by Sofie Schrey
Thomas Pynchon is no stranger to using shocking imagery to get his point across. V. (1963), his first full-length novel, is no exception, containing many instances of rape or attempted rape. The book’s third chapter, however, features a scene that is not explicitly an instance of sexual violence, yet arguably invokes in the reader the same highly invasive, uncomfortable feeling it would if it were an explicit description of rape. In this paper, I will pinpoint the reasons why this might be the case by comparing the second part of the chapter, a seemingly innocent rhinoplasty scene, to the more apparent mentions of rape throughout the book. Particular attention will be paid to similarities in imagery, the agency of the respective victims, and the reactions of male and female witnesses. Additionally, because there seems to be an aspect to the scene that implies it was intended as a metaphor for consensual sex, I will determine what the success or failure of this intended metaphor means for Pynchon’s philosophy on female consent.
To determine the nature of one of Pynchon’s scenes, I will first examine his habit of toeing the line between writing women and sex in general. The descriptions surrounding the rapes in V. see Pynchon moving in that complicated, blurred part of writing in which sexual consent is made so unclear that it is difficult to tell a sex scene from a rape scene, especially with Pynchon’s writing frequently bordering on the pornographic regardless of the topic. As Marilyn Maxwell asks in her 2000 book Male Rage, Female Fury, ‘[W]hat happens when the “No” really means “No” and accurately reflects the wishes and intent of the sender? Pynchon does not seem to allow for this possibility’ (133). Maxwell argues that by invalidating the refusal of consent, Pynchon has effectively invalidated rape as a concept (134). There are several scenes in V. where the difference between an uncomfortably written sex scene and a rape becomes blurred, to the extent that this phenomenon seems intentional. Naturally, not all literary works that incorporate rape are instantly supporting rape; what is missing in V. is a moral context. Pynchon remains as aloof and passive in his exaggerated descriptions as his female characters are during their assault. In the same vein, Sharon Stockton uses her deductions from an analysis of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) to build the argument that Pynchon is not in the habit of attaching any form of judgment to rape scenes, instead letting them “(…) disappear from the text (…)” (143) adding nothing more to the plot than “(…) an audible note of horror to the dissolution of the masculine subject” (143). Pynchon, by not providing a clearer contrast to highlight his message, simply perpetuates a major part of rape culture.
I will analyse four sections from the novel: 1) the above-mentioned rhinoplasty scene for its deceptive unrelatedness to rape; 2) the rape scene involving a young woman named Fina, which showcases different reactions of the witnesses of the crime; 3) two scenes involving the character Mondaugen and his colleagues assaulting and raping the native Herero and Hottentot people that live near where he is stationed in South-West-Africa (present-day Nambia); and 4) any scenes involving sexual activities or implications thereof with sixteen-year-old Paola Majistral.
The character of Mafia Vogelsang, in the chapter with Mondaugen’s story, makes a statement that deftly sums up how female sexuality is handled throughout the novel, be it consensual or not: ‘A woman wants to feel like a woman,’ [Mafia said,] breathing hard, ‘is all. She wants to be taken, penetrated, ravished. But more than that she wants to enclose the man’ (404). From this perspective, women’s wants are ambiguous: she wants to be both passive to the point where she gives up her own agency and dominant enough to break a man’s spirit. It is a paradoxical point of view which aligns with what Maxwell (2000) among others has noticed about Pynchon’s portrayal of women: that a woman must always want to consent to sex even when she doesn’t and that, because she supposedly has all the control over the man and encompasses unknown power, she must have brought any kind of sexual assault upon herself.
Enter the rhinoplasty in chapter three: when Esther enters plastic surgeon Schoenmaker’s office, the narrator immediately describes her state of mind as ‘passive, even (a little?) sexually aroused. [sic]’ (99) Her giddy feeling, rather than a sign of nerves, is deemed a kind of sexual arousal without question. From the start, the arousal Esther feels is connected to non-participation, a combination of paradoxical emotions which continues for the rest of the scene and is echoed throughout the book. Next, Esther is sedated with a substance that has an adverseeffect on her: instead of calming her down, the drug makes her delirious and panic-stricken. The only thing Schoenmaker’s assistant has to say about his mistake, however, is ‘”Should have used Hyoscin (…) [i]t gives them amnesia, man.”’, a worrying remark in any setting. With this line, Pynchon, whether conscious of it or not, touches upon a fear many people, particularly women, have concerning anaesthesia. During an operation which requires being unconscious, there is an acute loss of control over the body that many find unsettling if not terrifying. Women especially, may fear being raped while they are unconscious, disabled or incapacitated, a fear that is sadly rooted in reality. Instead of halting the procedure, Schoenmaker has Esther strapped to a chair, while she is in distress and quietly crying. After the surgery, Esther and Schoenmaker start an affair, during which she undergoes a series of additional plastic surgeries by his hand. Smith and Tololyan claim to understand Pynchon’s intent for the book better through the theory that Esther’s story of plastic surgery is simply another way to demonise humanity’s supposed drift towards becoming things instead of beings. As has been a consensus among critics of his work before, the argument can be made that Pynchon tried hard to get a message about technology across in his first novel but was perhaps not entirely successful yet. The same seems to be the case for his depiction of women’s sexuality.
