Literature Study GuidesGravitys RainbowPart 4 Episodes 1 3 Summary

Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Part 4, Episodes 1–3 : The Counterforce | Summary



Part 4, Episode 1

Sometime in August, Slothrop hears a plane flying above the mountains. It is Pirate Prentice flying a "hijacked P-47," an American military airplane. The counterforce has started its work: "By now, Osbie Feel ought to be in Marseilles," and "Katje will be going to Nordhausen." The focus shifts back to Säure's place in Berlin, where Gustav and Säure argue about Rossini again. Then "Slothrop moseys down the trail." From a stream he retrieves "the old Hohner" harmonica he lost down the toilet at the Roseland.

He is still hoping to get discharge papers and go back to the United States: "Yup, still thinking there's a way to get back." But otherwise he has been changing; his self is an "albatross," a useless burden. He does not want to go on looking into "the primal dream" of himself and Jamf. (The 20th-century founder of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, believed early, or primal, life events shaped one's later emotional life.)

At the same time he has abandoned his primary motivation, the secret of himself, his self seems to be everywhere. He keeps encountering graffiti in his name, "ROCKETMAN WAS HERE." He leaves answering graffiti in the shape of a rocket's nose cone.

The episode concludes with a memory of Slothrop doing roadwork in Massachusetts, picking up litter by the highway. In those youthful days he could look at all the random junk, "rusted beer cans ... Kleenex wadded to brain shapes," and "he could make it all fit." Now he can no longer make things fit, particularly after the memory of how he "became a crossroad." In a kind of vision he sees a rainbow, but it is as though it is a penis penetrating the earth, and "his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural."

Part 4, Episode 2

Roger Mexico drives over the Lüneberg Heath in a German luxury car painted "army-green." He recalls his last encounter with Jessica, who has been transferred to Cuxhaven. In the spring she came to see him at the White Visitation. Roger explained why he was still looking for Slothrop: "I just can't leave the poor twit out there, can I? They're trying to destroy him." Jessica pointed out the war had ended: "We're at peace." The narrator remarks, "But Their enterprise goes on."

Now the war is over, Jessica is done with Roger. He sees this as her capitulating to Them. He has some nostalgia for the era when the rockets were falling, as that was the time they were together. Jessica thinks, "Now he wants to go rescue Slothrop, another rocket-creature." She finds the idea of Slothrop "creepy" because he is "a vampire whose sex life actually fed on the terror of that Rocket Blitz." Jessica leaves Roger for Jeremy, and Roger cries.

After the breakup, Roger is lifted out of his despair by a conversation with the spiritualist Milton Gloaming. Gloaming talks to Roger about Slothrop and Imipolex G. Roger is astonished: "IG Farben had Slothrop under surveillance? Before the war?"

As Roger delves into the plot, he comes to believe Pointsman transferred Jessica to Cuxhaven to thwart or punish Roger. Infuriated, Roger travels to London to disrupt a board meeting Pointsman is attending. Roger urinates on the conference table and attendees to express his anger.

Later, at the White Visitation, Pirate Prentice explains Roger made some mistakes in understanding Their plot. "You're a novice paranoid, Roger," says Pirate. In addition to "a They-system," he says, Roger needs "at least as thorough a We-system." The We-system is a "contrary set of delusions—delusions about ourselves." Gloaming arrives and introduces a member of the Schwarzkommando. The counterforce then assembles in Pirate's maisonette. The episode ends by returning to the present, with Roger driving to Cuxhaven.

Part 4, Episode 3

A U.S. Army company is in Thuringia, a state in central Germany known for its forests. Pfc. [Private first class] Eddie Pensiero gives a haircut to a colonel from Kenosha, Wisconsin. The light is provided by a single bulb, and the electricity is generated by a soldier "hand-pedaling the twin generator cranks."

Eddie is "an amphetamine enthusiast" and has a strange way of proceeding with the haircut. In his speed-induced, hyper-acute awareness, he cuts at each individual hair. Meanwhile, the colonel comments on the remarkable sunsets lately. "Do you suppose something exploded somewhere? ... Another Krakatoa?" he asks. (The Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia erupted in 1883. Fine ash drifted around the earth and sunsets were spectacular for the following year.) Outside, someone plays the blues on a harmonica. The colonel tells a story about climbing around in a ruin in Germany, but the narrative focus of the episode takes several jumps. In one of them, a voice scolds a narrator for getting off track, going "off on another of your senseless and retrograde journeys." That conversation transforms into one between "Mister Information" and "Skippy." They talk about "the Leid-Stadt," German for "Pain City," and they talk about "Happyville." Then the story shifts to Happyville, which is "under the mountain." The colonel is there. So is Laszlo Jamf, "preserved like a '37 Ford against the World's ups and downs."

