Gravity’s Rainbow Summary

Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow

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Gravity’s Rainbow Summary

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Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is written in four parts. Many critics find following the characters and plot difficult. The novel takes place during the last few months of World War II and the months that follow. The main goal of the characters, especially Tyron Slothrop, is to track down rockets—not just any rockets, German V-2 rockets. These are the first guided missiles, and therefore, draw attention for the technological advances in warfare that they represent. Pynchon’s novel is not just about hunting for German rockets; it is also about the aftermath of the war on society. The world was in a state of confusion both during and after the war; that confusion is represented by Pynchon’s head-hopping and tangential plot.

As the novel begins, Pirate Prentice is preparing breakfast for his troops while a German rocket approaches London. From there, Teddy Bloat takes photographs of Slothrop’s desk. They’re located in ACHTUNG headquarters, a special ops unit in the British military during World War II. Bloat has found a map marked with stars. The stars indicate places where Slothrop has been intimate with various women, but they also happen to be where the German missiles hit. Meanwhile, Jessica Swanlake and Roger Mexico confess their love for one another.

Pynchon goes back to Pirate, when he served in the Persian Gulf. Then, Roger and Jessica are on their way to meet Dr. Pointsman, who determines that Slothrop was conditioned to become sexually aroused by loud noises—hence the connection between his romantic conquests and the targets of the German missiles. Roger and Pointsman debate whether statistical or deterministic predictions of rocket strikes are more accurate. Pirate is able to decode a message that indicates Katje Borgesius has been taken out of Holland by the British government. Focus then shifts again, this time to Pointsman, who is with Brigadier General Pudding, working on a secret project, “The White Visitation,” for the British government meant to control Slothrop.

Part two does not hop between point-of-view characters quite as much as part one. Slothrop saves Katje, and they sleep together, after which she arranges for someone to steal his identity. He starts learning more about rocket science, and she issues a warning to him before leaving for England. Once there, she helps The White Visitation control Brigadier Pudding by becoming his sexual dominatrix, under Pointsman’s supervision. Slothrop becomes more paranoid when he discovers project Rocket 00000, which entails his conditioning. He meets Blodget Waxwing who asserts that Slothrop’s suscipicions are correct. He takes on a new identity: Ian Scuffling, an English war correspondent, and joins a group of Argentine anarchists. Meanwhile, the Nazis surrender and Pointsman meets with Katje, Roger, and Jessica at the seaside to firm up plans for Slothrop.

Part three finds Slothrop in Germany, where he takes on another identity, this time going by the moniker, “Rocketman.” He learns that the rocket in the Rocket 00000 project has a compartment for a person. Katje receives an implanted message. The message tells her that she has to leave The White Visitation. Around the time that Hiroshima is bombed, at Operation Backfire, Slothrop finds himself in trouble as British medical officers plan to castrate him. However, he escapes.

Part four brings Pirate Prentice to Germany. Roger learns that Jessica left him, having run off with her husband, Jeremy. Roger joins the Counterforce, made up of Pirate, Katje, and others. They want to find Slothrop, and they want to take down a conspiracy between the corporate and government sectors called “the Man.” Slothrop learns that the United States of America dropped the atomic bomb, and the Counterforce believes that Rocket 00000 has been fired to the north. The novel ends in 1970. The final scene takes place in a theater in Los Angeles, where a missile is about to strike.

Throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, characters come and go. Some continue to appear for the length of the book, affecting the main plot and living out their own subplots. Others show up briefly, in vignettes, and are never seen again. In fact, the novel has about seventy characters, all with varying degrees of import. Some of the characters and events in Gravity’s Rainbow are factual; others are fictional. This also supports the main theme of confusion, as readers do not know which events occurred and people really existed.

In addition to confusion, there several other themes are touched on in Gravity’s Rainbow, made possible by the number of plots and subplots happening simultaneously, the number of characters, and the number of agencies and secret societies. Some of the more pressing themes include: paranoia, racism and the Holocaust, technology—particularly as it pertains to war, and globalization.