The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although Gravity’s Rainbow is often considered a culmination of his earlier novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Thomas Pynchon created his magnum opus with this book. It is particularly difficult to categorize a work of this scope in any specific genre because it has been called revisionist history, apocalyptic, picaresque, a Grail quest, satire, social criticism, Magical Realism, and encyclopedic narrative, among others. It does, however, fall under the broad parameters of science fiction given its preoccupation with machinery—the fact that the rocket becomes the protagonist of the work and that the multiple technological crises presented overshadow or eliminate human emotions and human worth. Although it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and many critics believed it was the best novel of that or any year, the committee rejected the book as being “obscure and obscene.”

With a circuitous romp through subplots, minor characters who appear and disappear without warning, technological and mathematical jargon, and world-class wordplay, Pynchon introduces the reader to a revised history of the latter days of World War II in Europe. In fact, not until at least one-third of the way into this massive tome does it become evident that the protagonist is Tyrone Slothrop, an American who has been assigned to the experimental whims of Pavlovian scientists who are attempting to prove a correlation between Slothrop’s sexual encounters and the striking zone of the German A-4 rocket.

Paranoia is an integral part of Slothrop’s...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital of Great Britain in which the novel opens during the final days of the European theater of World War II. Although Germany is facing almost certain defeat, it continues to bombard London with V-2 rockets—weapons of great psychological power because the noise they make while approaching and striking their targets gives a menacing resonance to the military’s use of the word “theater” to describe war zones.

*The Zone

*The Zone. Parts of Western Europe liberated from German occupation. As the war ends, Slothrop travels from London to the liberated zone, in which former national boundaries have not yet been fully reestablished. As the Allies negotiate over the spoils of their victory, Slothrop travels on a quest for information on the V-2 rocket. His sometimes frantic search is motivated by his paranormal intuition regarding his own personal connection to the rocket. He is in danger, he knows, because he has aroused the curiosity of powerful intelligence agents who have discovered his ability to predict exactly where the rockets would strike in London. Slothrop reasons that he needs to uncover information about the rockets that will explain his intuitive powers, which he does not understand.

For Slothrop, the zone is a study hall in which he needs to lose his innocence. Everyone is looking for something: drugs, money, power, revenge, redemption, and most of all information. The...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The United States in the 1960s and Early 1970s

Life in the United States during the time in which Pynchon wrote and...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Fact and Fiction

Pynchon's novel is full of historical and cultural allusions from all over the world, and many of...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Symbolism is richer in Gravity's Rainbow than in Pynchon's other novels, all of it coming together around the image of the V-2 rocket,...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Gravity's Rainbow is a prime example of postmodernism, a literary viewpoint which arose in response to the horrors of World War II...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Pynchon sets this huge novel in the midst of the most obvious mad scene of the twentieth century, World War II, but his intent is less overt...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1940s: The United States sends great numbers of soldiers to fight in World War II on the side of the...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Some of Gravity's Rainbow is historically factual and some is not. Research an important aspect of the plot such as the German...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As noted, Gravity's Rainbow's precedents include comic books, cartoons, and bad movies as well as literature, but it is a measure of...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Pynchon's short novel The Crying Lot of 49 (1967) is more direct and readable than Gravity's Rainbow. Its southern...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Eddins, Dwight, "Orphic Contra Gnostic Religious Conflict in Gravity's Rainbow," in Modern Language...

(The entire section is 289 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Clerc, Charles, ed. Approaches to “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983. The work features a series of collected critical essays that address the novel from a variety of perspectives, including history, comedy, and psychology.

Hume, Kathryn. “Repetition and the Construction of Character in Gravity’s Rainbow.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33 (Summer, 1992): 243-255. Discusses Pynchon’s forcing his characters to deal with a recurring set of pressures as an implication that he prefers to deal with humanity at large rather than individual characters in detail.


(The entire section is 181 words.)