Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 3 Episodes 1 3 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 3, Episodes 1–3 : In the Zone | Summary



Part 3, Episode 1

It is May, and Slothrop is in Germany. The war in Germany ended in April. Now masses of DPs (displaced persons, or war refugees) are on the road and so is Slothrop. He is heading to Nordhausen, in the Harz Mountains, in search of the S-Gerät and Rocket 00000. In Nordhausen is Mittelwerke, an underground German rocket factory.

Slothrop boards a train of DPs, where he reads the information he picked up in Zürich (Part 2, Episode 7). It is a dossier about Laszlo Jamf, chemist and scientist.

Slothrop learns shocking things in the Jamf dossier. His father agreed to let Jamf experiment on him, and in return IG Farben paid for his Harvard education. The code name for young Tyrone Slothrop was "Schwarzknabe," or black baby (as in black ops). The code name for his father was "Schwartzvater," black father. Slothrop recalls "a smell, a forbidden room" where "something was done to him ... while he lay helpless." He is sure the remembered smell will turn out to be "the smell of Imipolex G," the plastic Jamf invented.

Overcome by what he has read, Slothrop exits the train's boxcar and climbs up the roof. There he meets Major Duane Marvy. Marvy is ranting about black Afro-Germans in the next train car, using racial slurs to describe them. One of the Africans appears just then and throws Marvy from the roof. He introduces himself to Slothrop: Oberst (Colonel) Enzian.

In Nordhausen. Slothrop meets with a woman named Geli Tripping. She considers herself a witch. Slothrop spends the night with her. Their enjoyment is troubled by her pet owl Wernher and the threatened reappearance of her boyfriend, "a Soviet intelligence officer named Tchitcherine." Even more troubling, Geli knows about the 00000 rocket. She tells Slothrop the S in S-Gerät stands for schwarz—black.

Part 3, Episode 2

The next morning Slothrop leaves Geli's place. Geli has given him the boots of her lover Tchitcherine because Slothrop's shoes were stolen. Slothrop is still in disguise as Ian Scuffling, British war correspondent. He hitches a ride to Mittelwerke, the underground rocket factory, from an American lieutenant (a "rail," in Army slang).

The former salt mine Mittelwerke is carved into a mountain, a series of S-shaped tunnels. Now in peacetime it is like a tourist attraction, though all the tourists are military or government people who are trying to get their hands on rocket technology. A man is giving tours of Mittelwerke that include "the secret doors to rock passages that lead through to Dora," the concentration camp providing slave labor to the rocket factory. The tour also includes futuristic space-themed exhibits about a future Raketen-Stadt (Rocket City). Also on the tour is the place where "Enzian had his Illumination," some kind of epiphany, during an erotic dream in which "he coupled with a slender white rocket." One of the tourists has a thought about the polymer Imipolex G, and someone monitoring thoughts realizes it.

The focus of the narrative shifts back to the lieutenant and Slothrop. The lieutenant parks his car at the mouth of the tunnel to Mittelwerke. Mittelwerke's architectural style has "the Albert Speer Touch"; Speer was Hitler's chief architect, known for grandiose buildings. Mittelwerke was designed by a protégé of Speer's, who gave the entrance a parabolic shape. The factory consists of two long curving tunnels and numerous cross-tunnels—like the rails and crossties of a curving railroad track. "Or picture a ladder with a slight S-shaped ripple in it, lying flat," the narrator describes. The cross-tunnels are called Stollen, and they are numbered zero to 44. The narrative shifts to a lengthy consideration of the symbolic meanings of the double-S shape of the two main tunnels. The meanings include "the double lightning-stroke ... the SS symbol" and "a double integral sign" from calculus.

As Slothrop proceeds along the numbered Stollen or cross-tunnels into the higher numbers, he "retrace[s] the Rocket's becoming," the places it was assembled. Americans in the tunnels sing lewd songs, in limerick form, about men copulating with rockets: "There was a young fellow named Crockett / Who had an affair with a rocket." At Stollen 41, Slothrop is told the only way in is by zip line. He "clutches on to the cable as 50 feet of twilit space appears underneath him," and then "suddenly the motor cuts off and he's falling like a rock." He lets go of the cable and falls, but then he is carried by the heel, hanging upside down, through a raucous party in Stollen 41.

The party is a going-away celebration for Major Marvy, the racist officer Enzian threw off the train in Part 3, Episode 1. Marvy recognizes Slothrop: "There he is ... by God the limey sonofabitch go git him, boys!" Major Marvy and his subordinates ("Marvy's Mothers") chase Slothrop through the tunnels. The madcap chase involves a rebar booby-trap, a miniature train, a blackout, and a rocket warhead. Slothrop and a companion, Professor Glimpf, escape from Marvy and flee Mittelwerk in a stolen Mercedes. They drive up into the Harz Mountains to see a friend of Glimpf's, a "Nazi [rocket] guidance expert." A song ends the episode, this one about American-German postwar collaboration: "Gearin' up fer thim Rooskies / And Go-round Number Three."

Part 3, Episode 3

The episode is set in the Harz Mountains, and the focus shifts to Enzian and other Hereros: "In the mountains around Nordhausen and Bleicheröde, down in abandoned mine shafts, live the Schwarzkommando." As a joke the Hereros call their underground homes "Erdschweinhöhle," aardvark holes. The aardvark has a connection to the myths of the Herero people. The episode recounts many of these mythic elements.