The first character to undergo a literal rape in V. is Fina, one of the many young women in Benny Profane’s life. In the description of Fina right before she is raped, Benny paints her as a plaything of her own body and desires (132), influenced by them but unable to keep herself steered onto the right path. She is defined by her brother as being resistant to marriage: ‘Fina doesn’t want anybody. You, Geronimo, the Playboys. She doesn’t want’ as well as fickle: ‘Nobody knows what she wants.’ (132). At the same time, she is portrayed as pseudo-saintly for her efforts with the Playboys. Benny remarks near the end of the novel that her involvement with the boys was doomed to fail because men as rugged as them do not take kindly to symbols of hope (2). Pynchon also has Benny foreshadow her fate by having him comment on Fina’s sexual energy, which according to him is unstable and doomed to attract negative consequences:
“He was sure any love between her and the Playboys was for the moment Christian, unworldly and proper. But how long was that going to go on? How long could Fina herself hold out? The minute her horny boys caught a glimpse of the wanton behind the saint, the black lace slip beneath the surplice, Fina could find herself on the receiving end of a gang bang, having in a way asked for it. She was overdue now.”
It seems that in V., a woman’s ‘honour’ is entirely dependent on the man who chooses to steer her, that she is a vessel to be filled and that a good man would bring out good things in her, while a bad man would do the opposite. In this case, Fina is made to blame Benny for not deflowering her when she offered (140,369), and she clearly believes that he could have prevented her misfortune. In saying this she not only underestimates the risky situation she was in prior to her rape, but also disregards the worth of both Benny’s own consent and his unwillingness to anger Fina’s brother if he had consented. The moment between the two of them here, while played off as a penitence and confession for Benny, thus perpetuates the skewed dynamic Pynchon writes regarding female consent and sexual agency.
More evidence of this is found in the chapter on Mondaugen, where we first encounter rape scenes in real time. Here, Mondaugen becomes obsessed with a native girl, Sarah, who doesn’t respond to his advances until he forces her to.
“[T]he next morning she appeared as usual. He chose two strong women, bent her back over a rock and while they held her he first sjamboked, then took her. She lay in a cold rigor (…). And that night, long after he’d turned in, she came to his house and slid into the bed next to him. Woman’s perversity! She was his” (267)
Again, the female rape victim responds to her attack with a passive, almost positive reaction. It is clear from her choice to come to his house that Sarah believes this will improve her circumstances. After Sarah has come to his house, however, Mondaugen restricts her freedom even more than in the thorn ‘enclosure’ by manacling her to the bed. Her being in his house the whole day instead of going back to the steel prison the so-called concubines are held, quickly raises suspicion and she is eventually raped by a group of the other soldiers (267). Sarah’s demise, too, is that of an ‘honour killing’ when she presumably drowns herself in the ocean after escaping Mondaugen (267), reiterating the value of suicide as a form of spiritual redemption that seems to be respected in the novel. Whatever message Pynchon tries to convey through the extreme violence in the chapter, Sarah’s rape follows the same pattern we’ve seen in the rhinoplasty surgery and the scenes with Fina: the female victim stays apathetically passive and shows no signs of trauma afterward, accepting their fate right away and even enjoying the violence.
Mondaugen’s first forays on South-West-African territory are also defined by his extreme violence and perversity toward the native women and their strange enjoyment of them.
