Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735

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All of the themes of Pynchon's stories and first two novels reappear and are elaborated upon in Gravity's Rainbow. The rapid, mindless depletion of the earth's resources, hastening the process of entropy, is what the war was about, rather than ideology or morality. The war ended certain governments and eliminated certain leaders, but entropic decay goes on. Pynchon steps outside the framework of the war at one point to assert directly that living in the last half of the twentieth century (being a part of what Pynchon calls "The System") is like being a passenger on a bus (consuming petrochemicals, of course) driven by a madman bent on self-annihilation and thereby the destruction of those who ride with him. The most frightening part of this simile is that one is only a passenger on the bus; the individual is powerless to stop the destruction even if he or she can understand its meaning.

Conspiracies and the fruit of conspiracies, and the manipulation of other people, also abound on both sides of the fighting lines, and, for that matter, reach across them. The behavior of one of the main characters is finally discovered to have been shaped when he was a baby by social scientists on both sides of the Atlantic, partially as a result of the interests of I.G. Farben, the huge industrial cartel which Pynchon regards as the real power in prewar and wartime Germany, even more powerful than the Nazis. The Herero tribesmen of Southwest Africa, victims of German genocide described in V. (1963), reappear as part of a cabal in the nation which had attempted to exterminate them. Most of the characters on the Allied side are connected with the White Visitation office, home of PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender), a sort of psychic Office of Strategic Services at which the schemes often become ends in themselves and their aim, surrender, refers not to the Axis but to the mind and spirit of anyone who might fall into PISCES's web. The conspiracies and counter-conspiracies interpenetrate in dizzying fashion. Most of these schemes also involve Pynchon's familiar quest pattern as well.

Two more minor themes of Pynchon's first two novels become major themes in Gravity's Rainbow. Calvinist theology maintains that although all humans are damned through the sin of Adam, some — the elect — are saved through the grace of God and others — the preterite — are simply damned, and nothing can be done about this condition. Pynchon sees this view of God as horrifying and leading to the excesses of modern society, since a further corollary of this theology is that God rewards the elect during this life with the riches of this world, justifying greed and self-aggrandizement and making it easier to exploit the poor and powerless through the assumption that, since they are not rewarded with worldly goods and status, they must be part of the preterite damned and therefore of no consequence. (Max Weber presents this analysis in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904, an important influence on Pynchon since before the writing of V.) Like Blake's Satan, Pynchon stands with and for the preterite in their hopeless struggle against a pompous, uncaring God, the political parallel to which conflict is the continual defeat of the underclass and the enlightened by the military-industrial-technological juggernaut, designed by the self-satisfied elect, which crushes the weak.

The story of Rapunzel is an analogue for The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and in Gravity's Rainbow some critics have found a parallel for the main story line in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, but, true to Pynchon's bleak view, in this version the witch wins. Much of the book concerns the search for the location and purpose of the V-2 rocket 00000 (another V.), which, near the book's conclusion, an evil scientist launches toward the north pole. Inside the rocket is his lover, a young boy, who becomes the Hansel inside the oven (rocket) of this modern fairy tale. This episode also shows what happens when loving human emotions, as expressed in sexuality, become subsumed in the drive to power, and destruction becomes a substitute for sexual climax. The inverted fairy tale motif is itself part of a Pynchon's larger message that the familiar, comforting view of ordinary reality is no more than a facade, and that at any moment one may be plunged into a larger reality, that of horror and destruction.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904

Death, Paranoia, and Metaphysics

Pynchon addresses a kaleidoscope of themes in Gravity's Rainbow, but he continually returns to ideas related to metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that studies fundamental questions of reality and existence. The novel questions what is real, how one is able to discern reality, and whether there actually is any reality at all. Its complex plot can be seen as a search for causes of death and a quest to discover who or what it is (if anything) that controls the world.

