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Gravity's Rainbow | Themes



At times characters in Gravity's Rainbow believe sexuality will help them escape from society. For instance, Mexico and Jessica, in love, have their trysts in a hiding place, in a state of "gentle withdrawal" from the war. Deviant or atypical sexuality is also proposed as a way out of Their control. Thanatz preaches what he calls "sado-anarchism." He believes sadomasochism is disallowed by what he calls "the Structure": "Submission and dominance are resources it [the Structure] needs for its very survival." Thus sadomasochism (or "sado-anarchism") would drain the resources They need. However, the novel also provides many counterexamples of sadomasochism that are not at all liberating. Blicero and Gottfried, for example, are locked in a practice that ends with Gottfried's death.

In Gravity's Rainbow there is no sexual desire so unusual They can't use it. Slothrop has a sexual response conditioned into him as an infant. As V-2 rockets fall on London, Allied forces try to understand and control Slothrop's strange sensitivity. Slothrop is not the only character controlled or exploited in this way. At PISCES, when many are worried Brigadier Pudding will cut the budget, Pointsman calmly says, "We have made arrangements with him." The arrangement is a sexual one involving Katje and sadomasochism.


Since the 19th century, paranoia has been the term for having an intricate system of delusions. Often the paranoid person believes they are persecuted. Paranoia thus involves a lot of scanning and interpretation; no sign is too subtle to not fit into the paranoid system. It is also a ruthlessly single-minded type of interpretation. Every sign points to the central paranoid delusion. For Pointsman the behaviorist, the rigidity of paranoia correlates to a pattern of brain activity. Pointsman describes paranoia as the activation of a single area of the brain, with everything else shut down: "One bright, burning point, surrounded by darkness." The darkness is also representative of the paranoid person's blindness to anything that does not fit their delusional system. The bright point—the delusion—is "cut off ... from all other ideas, sensations, self-criticisms, that might ... restore it to normalcy."

The world does sometimes arrange itself, in Slothrop's eyes, around a single, burning point: "They" are out to get him. However, Slothrop does not seem to be mentally ill. For one thing, in the world of the novel, They are out to get him. He was experimented on as a child and has been under surveillance ever since. Slothrop also has a self-awareness about paranoia. He sometimes refers to himself as paranoid. When he tells Tantivy he thinks They might be writing his name on every rocket, Tantivy plays it off as a joke or thought experiment. "Operational paranoia," Tantivy calls it, a method of pretending to be paranoid. "Who's pretending?" is Slothrop's reply. Gravity's Rainbow also comments on this usefulness of paranoia. There might be "something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia." Slothrop sometimes experiences the opposite of this comfort, and it is devastating. This is "anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear."

Gravity's Rainbow is not just about a paranoid main character. It suggests only paranoia can adequately interpret the complex intricacies of history, politics, and science. Through "some interlock between [Lyle] Bland and the [German] Ufa movie-distribution people," a plot may have caused Pökler to become a rocket engineer. There are cartels, including an "international light-bulb cartel." Corporations like General Electric, Grössli Chemical Corporation, and IG Farben share interests; "the real business of the War is buying and selling." The war is not just a matter of armies, but of labyrinthine bureaucratic organizations—PISCES, ARF, ACHTUNG. Only a paranoid system can take on this welter of detail and make it meaningful.


Angels often appear briefly in the episodes of Gravity's Rainbow. Katje and Pirate rendezvous at a windmill called "The Angel." The rocket officer Blicero is enamored of the works of 20th-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Duino Elegies (1923) often focus on beautiful, terrifying angels. Like Rilke's, Pynchon's angels are terrifying. The angels in Gravity's Rainbow do not intervene in human affairs or even speak. There are no angel characters in the novel, only brief, arresting appearances of immense, supernatural beings. Such is the angel that appears while British planes are bombing the city of Lübeck, Germany. The angel is so large it is "miles beyond designating, rising over Lübeck that Palm Sunday with the poison-green domes underneath its feet."

The angels in Gravity's Rainbow could seem to represent a realm beyond the machinations of power and the violence of the war. But séances at the White Visitation and elsewhere suggest otherwise. The medium Carroll Eventyr tries to use his "control" or guiding spirit, Peter Sachsa, to question a now-dead RAF pilot about the angel over Lübeck. Sachsa says a "storm ... sweeps now among them all, both sides of Death." That is, the storm of war also rages in the angels' realm. The shadowy "They" also seem intent on making use of the afterworld. At a séance held at Peter Sachsa's, the clientele is the "elite ... from the corporate Nazi crowd."

