Gravity's Rainbow

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Gravity's Rainbow book cover. Curiously, the rocket depicted on this cover is not the V-2 rocket, but the Wasserfall missile.

Gravity's Rainbow is a novel written by Thomas Pynchon and first published in 1973.

Set in Europe near the end of World War II during the end of 1944 and much of 1945, Gravity's Rainbow features the creation of the first military ballistic missiles as a main theme and dispenses with many of the traditional elements of plot and character development.


Public reaction

The novel is regarded by some as one of the great postmodern works of 20th century literature, while others have declared it unreadable. Most laypeople begin the novel without finishing it, and most who do will require some form of assistance to sieve through the numerous allusions, as in a literary guidebook.

It was unanimously voted by the three-member Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. However, the other eleven members of the fourteen-member Pulitzer board overturned this decision, calling the book "unreadable", "turgid", "overwritten", and "obscene", with at least one member confessing to not having gotten more than a third of the way through the book.

The book, however, won the National Book Award for 1974.

The novel inspired the 1984 song "Gravity's Angel" by Laurie Anderson. In her 2004 autobiographical performance The End of the Moon, Anderson said she once contacted Pynchon asking permission to adapt Gravity's Rainbow as an opera. Pynchon replied that he would allow her to do so with one condition: the opera had to be written for a single instrument, the banjo. Anderson said she took that as a polite "no."

Structure and chronology

Gravity's Rainbow is in four parts, each made up of a number of episodes whose divisions are marked by a series of squares. It has been suggested that these represent sprocket holes as in a reel of film, though they may also bear some relation to the engineer's graph paper on which the first draft of the novel was supposedly written. Another clear influence from film is that characters may suddenly jump out of the plot to perform a musical number, as in a musical film, after which they return to their role in the plot.

The numerological significance of the episodes is in keeping with the use of numerology and Tarot symoblism throughout the novel. Part 1 is built around 21 episodes, the number of cards in the Major Arcana of a Tarot deck if the Fool card is not counted or assigned a null value; Part 2 contains 8 episodes, a number with repeated appearances throughout the narrative but no immediate association outside the narrative; Part 3 includes 32 episodes, a number some speculate is related to the gravitational acceleration of 32 feet per second per second; Part 4 consists of 12 episodes, this number being most commonly associated with the 12 disciples and in keeping with the closing themes of that section.

Each part opens with its own title and opening quotation or epigraph, and covers a primary time period, excluding analepses:

  1. Beyond The Zero - Primarily occurs during the Christmas Advent season of 1944 from December 18-26. The opening quotation by Wernher von Braun is attributed to remarks made by him before the July 1969 Apollo moon launch. "Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death."
  2. Un Perm au Casino Hermann Goering - Spans the five months from Christmas 1944 through Whitsunday the following year, May 20, 1945. The section title translates as "A Furlough at the Hermann Goering Casino". The opening quotation is by Merian C. Cooper to Faye Wray as recounted by her to the September 21, 1969 issue of the New York Times. "You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood."
  3. In The Zone - Set during the summer of 1945 with some overlap of the time period of Part 2. The dominant action takes place from May 18 through August 6, the day of the first atomic bomb attack and also the Feast of the Transfiguration. The familiar quotation is from the Wizard of Oz. "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more..."
  4. The Counterforce - Begins shortly after August 6, 1945 and covers the period up to September 14th of that same year, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, with extended analepsis to Easter/April Fool's weekend of 1945 and culminating in a prolepsis to 1970. The simple quotation, "What?" is attributed generally to Richard Nixon


It is often difficult follow the plot and direction of Gravity's Rainbow, particularly as a main plot line does not emerge until the second part of the book; the lengthy first part effectively acts as an introduction.

The plot is complex, involving the V-2 rocket and Operation Paperclip, IG Farben, Standard Oil, parapsychology, behaviorism, psychology theory (Ivan Pavlov's experiments concerning conditioning especially), and conspiracy theories, such as the Phoebus cartel and the Illuminati. Gravity's Rainbow also draws heavily on themes that Pynchon had probably encountered at his work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he worked on the Minuteman missile. The Boeing archives are known to house a vast library of historical V-2 rocket documents, which were probably accessible to Pynchon.

As if to showcase both the erudite and the naughty, the narrative contains numerous descriptions of illicit sexual encounters and drug use by the main characters and supporting cast, sandwiched between very dense dialogues or reveries on historic, artistic, scientific, or philosophical subjects, interspersed with whimsical nonsense-poems and allusions to obscure facets of 1940's pop culture.

The main narrative thread (in as far as there is one) concerns a possibly promiscuous US army lieutenant named Tyrone Slothrop. (At certain points in the book, Pynchon leads the reader to doubt the very existence of the women Slothrop claims to sleep with.) In "Beyond The Zero", some of the other characters and organisations of the book note that each of Slothrop's sexual encounters in London precedes a V-2 rocket hit in the same place by several days.

He is studied covertly and sent away by superiors in mysterious circumstances to the Hermann Goering casino. There he learns of a rocket, the 00000, and a component called the S-Gerät which is made out of the hitherto unknown plastic Imipolex G. It is hinted at that Slothrop's prescience of rocket hits is due to being conditioned as an infant by the creator of Imipolex G, Laszlo Jamf. After getting this information, Slothrop escapes from the casino into the coalescing Zone of Europe, searching for the 00000 and S-Gerät.

Slothrop's quest continues for some time "In The Zone" as he is chased by other characters. Unfortunately, he is repeatedly sidetracked until his persona fragments totally in part four despite the efforts of some to save him. The final identification of him of any certainty is his picture on the cover of an album by obscure English band The Fool.

Towards the end of "The Counterforce", it transpires that the S-Gerät is actually a capsule crafted to contain a human. The maniacal Captain Blicero prepares to fire the 00000. He launches it in a pseudosexual act of sacrifice with his bound sex slave Gottfried captive within its S-Gerät. At the end of a final episode where the rocket descends, the text halts with a complete obliteration of narrative from a rocket blast as the 00000 lands (or is about to land) on a cinema.

Relation to actual wartime events

Many facts in the novel are based on technical documents relating to the V-2 rockets. Equations featured in the text are correct. References to the works of Pavlov, Ouspensky, and Jung are based on Pynchon's actual research. The firing command sequence in German that is recited at the end of the novel is also correct and is probably copied in verbatim from the technical report produced by Operation Backfire.

In reality, a V-2 rocket hit the Rex Cinema in Antwerp on December 16, 1944 where some 1200 people were watching the movie The Plainsman killing 567 people, the most that were killed by a single rocket during the whole war.

Additionally, the novel uses many actual events and locations as backdrops to establish chronological order and setting within the complex structure of the book. Examples include the appearance of a photograph of Wernher Von Braun in which his arm is in a cast. Historical documents indicate the time and place of an accident which broke Von Braun's arm, thereby providing crucial structural details around which the reader can re-construct Slothrop's journey. Another example is the inclusion of a BBC radio broadcast of a Benny Goodman performance, the contents of which, according to historical record, were broadcast only once during the period of the novel and by which the events immediately surrounding its mention are fixed. Further historical events, such as Allied bombing raids on Peenemünde and the city of Nordhausen (close to the V-2 producing concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora) also appear in the novel and help to establish the relation of the work's events to each other.


Gravity's Rainbow is available in paperback under ISBN 0140188592 and ISBN 0140283382.

Also available is Steven C. Weisenburger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel which documents many the references and allusions used by Pynchon for his novel. ISBN 0820310263

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