The search for death and its causes is a key theme in the novel, and it is focused on the myriad of efforts to discover and understand German V-2 rockets. In charge of the ultimate V-2 rocket is "Dominus Blicero," whose name is intended to mean, lord of death. Blicero fires Rocket 00000 from the region of northern Germany where, according to the African special forces team building it, death resides. The main character involved in the search for the rocket is Slothrop, who is characterized by his obsession with death and his tendency to be drawn to it. Like his search for the rocket, Slothrop's search to understand and possibly reach death becomes hopelessly confused. Nevertheless, Pynchon uses Slothrop to suggest that Western civilization is obsessed with death and seems to focus all of its efforts on destroying life in massive quantities as well as, in a sense, discovering the true nature of death.

Slothrop is not concerned simply with discovering the nature of death, however; he is a victim of paranoia obsessed with finding the nature of the beings that control everything in his life and in the world. Given that the novel suggests that multinational companies such as Shell and General Electric ran both sides of World War II, Pynchon seems to be sympathetic to this view. The paranoid view of the world that maintains there is a malevolent plan deliberately being acted out contrasts with the anti-paranoid view of the world that maintains events are caused by a series of coincidences and there is no conspiracy.

The opposing views of paranoia and anti-paranoia are important to Pynchon's views on metaphysics because this opposition seems to be a metaphor concerning whether any common forces (good or evil) hold the world together or whether the world is a collection of random and meaningless events. By the end of the novel, however, Pynchon's views on paranoia remain unclear. He suggests that humans are constantly trying to determine the nature of reality, death, and existence, but never necessarily coming to any conclusions. He may also be suggesting that corporate and government conspiracies actually exist and are involved in efforts, coordinated or uncoordinated, to wipe out individuality and control the world.

War and Technology in the Late-Twentieth Century

Gravity's Rainbow examines themes of war and technological advances from the beginning of World War II through the Vietnam War. Pynchon is concerned about the enormous and complex technologies for destroying human life that have proliferated since World War II. His novel seems to point out that late-twentieth-century mechanisms of destruction threaten not just life but identity and selfhood because they alienate people from their uniqueness and their concepts of who they are. Nearly every character in the novel is drawn from his/her true life and identity (Roger from Jessica, Brigadier Pudding from his sexual fulfillment, Slothrop from his literal identity and his home) because of war and technology. Pynchon may be suggesting that the effects of war and conflict are disastrous, violent, and far-reaching due to late-twentieth century technological advances.

Race, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement

Racism is a common element in many of Pynchon's key storylines, and Pynchon considers the theme of race within the setting of World War II as well as the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement. The quest to find Enzian's African Schwarzkommando is perhaps the most prominent of the plotlines in which Pynchon explores race relations. Characters such as Slothrop and Tchitcherine are obsessed with racial difference, and their obsessions trace back to childhood traumas involving racist conditioning. Blicero and others are also prejudiced against Jews, and Pynchon writes openly about the horrors of the Holocaust. Much of Pynchon's black and white symbolism and allusion (Geli Tripping's white magic or the imagery surrounding Domina Noctura, for example) emphasizes that racism is widespread, formidable, and dominant in postwar Western culture. Pynchon also connects racist ideology to capitalist and governmental conspiracies such as that of the German company IG Farben, which used concentration camp labor to produce chemicals, one of which was the Zyklon-B rat poison used in the gas chambers to exterminate Nazi prisoners.

Globalization and Empire

Gravity's Rainbow analyzes globalization and empire both in their political dimensions and in their tendencies to destroy individual identity. Politically, Pynchon examines and critiques empires ranging from the Germans and their dealings with the African Hereros, to Dutch colonial Mauritius, to British, Russian, and American plans for world domination. As depicted in the novel, empire building is a means of subjugating another culture and controlling the lives of everyone living in it. Additionally, Pynchon outlines a widespread conspiracy in the non-governmental arena of capitalist globalization. The novel suggests that war is a means for companies such as Shell and General Electric to continue the business of buying and selling, with no regard for human life and little tolerance for individuals who want to control their own destinies.

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