Since the angels represent no hope of escape, why are they in Gravity's Rainbow at all? The angels provide another order of magnitude for the book's paranoid plots. Just as the focus of Gravity's Rainbow can move downward in scale to the infinitesimal "water bugs" in Christ's manger, it can also zoom out to encompass immense angels. When the departed spirit Roland Feldspath contemplates Slothrop, he thinks, "Is this the one? This? to be figurehead for the latest passage?" That is, for a passage between life and death, or perhaps between human and angelic orders. The presence of angels lends a sense of immensity and complexity to Gravity's Rainbow. Scholar and critic Robert L. McLaughlin even suggests that "they are the ultimate manifestation of Them, the novel's ubiquitous controllers." The angels make the world of Gravity's Rainbow vaster and more complex than it would be were the novel limited to human affairs.


Pynchon uses children's games, toys, and fairy tales, such as Hansel and Gretel, to evoke the war in a novel without any battle scenes. When Slothrop endures the "Disgusting English Candy Drill" at Mrs. Quoad's, he encounters candy weapons, such as "a .455 Webley cartridge of green and pink striped taffy." There is also "a six-ton earthquake bomb of some silver-flecked blue gelatin, and a licorice bazooka." While shopping in Woolworth's, Slothrop comes across "a heap of balsa-wood fighter planes and little-kid-size Enfields." In Part 3, among the first sights of the war-torn Zone is a children's playhouse. Slothrop spends the night there and encounters the ghost of a child. These childhood elements suggest the losses and devastation of war, while also shifting the focus from military to civilian losses.

However, Pynchon also uses the theme of childhood to suggest the vast reach of Their power. There is nothing beyond Their reach, not even childhood. As the narrator asks in Part 1, Episode 16, "What do you think, it's a children's story? There aren't any." There is no separate sphere of childhood, protected from the violence and moral corruption of the adult world. However, Gravity's Rainbow also points out it is in Their interest to pretend there is such a protected sphere of innocence. "In a corporate State, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses," says the narrator of Zwölfkinder. Zwölfkinder is the children's amusement park and resort where Franz Pökler visits a series of simulacra of his daughter Ilse. As the narrator says, "an official version of innocence" is useful to the "corporate State," and "games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted." The "culture of childhood" gives Them an alibi, a realm of innocence.

Finally, childhood is the place of secrets, mysteries, and trauma for Slothrop and for others. For Gottfried, the smell of Imipolex G recalls his "sweet paralyzed childhood." He may not be thinking of his actual childhood, but of his time with Blicero and Katje in the forest. There Blicero's power over Gottfried is represented as enchantment, as if Blicero were the witch in the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." For Slothrop the smell of Imipolex G—"a soft and chemical smell, threatening, haunting"—recalls early childhood, "from before his conscious memory begins." Slothrop knows only "something was done to him, in a room, while he lay helpless." Ultimately Slothrop abandons his attempt to understand the secrets of his childhood. However, his childhood demonstrates the reach of Their power.


Entropy is a term from physics. In a closed, thermodynamic system, entropy represents the quantity of thermal energy unavailable for conversion into work. (Thermodynamics is the branch of physics that deals with mechanical movement or heat relationships. Work in thermodynamics means the transfer of energy when one thing moves another, like billiard balls smacking into one another.) The larger the quantity of entropy, the more disorganized the system. Entropy also applies to other systems, not just thermodynamic ones. The more general concept of entropy is that systems tend toward increasing disorder.

Pynchon makes an analogy between physical and sociopolitical entropy within the plotlines of Gravity's Rainbow. The war's vast, international, and secretive system of profit extraction works hard to keep entropy at bay. Everything that might seem disorderly is put to work, even the strange sexual proclivities of Brigadier Pudding, or the toilet-focused mumblings of a drugged Slothrop. However, the Zone is an increasingly entropic place. As the witch Geli Tripping says to Slothrop, "Forget frontiers now. Forget subdivisions. There aren't any."

The structure of Gravity's Rainbow also moves from order to entropy. In Part 1, the novel is conventionally ordered, despite such fantasies as the Giant Adenoid and Slothrop's trip down to the toilet. In Part 1, the novel is the story of a main character, Tyrone Slothrop, and his odd sensitivity to the V-2 rocket. As other characters are added, they too eventually connect to Slothrop or to the V-2 rocket. Leni Pökler turns out to have been married to a rocket engineer who worked on guidance. The long backstory about German imperialism in South West Africa promises to connect to the V-2 rocket through Enzian. All roads seem to lead to Peenemünde, one of the Nazi rocket firing sites. A conventionally ordered novel might bring Slothrop, Tchitcherine, Katje, Enzian, Blicero, and others all to Peenemünde for a final climax of the plot. However, the plotlines of Gravity's Rainbow do not converge. Instead the episodes are increasingly disconnected. For example, the stories of Byron the Bulb or of the Kamikaze pilots have only thematic connections to Slothrop's story. Likewise, the main character himself, Tyrone Slothrop, is subject to an entropic process of dispersal. In Part 3, Episode 20, Slothrop "has begun to thin, to scatter." He becomes so scattered he ceases to exist much for other people. Few "can still see Slothrop as any sort of integral creature any more." Most people "gave up long ago trying to hold him together, even as a concept." The theme of entropy suggests a grim fate for everything and everyone in the universe.

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