Deliberations on Motherhood in Late-Period Pynchon
INGER H. DALSGAARD
Your mama is the most important person in your life. The only one who can get those potatoes mashed exactly the way you need ’em to be. Only one who understood when you started hangin with people she couldn’t stand. (BE 466)
Motherhood issues are present throughout Thomas Pynchon’s work—spanning the early discussion of abortion in V. at one end and the maternal credentials of Pynchon’s latest heroine, single mother Maxine Tarnow, at the other. But although motherhood and how it defines women have been central elements in feminist theory and criticism during the time Pynchon has been writing, such concerns have rarely been discussed in relation to his work.1 This gives the deceptive impression that the question of whether motherhood is a biological right or an institution of oppression—a question feminists have grappled with for decades—is not a significant one for Pynchon.
In fact this question is a concern, and one to which his answer seems to have changed. Having children, in Pynchon’s later fiction, is not framed in terms of choice, as it is in his earlier work, and the family value of parenting is also increasingly sentimentalized. Such depictions might seem retrograde compared to second-wave feminist ideologies. Yet they reflect the liberal identity politics and choice ideology of a newer generation of feminists. This places Pynchon’s writing in a contemporary feminist field between judgmental conservative values and a judgment-free ideal of multivalency. This essay explores how specific Pynchon characters respond to complex questions about the value of maternal life and choices.
Pynchon’s “late-period” fiction is a term used in this essay as a chronological and thematic marker to refer both to his most recent novels and to the number of female characters who become pregnant in them. To chart this development I start, after reflecting on the dearth of feminist Pynchon readings, by presenting three specific characters, Leni Pökler from Gravity’s Rainbow, Frenesi Gates from Vineland and Lake Traverse from Against the Day. These are characters who share traits, including their experience of a conflict between sexual and maternal feelings, which raise questions about how feminism and Pynchon’s writing have apparently failed to connect over the central issue of motherhood.
In the next section I highlight parallels between feminism and Pynchon on the maternal and outline the advent of identity political “choice feminism” and how new maternalism in recent decades risks idealizing family life at the expense of women’s liberation. Submissive female sexuality, as presented in Pynchon’s recent novels, can be construed as perversely empowering to the extent that the characters choose to be submissive, while the privilege of giving life, I argue, ties mothers in these novels to new maternalist expectations of also providing a certain type of happy family for their babies. Leni and Frenesi fail to mother their daughters, and Lake is a different test case for the unhappy family formation of the nonmaternal woman. Finally, Maxine Tarnow, who stays imbedded in her family in Bleeding Edge, seems to be a redeemed version of those female characters who struggle to free themselves from family ties. Maxine’s professional, sexual, and maternal credentials thus comment on identity politics and on Pynchon’s valuation of connections and communication within families.
The final section points to the biological necessity implied in Pynchon’s increasing focus on the sanctity of life, expressed in the lack either of real choice concerning conception given to female characters or acceptable alternatives to somewhat conservative models of appropriate mothering. Late-period Pynchon texts celebrate life in the clichéd form of radiant pregnancies and bouncing babies in ways feminist criticism would argue tie women to a closed, capitalist system by creating expectations that they are responsible for the happiness of families and the success of their children and, by extension, the welfare of a wider society.
Pynchon and Feminism
When Vineland was published in 1990 Terry Caesar was optimistic about the “reassessment of the whole of Pynchon from feminist perspectives that may follow,” since of all the movements “experienced by his audience since 1973” feminism was the most decisive (“‘Take’” 189, 188). But assessments, let alone reassessments, of how his texts “treat female characters and relevant issues like motherhood, gender, and sexuality” (Freer 127) have been scant until very recently. Marjorie Kaufman’s “Brünnhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity’s Rainbow” from 1976 remained singular in the field for a very long time. Reasons for this dearth could be either that Kaufman exhausted the topic with respect to early Pynchon, that Pynchon’s texts were of no interest to feminist readers because his female characters appeared marginalized and were demeaned beyond redemption, or, finally, that feminists were busy fighting battles in “real life” far more urgent than scrutinizing an author who was in the process of being inducted by other academics into the canon of literary postmodernism in the late twentieth century anyway.
