Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 1 Episodes 18 21 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 1, Episodes 18–21 : Beyond the Zero | Summary



Part 1, Episode 18

The episode starts with a reference to how the medium Carrol Eventyr is feeling "these days." But the episode soon travels back and forth in time, first to the 1930s in Berlin and then to a British bombing run over Lübeck in 1942.

Eventyr feels like "a victim of his freak talent" for communicating with the dead. He cannot remember his sessions of contact with the dead. "His only gift" is "this surrender," his receptivity to spirits of the dead.

Recently, "new varieties of freak have been showing up at 'The White Visitation.'" Gavin Trefoil can somehow alter his skin pigmentation, "from most ghastly albino ... to very deep, purplish black." There is a fanciful dramatization of everyday life inside Trefoil, at the cellular level. "Everything that comes from CNS [the central nervous system] we have to file here," says a skin cell, complaining about the bureaucracy of the body. The skin cells speculate about what happens in "the Outer Radiance," on the surface of the body and beyond.

The episode shifts focus to Lübeck in 1942 and Captain Basher St. Blaise's experiences there on a bombing run on Palm Sunday. From the airplane, St. Blaise saw "an angel ... rising over Lübeck." The radio went silent, then St. Blaise radioed his wingman: "Freakshow Two, did you see that, over." The wingman responded, "Affirmative." No one else saw the angel, and St. Blaise did not report it.

The episode shifts focus to Eventyr's "control," the dead spirit who communicates with him. The control is Peter Sachsa, who was killed in Berlin in 1930. He was struck on the head by a policeman's baton during a riot. Sachsa apparently held séances back then, when he was alive. He recalls one attended by a "Lieutenant Weissmann, recently back from South-West Africa, and the Herero aide he'd brought with him." Weissmann is Blicero of the rocket squadron (he changes his name) and the "Herero aide" is Enzian.

Back at the White Visitation, the psychic researcher Edwin Treacle and the statistician Mexico discuss the spirit world. Treacle says they ought to consider themselves part of the same community as the dead. The "Hereros ... carry on business every day with their ancestors," Treacle points out. However, Eventyr has no memory of his "transactions" with the dead.

The transcripts of Eventyr's sessions tell the story of Sachsa's life. He loved a woman named Leni Pökler. He "was active with" the Communist Party in Germany ("the K.P.D.," the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands). Leni's husband Franz worked on rockets for Army Ordnance.

Part 1, Episode 19

The episode continues in Berlin during the era of the Weimar Republic, the German government from 1919 to 1933. Leni Pökler has left her husband, Franz, the rocket scientist. She and her daughter Ilse are staying in a cramped, messy student dorm.

The activists discuss "street tactics" for protests. Leni enjoys protest actions, but Franz was always nervous about them. Leni remembers trying to use a concept from calculus to explain her gradually diminishing fear during street fights. Franz says she misunderstands the meaning of delta-t in calculus. He has "this way of removing all the excitement from things with a few words."

Franz and Leni were poor. Franz worked for a paint factory until it burned down. Franz believed the owner, a "Jewish wolf," burned it down for insurance money. Cold and unemployed, Franz was wandering Berlin when he stumbled on a rocket test. He saw an old school friend there, Karl Mondaugen. After college, Mondaugen had spent time in South-West Africa. Franz and Mondaugen had a reunion that night. They went to a beer hall, and Franz became excited about rocket research.

The episode shifts back to the now-separated Leni in the dorm. She is cold and has nothing to feed Ilse. A woman with whom she slept offers her a crust of bread for Ilse. Leni accepts and decides to go to Sachsa's and ask for milk.

At Sachsa's a séance is underway: "The objective tonight is to get in touch with the late foreign minister Walter Rathenau." Rathenau was a statesman, writer, and philosopher who organized Germany's economy during World War I. At the séance are "the elite ... from the corporate Nazi crowd." Leni meets Peter's gaze at the séance and tells him, "I've left him."

The narrator asks why the Nazis want to talk to Rathenau, the dead Jewish statesman. The narrator gives the paranoid reason, without endorsing it: "A collaboration here, between both sides of the Wall, matter and spirit." Rathenau speaks of strange things: the invention of mauve chemical dyes; the invention of the drug Oneirine; the "coal tars" as mediation between coal and steel. Then he asks the séance attendees two questions: "What is the real nature of synthesis? and "What is the real nature of control?" A Nazi asks Rathenau a question, as a joke: "Is God really Jewish?"

Part 1, Episode 20

It is Christmas Eve, "this holiest of nights." Pointsman has his own "Xmas present." It is Slothrop, "his own miracle and human child, grown to manhood." The grown Slothrop's brain—"the Slothropian cortex"—contains somewhere on it the result of Jamf's experiment. Thus Slothrop's brain contains "a bit of Psychology's own childhood ... a piece of the late Dr. Jamf himself."

Pointsman is hopeful about his experiments, but he has no one tell. Perhaps as a correlation with his hope about the experiments, he is also sexually excited. All day long, on Christmas Eve, Pointsman "discovers himself with an erect penis" at various times.

