The Rocket and the Whale: A Critical Study of Pynchon’s Use of Melville
CitationLevitsky, Zhana. 2015. The Rocket and the Whale: A Critical Study of Pynchon’s Use of Melville. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractHerman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow are two American novels that intersect stylistically and thematically. This thesis argues that Pynchon’s novel mirrors and reinvents Melville’s novel. Gravity’s Rainbow is not simply engaging with Moby-Dick, but actively reprising it for the late 20th century through the power of Pynchon’s imagination. Pynchon responds to and reimagines Melville’s book by mirroring major themes and frameworks from Melville, by adopting some of his central images, and by mirroring his profuse use of technical language to express coded spiritual beliefs and deepening character analysis. The sublime white whale is reinvented as the Schwarzgerät, a German V2 rocket loaded with the mysterious polymer Imipolex G; this profound object stands symbolically at the center of the novel much as the whale, Moby Dick, does in Melville’s opus. The monstrous “grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (Melville 7) is re-forged as the “white finality” looming “up in the zero sky” (Pynchon 85, 87).
Beyond the functions of the novels’ sublime central images, both novels are here recognized as relying on coded technical, specialist language to express metaphysical beliefs. Throughout each novel, the technical language codes the ineffable and the transcendent, allowing for an entry point to understand the functions of symbolic material. Gravity’s Rainbow echoes Moby Dick’s stylistic structure, which is vast and loose. Very few novels are identified from the world’s literary canon as “encyclopedic,” and the two here discussed are the only examples from American literature, according to Edward Mendelson’s “Encyclopedic Narrative” hypothesis, which is supported by literary critic Andrzej Kopcewicz. It is the similarities in the unconventional, encyclopedic literary style of Moby-Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow that offers one of the strongest arguments for their resonant kinship. I use the work of Lawrence Buell to deepen and critically engage the material; I also engage with the critical work of several other prominent scholars. The metaphors from science extend to the color theory at work in the main symbols present, which are white or suffused with light, such as the whale, rocket, doubloon and light bulb. This thesis argues that light and whiteness as characteristics of the symbolic objects represent evil, malignity or another dark force. I show that the color theory that ties the books together has its main genesis, for both Melville and Pynchon, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colors.
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