47 pages 1 hour read

Thomas Pynchon


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1963

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Summary and Study Guide


V. is renowned author Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 debut novel. The book has been widely praised as an important piece of Postmodern and satirical fiction, portraying the paranoia and counter-cultural sensibilities of a group of artists in New York City and their attempt to locate a mysterious figure named V.

This guide is written using the 2005 Perennial Modern Classics edition, based on the revised Cape/British edition of the text.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of sexual abuse and exploitation, graphic violence, substance use, and suicide.

Plot Summary

In the mid-1950s, Benny Profane, recently discharged from the Navy, is traveling along the east coast without any real direction in life. In a bar in Norfolk, Virginia, Profane meets a group named the Whole Sick Crew: the short, violent, and toothless Ploy; musician Dewey Gland; Pig Bodine; and a teenage bar worker from Malta named Paola Hod. After a riot breaks out, the military police raid the bar, but Profane escapes with his new acquaintances. The group spends a week or so drinking heavily and, after New Year’s Eve, Profane and Paola travel to New York on a bus before parting ways.

Rachel Owlglass accuses cosmetic surgeon Shale Schoenmaker of driving her roommate Esther Havitz into debt. Later, Rachel attends a party with the Whole Sick Crew. There, a deeply agitated man named Herbert Stencil obsesses over the death of his father Sidney Stencil, a secret agent who died in Malta while working for British intelligence agencies, and the true identity of a woman known only as V. Stencil’s investigation has led him to Paola, who now shares a New York apartment with Rachel and Esther.

Interrupting the narrative, Stencil explains that at the end of the 19th century, in the British community in Egypt, eight people delved into the world of spies and murders. The common thread was Victoria Wren, considered to be the original incarnation of V.

In WWI, Shale Schoenmaker witnessed the disfigurement of a handsome pilot named Evan Godolphin and, while visiting Godolphin in the hospital, saw the effects of poorly performed cosmetic surgery. Schoenmaker swore that he would learn to perform cosmetic surgery properly, though he has since become disillusioned with his profession. When Stencil learns about Schoenmaker, he sends Esther to the surgeon to receive rhinoplasty. During one of their appointments, Esther and Schoenmaker become romantically involved.

Profane finds a job hunting alligators in the sewers under New York City, where he encounters a rat named Veronica, who has lived in the sewers for many years. Decades ago, a priest named Father Linus Fairing had a mental health crisis and descended into the sewers, where he preached to the rats. Profane spends several nights drinking with associates and begins a relationship with Fina, though his friends are concerned that she is associated with the Playboys, a local street gang.

In another interruption, Stencil explains that Victoria Wren was seen briefly in Florence, Italy in 1899. During this time, the city descended into riots, and thieves attempted to steal a famous painting. Doubts remain about the true meaning of the term Vheissu and its association with the explorer Hugh Godolphin, father of Evan.  

Profane loses his job as an alligator hunter. He responds to a job ad at the Time/Space Employment Agency. He is annoyed to find that the agency’s secretary is his former girlfriend Rachel. Meanwhile, Stencil, who has narrowed down V.’s true identity to either Victoria Wren or Veronica the rat, meets with Kurt Mondaugen, an engineer who works for Yoyodyne. In the past, Mondaugen played an important role in the siege of a town during the German colonization of South West Africa and the 1904 Herero Wars and genocide. Stencil recognizes Victoria Wren’s presence in Mondaugen’s recollections.  

Saxophonist McClintic Sphere returns to his boarding house in Harlem after an exhausting week performing for pretentious Ivy League college students. In the meantime, Profane finds a job at Anthroresearch Associates, and his associates become embroiled in increasingly absurd and violent conflicts. Stencil searches for Rachel but only finds Paola, who gives Stencil The Confessions of Fausto Maijstral, a collection of letters and diary extracts from Paola’s father Fausto Maijstral that contains hints about a woman who may or may not be V. who was crushed during a WWII bombing raid.

In the past, V. falls in love with a ballerina named Mélanie l’Heuremaudit. At the premiere of an avant-garde ballet recital, the crowd riots. Mélanie l’Heuremaudit is accidentally impaled on a stake meant to be a part of the performance, though everyone assumes that her dying moments are all part of the act.

Stencil shares his investigation into V. with Profane and asks Profane to travel to Malta with him and Paola. The outbreak of the Suez Crisis means that Malta is surrounded by ships from the British Navy. In Malta, Stencil and Profane search for Fausto Maijstral.

In the past, Stencil’s father Sidney is sent to Malta after World War I. He sees the local people’s struggle for independence and gets to know the woman who will one day give birth to Fausto Maijstral. She convinces him to stop being a double agent, warning him that he is in danger. Around this time, Sidney also reunites with what is left of V. (Veronica Manganese). Due to various accidents, her body has now mostly been replaced with artificial parts. Sidney becomes disillusioned with life as a secret agent in a changing world. When Sidney leaves Malta, his ship is struck by an accident and sinks into the Mediterranean Sea.