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Gravity's Rainbow | Symbols


V-2 Rocket

Gravity's Rainbow begins and ends with images of the V-2 rocket in flight. Germany fired V-2 rockets on London and Belgium from September 1944 to March 1945. The full German name for the V-2 is Vergeltungswaffen-2, or "Vengeance Weapon 2." After the British RAF (Royal Air Force) bombed the largely civilian target of Lübeck, Germany, in 1942, Hitler reallocated funds for this stalled "vengeance weapon."

A rocket differs from a cannonball or a bullet in that it carries its own fuel. Jet airplanes also carry their own fuel, but to oxidize (burn) that fuel, they rely on air intake. A rocket carries its own oxidizer; the V-2 carried liquid oxygen. This innovation is significant because it enabled the rocket to travel above Earth's atmosphere. Even for rockets used as weapons, such as the V-2, the ability to travel in the upper atmosphere is an advantage. These details matter because Gravity's Rainbow is about how World War II shaped the postwar world. The V-2 rocket was the basis of two important later developments: space travel and intercontinental ballistic missile systems with nuclear warheads. Thus the V-2 rocket was the beginning of the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, when Gravity's Rainbow was published. As the narrator says in Gravity's Rainbow, there is "a good Rocket to take us to the stars" and "an evil Rocket for the World's suicide."

In Gravity's Rainbow Slothrop is stationed in London during the V-2 bombings. The V-2 travels faster than the speed of sound, and so it explodes before the sound of its descent can be heard. The V-1 rocket was nicknamed the "buzzbomb" because of the distinctive sound it made as it fell. As Slothrop says, "After a while you adjusted—found yourself making small bets, a shilling or two." But with the soundless V-2, "You couldn't adjust to the bastards." Thus for the first time Slothrop is "surprised to find that he was really scared."

Rocketman's Helmet

In Berlin, Säure Bummer and his friends dress Slothrop from "a stash of Wagnerian opera costumes" and dub him "Rocketman." The Rocketman getup includes "a pointed helmet with horns." Slothrop removes the horns so the helmet will resemble "the nose assembly of the [V-2] Rocket." As Rocketman, Slothrop symbolizes the merging of human and machine into one being.

It is not only Slothrop who merges with the rocket. While Slothrop tours the Mittelwerke rocket factory, he thinks about a futuristic city. This "Rocket-City" has as its constitution a set of "Articles of Immachination." Pynchon coined the word "immachination"; it means "becoming a machine." Also on the Rocket-City tour there is talk of humanoid space helmets. The "eye-sockets are fitted with quartz lenses" and the wearer's "nasal bone and upper teeth have been replaced by a metal breathing apparatus."

However, "immachination" does not just mean people become machinelike, cold, and dead. The rocket acquires characteristics of life. As Katje says to Slothrop, "Between the two points, in the five minutes [of the V-2 rocket's flight], it lives an entire life." That life also becomes quasi-human, as two of Gravity's Rainbow's characters enter the rocket. Blicero puts Gottfried, dressed like a bride, inside the specially modified 00000 rocket. This suggests a mating of human and machine.

Although Slothrop eventually loses his Rocketman costume, the idea of the helmet returns. Toward the end of the novel, Slothrop has become "scattered" and no longer holds together as a person. At the same time, Rocketman graffiti like "ROCKETMAN WAS HERE" appears all over the Zone. In response, Slothrop draws some concentric circles: "What he was really drawing was the [V-2] rocket, seen from below." That is, he draws the rocket's nose cone, the same shape as his helmet. In this way, Rocketman's helmet remains the symbol of the merging of human and machine.

The Letter S

The letter S is the key to two different series of significant aspects of Gravity's Rainbow. The first series is connected to the color black, and to secrecy. The second series connects the doubled letter S to a multiplicity of meanings, many having to do with the rocket. Altogether, the multiplicity of S-signs in Gravity's Rainbow shows how the novel involves the reader in a paranoid practice of scanning and interpretation.

First, it is connected to the color black, which signifies secrecy and clandestine activities. The engineers involved in the secret modifications of the 00000 rocket refer to a part of the rocket assembly with the shorthand "S-Gerät." This stands for "Schwarzgerät," in German, which can be translated as "black device" or "black thing." Slothrop also reads in the Jamf dossier about the "Schwarzknabe" (black child, Tyrone himself) and the Schwarzvater, who is Tyrone's own father, "Blackfather Slothrop." In all of these, "black" seems to mean clandestine, in the sense of "black ops." However, Enzian comments on the similarity between these terms and the "Schwarzkommando," the name for the Herero rocket battery. "Suppose ... Blackinstrument, Blackcommand, just happened to be" next to each other on an alphabetical list, Enzian says. "Blackinstrument" is a translation of Schwarzgerät and "Blackcommand" is a translation of Schwarzkommando. Enzian may be suggesting there is a reason white people use the color black to signify what is underground, illicit, and secret.

Apart from all the terms beginning with "Schwarz-," the letter S turns up in another context. When Slothrop tours the underground rocket factory at Nordhausen, the narrator points out the curved shape of the tunnels, which is crisscrossed by connecting tunnels: "Picture a ladder with a slight S-shaped ripple in it, lying flat." That is, there are two parallel S-shaped tunnels, lying side by side. The narrator points out the many symbols and signs with this double-S shape. The SS could stand for "the shape of lovers curled asleep" or the "double integral sign" from calculus, ∬. But most of all, the double-S shape stands for "the double lightning-stroke ... the SS symbol." The SS began as an elite segment of the Nazi party and eventually included armed battalions. The multiplicity of S meanings and double-S meanings is overwhelming. Ultimately, this reflects the welter of meanings Slothrop has to sift through to understand Their plot.

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