The bulb lighting the colonel's haircut is also preserved against change: "This bulb is immortal!" The episode shifts and becomes "The Story of Byron the Bulb." It begins with the prehistory of Byron's soul, before he was manufactured. Then he is manufactured at "Osram, in Berlin." Phoebus, "the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland," keeps track of all bulbs, "but Phoebus doesn't know yet that Byron is immortal." The episode tracks Byron's life as he moves from one household to another.

Byron's "transcendence" is a problem for Phoebus. The narrative shifts to a paranoid theory about how Phoebus regulates bulb life, bulb efficiency, and the electric grid. There is also discussion of the international electricity industry, and links between General Electric and Krupp, a German arms manufacturer. Byron is aware of these conspiracies but cannot intervene, "condemned to go on forever, knowing the truth and powerless to change anything."

The episode concludes by bringing various threads together. "Laszlo Jamf walks away down the canal," while the "colonel is left alone in Happyville." At the same time, back at C-Company in Thuringia, Eddie stands poised with his barber shears aimed at the colonel's jugular vein.


When Slothrop abandons his project of understanding "the primal dream" about Jamf and himself, Pynchon moves this novel into very unconventional territory. The quest for self-knowledge has been one of the important plots since such novels as 18th-century English writer Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Protagonists do not always succeed in getting what they want, but they seldom abandon the attempt with a quarter of the book still to go. From this point on, Gravity's Rainbow becomes even less realistic. It always included fantastic elements, such as Slothrop's rocket sensitivity, or the fighter-pilot dogfight turned pie fight. But from here on out, fragments of narrative seldom seem to be happening in the same world. For example, Byron the Bulb, or the kamikaze fighter pilots, are difficult to connect to Slothrop's story.

However, even as Slothrop becomes "scattered" and abandons his main goal, he has his most intense experience in all of Gravity's Rainbow. In the mountains in an uncertain location, probably somewhere in Germany, he sees a phallic rainbow unite with the Earth. Slothrop responds in a deeply emotional way, and "he stands crying." His mind is empty—"not a thing in his head"—but "his chest fills." The contrast between the empty head and the full heart suggests he has abandoned his goal of intellectually understanding the vast conspiracy, but he feels a deep sorrow, perhaps at the futility of stopping "Them." The reasons for the intensity of Slothrop's reaction become clear only later, in Part 4, Episode 6. He sees a scrap of newspaper announcing the bombing of Hiroshima, and he views the accompanying photograph of the iconic mushroom cloud as a penis "dangling in the sky straight downward." The scattering of Slothrop's personality and the abandonment of his quest enable the novel to take in events on a larger, world-historical scale. With Hiroshima, the phallic connection between skyborne rockets and earthly destruction surpasses anything contained in the Slothrop plot.

Some readers believe the harmonica player of Part 4, Episode 3 is Slothrop. Slothrop does retrieve his lost harmonica in Part 4, Episode 1. But what business would Slothrop have with "C-Company" in Thuringia? It is hard to picture Slothrop attached to an American fighting force at this point in the story. He has been AWOL for the better part of a year, and has worn the uniforms of Britain and the Soviet Union, as well as a Pig-Hero costume. It seems more accurate to say Slothrop is scattered; aspects of him turn up here and there in the story. There is a bit of Slothrop in the harmonica player, and a bit of Slothrop in Byron the Bulb, who goes plunging down a toilet, traveling out to sea. But neither character "is" Slothrop, not entirely.

The counterforce assembles in Episodes 1 and 3 of Part 4, but its first sally is distinctly underwhelming. On the level of social conventions, Roger's urinating on the conference table is shocking, but this act is unlikely to change Them or thwart Their actions. In part, Roger's vengeance against Pointsman plays out this way because Pynchon is writing a comic novel. World War II combat has been transformed into a comic register of seltzer bottles and inappropriate urinating. But his act is also underwhelming because of who the counterforce is—the preterite, the "losers." If they were hypercompetent and ruthlessly violent, Roger, Pirate, and the others would be Them.

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