Oedipa´s Quest in Thomas iPynchon´s "The Crying of Lot 49"

Seminar Paper, 2000

13 Pages

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1. Introduction

Thomas Pynchon's book The Crying of Lot 49 deals with a quest of an American housewife in the nineteen-sixties. Like a Bildungsroman, The Crying of Lot 49 presents the "education of its central figure" (Schaub, 21). This central figure is the protagonist Oedipa Maas, following the theme of Oedipus, the tragic hero of ancient Greek mythology. Oedipus, having slain his father, having married his own mother, and even having fathered four children without knowing about his true relationship to those people, finally has to learn about his past and the fact that he descended morally. At the end of the myth he blinds himself, not willing to see any more. "Oedipa descends to the underworld of America" (Newman, 80), leaving her usual environment behind to investigate on an underground mail system which makes itself known to her. But with every new piece of information and with every revelation Oedipa gets more confused. During her quest for the mysterious underground mail system , called the "Tristero System", the term revelation itself is being deconstructed (Bérubé, 217). Although the Tristero System reveals itself to Oedipa, nothing is really revealed, as the information she gets is in most cases useless. "Hooking readers onto Oedipa's quest, The Crying of Lot 49 denies a final denouement and remains characterized by a pervasive ambiguity" (Hurm, 301).

In this paper I will try to point out what Oedipa is actually looking for. I will regard her motives as well as her fears and the obstacles hindering her. The starting point for this paper is the situation at the beginning. First Oedipa' s social and historical background will be concerned. After that I will focus on her motives and what makes her first leave her husband and then start to research on the mysterious mail system. The quest itself will be regarded in two different ways. On one side, I will describe her special way of research and how Oedipa leads her investigations, or rather whether she does have any influence on the course of her research at all. On the other side the various obstacles will be commented on. Finally the situation at the end will be compared to that at the beginning of the novel. What did Oedipa learn and what did she gain? How is her situation now and in which way has it improved or worsened? Prospects on the future will as well be made as an evaluation of her results and whether she has finally found what she had been looking for.

2. Short Portrait, Situation and Social Background

The Protagonist, Oedipa Maas, is a typical housewife rooted in suburban America of the nineteen-sixties. At the age of 27 her life consists of cooking, housekeeping and Tupperware-parties. Trips to the market, where she purchases basil or other ingredients for her cooking, are the only varieties in her daily routine (Pynchon 6). As it is a common habit at that time she regularly visits her psychiatrist. This character, Dr. Hilarius, tries to persuade her to take part in his LSD testing, which she rejects in a very determined way. He even calls her up in the middle of the night thus intruding her private sphere (Pynchon10). We also learn about her group therapy sessions (Pynchon, 11), the hallucinations she is having (Pynchon, 11), and that she tries to make herself believe that she is not "hooked" on her "shrink", but that it is just easier to keep visiting him regularly (Pynchon, 11).

Her husband Wendell "Mucho" Maas, whom she awaits every night, mixing drinks, is a former salesman of used cars, now working as a radio discjockey. He betrays Oedipa with teenage girls. Oedipa, who knows about this seems to be relatively indifferent towards it. She just comments once on his infidelity and the dangers of statutory rape (Pynchon, 31). Their relationship is burdened with an inability to communicate. Mucho does not listen to what his spouse says and thus does not respond to her comments, her questions or the problems troubling her (Pynchon 7, 9). Oedipa is captured in the patriarchal structure of their suburban society. She stays at home only caring for her husband' s wellbeing, neglecting her own needs (Pynchon, 7-9).