(…) They came upon an old woman digging wild onions at the side of the road. A trooper named Konig jumped down off his horse and shot her dead: but before he pulled the trigger he put the muzzle against her forehead and said, “I am going to kill you.” She looked up and said, “I thank you.” Later, toward dusk, there was one Herero girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, for the platoon (…). After he’d had her he must have hesitated a moment between sidearm and bayonet. She actually smiled then; pointed to both, and began to shift her hips lazily in the dust. He used both. (259)
The native Herero girl here is portrayed from a disturbingly romantic perspective on rape and colonisation, which was no doubt Pynchon’s intention. By having the girl refrain from voicing any thought, objections or resistance and even letting her decide she wishes to be killed in the most gruesome way possible at that moment, her agency is caricaturised. Pynchon uses this shocking imagery to make a point about the parallels between the genocide in Africa around 1908 and the Holocaust several decades later (Rye 2016, 20). His point, however, is not always very clear and he uses the technique in so many scenes that it may be wondered if there is more to it than a coincidence. The chapter of Mondaugen raping and killing his way through African villages might have proved a meaningful contrast if his other forays in writing female sexuality, foreign cultures and rape scenes weren’t so similar in their statements.
A very different case of rape in V. are the scenes involving Paola Majistral. Much like the Herero girls, Hedwig Vogelsang and the guinea girl Profane meets and says a rude word to (134), Paolo is a teenager. Benny even suspects she is underage (9), but this does not stop him from almost being involved with her not long after they’ve met (14). Paola, who claims to be 16, asks him to be good to her (13) and even becomes his ‘dependent’ when they run away together after being interrupted by Teflon (14, 15). Right before they are interrupted, there is a short conversation about consent. The two of them end up in a dark room together; presumably, Paola consents so far, yet this is how the conversation goes: ‘”No,” she said. “Meaning yes.” Groan, went the bed.’ Considering the context, it is likely this is Pynchon commenting on a regrettably ambiguous phenomenon of the time, in which women repeatedly and coyly avoided saying yes even though they wanted to, in order to preserve their honour. Given that it also takes place around Christmas, it is not unthinkable that Pynchon is making a reference to the Christmas-time song Baby, It’s Cold Outside, which revolves around the same logic. This behaviour may sadly be used to back up the much-argued myth of the ambiguity of female consent, which is also how it comes across here.
Paola, apparently a very attractive girl, earns the affections of many of the male characters, most notably the aptly named Pig Bodine. Pig and another member of the Whole Sick Crew even get in a fistfight over Paola, although neither really wins her affections in the end. At some point, Pig tries to rape her while she is going back to bed and sleepy. He is already on top of her when Benny comes to her aid and tries to pull him off. Pig is resistant, only to be persuaded by Benny calling in an old favour. When Pig leaves, Paola tries, as she has done earlier, to seduce Benny, but he again refuses. When asked, Benny can’t think of a good reason not to respond to Paola’s affections, when her age should be the most important and most obvious reason. His self-proclaimed status as a worthless schlemihl should also not be taken as an excuse for this particular action, since committing an actual crime goes against the rest of his character.
When discussing Paola, Stencil thinks her attractiveness lies deeper: ‘[I]t wasn’t sexual, it lay deeper. Paola was Maltese.’ (47) Malta, in this line of thinking, is an immensely sensual, and decidedly female place. The island is compared to a woman on many occasions, which is in line with the much-used metaphor for Nature as female (Merchant 1980). With this humanisation of an inanimate object also comes a perversion towards it. Malta, in Pynchon’s text, becomes the same type of passive woman who is repeatedly violated but maintains the emotional distance that is so romanticised in V. She even ‘lies on her back’ in one of her main descriptions (315). Again, the description reads as an example of a martyrly view on rape victims, this time in the humanisation of an inanimate object instead of the reverse. The fact that this trend of Pynchon using this romanticised concept of rape continues even in a ‘reversed’ context (where a contrast would be most effective) proves that it is either unintentional or a failed attempt at getting his message across.
Lastly some attention should be given to an important aspect of any rape, whether real or literary, which is how witnesses react to it. Throughout the novel, witnesses of rape do not make any attempt to help the victim in a positive way: Benny turns a blind eye with Fina, Angel almost lynches his sister (146) whether to preserve her honour or not), the Whole Sick Crew don’t really do anything about Pig tirelessly hitting on underage Paola until Benny has to bargain with Pig to stop him from raping her (371). An interesting perspective, however, is that of the female witnesses in V... An example of reactive female passiveness can be seen in Rachel’s indulgence of the rest of the Whole Sick Crew when it comes to Paola. While confident enough not to be led by fear, there is an element of jealousy to her attitude towards the young girl. Rachel, however, is not the only female witness. While female, the women who are asked to hold Sarah down and thus aid in her assault are not to be seen as witnesses but rather fellow victims, seeing as a refusal would no doubt result in their own death. The actions of Hedwig Vogelsang, on the other hand, can rival Mondaugen’s. Apart from not commenting on the horrors that occur in the Africa chapters or undertaking any steps towards aiding the native women, it can be gathered from the way she treats her male slaves as riding animals (206), that she is a rapist as well. Hedwig’s (as well as some of Fina’s and Paola’s) behavior forms another piece of evidence to the case V. makes on ball-busting, deliberately craze-inducing, emasculating women, and barely legal ones at that.