If one thing is clear in academia it is that topics are rarely if ever exhausted and, if anything, that idea is invalidated by this volume itself. The suggestion that Pynchon’s female characters are unsalvageable is more convincing: Pynchon’s early fiction is admittedly marred by sexual immaturity according to himself (SL 6, 10), by casual misogyny according to criticism (e.g., Fitzpatrick 106), and, to date, by anachronistically helpless females according to a recent reviewer who found it hard to credit that a female character in the twenty-first century would realistically get into the sexual predicaments Maxine Tarnow does in Bleeding Edge (Traynor). Few outright feminist figures or women making overt feminist statements in his oeuvre spring to mind, but three, who also share complicated, painful, and conflict-filled experiences of motherhood as well as of sexuality, do. One is Leni Pökler, whose reaction to the phrase “male supremacy,” bandied about at political meetings (GR 155), is to fight her own weakness for masculine domination at a personal and intimate level, hardening herself to strengthen her daughter (GR 156, 219). Another is Frenesi Gates, who can choose to collaborate with Vond, to whom she is sexually attracted, or “pussy out” (VL 241). This makes her reflect on the linguistic dimension of patriarchal power, where a gun/penis is more than a physical tool of control, meaning that men “had it so simple” (VL 241) while women are stuck with complicated choices such as hers between capitulating to her sexual desire for Vond and heeding her family attachment to her infant daughter, husband, and mother. Finally, a minor character, Tace Boilster, encourages Lake Kindred, née Traverse (who is caught between romantic clichés and illicit desire), to rewrite the script by freeing herself from conventional expectations that her destiny is to be a mother and wife. When Lake finally fights her abusive husband, Tace only regrets that her response was insufficient: “What’s wrong with fatal? Only reason it wasn’t is you girlied out with that tin shovel” (AtD 487). Weak, girly pussies—women like Leni, Frenesi, and Lake not only fight from a position of sexual weakness, if they fight oppression at all, but also make unpopular personal choices in life. These include rejecting modern “soft” men and willing fathers—Peter Sachsa, Zoyd Wheeler, and Doc Willis Turnstone—who represent one kind of feminist vision for equality of the sexes. Sexual patriarchal domination is almost genetically programmed into these women, which implies that their lack of redeeming features is not a result of choices they have made as much as a biological “fact of life.” If motherhood is a redeeming feature, it is noticeable that Leni, Frenesi, and Lake prove themselves politically unwilling or emotionally and biologically unable to live up to traditional ideals of uncomplicated motherhood.
Chicks, bimbos, and cuties, susceptible to sexual exploitation and the leering (male) gaze of other characters and readers, seem still to outnumber strong and admirable female characters in Pynchon’s fiction to a greater degree than is justifiable given the temporal setting of his historical novels (Cook 1147). This is disheartening indeed if one expects his agenda to be that of a late 1960s feminist literary critic. But the gratuitous nature of the excessive sexual domination of female characters in his later work would take some fancy critical footwork to explain away and has led critics like Mattessich, Cook, Severs, and Freer to doubt to varying degrees whether or not Pynchon has ultimately moved beyond his early sexism. Two exonerating reinterpretations are possible: one is that the apparent misogyny is part of a complex postmodern writer’s arsenal for exposing our own flawed assumptions and expectations, and another is that it is part of a political writer’s coded way of illustrating the inequality and institutional oppression of women. Those two interpretations would be in keeping respectively with the expanding “Pyndustry” of the 1970s and 1980s that embraced literary readings in tune with linguistic and poststructuralist theories gaining popularity in literature departments at the time and, in recent decades, culturally contextualizing readings and interdisciplinary approaches. A deal of work is required of both these approaches to redeem Pynchon as a writer with feminist credentials, since there is so far little direct evidence of this beyond his knowledge of specific feminist texts that is suggested by glancing allusions (Hite 136) and his awareness of, but limited engagement with, brands of political feminism in general (Freer 140).
This brings me to the third explanation for the dearth in feminist readings of Pynchon’s work: that feminists were too busy with real life to bother with a writer who was not contributing significantly to the struggle to resituate women, be it in social power structures or literature, in spite of his critique of oppressive systems in other respects. “Feminism” itself is not a movement with uniform goals and opinions, however useful that would be to analysis and political action, though it has been criticized for representing oppressive thought systems. Monolithic feminisms (white, middle class, and Western), however, have been challenged from within, forcing the movement to fragment or diversify to stay alive and relevant. If feminism in all its permutations avoids solidifying into a “they,” it becomes a counterforce resisting the deathly stasis of the systemic, resonating with readings of early Pynchon. Pynchon criticism, which has grown almost exponentially in the same period in which modern feminism developed, is not exactly homogenous itself in terms of method or conclusions, but many of the recurring concerns identified in his fiction—power, control, oppression, and resistance (sexual, political, ethnic, etc.)—at least parallel feminist agendas.