All in all she is dominated by men, who do not take her seriously, when she asks them for help. Mucho does not listen to her at all and does not give any support. Her psychiatrist, Dr Hilarius, tries to use her for his drug testing on housewives. Even her lawyer, whom she consults to get some advice concerning the will she has to execute, tries to harass her while she is having lunch with him (Pynchon, 12). Feeling insulated in her boots, she ignores his attempt to "play footsie with her under the table" (Pynchon 12). Last but not least the will she has to execute shows that her former lover Pierce does still have some power over her, even after his death. Oedipa stands all this, without reflecting about the role she plays in the patriarchal society. In her suburban environment she is insulated like the way she is insulated in these boots. Insensitive against any degradation and the indifference of men towards her she lives a life of monotony. Later we also learn that Oedipa prefers the stillness of four walls to an illusion of freedom like she experiences it on the highways of California (Pynchon, 16).

When Oedipa leaves her husband to start her work as an executor it becomes obvious that she does not care for him very much. Her going up and away spontaneously without telling him anything personal, apart from some practical advice how to handle the basil and Dr. Hilarius, shows us that she is quite indifferent towards him (Pynchon, 14). She sees herself as seductive and good looking, knows that she is attractive (Pynchon, 18), and acts with a "movie gaiety" (Pynchon, 21) when playing Strip Boticelli with her co-executor Metzger. While this game she is playing with fire, trying not to get undressed, or at least not to get undressed too soon. Their game brings her "no nearer to nudity" (Pynchon, 26) as it is said in the novel. Thus she is playing with Metzger in two different ways. On the one hand she is playing this special game and on the other hand she is teasing him (Pynchon, 26). Though she feels angry when Metzger is trying to seduce her, she finally gives in, being laid. During this procedure she even falls asleep (Pynchon, 27) and awakes in the middle of their act. Afterwards she cries, but comes back to Metzger when he tells her to do so (Pynchon, 28).

3. Reasons for Oedipa' s Quest

When Oedipa leaves Kinneret-Among-The-Pines she is not conscious of her leaving (Pynchon, 14). Nevertheless she does start her quest by planning to help sorting out her former lovers estate, as she is interested in what she might find out and expects various "revelations" (Pynchon, 12, 15, 29). Her story could as well be called "Oedipa in Wonderland" (Cowart, 112). With the excitement of a little girl she runs away and tries to break out of her monotonous life. She does this to cure the "absence of intensity, as if watching a movie", which characterises her present situation (Pynchon, 12). Thus she brings an end to the feelings of being encapsulated in a tower (Pynchon, 12-13, 29) and breaks out of her "Rapunzel-like role" (Quilligan, 112). The actual starting point for the quest, is her infidelity with Metzger, which definitely means taking a different line for a change. For Oedipa this is a way to stop the endless repetition of her suburban daily routine. "Oedipa realises that she has been playacting within a self-conceived fairy tale that has fostered the illusion of escape when indeed the tower has contributed to her isolation" (Newman, 72).

She gets new experiences being opened up for what is to follow. As the revelation is in progress she is seduced by it, like she has been seduced by her co-executor before (Pynchon, 29). Suddenly things start to turn curious with her discovery of the Tristero System, an illegal mail-delivery system, the starting point for which is the stamp collection of her ex lover. This collection, Oedipa's former rival for Pierce's attention, contains some stamps which are forged and lead her to further investigations concerning their origin (Pynchon, 29). At the same time a letter from Mucho reaches Oedipa. Though there is nothing relevant inside it, this letter is another impetus to investigate on the Tristero System, as it has a misprint on its envelope telling every addressee to report obscene mail to the "potsmaster" (Pynchon, 30), actually meaning "postmaster". This misprint "sensitises" (Schaub, 25) her for the following incidents and the "technique of her education" (Schaub, 25) and forces her to start examinations. On the same day in the evening Metzger and Oedipa enter a bar called "The Scope" where they meet a character called Mike Fallopian, who tells them about an organisation called the Peter Pinguid Society and illegal delivery of post through the inter-office delivery of one of Pierce Inverarity's firms. He would not have told them if they had not by incident witnessed an illegal "mail call" (Pynchon, 34) that they were not supposed to see. They also learn that to keep this system up each member has to send at least one letter a week through this illegal system, no matter how newsless the conveyed messages may be. By incident they also hear about a book Mike Fallopian is writing on the theme of private mail delivery. Oedipa even finds another link to the Tristero System at this bar, although she is at that state not able to understand the meaning of it. This link is a message written on a toilet wall telling people to get in touch with the writer of this information through "WASTE" (Pynchon, 34). As Oedipa will learn later, WASTE is an acronym meaning "WE AWAIT SILENT TRISTERO`S EMPIRE" (Pynchon, 116) and is also used as a code for the Tristero System. All this mysterious information sharpens Oedipa's senses for her future investigation.

