Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 3 Episodes 13 17 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 3, Episodes 13–17 : In the Zone | Summary



Part 3, Episode 13

Rocket engineer Horst Achtfaden is aboard the Rücksichtslos (ruthless or reckless), a specialized "Toiletship" in the German Navy. Other American and German rocket scientists are aboard the Rücksichtslos, in varying states of paranoia. Achtfaden tells himself, or someone tells him, "This Toiletship here's a wind tunnel's all it is." Just as a wind tunnel reveals the stresses and problems in a test rocket, so Achtfaden is a turbulence test for history.

Achtfaden, reflected in countless mirrors in one of the Toiletship's bathrooms, is asked about his guilt for his part in the Nazi war machine. Achtfaden feels he was only responsible for one segment of the rocket's flight, "up to the point where the air was too thin to make a difference." He claims, "Some typewriters in Whitehall, in the Pentagon," caused more civilian deaths "than our little A4 could have ever hoped to." He remembers a rocket scientist who found solace in Eastern mysticism.

In fact Achtfaden is not aboard a "Toiletship." Enzian and the Schwarzkommando are interrogating him with the help of sodium amytal. Achtfaden knows "they want the Schwarzgerät." He says he worked only on "weight control" and they should talk "to Guidance." Seemingly unable to stop himself, he gives them the name of a guidance engineer, a friend of his named Klaus Närrisch. Achtfaden thus discovers he has "a new parameter for his self-coefficient now: betrayal."

Part 3, Episode 14

Margherita and Slothrop leave Berlin on a barge on the Spree-Oder Canal. They head to Swinemünde, a Baltic seaport and rocket site. Slothrop seeks the Schwarzgerät; Margherita plans to meet her daughter, Bianca, on the ship Anubis. Along the way they stop in a resort town Margherita recognizes called Bad Karma.

In Bad Karma, Margherita (or Greta) is spooked by a woman in black. The Anubis arrives, full of raucous partygoers. For a laugh "some joker pulls the ladder up" as Slothrop tries to board. He falls in the river and must shed his Rocketman helmet and cape. Once on board he finds sexual shenanigans, fox-trot music, drugs, everything "that was going on" at the party on the Riviera. A woman lends him evening wear.

The woman, Stefania, tells Slothrop the rumors about Bianca. She says Margherita had sex with numerous masked men in a deleted scene from Alpdrücken. Any one of them might be Bianca's father. She also tells Slothrop that Margherita is married to Miklos Thanatz, with whom she performed "a little touring show for the boys at the front." They also performed at rocket launch sites.

Stefania and Slothrop join the others on the deck. There are passengers of all nationalities, and "a fabulous or-gy" is underway, as a song announces. There is talk of the drug Oneirine, one of Jamf's inventions. Thanatz says he was at Blicero's rocket site. He found Blicero to be "a screaming maniac."

The highlight of the orgy is a performance by Margherita and Bianca. Bianca is 11 or 12. She wears a "little red frock halfway up her slender thighs, with black lace petticoats." First Bianca sings "On the Good Ship Lollipop," imitating the mannerisms of child star Shirley Temple: "Each straining baby-pig inflection, each curl-toss, unmotivated smile, and stumbling toe-tap." Then Margherita and Bianca have a staged argument, which ends in Margherita spanking Bianca while onlookers continue their orgy.

Part 3, Episode 15

Slothrop wakes up in a cabin with Bianca. They have sex. Bianca talks to him about hiding: "We can get away. I'm a child, I know how to hide." She promises to hide him, too. Slothrop feels detached; he disentangles himself and leaves, sure he will never be back. The episode's focus shifts to Slothrop's youth in the Berkshires, his Harvard years, the comic books he read. The episode considers how "They" want "you" to think there is no difference between a being and an image of that being: "No difference between a boxtop and its image ... their whole economy's based on that." The episode concludes with a consideration of "all [Bianca's] putative fathers—Max Schlepzig and masked extras ... Franz Pökler." Of all the fathers, the one Bianca is closest to is "you," the narrator says. "You'll never get to see her. So somebody has to tell you."

Part 3, Episode 16

Still aboard the Anubis, Slothrop meets Ensign Morituri "of the Imperial Japanese Navy." Slothrop had noticed Morituri watching the orgy and not participating. Now they sit on deck chairs and Morituri tells Slothrop his story. He "put in a few weeks' training ... in Kamakaze school," and then he became a propagandist. He traveled to Germany for his propaganda work, where he met Margherita Erdmann and her husband at the time, Sigmund. Morituri was a lonely foreigner who spent a lot of time drunk on beer. Sigmund and Margherita also seemed like outsiders, which drew him to them. Sigmund and Margherita were desperate to cure Margherita's mental symptoms, including insomnia. She also had begun to believe she was Jewish and would be persecuted. They came to Bad Karma for the mud baths, "hot and greasy mud with traces of radium, jet black, softly bubbling."

Before Bad Karma there were "stories about the children in the local newspapers." One night Morituri sees Margherita attempt to sacrifice a young boy in the black mud. She believed the boy was Jewish and she herself was "Israel ... the Shekhinah, queen, daughter, bride, and mother of God." Morituri leaped from the shadows and enabled the boy to escape from Margherita. This was "the only known act of heroism in his career." Margherita and Sigmund fled Bad Karma immediately, that same night. "The next day was 1 September"—that is, September 1, 1939, the beginning of World War II. After that, other dangers closed in on young children.

