Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In this story, Thomas Pynchon introduces modernist concerns into historical settings, as he also does in his novels V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Porpentine and Goodfellow already seem quaint and out of place in a world that is readying itself for the massive holocausts of the twentieth century. The two operate by “The Rules,” the unspoken code of Victorian propriety that governs even international espionage. Even as they seek to prevent an Armageddon, their efforts are comical and the results are temporary at best—the story closes on the outbreak of World War I.

Hints of the new society that plays by different rules are seen in some of the other characters. Victoria, for example, is quite unlike her regal namesake in consenting to go to bed with Goodfellow. Porpentine is especially contemptuous of Bongo-Shaftsbury for frightening Victoria’s sister on the train, telling him, “One doesn’t frighten a child,” but Bongo-Shaftsbury, too, represents a new order. The throw switch in his arm marks him as part human, part machine, one who does not play by the old rules of espionage or even by the old rules of human behavior.

To be machinelike is to strive for a nonhuman purity. That wish drives Moldwoerp and his agents and even begins to affect Porpentine himself. Aiming his gun at Lord Cromer, Porpentine realizes that an assassination would end not only Porpentine’s immediate worries but also any reason to...

(The entire section is 447 words.)