Gravity's Rainbow | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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Gravity's Rainbow | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1: Beyond the Zero

During World War II in September 1944, the German forces aim V-2 rockets at London, England. American soldier Tyrone Slothrop is stationed there. He has an unusual reaction to the rockets: they give him erections. But he has his erections days before the rockets fall, at trysts that later become bomb sites. Mysterious forces in British and American intelligence are aware of Slothrop's sensitivity, and they keep him under surveillance. The novel opens in December 1944, with the words, "A screaming comes across the sky." The scream is the flight of a V-2 rocket.

A former insane asylum near London nicknamed "the White Visitation" houses a group of psychics involved in psychological warfare. The psyops group is known by the acronym PISCES. The staff includes a statistician, Roger Mexico, and a behavioral psychologist, Edward "Ned" Pointsman. PISCES researchers put Slothrop on sodium amytal ("truth serum") and examine his racial anxieties. After being released from the hospital, Slothrop hooks up with a woman, Darlene. They make love and then moments later a V-2 rocket lands in Darlene's street.

Pointsman thinks Slothrop can "feel them [the rockets] coming." He wants to study how Slothrop does this. Instead, he is given an octopus named Grigori as a lab animal. At the White Visitation an operation called Operation Black Wing is underway. The idea is to exploit Germany's colonial past with made-up propaganda about Africans in Germany—a squadron of African rocket engineers. This is why they explored Slothrop's racial anxieties, for ideas about how to shape their propaganda.

At the White Visitation, researchers discuss Slothrop's past, a past unknown to him. When he was an infant, a visiting behavioral psychologist at Harvard, Laszlo Jamf, experimented on him. Jamf conditioned Slothrop to get erections, but Jamf's research notes do not say what the stimulus was. People at the White Visitation believe Jamf left Slothrop with a conditioned reflex, although the usual practice is to "extinguish" the reflex at the end of the experiment. Slothrop's mysterious reflex is now being stimulated by the V-2 rocket, the researchers believe.

Part 2: Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering

Slothrop, Tantivy, and Teddy Bloat are sent to the French Riviera, where they stay at a resort. On their first day there, they picnic on the beach with some women. Another woman, a stranger, is attacked by an octopus. Slothrop tries to bash the octopus's head with a bottle. Bloat produces a too-convenient crab, telling Slothrop to lure the octopus away with food. Slothrop suspects a ploy of some kind. He is right. The octopus is Pointsman's Grigori. The attack was staged to get Slothrop together with the Dutch woman, Katje Borgesius, a former Nazi collaborator and now a PISCES operative.

Slothrop, Katje, and a man named Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck settle into a routine. In the mornings, Slothrop studies V-2 rocket specs by Sir Stephen. Aroused, but not seeing the connection to the rocket, he spends his afternoons with Katje. Only three things mar his happiness: the attack, the disappearance of Tantivy, and the theft of Slothrop's clothes and identity papers. Slothrop gets Sir Stephen drunk and questions him. In reaction to the drunken truth telling, Sir Stephen disappears and so does Katje.

Slothrop remains on the Riviera, continuing to study the rocket. He learns of a special rocket with the serial number 00000, a mysterious rocket part called the "S-Gerät" or S-device, and a polymer called Imipolex G. He also becomes suspicious of the multinational corporations with ties to the rocket, on both sides of the war. He reads in the newspaper his friend Tantivy Mucker-Maffick has died in battle. Here too he sees the machinations of a mysterious "They" working some kind of conspiracy. At a wild party he meets a man named Blodgett Waxwing who tells him he will need a friend and gives him an address in Nice, France. Slothrop abandons his mission on the Riviera and goes AWOL (military lingo for "absent without leave") to Nice, and then to Switzerland.

In Switzerland, Slothrop further investigates the mysterious Rocket 00000 and the "S-Gerät." He flies from Zürich to Geneva and back. In a complicated three-way deal, he acquires a dossier on Laszlo Jamf, the inventor of Imipolex G.

Part 3: In the Zone

It is May 1945 and Slothrop is in Germany, still looking for answers about Rocket 00000. The war in Europe is over now, with the Allies victorious. Slothrop reads the dossier about Jamf. He learns his father allowed Jamf to experiment on him in exchange for money to send Slothrop to Harvard.

Slothrop travels to Nordhausen, Germany, where the V-2 rockets were built. On the way he meets Enzian, a Herero from the former German colony of South West Africa, and Major Marvy, a racist American officer. Enzian and Marvy are also interested in V-2 rockets.

In Nordhausen, Slothrop spends a night with the self-described witch Geli Tripping. Her lover, the Russian Tchitcherine, is also after the rocket. Tchitcherine is Enzian's half-brother. The next day Slothrop goes to Mittelwerke, where the rockets were constructed in an underground factory, a former salt mine. Slave labor from the Dora concentration camp built the factory and the rocket. Major Marvy chases Slothrop out of Mittelwerke.

Soon after, Slothrop hitches a ride to Berlin in a hot-air balloon with a pie smuggler. Major Marvy chases him in an airplane, but thanks to a well-aimed pie Slothrop escapes. In war-torn Berlin things are grim; Slothrop is reduced to eating scraps and drinking out of a pond.

