Is Pynchon a Feminist?


From the cover of The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon, 1964

by Joanna Freer

Over the years Thomas Pynchon has gained a reputation as a writer with strong humanist principles. His representations of the suffering of the South-West African Herero under the genocidal German imperial regime are particularly notable in this context, and his work is marked by a struggle to reveal the workings of oppression and the various guises it can assume. A writer whose career sprang out of the sixties, Pynchon has an essentially countercultural sensibility. But his early work reveals a curious lacuna when it comes to expressing sympathy with feminism, then just beginning its second wave.

Avid Pynchon readers will know that Slow Learner (1984), a collection of early short stories, comes with an introduction in which the author reflects on his writing practice of two decades before. This introduction contains an apology for the stories’ general immaturity, and in particular for “an unacceptable level of racist, sexist and proto-Fascist talk” within the story “Low-lands.” Aligning his own voice with that of Pig Bodine, a notoriously bigoted and asinine sailor who recurs in later novels, Pynchon attempts to justify to some extent these troubling aspects of “Low-lands” on the grounds that “for its time, it is probably authentic enough.”

Critics like Marjorie Kaufman and Molly Hite writing on women in Pynchon have tended not to focus on his earlier works, turning instead to Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland and remaining largely uncritical of the author and accepting, it seems, his Slow Learner apology. Yet an analysis of this apology offers a fresh perspective on Pynchon’s position mid-way through his writing career to date, and unsettles, perhaps, the general critical consensus on Pynchon’s feminism.

The Slow Learner apology reveals itself as problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, it claims that sexism was only one of three offensive ‘isms’ present in “Low-lands.” Although on investigation, the claims of racism and proto-Fascism are hardly substantiated, while the misogyny of the story is pervasive. Why then does Pynchon accuse himself so inaccurately? Perhaps it is that he sandwiches the sexism of which he is really guilty between the racism and proto-Fascism of which he is not in order to mask the former to some extent. Furthermore, Pynchon’s apology fails to mention some of the more noxious expressions of sexism within the story – moments in which women are considered as (semi)-inanimate objects upon which men have a right (or even a duty) of possession, imposition or defilation. Finally, Pynchon singles out the story “Low-lands” for special criticism, implying that it is the only story to contain sexism. Unfortunately however, the other stories in the collection, though less concerned with female characters, present women with few exceptions according to the logic of “Low-lands” as either hateful housewife-mothers, objects of male fantasy, or as inferior actors in an essentially male sphere.

If Pynchon’s apology is thus more an attempt to deflect criticism than an acknowledgement of the full extent of the problem, its date of 1984 casts considerable doubt over the real extent of any apparent improvement in attitudes to women in works at least up to Vineland. Yet the time period between the writing of Pynchon’s early stories and his later apology coincides with the era of the women’s movement, and it has clearly influenced his attitudes somewhat.

By 1963, when Pynchon’s first novel V. was published, a rising awareness of female discontent (particularly within the role of housewife) characterised American society, and a corresponding change in Pynchon’s representation of women is legible within the novel. Of use in analysing this change is the direct comparison of the character of Victoria Wren afforded by the fact that V. contains a re-written version of “Under the Rose,” one of the Slow Learner stories. In this later version Pynchon has preserved Victoria’s beauty, her innocent gaiety and her romantic softness (she still “pronounced her o’s with a sigh, as if fainting from love”), but she is much more socially dominant, reflecting the significant role she will play in the novel as a whole.

Yet despite women being given greater roles in this novel, whether any of them are represented in a way which is sympathetic to real women is still highly questionable. V. seems to demonstrate predominantly a continuing and deepening penchant for the abstract feminine, for woman as symbol or cipher. But the difference is that now the feminine is disquietingly mysterious and unreadable, rather than acting as a passive receptacle for projected male fears or fantasies. Somewhere between “Under the Rose” and V. the female has become threatening, the power she derives from her sexual charm can be used, she now apparently realises, destructively against men. It seems that the fantasy female has merged, unnervingly, with the vicious, backbiting wife to create a new type within Pynchon’s fiction.

Although overly simplistic, it is tempting to conclude that this portrayal of the threatening female in some measure reflected Pynchon’s own sense of threat over the awakening millions of American women were going through in this period. Such an analysis would seem to be corroborated by the final, humiliating defeat which Pynchon constructs for V. – her inhumanity revealed to the world, she is taken apart piece by piece and destroyed.

Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 seems at first to offer a less ambiguously positive change in Pynchon’s attitude to women. The protagonist, Oedipa, is not primarily a sexual object, and, although weak at times, has a certain spirit of independence. The novel’s first chapter clearly situates Oedipa as an American suburban housewife very much along the lines drawn by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, that groundbreaking work of feminist social criticism published three years prior to Lot 49. But although the intertextual presence of The Feminine Mystique leads the reader to expect a parallel criticism of the lot of women from Pynchon, his novel in fact rejects the logic of Friedan’s gender-specific critique, suggesting that Oedipa’s problem – her sense of emptiness, of meaninglessness, of a void at the centre of things – is universal within American society. Lot 49 thus seems to reflect the contemporary attitudes of a majority of males within the New Left who were denying the urgency of the ‘woman question’ amid what they considered the greater exigencies of society-wide revolution.

Overall, in the seven years between the publication of Pynchon’s first short story and that of The Crying of Lot 49, a certain progression towards a proto-feminist appreciation of the myriad issues facing women is visible. However, this progression should not be overstated, but viewed as decisively relative.

About the Author:

Joanna Freer is a DPhil candidate at the University of Sussex. Her thesis is based on uncovering Pynchon’s complex relationship with the sixties counterculture. She has an article forthcoming within a collection linked to the 2010 International Pynchon Week Conference Of Pynchon and Vice.