From the wide array of situations, the rape scenes take place in in Pynchon’s literary search for V., we can see how similar they are to each other and to other sexually charged moments in the book from the trends that emerge between them. These trends can even be applied to the central scene of our analysis, the rhinoplasty scene with Esther. First, almost every female in a scene with (implied) sexual violence has a passiveness to her during or before the rape. This passive demeanour is connected more than once to sexual arousal, to the point where one of the female characters (however much of a caricature she may be intended to be) even states that this is how all women work. Second, in an opposite and contradictory turn of events, it is argued by female characters in V. that women desire to dominate men as well as (and perhaps even more than) being completely at their mercy. Third, the reaction of the female victims is not just passive but even positive at times. The fact that this unlikely notion surfaces in the scenes with Ester and Fina as well as in the comically over-the-top chapters of Mondaugen’s story is an attestment of Pynchon’s failure to use the latter as a successful contrast and thus get his message across. Finally, where applicable, the witnesses present during the rapes are unhelpful to such a degree that they actively cause further harm to the victim. The supposed metaphor for consensual sex in the rhinoplasty scene now dismantled after putting it into a clearer context, we can consider it to be an instance of an unintentional implicit rape scene on Pynchon’s part. Using this analysis as a guide, it can thus be concluded that Pynchon’s writing in this early novel is insufficiently clear in its construction of a message on female consent, by which it (however inadvertently) adds to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about consent as well as myths surrounding rape.
Sofie Schrey “Implicit Rape and Female Consent in Thomas Pynchon’s V” Alluvium, Vol.9, No.2 (2021):n.pag.Web 19 April 2021. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.2.02
About the Author
Sofie Schrey is a junior researcher working towards a PhD in Landscape Studies. She holds a BA and an MA in Applied Linguistics and a MA in Linguistics and Literature. Her research thus far has focused on wilderness representations across written and visual media. Her main research interests are Garden and Landscape Studies in 19th Century and Modern Literature, with additional interests in Mythology, Gender Studies and Natural History. She is the main organizer of peer review for Arcadiana (EASLCE). In the Autumn of 2021, she will host a special issue of Alluvium as a guest editor.
Burt, Martha R. “Rape myths.” Confronting rape and sexual assault 3 (1998): 129-144.
Chetwynd, Ali, Joanna Freer, and Georgios Maragos, eds. Thomas Pynchon, Sex, and Gender. University of Georgia Press, 2018.
Grant, J. Kerry. A companion to V. University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Hite, Molly. “When Pynchon Was a Boys’ Club: V. and mid-century Mystifications of Gender.” Chetwynd, Freer, and Maragos (eds.), Thomas Pynchon, Sex, and Gender: 5.
Mattessich, Stefan. “Imperium, Misogyny, and Postmodern Parody in Thomas Pynchon’s V.” ELH, vol. 65 no. 2, 1998, p. 503-521. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/elh.1998.0018
Maxwell, Marilyn. Male Rage, Female Fury: Gender and Violence in Contemporary American Fiction. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2000.
Merchant, Carolyn. “Nature as Female” (Chapter 1) in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and Scientific Revolution, pp. 1-41. (1980).
Seed, David. “Pynchon in Context.” The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1988. 220-239.
Smith, Evans Lansing. Rape and revelation: the descent to the underworld in modernism. Univ Pr of Amer, 1990. (T&L 82.091 H 6 SMIT 90)
Smith, Marcus, and Khachig Tololyan. “The New Jeremiad: Gravity’s Rainbow.” Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon (1981): 169-86.
Stockton, Sharon. The Economics of Fantasy: Rape in Twentieth-Century Literature. Ohio State University Press, 2006.
Rye, Tore. “Mapping the World: Thomas Pynchon’s Global Novels.” Orbit: A Journal of American Literature 4.1 (2016).