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"Private colonies of the imagination": Power and possibility in Thomas Pynchon's "V.", "The Crying of Lot 49", and "Gravity's Rainbow"

Alan William Brownlie, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The purpose of my research into Thomas Pynchon's use of ideas from science and philosophy is to show that this group of novels is not, as critics contend, nihilistic, but rather hopeful. In his first novel, V., Pynchon establishes the idea that truth--whether historical, political, scientific or personal--cannot be determined with absolute confidence. He extrapolates from Wittgenstein's claim (Tractalus Logico-Philosophicus) that "the world is all that is the case" to demonstrate that "the case" is different according to each observer. He makes this apparent in a variety of narrative devices which upset conventional novelistic expectations. In his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon explores the social implications of adherence to ideas of certainty based on bivalent models. The central metaphor of the novel is James Clerk Maxwell's thought experiment, in which a demon sits between two chambers in a closed thermodynamic system, sorting molecules of gas according to their ability to do thermodynamic work. The novel presents a variety of worlds which exist between the two values recognized by the sorting demon. In Gravity's Rainbow the emotional and intellectual uncertainties of the characters stand in marked contrast to the products of modern science, represented by the A4 rocket. By novel's end the rocket is about to fall on Los Angeles, but beneath the arc between the firing of the A4 in 1945 and its eventual fall on Los Angeles are possibilities for stopping its progress. Together the novels present a critique of European-American ideas and contemporary attempts at social reform through a web of scientific, historical, and philosophical allusions.

Subject Area

American literature|Literature

Recommended Citation

Brownlie, Alan William, ""Private colonies of the imagination": Power and possibility in Thomas Pynchon's "V.", "The Crying of Lot 49", and "Gravity's Rainbow"" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809312.