30 March 2009
Oedipa’s Struggle Towards Identity in The Crying of Lot 49 The Oxford English Dictionary defines identity as “the sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else; individuality, personality.” Personal identity and, especially, the loss of identity are reoccurring themes in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, as individuals struggle with their own identities, assume multiple identities, or lose any recognizable identity whatsoever. The conflict between society and identity holds great sway in the novel; while societal policy tends towards socialism, or perhaps communism, many individuals in that society react against this trend and fight to maintain at the very least a system of personal beliefs. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon presents a societal gap between a faction who endeavors to create innovation and progress, and a sort of aimless peregrination performed by members of a different sort of society, who live their lives by such hackneyed adages as “take life as it is” and “go with the flow”; Oedipa, however, throughout the entire novel, is caught in between the two, and, ultimately, her quest is not to find the true meaning of the Trystero, but instead, to come to terms with herself and the duality of the society in which she lives. The society Pynchon first elucidates for the reader is a picture of perfection envisioned, created, and promulgated by, arguably, the novel’s most unexplained, intriguing character, Pierce Inverarity. Inverarity, “a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time” (Pynchon 1) and Oedipa’s ex-boyfriend, creates a seemingly harmless, suburban world in which Oedipa lives and works. The “society of sameness” in which Pierce knowingly involves Oedipa, naming her the “executrix” of his estate, makes her second guess herself, challenging the meaning of life and losing herself in the monotony Pierce has created, all the while performing “the job of sorting…out” all of Pierce’s “assets[,] numerous and tangled” (Pynchon 1). Oedipa’s errant memory brings up an interesting contradiction in Pierce’s character; she recounts an early morning phone call that illuminates the troubled mind behind the innovative machine: [L]ast year at three or so one morning there had come this long-distance call, from where she would never know (unless now he’d left a diary) by a voice beginning in heavy Slavic tones as second secretary at the Transylvanian Consulate, looking for an escaped bat; modulated to comic-Negro, then on into hostile Pachuco dialect, full of chingas and maricones; then a Gestapo officer asking her in shrieks did she have relatives in Germany and finally his Lamont Cranston voice…“But Margo,” earnestly, “I’ve just come from Commissioner Weston, and that old man in the fun house was murdered by the same blowgun that killed Professor Quackenbush.” (Pynchon 2-3) Ironically, in the novel’s first glimpse of the mogul, Pierce has trouble maintaining one identity, while all of his creations, San Narciso and Yoyodyne specifically, propagate the loss of identity, a sameness and selflessness that permeate every aspect of this society. Oedipa’s accumulated experiences with Pierce’s innovations amount to the same thing: she sees an ordered system into which she reads, possibly scurrilous, deep meaning. San Narciso, the city that Pierce seemingly single-handedly engineered, evokes an expected response from Oedipa upon her earliest inspection, as she immediately notices the omnipresent order: [S]he thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about...
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Hunt, John W. “Comic Escape and Anti-Vision: V. and The Crying of Lot 49.” Critical Essays on American Literature. Ed. Richard Pearce. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981. 32-41.
Mendelson, Edward. “The Sacred, The Profane, and The Crying of Lot 49.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Thomas Pynchon. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. 11-42.
Murray, James A. H., Henry Bradley, W. A. Craigie, and C. T. Onions, eds. “Identity.” Definition 2. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
Newman, Robert D. Understanding Thomas Pynchon. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina P, 1986.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1965. New York: Harper, 2006.
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