The episode shifts focus to Gwenhidwy, the other remaining owner of the Book. He is Welsh and he likes to drink and sing. He works in an East End hospital, in the company of the visiting Pointsman. Gwenhidwy attends to poor residents of London's East End, a poor neighborhood of "blacks, Indians, Ashkenazic Jews [Jews from Eastern Europe] ... bombed out, frozen, starved." Pointsman's West End and "Harley Street" patients have more "genteel signs and symptoms, headborn [mental] anorexias and constipations." (Harley Street is a fashionable London address for doctors.)

At the hospital, the tireless and talkative Gwenhidwy spins several theories for Pointsman. He then outlines for Pointsman "something really paranoid." He says the V-2 rockets are hitting the East End more than anywhere else in London. Gwenhidwy thinks this is a long-standing plan. The poor have been concentrated in the East End and south of the river Thames because military threats to England come from the east and the south. "The people out here were meant to go down first. We're expendable," says Gwenhidwy. Pointsman says, "That is very paranoid," to which Gwenhidwy responds, "It's true."

The episode shifts focus to "water bugs" (cockroaches) crawling over Gwenhidwy's papers that night, on Christmas. The narrator calls them "Christmas bugs." They turn papers, lentils, beans, and other hard things into cockroach feces, so they are "agents of unification." The episode's conceit is these bugs "were deep in the straw of the manger at Bethlehem." They lived "among a golden lattice of straw that must have seemed to extend miles upward and downward."

Part 1, Episode 21

It is the evening of "Boxing Day," the day after Christmas. Roger and Jessica are with Jessica's family. Earlier that day, Mexico took the children to watch a pantomime, Hansel and Gretel. ("Pantomime" is lighthearted theatrical entertainment in Britain, traditionally performed at Christmas. It is not silent, as the term might imply.) During the performance, "the Germans dropped a rocket just down the street from the theatre." Gretel responded by breaking character and singing a song that began, "Oh, don't let it get to you." The song concludes on a gloomy or eerie note: "And those voices you hear ... / Are of children who are learning to die."

Mexico is feeling sad in anticipation of losing Jessica. He senses at times "nothing really holds her but his skinny, 20-pushup arms." Jessica unglamorously blows her nose and "the sound is as familiar to [Mexico] as a bird's song." She says she is catching a cold. "You're catching the War," Mexico thinks. "Oh, Jess. Jessica. Don't leave me."


Part 1, Episode 18 flickers with significant details. They do not add up in the same way as the clues in a detective novel. There is no "solution" to Gravity's Rainbow, as in there is in a murder mystery. But part of the pleasure of reading a novel is in its suggestion of pattern. Names and figures are repeated: the angel over the German city of Lübeck is echoed by the "watchmen" on the horizon of the French Riviera (in Part 2, Episode 3); Captain Blicero and Enzian crop up again in this episode; Jamf's name is basically everywhere. Even characters devolve into repetitions, as if they were parts in a musical fugue: "Spectro" dies and returns as "SpectroE," an even more spectral version of himself. This is perhaps true of all novels, that they achieve beauty and give the impression of significance through pattern and repetition. The pattern isn't meant to be decoded, any more than a symphony is. But in Gravity's Rainbow, the reader's habit of noticing patterns and repetitions is thematized as paranoid knowledge, suggesting maybe there is an answer. The approaching and receding of this answer—the nearing and fading possibility of grasping the entire vast conspiracy—is the pleasure of reading.

The episode shifts back and forth in time, providing backstory on the rocket. Readers get a glimpse of the rocket squad's Blicero in his youth, and the episode also returns to the rocket's spiritual or emotional origin in the British bombing of the German city of Lübeck. The British attack on a largely civilian city enraged Hitler, who responded with threats of Vergeltung—retribution or payback. Hence the name Vergeltungswaffen, or vengeance weapons (V-2). Part 1, Episodes 19 and 20 also shift back in time, giving the backstory of the control Peter Sachsa's girlfriend, Leni Pökler. Leni is married to the rocket engineer Franz, who will work at Peenemünde. Again, there is a sense of whirling, kaleidoscopic pattern as elements recur and resonate.

In addition to shifting in time, these episodes also shift in scale, from the immense to the microscopic. The angel over Lübeck is immense: "The fiery leagues of face, the eyes, which went towering for miles." But the novel also tarries with tiny pigmentation cells, grumblingly laboring under the dictates of "C.N.S," the central nervous system, and with the "Christmas bugs" in Part 1, Episode 20. The pigmentation cells are like humans, laboring in darkness and wondering what happens at "the Great Radiance and beyond" on the body's surface, just as humans wonder what happens after death. The cockroaches are not human analogues, worrying their way through a paranoid or mystic structure. The bugs seem unaware of Christ, in whose manger they live, but they are contented.

With both the anxious pigment cells and the beatific roaches, Pynchon the novelist has extended his vision of pattern into a micro level. The pigment cells echo pattern by being little paranoids. The scene with the bugs is patterned in time, as the light shifts from "gold to antique-gold to shadows, and back again." And it is spatially patterned—the bugs live in "a golden lattice of straw that must have seemed to extend miles up and downward." A lattice is a structure, like a trellis ivy grows on, and it is also a term in physics, an arrangement of molecules in a metal or crystalline solid. Pynchon uses lattice in this second sense pages later, in Part 1, Episode 21. Mexico finds himself betrayed on a molecular level and "Quisling [traitor] molecules have shifted in latticelike ways to freeze him." Again, Pynchon evokes an elusive sense of pattern, both beautiful and menacing, by repeating resonances on a vast and a miniature scale.

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