Through her quest the protagonist hopes to explain the meaning and the nature of her world, meaning the America of the nineteen-sixties. So she enters this "sacred discipleship" (Quilligan, 112).

4. What Oedipa is looking for

It is not easy to figure out what Oedipa is really looking for. On the one hand her conception of the world and her conception of society are endangered by the idea of a subculture with its own mail system. So she searches for another final truth as a substitute for the one she has lost. She needs a construction of reality she can depend on and believe in.

On the other hand Oedipa seems to be looking out for a surrogate for a lost religious belief. For example she tries to see all kinds of religious signs in the events. She sees an epiphany in the event with the old drunken sailor (Cowart, 109), feels a "promise of hierophany" (Pynchon, 20) and of course the title of the novel contains the Pentecostal number 49. Right from the start it seems as if she had got into another mystic dimension. "So in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding She and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant." (Pynchon, 15). She expects all kinds of revelations (Pynchon, 12) awaiting an epiphany revealing itself.

As the other characters have such substitutes as well Oedipa is no exception in regard to this point. Dr. Hilarius is a believer of Freud and Mr. Nefastis believes in Maxwell's Demon, in which, by the way, Oedipa tries to believe, too (Pynchon, 73 - 74). All the groups and organisations Oedipa meets during her research believe in a reality which had once been constructed by themselves. For example the Inamorati Anonymous try to insulate themselves against love, perceiving love as something dangerous in this world of isolation (Newman, 83). Last but not least her husband Mucho finally finds such a substitute in LSD (Pynchon, 97 - 100).

Furthermore the protagonist is looking for a sense of life she has been missing during her existence as a housewife, dominated by the patriarchal society of the nineteen-sixties. If she can reveal the Tristero mystery there is a duty she has fulfilled, which proves her to be worthy and valuable. This would give her the confirmation she needs to keep up some self-esteem. A successful investigation could be the starting point for some more activities beyond shopping and householding and for an independent life of her own. For her the quest is a way out of the metaphorical tower which encapsulates her. The search offers a reason to get away from her buffeted existence as a "consumerist monad in the suburban grid engulfed by an insulation both physical and emotional" (Hurm, 308). Although she might not herself describe it like this, her "experiences express the general victimisation of housewives in patriarchal suburbs" (Hurm, 308) and this is what she tries to flee. Suddenly remembering her first futile attempt to break out with Pierce she becomes aware of her sadness and looks for a way to break out again.

Her quest is also a quest for meaning and knowledge. The scene where Oedipa and Metzger have sexual intercourse after playing Strip Boticelli ends with a "triple climax combining sex, film (the young Metzger is electrocuted) and pop music (a group called the Paranoids have been serenading them and finally blow all the fuses in the motel)" (Seed, 118). Oedipa, thus penetrated, is now "impregnated" (Seed, 119) with the desire to gain knowledge. It is less important to her what she finds out. She is driven to research. As she gets more involved in the events around the Tristero System she fears that she suffers from paranoia or that there is a plot against her. From that time on she also searches for truth; whatever it may be like and whatever it may mean for her mental state. There is a desire to know whether she is insane, or not. If there is a plot she wants to know the persons involved and why it was set up for her. At the end of the story Oedipa thinks to herself that "your gynaecologist has no test for what she was pregnant with." (Pynchon, 121). Here Pynchon uses the image of being impregnated as well. The pregnancy starts with the above mentioned climax and the intrusion by Metzger and it ends with the "awaiting" (Pynchon, 127) of the final revelation, which is expected to happen through the "crying of lot 49" (Pynchon, 127).