Motherhood has been a significant subject of feminist debate and functions as a lens through which the “interests of male dominance, capitalism, religious power, homophobia, and racism” can be made visible as they define expectations of “good mothering” (Kinser 2). “Mother knowledge,” on the other hand, has also been used to posit a maternal authority allowing women to comment on politics, community, peace, and the environment (Kinser 2). It is possible that Pynchon likewise hijacks “motherhood” to make broader structural rather than specific feminist points about power or politics. It is also possible that just as there have been revisions to feminism, Pynchon has revised his view of the value of motherhood and the role of women as mothers in family structures, allying it with a new maternalism that claims to be able to empower women who choose a maternal lifestyle without denying them individuality and liberty. Motherhood may not be a (battle)field Pynchon or many of his critics overtly contend with, but the mothers and nonmothers in his texts invite readers to engage with some form of feminism, whatever his intentions.
Motherhood, Family, and Feminism
“Mother” may have started out as an uncomplicated biological and then a social definition applied to a woman who has given birth or who raises a child, but her nature and identity have been further theorized by psychoanalysis as the constituter of subjects and by social scientists as a “constructed” identity and socializer of daughters into historically defined institutional roles, theorizations that threaten to reduce the mother to a “function” (Baraitser 16). A mother figure who is used in this way to investigate structural issues easily becomes a flat stereotype. Kaplan has argued that Pynchon adds the allegorical mother, another flat type, to the “unconscious mother” and “the institutionally positioned mother” (6). An early example is Oedipa Maas—a nonmother misidentified by Grace Bortz as a fellow mother due to her “harassed style” (104)—in The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa is both childless and parentless. She is not inscribed in a biological family system but instead in a political one: she feels “motherly” (65) toward a character like Genghis Cohen, who wears a Barry Goldwater sweatshirt, and was herself “mothered” by Republican politicians “Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph” as a youth (71).
Pynchon himself cautioned against starting from a “theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent” (SL 12) in the writing process, but his depictions of mother-daughter hostility read plausibly as allegorical or emblematic and resemble a generational allegory to which feminism has also been subject. Mothers like Leni Pökler, Sasha Gates, Mayva Traverse, and March Kelleher, who are part of hardline political communities and who in several cases are willing to leave their men (whether for their own or their children’s sakes), end up distancing themselves from their daughters physically and emotionally. Their daughters, Ilse, Frenesi, Lake, and Tallis, surrender themselves to dominant men. Setting personal preferences for and attraction to certain men above independence, or even letting their survival depend on men, they fail to live up to their mothers’ ideals in ways that may seem intentionally rebellious. Pynchon has acknowledged that Vineland contains a plot reversal where “the parents are progressive and the kids are fascists,” an idea his undergraduate tutor suggested to him thirty years before.2 The repetition of this figure in Pynchon and mostly as a mother-daughter conflict seems almost programmatic and parallels the way in which different waves or generations of feminists are sometimes cast either as politically correct mothers disappointed in politically unengaged younger women or as daughters who see older feminists as maternal establishment figures against whom they must rebel.3
The period of the 1970s and 1980s, between the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland, saw a number of feminist thinkers argue that motherhood restricted women psychologically and socially and even led some early feminists to view children coldly and unsympathetically, according to Bernice Lott (Freer 142–43). Leni’s programmatic and distancing attitude to how Ilse is raised can be seen as selfish in this context, though her wish to raise her daughter to be better able to resist patriarchal domination may be read as well intentioned, even if it is as likely to fail as the strategies Mayva, Sasha, and March employ in raising their daughters. Whether motherhood was oppressive or “one of the most important women’s rights” continued to divide feminists in the 1980s (Gimenez 287; Thurer 290), while feminists in the 1990s identified growing pressure (political in origin, supported by government-produced statistics, and successfully transmitted by the media) placed on women to live up to ideal images, emblematized by the “family values” platform introduced during the Reagan years, or risk the social and personal ruin resulting from barrenness (Faludi 21–65). Women without children were suspected of promiscuity and selfishness—two behaviors Lake has to contend with in herself—and “grim feminists” were vilified and seen as setting unreal standards for “living women, down in the world” (VL 83) according to Frenesi, who indulges in submissive sexual fantasies but who also feels guilty because she does not have “proper” maternal feelings for her newborn.