One faction of the Hereros in Germany promotes sterility and the death of the Hereros: "The program is racial suicide." They call themselves Otukungurua and also the Empty Ones. Enzian, leader of the Schwarzkommando, has a different project, not fully explained. He seems to be building a V-2 rocket, but "what Enzian wants to create will have no history."

The episode shifts to Enzian's backstory. His mother had him out of wedlock. His father was a Russian sailor. When he was an infant, his mother took him along on "Samuel Maherero's great trek across the Kalahari." Maherero led the Herero uprising of 1904. In response, the Germans issued an extermination order. In turn, Maherero led his people through the desert, where they were aided by "Khama, king of the Bechuanas," who gave them oxen, food, and water. The thirsting Hereros drank too much water and died. Enzian woke up alone, among the dead adults. Thus Enzian "grew up into a white-occupied world."

Enzian says he will go to Hamburg. Another Herero, Andreas, warns him it might be a Russian trap. Enzian tells Andreas, "Stop worrying about Tchitcherine." Tchitcherine is Enzian's half-brother, fathered by the same Russian sailor.


Part 3, Episode 1 partly explains the sinister plot involving Jamf, young Tyrone Slothrop, and Imipolex G. The episode also introduces Major Marvy, the closest thing to a villain in Gravity's Rainbow. Nazis are seldom seen in the novel, and now, halfway through, the war in Germany is over. While Marvy seems like comic relief, it's significant Slothrop encounters him while still reeling at his discovery he had "been sold to IG Farben like a side of beef." His first reaction to the discovery is to leave the train car and climb up to the roof for some air, and there is Marvy. Jamf is dead; Imipolex G is inert material; "They" are shadowy and invisible. Marvy is a tangible, concrete enemy.

In a way Major Marvy is mistaken about Slothrop; he calls him a "limey [English] sonofabitch." So their enmity is a based on a misunderstanding, but in other ways their enmity is real. Slothrop, for all the racial anxieties he displays when drugged, is repelled by Major Marvy's racism. More importantly, Major Marvy is a rival seeking to possess the V-2 rocket. He tells Slothrop he "needs to coordinate with some Project Hermes people from General Electric." Project Hermes is not one of Pynchon's fictional inventions (though Marvy is). Under the name Project Hermes, General Electric and the U.S. Army smuggled dismantled rockets out of Germany. They were reassembled and tested in White Sands, New Mexico, as part of arming for the Cold War.

The comic scenes in the tunnel show men becoming rockets, metaphorically. The limericks about sexual intercourse with rockets make Slothrop's peculiar condition into a general one: in the limericks every man is aroused by V-2 rockets. Slothrop himself mimics the flight of a V-2 when he enters Stollen 41 on a zip line: "Suddenly the motor cuts off and he's falling like a rock." This is Brennschluss, the moment the V-2 rocket stops burning fuel and becomes a ballistic missile. Thus Slothrop is not only "falling like a rock"; he is falling like a rocket. Later he will become "Raketemensch," Rocketman. But already here he is reborn, perhaps as a rocket; after his fall he is carried around by the heel, like a newborn. Symbolically, the soldiers copulate with rockets and create a rocket-child, Slothrop.

The scenes in the tunnels contain some of the novel's most evocative passages about the rocket. They're partly rocket science, and they're also rocket poetry. The shape of the tunnels resembles, among other things, the "double integral sign" from calculus, ∬. Calculating the rocket's flight requires a double integration, a calculus operation. A derivative in calculus measures the slope of a curve or the rate of change (time), for example, the rate of change as the rocket travels along its curved path, its parabola. An integral measures not time, but space. In the case of the rocket, the space measured is the distance traveled. The double integration involved in the rocket's flight is, first, from acceleration (meters per second per second) to speed (meters per second). Then the second integration goes from speed to distance (meters). In the narrator's words, "'Meters per second' [speed] will integrate to meters [distance]." That covers the rocket science; here is the rocket poetry: as a result of this double integration, "the moving vehicle is frozen, in space, to become architecture, and timeless." (Timeless because the integral concerns space and not time.) Pynchon adds the fanciful idea that the rocket "was never launched. It will never fall." Katje had said the rocket "lives an entire life" in the few minutes of its flight. Here that life has become timeless, somewhat like the motionless painted figures in 19th-century English poet John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

However, it is not possible to look at the rocket only from the point of view of this double integration. Even the frozen, "timeless" rocket is an intimation of death. The significance of Brennschluss is revealed here. The rocket's horizontal velocity is known. Combined with its fall, that velocity creates "gravity's rainbow," the parabola. But Brennschluss is involved in the calculation of targeting. Given a particular point in space at which Brennschluss occurs, the rocket's landing site can be calculated with precision: "Brennschluss exactly here would make the Rocket go on to hit 1000 yards east of Waterloo Station." This is the rocket's "stone determinacy."

The Schwarzkommando Hereros are also reckoning with the temptation to become rockets. Concerning the Empty Ones, the narrator remarks they are fleeing "a force, which appears to be the Rocket: some immachination" that can "gather violent political opposites together in the Erdschweinhöhle." These violent opposites are gathered the way the rocket "gathers fuel and oxidizer in its thrust chamber: metered, helmsmanlike, for the sake of its scheduled parabola." Pynchon appears to have invented the word "immachination"; it is a "nonce word," existing only in this novel ("nonce" meaning here "once"). Just as immiseration is the process of becoming miserable, "immachination" in Gravity's Rainbow is the process of becoming a machine. The conflict between the Empty Ones and the other Schwarzkommando Hereros is set to explode. Later, Enzian will reveal his ambition to become the V-2 rocket's payload.
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