Morituri thinks Margherita still believes she is Shekhinah, which is a Jewish term for the presence of God in the world. He believes in Margherita's mind, this is combined with the radioactive mud and the children she drowned in it. He thinks she thinks Slothrop is one of those mud-children. Then Morituri reveals he is from Hiroshima, "a city on Honshu, on the Inland Sea, very pretty." He is eager to return to his family there.

Slothrop leaves Morituri and meets Stefania, who tells him Margherita has locked herself "in the head," the ship's bathroom. Slothrop goes looking for Bianca, then he pleads with Margherita to come out. She lets him in, but she says, "But you're one of Them." Her proof is that he came out of the river.

Part 3, Episode 17

This episode considers Margherita's many identities, including her names (Greta, Gretel) and her film roles. In Weisse Sandwüste von Neumexiko (White Deserts of New Mexico) "she played a cowgirl." She rode a horse named Snake—later Tchitcherine's horse in Central Asia. She was in a comedy with Max Schlepzig, in which she played the party girl Lotte Lüstig. The episode also recounts dark incidents. Margherita slipped out of the house in Berlin one night to commune with a corpse. The corpse told her, "We live very far beneath the black mud." Margherita also shows Slothrop her scars, from her husband Thanatz whipping her.

At a rocket site Margherita and Thanatz explored a deserted road. Some spirit or force spoke to them, saying, "Not one step farther ... Go back now." They did, and they came upon "Blicero in his final madness." Margherita noticed, "Something was being planned, it involved the boy Gottfried."

Margherita attended a séance or meeting with Blicero, who called her Katje. There was plastic on the table, something "for the F-Gerät." She concedes she might have misheard "S-Gerät." The séance or meeting devolves into an orgy. Margherita is given "an exotic costume of some black polymer" and is told "this is Imipolex, the material of the future." After the orgy, on her return to the rocket site, she feels "something must have happened at the site."


Achtfaden's fantasy of a "Toiletship" functions as a satire of the division of duties in the V-2 rocket program. Just as Achtfaden believed he was responsible for only one segment of the rocket's flight, the Toiletship serves only one function in the Nazi war machine. But even the Toiletship must have everything a ship has; it must be commanded, navigated, and maintained. And the Toiletship is part of an armed flotilla. A Nazi Toiletship is still a Nazi ship.

Just so, Achtfaden's responsibility for the V-2 rocket may not end in the high thin atmosphere. It is true "some typewriters in Whitehall" are responsible for many war deaths. (Whitehall is the building in London that houses many government offices.) A comic singer of the 1960s, Tom Lehrer, wrote a song called "Wernher von Braun." In it he spoofed von Braun as a hypocrite who took responsibility only for launching rockets, not aiming them. "Once the rockets are up, / who cares where they come down?" The fictional von Braun concludes, "That's not my department." Just so, "Guidance" is a separate department at Peenemünde. It is possible Achtfaden betrays Klaus Närrisch because he knows he is guilty of war crimes.

Part 3, Episodes 11 and 13 both mention wind tunnels, the apparatus for testing the rocket's reaction to the stresses of flight. Like film, the wind tunnel is ultimately an image for Gravity's Rainbow. In a wind tunnel, air is blown over a stationary object, such as the V-2 rocket, at a speed simulating its flight. In Part 3, Episode 11, the wind tunnel is compared to the separate frames of a film and Ilse's separate visits. "What would the time scale matter?" Pökler wonders. Whether the "frames" of Ilse's visits occurred at a rate of "a 24th of a second or a year" would not matter, "no more, the engineer thought, than in a wind-tunnel." In Part 3, Episode 13, the Toiletship is compared to "a wind tunnel." Just as a wind tunnel, in a brief time, puts a rocket through "tensor analysis," there should be "nodes, critical points ... superderivatives of the crowded and insatiate flow [of time, of history]." A derivative measures the rate of change over time; a derivative is about segments of time. In the film comparison, Pynchon proposes Gravity's Rainbow is a temporal illusion. In the wind tunnel comparison, Pynchon proposes Gravity's Rainbow is an illusion that tests or specifies the critical nodes of history.

Margherita is similar to Slothrop in one respect. Just as Slothrop dons many costumes and has many names in Gravity's Rainbow, Margherita has numerous separate selves: "She had more identities than she knew what to do with." Margherita may be the initial test case for how dispersed Slothrop can become. Readers tend to lend unity to a character, even one presented differently in different episodes, as Pynchon explores in Part 3, Episode 11, where the character's continuity is linked to an optical illusion. In Part 3, Episode 17, Pynchon uses a term from the science of optics to describe Margherita. Describing the many "Gretels" Margherita has been, the narrator says, "comatic images surround their faces, glowing in the air." In optics, comatic images are caused by a defect or "coma" in a lens. Margherita demonstrates the optics of discontinuity.

Part 3, Episode 15 again compares Slothrop to the legendary hero Tannhäuser. Tannhäuser was a medieval German poet and also the focus of an opera by 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. In one legend, Tannhäuser abandons love, symbolized by the court of Venus, and goes to confess his sins to the pope. The pope says Tannhäuser's sins cannot be forgiven, any more than his papal staff (the crook-shaped wooden hook he carried) could burst into flowers like a living plant. The dejected Tannhäuser returns to the Court of Venus, his days of pilgrimage over.

In this comparison, Slothrop is the anti-Tannhäuser. Unlike Tannhäuser, he will not return to love. He will leave his "court of Venus" in abandoning Bianca: "Eventually he'll go, and for this he is to be counted, after all, among the Zone's lost." Unlike Tannhäuser, for Slothrop "the Pope's staff is always going to remain barren." As one of "the Zone's lost," Slothrop is again one of the preterite, another theme of Gravity's Rainbow.

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