Finally her quest is, as the name "Oedipa", following Oedipus the hero of the Greek mythology, suggests, also a quest for identity in the sense of a Bildungsroman. The female protagonist learns something about herself during her various adventures, just like Oedipus learns about his origin. While looking for the roots of the Tristero System and evidence of its existence, she learns what is important to her and how she reacts to difficult situations. She thinks about her life and the role she has played in it before. An important part of this is that she also reflects about her past with Pierce and that she comes to terms with this old relationship and the one she has been having with Mucho. At the end of the novel her relationship to Mucho is at an end as well. She states that "the day she left him for San Narciso was the day she´d seen Mucho for the last time. So much of him had already dissipated" (Pynchon, 100) as an effect of his consumption of LSD. His personality had changed, so that a relationship to her husband is no longer possible for Oedipa. Now she has to re-define herself. Her relationship to Mucho is over and that to Metzger, as well. Therefor she has to define herself by her own personality and not by being the wife of a discjockey or someone's lover. She is Oedipa, which is more than just being somebody's wife.

5. Oedipa's Quest and the Obstacles

When Metzger and Oedipa are playing Strip Boticelli he gives her clues which do not help her to find out what she needs to know to win the game. Her quest is quite similar to this game of Strip Boticelli. "Strip Boticelli becomes a metaphor for the unmasking quest pattern of the book Oedipa must battle entropy to make sense of all the clues she discovers, yet those clues both contribute information that aids her and complicate any resolution with their multiplicity" (Newman, 78). During her quest Oedipa does exactly what Maxwell' s Demon does. (Newman, 84) Like the demon, Oedipa "collects data on each and every one" (Pynchon, 72) and "connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow" (Pynchon, 73). As Newman describes it "the Demon does what Oedipa must learn to do: consciously resist entropy by sense-making to keep the world bouncing" (Newman, 84).

The quest starts as Oedipa is drawn in by the mystery of the Tristero System. She drifts along, being herded (Pynchon, 76), and does not have much influence on her discoveries, which are rather accidental at the beginning. Each episode is linked to the next, to which it inevitably leads Oedipa who lacks the ability of systematic research. Wherever she goes she finds muted posthorns and other coded messages. After a short time she is "quick to read the messages encoded in the medium of America" (Schaub, 25). Her search includes historical and literary research as well. As Cowart describes it Oedipa is "devoted to the word" (Cowart, 107). For example she searches the authentic text of a play that is linked to the Tristero System, hoping to find out who changed it in which way, and for which purpose this was done. She tries "to find meaning through metaphor" (Newman, 73). Her quest consists of solving "riddles" (Kermode, 11) and contacting various sects. She searches as if she was "reading a book" (Kermode, 12), continuing "to spot the clues though never sure where they are" (Kermode, 13). Her actions are very spontaneous and driven by instinct rather than by her intellect, following impulsive motives. As a result of this the heroine goes through "series of adventures, each building on the last" (Hite, 67) lacking any systematic concept.

It is another interesting fact that during her quest Oedipa assumes different names and thus adopts different identities on the way to her own identity. She wears a button which identifies her as "Arnold Snarb" (Pynchon, 76) when she enters a bar called "the Greek Way". This could as well be seen as an allusion to the Greek hero Oedipus and his quest for identity. He does not know who he actually is and has to find out about his identity during a long row of cruel experiences. Later Oedipa is even addressed as "Edna Mosh" (Pynchon, 96) in the course of a radio interview by her own husband, as he is not willing to expose the real identity of his wife. When she visits a gynaecologist, fearing that she is pregnant, she calls herself Grace Bortz. This pseudonym she chooses is the name of the wife of a university professor, whom she contacted several times during her investigations.