If second-wave feminists were seen as antifamily, then logically anyone profamily would be antifeminist. Pynchon’s novels reflect such a logic, moving from depicting motherhood as a symbol that has been co-opted by totalitarian regimes and conservative forces to idealizing mothers and families. Pynchon’s first work after the “decisive change” of feminism, Vineland, is dedicated to his mother and father and inaugurates a series of novels that retrench around the family unit, an ideal that is recouped in happy endings in which families are reunited or reconstituted. In Vineland Sasha, Frenesi, and Prairie are brought back together. In Mason & Dixon both protagonists start new families, and Mason repairs emotional relations with his father and sons. In Against the Day several couples have children in the final sections including Stray and Frank and Yashmeen and Reef, and all the Chums of Chance get heaven-sent spouses and likewise have children. In Inherent Vice Doc’s grandest gesture reunites the fragmented Harlingen family, and in Bleeding Edge 9/11 helps bring Maxine back together with her ex-husband.
A deceptively minor character, Lake Traverse, from another late period text, Against the Day, puts the term “choice feminist,” the idea that all there is to being a feminist is making individualistic choices, in relief.4 Her trajectory seems a negation of more successful mother characters and could be a test case for the sexual and procreational repercussions of being antifamily in a Pynchon fiction. Her ménage à trois submission with Sloat Fresno and Deuce Kindred mirrors that of Cyprian, Yashmeen, and Frank but fails to produce a happy ending or a baby. Lake’s sexuality makes her a victim in the eyes of second-wave feminists, and while choice feminists might read her as empowered in her embrace of masochism, it brings her no personal rewards beyond the sexual, and there is a suspicion, in her own mind at least, that her lack of maternal bliss marks her as a failed as well as a fallen woman. If Lake embraces her sexuality but fails as a mother she exposes a paradox in the twenty-first-century movement from prescriptive to descriptive feminism, which validates the choices women make, including the choice to work and the choice to embrace “the stereotypical role of female/mother/caregiver” (Belkin qtd. in Kirkpatrick 241). Being barren is not a lifestyle choice, but it has biological finality, so pregnancy remains a genre cliché in a postmodern end to Lake’s narrative arc (AtD 1057).
As a biologically failed mother, Lake serves as a comment on the late twentieth-century “new momism,” which “draws from and repudiates feminism” by insisting that women “have choices, that they are active agents in control of their own destiny” but ties them inevitably to a “highly romanticized yet demanding view of motherhood” (Douglas and Michaels 5), since working women are now saddled with the demands of “intensive mothering” and the notion that working full time at home as well as outside the home is by choice, a choice that women make because they care for and love their families, not out of financial necessity (Hays 152–3). If Leni can be read as an anachronistic radical feminist, Frenesi as a sexual traitor to the women’s liberation movement, and Lake as an (unsuccessful) choice feminist before her time, the question that remains is whether Maxine Tarnow, an almost contemporary female character, is an oppressed “new mom” or a liberated postfeminist.
Maxine is a working single mother, with a “history of safe choices” (353), who lives up to predictable cultural expectations of her as a mother throughout Bleeding Edge. Single motherhood may not be a choice but nor does it ruin her life. She does not struggle to make ends meet or to have her children cared for while she works odd hours. She even looks after children of less-together parents at short notice. If you don’t know how she does it, the answer seems to be child support, grandparents, and maternal resourcefulness. She is subject to expectations, often her own expectations, subvocalized by the narrator: the novel is bookended by her getting her two children to school, while her concern about whether their video games are too bloody or their diet varied enough draws repeated attention to the self-conscious evaluation of her as a mother—one who has to learn to be successfully left by her growing children (Baraitser 5). Like so many other leading female characters in Pynchon, she has parents who represent the political left while she finds herself attracted sexually to the uniformed males of a repressive system on the other side (BE 421). In keeping with maternalist care feminism, Maxine’s moral strength and ability to heal people around her comes from that female “weakness.” Unlike the parenting Leni’s, Frenesi’s, and Lake’s mothers offer, Ernie Tarnow’s self-reflecting efforts at fathering enable him to recognize that there is compassion behind his daughter’s fascination with Windust and reason to trust the values she can pass on to her own sons (421–22). Maxine’s life at the dawn of the twenty-first century also embraces conservative “family values” including Horst Loeffler’s commodities-based interpretation of domestic bliss (25, 363), but although she is flawed she is not as fallen as are Lake, Leni, or Frenesi, nor as cut off from connections and communication with her family. The question is whether she is nonetheless subject to judgmental readings of her choices that, where men are concerned, seem less than free.
