Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 1, Episodes 3–5 : Beyond the Zero | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Episode 3

On his lunch break, Teddy Bloat goes to "a gray stone town house" near Grosvenor Square in London. Bloat goes to Lt. Tyrone Slothrop's desk in ACHTUNG, a fictional organization: "Allied Clearing House, Technical Units, Northern Germany."

In the cubicle Slothrop shares with Lt. Oliver "Tantivy" Mucker-Maffick, Bloat photographs Slothrop's desk and a map of London next to it. The map is marked with tiny colored stars. The stars are labeled with women's names, including Gladys, Katherine, Alice, Delores, Shirley, and "a couple of Sallys."

Part 1, Episode 4

It is afternoon of the same day, growing dark already. Slothrop is at the site where the V-2 fell. The rocket contained "a graphite cylinder, about six inches long," and "there seem to be papers stashed inside." All at the site are "waiting around for a Captain Prentice."

This morning Slothrop received orders to report to a hospital in the East End of London "as part of the P.W.E. Testing Programme." "P.W.E." stands for Political Warfare Executive. Slothrop does not know why he is being sent there.

Slothrop remembers the previous September, when the V-2 rockets first hit London. Slothrop remembers telling Tantivy he was frightened by the V-2 rockets. "You can't hear them when they come in," he explains to Tantivy. The rockets travel faster than the speed of sound. His friend Tantivy does not understand why Slothrop keeps the map of his women. "It cannot be put down to the usual loud-mouthed American ass-banditry," he thinks.

Slothrop remembers a Friday evening the previous September. In the street he heard a loud explosion. This was followed by a second explosion. It was not a "buzzbomb," also known as a V-1. It was a V-2. The time was "6:43:16 British Double Summer Time" (which is similar to American Daylight Saving Time). Slothrop heard the explosions and then noticed he had "a sneaky hardon stirring." He wonders if it is related to his "peculiar sensitivity to what is revealed in the sky."

He considers his ancestors back in Mingeborough, Massachusetts. For a while the family had money in timberland in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. The trees were gradually turned into paper: "toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint," or "shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths." The family's fortunes gradually dwindled and then vanished during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Slothrop recalls watching the Northern Lights when he was a boy, on a spring night in 1931. Now he wonders, in London, "What Lights were these? What ghosts in command?" The narration has returned to the moment of the fateful encounter with the rocket: "6:43:16 BDST." Some transcendent I, perhaps Slothrop, thinks, "[T]his is how it does happen—yes the great bright hand reaching out of the cloud."

Part 1, Episode 5

It is evening of the same day. A séance to summon spirits is underway at the White Visitation. A medium, Carrol Eventyr, has been taken over by a "control" or guiding spirit. The spirit is a dead German, Peter Sachsa. He brings information of another dead German, Roland Feldspath. In life Feldspath was an expert on rocket control systems, although that is not clear at this stage of the novel. Through Sachsa and Eventyr, Feldspath talks mysteriously about "control." He says, "For the first time [control] was inside."

A young woman, Jessica Swanlake, is also in attendance. Pirate Prentice and Roger Mexico, who is romantically involved with Jessica, are secluded in another room. They discuss Eventyr and "the White Visitation," a collection of spiritualists, "bookish sods and rationalized freaks." Prentice is involved with a Firm operation called Operation Black Wing.

Jessica enters the room and smiles at Mexico. Prentice recalls his own great love, a married woman named Scorpia Mossmoon. Prentice sees Mexico "going through much the same thing with Jessica," who has a steady boyfriend, Jeremy (Beaver).

Analysis

In Part 1, Episode 2, Teddy Bloat was a figure of fun. He fell from the banister and slipped on a banana peel. Now, on a mysterious spying mission in Slothrop's office, he is "unsmiling." He has no time for sex ("slap-and-tickle") and no real feelings of friendship for Tantivy, his former schoolmate. Just as the Firm "will use anyone, traitors, murderers, perverts," Bloat is willing to use every human relationship in the service of his mission. He is a company man.

Bloat's spy mission is the reader's first introduction to Slothrop. He does not appear yet, but readers learn a bit about him through his messy office. He is a "Yank" and his mother, Nalline, is back in Massachusetts. The spying scene also gives readers the first glimpse of Slothrop's peculiar talent, his sexual sensitivity to V-2 rockets. Bloat takes an interest in the map with its "Carolines, Marias, Annes, Susans, Elizabeths." The map is brought into connection to the V-2 by a remark from Slothrop's friend and coworker, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick. But Tantivy cannot figure it out either. He can only see it is not just "American ass-banditry." The full connection is not yet plain to Bloat, or to readers. Bloat's spy mission also points to the difference between himself and Tantivy. Bloat is a false friend, pumping Tantivy for information. Tantivy will turn out to be a true friend to Slothrop, though he is vulnerable to Bloat's machinations.

As Slothrop talks to Tantivy, the novel's theme of paranoia is introduced. Slothrop "has become obsessed with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it." This is an echo of a wartime saying: the bullet that kills you has your name written on it—meaning it was destined to kill you. Slothrop goes so far as to imagine "They" have painted his name on every rocket. ("Doesn't cost them a thing to paint his name on every one, right?") This shadowy "They" is not just the German enemy. It "embrac[es] possibilities far far beyond Nazi Germany." Tantivy makes light of Slothrop's idea, saying it might be "useful" to "pretend something like that" in a kind of "operational paranoia." Slothrop retorts, "Who's pretending?" As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Even though Slothrop, in paranoid fashion, scans the environment for clues to a plot against him, there does seem to be a plot against him. From his earliest infancy to his wartime service, he is on a collision course with the V-2 rocket.

Paranoia also becomes an ordering principle for Gravity's Rainbow. With the characters' need to suss out each other's motives, the welter of otherwise extraneous detail is made potentially significant. Historical details in the first episodes include factions of "Lublin [Polish] Communists," "Varsovian [from Warsaw] shadow-ministers," "ELAS Greeks" (a communist resistance group), and "royalists" (those loyal to the Greek king). With Slothrop's paranoia, the range of references and the stakes both intensify. Anything might point him to the "hand reaching out of the cloud"—a German silent film star or Argentinian anarchists. And the stakes are high because the hand emerges from the sky in the form of a rocket with his name on it. As Tantivy says, "Think of it as a very large bullet."

The novel gives some of Slothrop's backstory. His ancestors were Protestants with a belief in predestination. Predestination is the Christian notion people are saved or damned by God at the outset of life. No one can change their predestined lot, their salvation or damnation. The rocket emerging from the clouds to menace Slothrop is like the hand of God emerging from the clouds on the tombstone of one of his ancestors. This extension of Slothrop's "sensitivity" into the past also suggests Slothrop has been destined to meet the rocket for a long time. There is a parade of ancestral epitaphs, on down to Tyrone Slothrop's grandfather. This listing of gravestone inscriptions points to Slothrop's end, and also makes this end seem foreordained.

The hand reaching from the sky on the tombstone is succeeded by a memory of the Northern Lights. Slothrop then wonders concerning the rocket, "But what Lights were these? What ghosts in command?" Thus there is a progression in the Slothrop family line, or a descent: from a meeting with the divine (the hand of fate or God), to a meeting with sublime nature (the Northern Lights), to the technical, military phenomenon of the rocket. Slothrop seems to have a premonition of a rocket heading toward him. It is described as being just as sublime as the scene on the tombstone or under the night sky of his childhood: "Everything about to rush away and he to lose himself." But Slothrop does not yet know how to classify such an entity in the sky, or to say who is behind "the great bright hand reaching out of the cloud" toward him.

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