Oedipa tries to understand every philosophy of the involved organisations or persons. She shows no feminist but rather an old fashioned and patriarchal attitude, as she tries to understand every speech one of these mostly male characters is imposing on her. Oedipa represents in a way the archetype of the understanding woman, who is always open for the troubles and attitudes of men. Due to her "cultural conditioning" (Madsen, 59) she is often misled as the above mentioned behaviour occupies her with things that are not necessary, but very confusing to the reader as well as to Oedipa. As soon as she does ask specific and demanding questions the men refuse to say anything further and withdraw. They only offer her the knowledge they want her to have, the information they regard as suitable for her. She is never given any helpful information by purpose. Whenever she gets to know sensible and helpful facts and details, this happens accidentally.

Due to her cultural belief, Oedipa is even "unable to discover an alternative source of value external to the limited eschatology to which she has been educated" (Madsen, 60). This is one of the greatest obstacles to her quest, as it is one that comes from inside her and has long time ago been planted inside her by society. She cannot imagine or accept the ambiguity of her culture. Now she has to discover that there are discontinuities within her environment, which leave "her poised between the signs that she tries to interpret and their culturally constrained potential for meaning" (Madsen, 60). These "cognitive obstacles" (Madsen, 64) weigh much more than the obstacles imposed upon her by her dominant male antagonists, as for example Driblette trying to discourage her (Pynchon, 52). As a result of her conditioning Oedipa is rather likely to believe that she is suffering from severe mental illness, than to accept that America might really be the way it reveals itself, now.

During her quest Oedipa is alternating between the self-critical opinion that she is suffering from paranoia, the feeling that there is a plot against her, and the impression that she is revealing a great mystery. The following quotation represents her usual thoughts quite well: "Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia." (Pynchon, 126) Most of the time she believes in a plot set up by Pierce and the idea, that believing in such a plot is a sign for paranoia. This further increases her uncertainty and leads her into a vicious circle..

6. What Oedipa Gains

Unlike a usual Bildungsroman this novel does not end with an easy solution for the protagonist. Actually it does not offer any solution at all. She has lost the people she had once expected to be helpful. So she thinks to herself: "My shrink, pursued by Israelis, has gone mad; my husband, on LSD, gropes like a child further and further into the rooms and endless rooms of the elaborate candy house of himself and away hopelessly away, from what has passed, I was hoping forever, for love; my one extra-marital fella has eloped with a depraved fifteen-year-old; my best guide back to the Trystero has taken a Brody. Where am I?" (Pynchon, 105) Regarding all this the question what Oedipa gains at the end is very prominent, as it is on first sight doubtful whether she gains anything at all. It is nevertheless quite obvious that Oedipa learns a lot about herself. For example she finds out that there is a life outside the suburb of Kinneret-Among-The-Pines which is very different to her former illusion of life. There is a subculture beyond the culture she knew. Thus she is less naive and disillusioned which is to be seen as an advantage. There are no men any more to depend on. Now she has to stand for herself and learn to make her own decisions without any help from these male "authorities". The sadness and the feeling of insecurity, which accompany this new consciousness can be preferred to an unconscious imprisonment in an ivory tower and the feeling of life passing unemotional like a movie. Her insecurity can be seen as the one that is always stated at a new beginning. It always accompanies new thoughts one has to get used to before he can make profit from them. She gains a new compassion, which represents the knowledge she has gained as well. Now she has a greater awareness of herself, being also able to perceive things from another point of view sharing different attitudes with other people, or at least knowing them (Madsen, 75).

Although Oedipa has more questions at the end of the novel than at the beginning, this is no disadvantage as well. It is better to have a lot of questions one cannot answer yet and may never be able to answer, than having no questions at all, which means that one did never question anything and thus can never develop ones consciousness to create a distinguished personality.