The ratio of Maxine’s direct speech to indirect suggests a running interior commentary on her performance, but whether this is her own or a narrative judgment is not always clear. This is no more evident than in the scene where she, somewhat inexplicably, fails to resist Nicholas Windust when he orders her to present herself for sex. The text reads “Shouldn’t she be saying, ‘You know what, fuck yourself, you’ll have more fun,’ and walking out? No, instead, instant docility—she slides to her knees” (258). It is unclear if the question is her own “junior prom” reflex (259), a narratorial injunction, or an expression of the reasonable doubt readers would have, given how unappealing the man is and given how the location and the circumstances for the tryst are described. Are we invited to condemn Maxine for “being used like buttons on a game controller” (258) or approve of her for seeking pleasure regardless of her, Windust’s, or our normative expectations for women and mothers? We get a lot of Maxine’s interior dialogue in Pynchon’s narrative, but the question of her agency and whether she even reflects on it herself afterward is left uncertain. The text acknowledges, snidely I think, that “in some circles it is held to be something of a big deal …”—“it” being whether in her mind “it’s him moving or if she’s doing it herself” (258). It would be a big deal in recent feminist debate, where agency—to choose to be a bad girl or be free to say no to men—is central to understanding and supporting women’s lives.
Maxine returns to the decorum of marriage, where the narrator simultaneously veils and idealizes marital sex. Windust, and many other Bleeding Edge characters, benefit instead from her mothering impulses. Families are brought back together, and she uncovers Windust’s better self for redemption. However, Lake, who also sees “just a boy that’s lost” in Deuce Kindred and subjects herself to him sexually, cannot love her “enemy into some kind of redeemin grace for the both” of them according to her feminist conscience in the form of Tace (AtD 482–83). One obvious distinction between Maxine and Lake, which could explain these different outcomes, is that Maxine is maternal and Lake is nonmaternal. In making her biologically unable to mother, it is as if Pynchon also deprives Lake of the redeeming power of motherly feeling. Not coincidentally, we see in Lake’s life experiences, as both a nonmother and sexual deviant, the double fulfillment of the expectation that to become a mother “proves, first, that you are a ‘real’ woman, and second, that you are a decent, worthy one” (Douglas and Michaels 5). Lake is not scripted as “a long-suffering movie heroine” who finds “herself pregnant at last” (AtD 1057), and Pynchon’s description of Lake’s unsympathetic choices where family loyalty is concerned, insofar as her attraction to Deuce Kindred is a betrayal of her own kin, contributes to the idea that his texts are increasingly pronatalist and prolife in the sense that the needs of small children come before those of their mothers. Good women have children, and children deserve good mothers. The implication is that Lake is a bad woman and would be a bad mother, and she and Deuce come to believe infertility is the price she pays for her being a bad daughter to boot (486). This raises the question of whether good women and good families have become connected as if by biological necessity in late Pynchon texts, especially as the question of choice in women’s lives is barely applicable to conception in late-period Pynchon.
Choice or Life?
Pynchon’s first three novels were written before Roe v. Wade originally established abortion rights and are the only ones that reference abortion or that offer an apparently neutral treatment of the childlessness of a main female character. The questions raised in V. when Esther Harvitz’s wish for an abortion is discussed concern her choice and autonomy, which are confronted with positions on fetal rights, financial difficulties in obtaining an illegal abortion, and her community’s deliberating whether to condemn, defend, or ultimately fund her choice. Abortion is promoted by the Empty Ones for the Hereros in Gravity’s Rainbow, not as an individual choice but as a joint act of revolution, since tribal death is a “simple choice” that denies their colonizers the power to benefit from their subjugation (316–18). Pregnancies in Pynchon’s fiction may be accidental, but with these exceptions they are not terminated. Instead, we have, on the one hand, political mothers (Leni Pökler in Gravity’s Rainbow and Frenesi Gates in Vineland) who seek what could instead be called a “postpartum termination” of the bond with their daughters in ways that dramatize both identity and feminist politics, and, on the other hand, political fathers (Webb, Reef, and other struggling miners in Against the Day) who cause mothers to choose between sticking with them or with their children, as political struggles and personal affiliations clash.
