaps, "What do you think, it was a children's story? There aren't any." But the episode is a "children's story." Jessica and Mexico are in church during Advent, the time leading to Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ. The multilingual carol sung at the service celebrates the Feast of Nativity. The scene in the church can be called a meditation on wartime England because it is not anchored to a particular character. The scenes are English, but the narrator's perspective is larger than Jessica's or Mexico's. This matters because the experience of the evensong's beauty and the hopefulness of the birth are dispersed, shared out among all the characters in the church, all in wartime England, and even with the readers.
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