Oedipa finds America. This is the special heritage Pierce has given to her (Pynchon, 123). She realises that this America "is home to the disinherited, the alienated, the betrayed, all those denied the illusion of an American Dream" (Madsen, 75). She learns that there is more than one truth to find, which means that there is no ultimate truth like she might have expected. There is also more than one American history, which means that there is also more than one reality, depending on the system or construction of reality one believes in. As long as she did not know about the Tristero System, this system did not exist in her consciousness. As a result of this she has been living in a different world than the people who knew about it and lived in their own construction of reality. She finds out how implicated she has been all of the time, that she had lived a limited life (Madsen, 75). Her old image of America has been deconstructed, giving way to new impressions and a sense of ambiguity Oedipa can finally learn from.

7. Conclusion

Regarding all this we can state that Oedipa's quest is "grounded in a hyperbolically banalized world" (Hite, 73) lacking any intensity or real feelings. From this the heroine tries to escape as she is not able to cope with its banality any longer. Her quest is thus a "birth passage" (Hite, 73) for a new life. Oedipa who is heading for a change is "directed toward transcendence" (Hite, 73) which she finally reaches stating that her legacy was America. Although she did not find any ultimate truths, she found different concepts of life, different interpretations of America, various attitudes and ideologies, and finally had access to new interpretations of American history. She learned about poor individuals outside the bright and glittering city centres and the cosy suburbs. Her knowledge had been increased, although she is not able to cope with all this yet, and although she is presently not in a position to use the knowledge she has gained. She did not find any substitute for her lost religious belief. But instead of this she has reached something that is more important, even if she might not see the worth of it, yet. Oedipa might be convinced that she has lost something, now that she does not know any more what to believe in. Her conceptions of reality have all tumbled and there is nothing to replace the loss. What she does not see is, that she can do without such easy comfort. She has the chance to do without a religious symbol to set her hopes on, and she will as well be able to live without the lie of the American Dream she has once believed in.

There is a hope for the future, that she might not return to her conventional suburban life, daring to live a life free from male dominance and the bondage of marriage. She will never again have to endure the "lifeless repetition" (Newman, 73) of her former daily routine again. As her relationship to Mucho is at an end as well, there is a possibility that she will soon chose a different kind of relationship or that she might be able to do without any male assistance at all. She is not likely to pick up her former "Rapunzel-like role" (Quilligan, 112) again. Caring for her husband, who is the centre of her attention, will surely not be a sufficient aim for her any longer after the experiences she has made during her investigations. There is surely no way back to the insulated position of a housewife.

13 of 13 pages


Oedipa´s Quest in Thomas iPynchon´s "The Crying of Lot 49"
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Oedipa´s, Quest, Thomas, Crying, Proseminar
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Nicole Hoppe (Author), 2000, Oedipa´s Quest in Thomas iPynchon´s "The Crying of Lot 49", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/98704


  • guest on 1/30/2001


    auch wenn einige passagen zu weiteren gedanken anregen, finde ich die gesamte herangehensweise an die welt der oedioa maas insgesamt zu oberflächlich und naiv. sicherlich ist auch die emanzipation der frau teil der problematik, doch ganz so einfach liegt der fall ja nun nicht, dass es hier nur um die loslösung einer unglücklichen hausfrau von ihrem entfremdeten ehemann geht.
    insgesamt finde ich zu viele gemeinplätze und zu wenige tiefergehende überlegungen (ein wenig kursorische lektüre zu postmoderner theorie kann hier sicher helfen). dass mit geschlossenem vorhang viele fragen offen bleiben, wird hier doch recht optimistisch bewertet, von der verzweiflung oedipas merkt jemand, der das buch nicht kennt, hier nichts.
    auch die aussagen über allgemeine menschliche bedingungen, die sich anhand oedipas suche treffen ließen (was bei der erwähnung des mythos doch nahe läge) fehlen ebenso wie das eingehen auf die reiche metaphorik pynchons.

  • guest on 1/30/2001

    was ich vergaß....

    und das englisch holpert an manchen stellen sehr.
    aber im grundstudium bleibt ja noch zeit, sich das alles anzueignen - dafür macht man es ja schließlich.

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