It seems clear that motherhood in Pynchon is increasingly about family constructions inside which the choices and autonomies (political and personal) available to female characters are negotiated. Pynchon’s women increasingly are clearly situated within existing family structures instead of being outside such structures deciding “freely” whether to opt in by “starting a family.” Only one child in Against the Day is “accidental” (Stray has Jesse out of wedlock and is pressured to a degree by her community to marry). While the Kindreds are infertile, Yashmeen and Reef’s child, Ljubica, is conceived as if by assisted fertilization and nurtured initially by a surrogate parent (882, 891, 950). Both children end up in extended but heteronormative family constellations (1076) reminiscent of the late family reunion in Vineland. Various male characters in Pynchon’s first three novels, specifically Fausto Maijstral in V., Otto Gnahb in Gravity’s Rainbow, and Metzger in The Crying of Lot 49, characterize mothers as generically or specifically suspect and predatory. In Pynchon’s later novels, rather than being controlling monsters, mothers are more likely to fail “gently” by losing control of and failing to communicate with their daughters, leading to greater or lesser degrees of estrangement as is the case with Sasha, Frenesi, and Prairie in Vineland, Mayva and Lake and Erlys and Dally in Against the Day, and March and Tallis in Bleeding Edge. In other words, in late-period Pynchon, children are no longer disruptive “accidents” but neither are they sources of power to women who conspire to perpetuate Maijstral’s purported “fictional mystery about motherhood” (V. 321–22). Rather, if girls, they are sources of personal pain and guilt, and the relationship with their mothers is defined by miscommunication. Pynchon’s first novels raised the emasculating specter of “controlling women”; his latest conjure up the structures which continue controlling women to this day.
Pynchon’s latest novels were written during a period in which individual states began encroaching on access to free choice. Increasingly, the Supreme Court upholds the rights of life against the woman’s right to choose not to reproduce (Mazec 428–29). In mainstream feminism, reproduction has increasingly become a question of whether childlessness by choice is an acceptable redirection of attention toward self or career or even a stand against dominant ideologies ascribing value to children, mothering, and family (Gimenez). Oedipa’s childlessness is not belabored, unlike her political mothering instincts, but Lake Traverse’s lack of children is significant, especially in comparison to the more sympathetic characters of Against the Day, who have “babies [who] crawled and stumbled, dropped, picked up and threw things down again” or whose abodes “teem with children of all ages and sizes who run up and down […], whooping and hollering” (482, 1084). Children, for Pynchon, are “life incarnate,” combining fecundity and vivacity. But having children is not a choice characters seem to make very actively. Bringing new life into the world is just something that happens—except for Lake, who both struggles to conceive and to accurately determine for whose sake she needs a baby. Lake’s case focuses on the right to become a mother as a feminist issue rather than the political right to freely choose not to on which white second-wave feminists had insisted (Hayden 279). In a time of decreasing fertility in industrialized Western countries, ecofeminists have taken issue with “constructions of fertility and infertility as natural or deviant within a social framework that stigmatizes the nonmaternal woman” (Marafiote 182). On the one hand, not having children is an increasingly difficult choice, not only in political and practical terms as family planning is vilified but also ideologically as the cult of new momism and intensive mothering grows.5 On the other hand, low fertility due to environmental and lifestyle factors (from the effects of hormone pollutants to the older age of first-time mothers who tend to be well-educated career women) only gives more power to the cult of the “priceless child” and provides fodder for the adaptive preference for wanting one in rational market societies that have benefited economically from having women in the workforce but that also needs them to be productive economically and maternally so that this system can be perpetuated (Hays 152–54). The intimate, biomechanical, and emotional aspects of mothering have been fully integrated with capitalist systems, adaptive preferences for mothering being supported implicitly and explicitly forming a Pynchonean closed-system plot where women are integrated beyond being a “civil-service category” working for “Them” (GR 219). Ironically, Pynchon’s late writing contributes to this attempt at integration by sanctifying motherhood and not highlighting acceptable alternatives.
