Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 3 Episodes 18 21 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 3, Episodes 18–21 : In the Zone | Summary



Part 3, Episode 18

The Anubis is still making its way downriver. A storm hits just as the ship reaches "the Oder Haff," the harbor of the Oder River. The Anubis is behind schedule in reaching Swinemünde. Those who participated so gleefully in the orgy are now seasick and vomiting; the ship is full of "barfing aristocracy."

Slothrop can't find Bianca. He thinks about the story Margherita told him about the S-Gerät and Imipolex. He wonders if Margherita was planted by Them: "They knew Slothrop would jump for it [the Imipolex story]." He also feels distant now from his gift of "dowsing Rockets." (Dowsing is a mystical or supernatural way of finding underground water by holding out a twig or branch. Slothrop is comparing his rocket-sensitive erections to a dowser's wand.) Nowadays he feels "bridges that might have led back" to the days of dowsing for rockets "are down now for good."

Slothrop thinks he sees Bianca on the storm-tossed deck of the Anubis and sees her "lose her footing on the slimy deck." Then something or someone strikes him in the kidneys and flips him overboard, too. He lands in the waters of the Oder Haff.

Part 3, Episode 19

Slothrop is rescued, hauled aboard the barge of Frau Gnahb and her son Otto. Frau Gnahb and her son are black marketers; she calls herself "the Pirate Queen of the Baltic Run."

In the morning, the storm is over and Slothrop goes ashore to meet Der Springer, who turns out to be Gerhard von Göll, the filmmaker. Otto, Slothrop, and von Göll come upon Klaus Närrisch. Närrisch is the guidance expert Achtfaden gave up to the Schwarzkommando.

Slothrop and von Göll philosophize. Von Göll is comfortable with the division of people into "elite and preterite," the saved and the lost. Pynchon is relying on a Calvinist meaning of the word "preterite" as those who are not chosen by God and thus not saved.

Von Göll, Otto, and the others invite Slothrop to join them as they head to Peenemünde, the rocket launch site. Also along for the ride are "six chorus girls ... a small pit band ... many many cases of vodka ... a troupe of performing chimpanzees," and the entertainers' impresario, G.M.B. Haftung.

Slothrop and many of the chorus girls, musicians, and chimps get seasick, vomiting over the rail. The whole sick party soon arrives at Peenemünde, now in ruins. There they run into Major Zhdaev, a Russian friend of von Göll's. Zhdaev has von Göll arrested. Slothrop thinks Tchitcherine is behind the arrest. Frau Gnahb makes a plan to bust out von Göll. Slothrop should "pull a diversionary feint," and then he, Närrisch, and Otto will sneak in and grab von Göll. The episode concludes with a tangent about an imaginary competition for the worst, most psychologically damaging mother.

Part 3, Episode 20

Otto, Slothrop, and Närrisch are sneaking around the rocket site at night, looking for von Göll. Haftung joins them, as do some chorus girls and chimpanzees. They gather before a rocket assembly building. The girls and chimps make a diversion, and Slothrop and his companions enter the building. Unarmed, they pretend their vodka bottles are Molotov cocktails full of gasoline.

Närrisch and Slothrop light cigars with which to light the Molotov wicks. Then they go "sneaky-Peteing like two cats in a cartoon off toward Test Stand VII." The narrator remarks, "Slothrop ... has begun to thin, to scatter." He has less "personal density" and a "narrower ... sense of Now." He has become "tenuous," to the point of forgetting what he is doing.

He and Närrisch come to a pump house. They run into a gigantic Russian sergeant, who reacts sulkily. "You're mean," he complains as the two cigar-smoking men disarm him and free von Göll. Now armed, they have the drop on Tchitcherine and Zhdaev, who stroll up unawares. Närrisch and Slothrop make Tchitcherine and Zhdaev give them their Russian uniforms for a disguise. Tchitcherine is friendly; he and Zhdaev have been smoking Slothrop and Bodine's hash. Some Russian soldiers happen by and Slothrop finesses the situation. Tchitcherine is impressed.

Most of the party makes it to the meeting point with Frau Gnahb, but Närrisch is left behind. Slothrop wants to go back for him, but "They will kill us," says Otto. Närrisch will go out shooting, just like 1930s American gangster John Dillinger. Närrisch worked on "the S-Gerät program at Nordhausen." He was involved in a "modification to the guidance, minor as it was."

