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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Thomas Pynchon, the Camera and the Ghosts of The Scarlet Letter
Abeer Fahim

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Tuesday 6 June, from 11:15 to 11:45

Published in 1973, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, set mostly in the second world war, is seemingly a far cry from Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a text published in 1850 and set in the seventeenth century. Yet, a closer look at Gravity’s Rainbow reveals a myriad of connections between a romantic puritanical past and a ‘postmodern’ present. The similarities between Katje Borgesius, from Gravity’s Rainbow and Hester Prynne, from The Scarlet Letter, are symbolic of a deeper connection between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. While Katje is Dutch, her role in Tyrone Slothrop’s life and the narrative as a whole makes her a significant part of American identity in the text. Critics have written about themes that relate to Puritanism in Gravity’s Rainbow; however, what still needs to be more thoroughly examined is the role that the camera in Gravity’s Rainbow plays as a medium of capturing a present moment in history and simultaneously the ghosts of its past. This paper will argue that an understanding of the dynamics behind the camera in Gravity’s Rainbow is crucial to uncovering the underlying history in the narrative. When we are first introduced to Katje in Gravity’s Rainbow, we are given a cinematic view of her. A camera trails her and we, as readers and ‘viewers’, begin to see her long legs, her hair, and her crown as she moves. Our first glimpse of Hester Prynne also gives us a close-up of her physical attributes and her movement. Her hair, her black eyes, and her femininity are all at the forefront of this scene and, of course, the embroidered scarlet letter on her bosom that she is forced to wear as her sentence for adultery. Both women are framed in narratives highly dominated by men. In The Scarlet Letter, despite the women’s judgmental tones and expressions in the market place, Hester Prynne is punished by men. The scarlet letter becomes its own medium of surveillance, a mark that makes Hester constantly visible to others. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Katje “feels a cameraman’s pleasure” (111) when she looks at herself in the mirror. The reference to the ‘cameraman’ is a reminder of an inescapable male presence. Yet, both Hester and Katje have parts of themselves that are never fully exposed. The forest becomes a space where Hester is liberated from others. Similarly, Katje, as she ponders the cameraman’s pleasure, “knows what he cannot” (111), that she is part of the “Oven” and a story with Blicero and Gottfried that defines her in ways that others cannot grasp.

Drawing upon Jean-Paul Sartre’s conceptualization of the Lacanian gaze and Vivian Sobchack’s, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992), this paper will argue that it is essential to reexamine the relationship between the camera and Katje Borgesius in Gravity’s Rainbow in order to highlight an essential relationship between Katje and Hester Prynne that mirrors a connection between two histories.