Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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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 worry about Europe itself again. Although Porpentine does falter at this thought, he does still break The Rules by insulting Moldwoerp. For that insult, Porpentine pays the ultimate price.

Underlying the characters and actions in this story is the theme of paranoia that runs through all of Pynchon’s works. Defined in Gravity’s Rainbow as the belief that everything is ultimately connected and leading to some sinister purpose, paranoia manifests itself in “Under the Rose” both generally and individually. The foreboding of international catastrophe runs through the whole story. Characters seem to have the firm conviction that if the Fashoda crisis does not result in war, then something else will later on, a feeling that is borne out by the story’s ending. For Porpentine himself, the international crisis itself seems to be only a symptom of something even larger. Riding toward his final confrontation with Moldwoerp’s agents, Porpentine has the suspicion that the foreign spies are really working for something nonhuman, the statistical law of averages that reduces all numbers to zero, all human action to nothing. With Porpentine dead and Goodfellow impotently trying to prevent World War I, the story concludes with the triumph of the inhuman forces that have governed this new century.