The questions of free will and determinism in a universe which may be subject to entropy are most sharply defined by Pynchon in his longest and most complete novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. Set in the closing days of World War II and the months immediately following the end of the war, this novel takes the themes and techniques of the two earlier novels to higher levels. Gravity’s Rainbow—in part because many regard it as a masterpiece and in part because it is so complex, involves so many strands of action, and poses so many unanswered questions—has been the subject of more critical attention than any novel in English since James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
The central symbol of Gravity’s Rainbow is a new type of rocket developed by the Germans at the end of World War II, designated the A-4. The first rocket designed to carry a human being into space, it is a triumph of technology. It suggests the possibility that humankind may have found a way to transcend its earthly origins, but it is much more likely that it carries beyond previous limits—beyond any limits—people’s ability to destroy themselves. Technology, in Pynchon’s view, has a capacity for destruction that threatens to overwhelm its capacity for construction. At the beginning of the novel, a screaming in the sky seems to indicate that a rocket is on the way; at the very end, the reader sits in a theater with a descending rocket poised just overhead.
The action of Gravity’s Rainbow centers on attempts to trace the A-4 rocket and its components, especially an advanced form of plastic called Imipolex-G. The British, the Americans, and the Russians, nominal allies in the war against Adolf Hitler’s Germany, are rivals in trying to find the rocket and its makers in order to gain an advantage in the postwar world. One part of the British effort is managed by a behavioral scientist named Ned Pointsman.
Pointsman is the spokesman in the novel for the Pavlovian idea (named for the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov) that people, like all other animals, act in response to stimuli. Pointsman believes that if the correct stimuli are applied, anyone can be trained to undertake any action his or her controller directs. He makes use of the fact that an American lieutenant named Tyrone Slothrop (he is, incidentally, the younger brother of Hogan Slothrop in “The Secret Integration”) was the subject of an early experiment in conditioning a young baby. The experimenter, a mysterious figure named Lazslo Jamf, who also invented Imipolex G, supposedly removed “Baby Tyrone’s” early conditioning, although remnants of it apparently remain.
Using a variety of behavioral methods, Pointsman sets Slothrop on the track of the A-4 rocket, and for much of the first half of...
(The entire section is 1153 words.)