Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon is narrated by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, whose protracted stay at his sister’s home in Philadelphia depends upon his entertaining his two nephews, Pliny and Pitt. The entertainment consists of his account of the adventures of Mason and Dixon, the surveyors who created the line dividing Pennsylvania from Delaware and Maryland. Although he knew the two surveyors, he was not privy to all the information, factual and otherwise, with which he regales his audience. His embellished account is occasionally interrupted by the nephews and other members of his audience.
The novel is divided into three parts, the first of which concerns the backgrounds of the two surveyors; their first meeting; their travels to South Africa and St. Helena to conduct transit of Venus observations; their meeting with Nevil Maskelyne, a rival astronomer who wins the post of Royal Astronomer that Mason seeks; and their encounters with the fictitious Vroom family. The first part of the novel also introduces three themes that permeate the novel. First, Mason and Dixon are part of the Age of Reason, which stressed science, but that science was imperfect at best and is subject to Pynchon’s satire. Second, slavery, with its necessary “engine,” the gallows, is seen as a means by which white people become more “savage” than the indigenous people they exploit. Third, Mason’s inability to escape the guilt he feels about the death of...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Mason and Dixon is divided into three unequal parts, the first providing a prelude to Mason and Dixon’s adventures in America, the middle and largest detailing those adventures, and the third serving as a brief epilogue. Though it is based on an important, though little-studied, event in American history—the running of the “Mason-Dixon line” that forms the boundaries of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and thus between the American North and South—the novel is largely fantasy.
The novel opens with a narrative frame introducing the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who will relate the rest of the story as an evening diversion to his sister’s family in 1786 Philadelphia. As the story unfolds, the Reverend’s presence is maintained through forty-three separate narrative intrusions, ranging from a single word to four pages in length. His audience of nieces, nephews, and in-laws interact, making them a part of the story.
The first part of the novel, entitled “Latitudes and Departures,” describes the meeting of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in London in 1760 and their collaboration in a project for the British Royal Society to study the transit of Venus. The data Mason and Dixon collect would be valuable in determining longitude, a measurement not yet perfected in the 1760’s, and vital to navigation and commerce. Sent to Sumatra to make the astronomical observations, Mason and Dixon find themselves in the midst of a naval battle with a French frigate. Dispatching a letter registering their displeasure with the Royal Society at being placed in harm’s way, Mason and Dixon are branded cowards, their letter ever after being considered a barrier to Mason’s ascendency in the society. Dixon, a...
(The entire section is 705 words.)