Births logically perpetuate a system that controls possibilities and dictates behavior to women at all levels. Nonetheless, even Pynchon seems to glorify the aura of pregnancy, whether it be Stray’s “composed and dreamy” state (AtD 201), Petunia Leeway’s “radiance” (IV 361), or even Brooke’s “glow” (BE 425), although it is arguable that he is just drawing on lazy clichés, trying to be tongue-in-cheek in using such clichés, or simply reflecting a romantic view of procreation that is still viable in a postfeminist era. Brock Vond’s indifferent or scornful “[s]o you’ve reproduced” (VL 294) is obviously not the (re)mark of a sympathetic character. I would argue that Frenesi’s rejection of motherhood adds an unsympathetic dimension to her character. However exonerating brain-chemical explanations of postpartum depression should be to informed readers, a mother who fails to live up to expectations of motherly, unconditional love and instead expresses “hatred for the tiny life” (VL 287) is pitted unfairly against the complete helplessness and innocence of a newborn. Frenesi’s rejection of the characteristics of normative motherhood aligns her with Leni, whose refusal to be (called) a “Mama” (GR 220) may be ideologically motivated but reads as defective empathy for a child’s needs. Leni fails to live up to the standards of care, or illusions thereof, expected of productive mothers in Nazi Germany and of mothers in the Western world today, which subjects working mothers to both the “ethos of a rationalized market society” and “the ideology of intensive mothering” (Hays 152). However, her act of resistance against an oppressive system seems cruel and perverse because it is achieved seemingly at the expense of the vulnerable members of the family into which Ilse’s birth tied her. Psychoanalysis tells us, after all, that a mother is not an agent who can freely choose when to sever ties with her child postpartum. She is expected, if successful, to simply “be there to be left” (Furman 15), as Maxine finally is.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, Leni expresses the feminist idea that birth can literally trap individual women in powerful systems of control at multiple levels. In Pynchon’s next novel, that oppressive dimension of procreation transcends a gendered experience to become allegorical of a general human condition. Both Brock Vond and postpartum-depressed Frenesi express the fear that birthing leads to death (a system of control) and that obtaining freedom is about believing in immortality and escaping the cycle of life and the earthly bondage births perpetuate (VL 277, 287, 289, 314). I have argued elsewhere that Pynchon’s first three novels show that life itself is an inherently degenerative system and that a certain deterministic hopelessness leaves few if any other ways out short of Herero-style sui-genocide. Later novels still show his leaning toward biological determinism, asserting a sexual predilection in women toward the (symbols) of male supremacy and giving few examples of sympathetic women who chose freedom from the systemic by electing not to marry or have children.
Pynchon’s increasing faith in the value of family and the parent-child bond has been noted (Freer 146). Out of necessity children may be left with sisters and grandmothers (as Jesse and Prairie are) for longer periods of time, but leaving a child outright is a postpartum termination—a severing of the mother-child bond but by the mother’s choice and prematurely to the child’s desire to detach—and Pynchon’s texts encourage us to sympathize with the child over the mother in such situations. Nonmaternal women are not just women who have refused or failed to become mothers but women who fail at mothering. There are several nonmaternal candidates in addition to Leni, whose unforgiving brand of mothering makes her “one of the least attractive characters in the novel”—“unlovable, unpitiable, cold” (Kaufman 220), and Frenesi, whose habit of “repeatedly ankling every situation that it should have been her responsibility to keep with and set straight” (VL 58) makes her parenting choices “essentially the wrong ones” (Freer 143). Abortion is no longer part of Pynchon’s narrative, but a child’s right to (family) life is increasingly asserted, if not at conception then certainly at parturition: in Pynchon’s 1966 novel, children roam the nighttime streets free of maternal oversight, and a childless Oedipa loses husband, lover, and plot at the end. In 1990, Pynchon has Prairie, whose mother fails to protect her, only just manage to deny Brock Vond a sexual and paternal role in her life. Twenty-three years later Pynchon’s conscientious mother, Maxine, recovers the lost boy capable of good deeds in Windust to the point of resurrecting his one family connection, Xiomara, the wife who had tried to save him earlier (BE 426–27, 443). The most maternal of Pynchon’s female detectives also gets the closest to closure and fixes the most families; she reestablishes Windust’s family, she patches up relations with both her ex-husband and sister, and she brings March Kelleher, Tallis, and Kennedy Ice back together. One senses that for Pynchon, the issue is not a child’s right to life (at conception or later) but his or her right to family. Freer makes the point that Pynchon’s increasing sentimentality elevates family to the status of “last bastion of communitas in self-interested times” (144), an idea epitomized in Bleeding Edge, when newly reunited Horst and Maxine include in their reestablished nuclear family unit (and apartment) some of the “real-estate casualties” of September 11, 2001 (332). Maxine, like Mary Mason and Meg Bland in Mason & Dixon or Tace Boilster or Stray Briggs in Against the Day, represents a mater familias, a brand of well-meaning and inclusive woman who builds, rebuilds, or extends her family with “bonus children” great and small. In Maxine’s case, her maternal instinct attaches itself to her abusive lover, Nicholas Windust, in whom she sees a lost boy to be saved. If Pynchon’s message is that you owe your baby a family, at whatever price, at least Tace and Lake question that message (AtD 485–86).