Slothrop's fortunes turn when he meets a man named Säure Bummer. Säure's friends give Slothrop some odd cast-off clothes. He calls his new look "Rocketman." Then Säure offers Slothrop one million counterfeit German marks. All Slothrop has to do is retrieve some hashish hidden in Potsdam, Germany. Slothrop agrees and returns with the hashish.

Slothrop falls into the clutches of someone who drugs him. Released, he meets silent film star Margherita Erdmann. She and her husband Thanatz once performed for the crew at rocket launch sites. Slothrop travels by boat aboard the Anubis with Margherita on the Oder River in Germany. While on board he has an affair with Margherita's underage daughter, Bianca. During a storm Slothrop falls overboard.

A barge rescues Slothrop. He travels with the barge's operators, Frau Gnahb and her son Otto. They arrive at the rocket launch site Peenemünde. There Slothrop, Otto, and another man rescue Margherita's film director, von Göll, who was being held captive. During the rescue mission, Slothrop exchanges his Rocketman costume for a Russian officer's uniform, giving him a new identity. At the behest of a smuggler, Slothrop returns to the Anubis to retrieve some hashish. There he finds Bianca dead, he thinks.

Back in England, Katje receives a coded message persuading her to leave the White Visitation, the lunatic asylum temporarily turned psyops center. She joins up with Pirate Prentice and another man to create a "counterforce," something to foil the plots of the mysterious "Them."

Slothrop parts with the barge and begins to walk across the part of Germany he calls "the Zone," the areas where V-2 rockets were built and launched. He runs into Major Marvy again, who does not recognize him because he is still in Russian uniform. Slothrop learns information he is able to pass on to Enzian's Hereros, rescuing them from a raid by Marvy's men.

In a small German town, Slothrop dons a pig costume to join in a local festival. Someone steals his Russian uniform and so Slothrop spends some time as "Plechazunga, the Pig-Hero." He visits Leni Pökler at a brothel. Marvy is also there, though they do not meet. The brothel is raided by military police looking for Slothrop. In the confusion, Marvy puts on the pig costume, hoping to escape. He is arrested as Slothrop and driven away in an ambulance. In the ambulance two doctors castrate Marvy, thinking he is Slothrop.

Part 4: The Counterforce

A counterforce assembles, trying to thwart "Their" plots. It includes Pirate Prentice, Katje, Roger Mexico, Obie Feel, Blodgett Waxwing, and others. Roger Mexico believes Pointsman plotted against him, even causing Jessica to be reassigned to Cuxhaven, far from Roger. In the counterforce's initial foray, Roger Mexico urinates on the conference table at a meeting attended by Pointsman.

In the mountains of Germany, Slothrop is reunited with his harmonica. He gives up on his search for the meaning of Jamf's actions. From a newspaper, Slothrop learns of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He has a vision of a phallic rainbow penetrating the earth; the experience is emotionally devastating. He becomes "scattered," and he can't really be grasped as a whole person, an "integral creature," anymore. Many "gave up long ago trying to hold him together, even as a concept." But aspects of Slothrop appear in other people.

In Part 4, episodes become increasingly disconnected from Slothrop's story and from the other main characters. There are brief tales of an immortal lightbulb (Byron the Bulb), a pair of kamikaze pilots, an amphetamine-crazed barber, and a futuristic Rocket City, among others.

Enzian and other Hereros ship the separate parts of their scavenged rocket to Lüneberg Heath, where it will be reassembled as the 00001 rocket. Enzian intends to be the rocket's payload. He is not exactly a passenger since he won't survive the flight. He hopes his sacrifice will save his people.

Roger Mexico, Ensign Morituri, Carroll Eventyr, and Thomas Gwenhidwy figure out Blicero fired his 00000 rocket in the direction of true north (toward the North Pole). Eventually the rest of Blicero's plot is revealed. Gottfried was the payload inside the 00000. The Schwarzgerät or "black device" was a special housing made of Imipolex G, which cradled Gottfried. The 00000 required guidance modifications and other adjustments because it carried Gottfried. A radio system enabled Blicero to talk to Gottfried in the rocket, but no transmitter carried Gottfried's voice back to Blicero. The rocket was fired, killing Gottfried.

The novel concludes by describing the flight of the 00000, its ascent, and its descent. As it descends, a crowd has gathered in the Orpheus Theatre in Los Angeles; the time appears to be the late 1960s or early 1970s. As the novel closes, a rocket is poised above the movie theater in Los Angeles, about to fall on it. The novel ends with a hymn by William Slothrop, Tyrone Slothrop's ancestor.

Gravity's Rainbow Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 "They" suspect Slothrop's erections predict V-rockets.

Rising Action

2 Slothrop goes AWOL, looking for the truth.

3 Slothrop becomes Rocketman.

4 Slothrop stops looking for the truth about Jamf.

5 The Hereros bring the 00001 rocket to Lüneberg Heath.

6 Slothrop's personality is fully scattered.


7 Blicero fires the 00000 rocket with Gottfried inside.

Falling Action

8 The 00000 rocket begins its descent.


9 A rocket hangs poised above a movie theater in Los Angeles.

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