Part 3, Episode 21

Enzian and two other Zone-Hereros, Andreas and Christian, burst into a basement in Hamburg. They are trying to stop the Empty Ones from performing an abortion on a Herero woman, Christian's sister Maria. "It's too late," however. The basement is empty.

Enzian and the others go in search of Maria's husband, Pavel. He is addicted to inhaling gasoline fumes, so they go look for him in the refinery. The refinery has been bombed, like much of Germany. As they search for Pavel, Enzian has a paranoid insight into the war: "There floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding." He realizes this ruined refinery "is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order." The bombing completes it, and both sides colluded in arriving at this point. Enzian has many racing thoughts about the vast conspiracy leading to the destruction of the refinery. His thoughts are fueled by "Nazi surplus Pervitins," a brand of amphetamines.

They find Pavel high on gasoline fumes, hallucinating a Moss Creature. Christian attempts to shoot Pavel in revenge for what has happened to Maria. Enzian knocks the rifle aside. He thinks about the new mission of the Zone-Hereros: interpreting the text of the ruin. Perhaps all the Zone-Hereros are needed for this task, he thinks. Then they all go in search of Ombindi's connection in seedy Saint Pauli in Hamburg, Germany.


Symbolically, Slothrop's fall overboard is a fall into preterition, the state of being passed over by God, the state of damnation. This symbol is crystallized in the name of the body of water Slothrop falls into: the Oder Haff. There really is an Oder River in Germany, and "Oder Haff" means the harbor mouth of the Oder River. But it also sounds like "the other half," a phrase referring to poorer classes in the United States. The phrase was popularized in Jacob Riis's 1890 book of reportage, drawings, and photographs of poor tenement neighborhoods called How the Other Half Lives. Slothrop falls from an elite (if damned) party on the Anubis to a ragged, preterite band of black marketers and entertainers aboard Frau Gnahb's barge.

In Part 3, Episodes 19 to 21, there is a lot of action—derring-do, nighttime raids, hairsbreadth escapes. The stakes seem higher than the airborne pie fight's. For example, Slothrop is certain the left-behind Närrisch will be killed by the Russians. But comic elements remain. Slothrop, Otto, and Närrisch are armed only with pretend Molotov cocktails. A true Molotov cocktail is a bottle of gasoline with a flammable wick. So Slothrop and his crew reverse the metaphor, occasionally pausing to take a swig of vodka from their pretend Molotov cocktails.

These episodes also mark two divergent tendencies in Gravity's Rainbow. Plotlines are converging, as in a traditional narrative. The mysterious Der Springer turns out to be the film director of Margherita Erdmann, uniting those separate threads. The plot also seems moving toward a conventional resolution, as the secret of the 00000 rocket comes into clearer focus. Under interrogation, Klaus Närrisch reveals he worked on guidance. Though it has not yet been revealed, Närrisch modified the guidance of the 00000 rocket so it could carry a human payload.

However, the other tendency of Gravity's Rainbow is also revealed in these episodes. At the same time plotlines are converging and mysteries are being solved, there is a dispersal. Slothrop has begun "to thin, to scatter." For now, this has an effect on Slothrop, but not so much on those around him. His "narrower ... sense of Now" causes him to forget what he is doing. Later in the novel this scattering becomes more intense. At that point, other people around Slothrop can no longer "hold him together." Also, in Part 3, Episode 18 the Slothrop story arc begins to recede in importance. In Part 1 it seems Gravity's Rainbow is primarily about Slothrop and his erotic connection to V-2 rockets. The engine of the plot appears to be Slothrop's attempt to learn the truth about himself. But by Part 3, Episode 18, Slothrop feels disconnected from what had once been so important to him, his talent for "dowsing Rockets." It seems unlikely he can do much about discovering the truth when the "bridges that might have led back" to the days of dowsing for rockets "are down now for good." As the novel proceeds, other plotlines take the place of the Jamf-Slothrop plotline.

As the Slothrop story recedes, the attempt of Enzian and the Schwarzkommando to build a V-2 rocket of their own is increasingly focused on. Enzian has a paranoid insight worthy of Slothrop when he reinterprets the ruins of a bombed factory. However, the changes in Part 3 are not just a matter of which story arc becomes more prominent. The Zone itself is changing. The free Zone of creative chaos, which drew Hereros and Argentinian anarchists to seek their liberation there, is closing down and solidifying. "Separations are proceeding," Enzian thinks. "Each alternative Zone speeds away from all the others, in fated acceleration, red-shifting, fleeing the Center."

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