On the merits of Gravity’s Rainbow, in which issues of oppression and control are clear, critics have found Pynchon to be a politically and analytically astute writer. Therefore, if he does not present the institution of motherhood, with all its expectations, constraints, and challenges, including childlessness, as a continuing political battleground in that same vein but instead as an uncomplicated personal identity issue, then part of his fan base might be justifiably disappointed. It would be tempting to echo Greil Marcus, who famously asked “What is this shit?” (16) when Bob Dylan found family and later religion and produced albums like Self Portrait (1970), which fans and critics hoped was satire or iconoclasm but feared was premature dotage. Pynchon’s apparently genuine appreciation of family and the “safe” construction of motherhood in his old age need not be accommodated as the perennially juvenile or senile chauvinism of a man born in the 1930s. His conversion to “family man” is in keeping with views on mothers and family values embraced in versions of feminism emerging during the latest decades of his writing career. As the united social front aspirations of feminism have seemed to give way to individual identity politics, twenty-first-century readers confronting the confusion of post-second-wave and postfeminism might even accommodate the changing position—from motherhood being a politicized choice to being a life(style)—seeing it as endorsing acceptable individual variations in an equal (but different) world and make similar allowances for those Pynchon characters at odds with their motherhood roles.6
Ultimately, whatever he seems to say about maternal and nonmaternal women, the beauty of Pynchon’s texts is that they and their changing cultural and historical contexts produce new insights through reader-tendentious rather than author-intentional readings. Whatever his point of view or ours, Pynchon’s texts can, like Bob Dylan’s songs, “serve as metaphors, enriching our lives, giving us random insight into the myths we carry and the present we live, intensifying what we’ve known and leading us toward what we never looked for, while at the same time enforcing an emotional strength upon those perceptions” (Marcus 19). Whether Pynchon writes weak female characters as a feminist critique of patriarchal structures or from a determinist or misogynist position, reading them allows us to reflect on how women are viewed and presented in our culture and whether “Badgirl shit pays off ” (AtD 268).
1. Only a handful of articles or chapters, by Kaufman, Caesar (“Motherhood “), Hayles, and Freer, have significantly addressed motherhood in Pynchon over the past four decades.
2. Vineland title page inscription by Pynchon to Walter Slatoff (Hite 140, 150n).
3. See Stevenson, Everingham, and Robinson.
4. Choice feminism, introduced in 2005 by Linda Hirshman, assumes that gender equality has been achieved and that accepting women’s individual identities and ensuing choices validates and empowers them.
5. See Douglas and Michaels and Hays.
6. A criticism of both third-wave and choice feminism is that their inclusiveness dilutes the brand of feminism and renders concerted social action impossible (Snyder-Hall 260).
Baraitser, Lisa. Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Caesar, Terry P. “‘Take Me Anyplace You Want’: Pynchon’s Literary Career as a Maternal Construct in Vineland.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 25.2 (1992): 181–99.
———. “Motherhood and Postmodernism.” American Literary History 7.1 (1995): 120–40.
Cook, Simon. “Manson Chicks and Microskirted Cuties: Pornification in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.” Textual Practice 29.6 (2015): 1143–64.
Dalsgaard, Inger H. “The Linking Feature: Degenerative Systems in Pynchon and Spengler” Pynchon Notes 44–45 (1999): 97–116.
Douglas, Susan J., and Meredith W. Michaels. The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War on Women. London: Chatto and Windus, 1992.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “The Clockwork Eye: Technology, Woman, and the Decay of the Modern in Thomas Pynchon’s V.” Thomas Pynchon: Reading from the Margins. Ed. Niran Abbas. Madison: Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press, 2003. 91–107.
Freer, Joanna. Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Furman, Erna. “Mothers Have to Be There to Be Left.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 37.1 (1982): 15–28.
Gimenez, Martha E. “Feminism, Pronatalism, and Motherhood.” Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory. Ed. Joyce Trebilcot. Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1984. 287–314.
Hayden, Sara. “Purposefully Childless Good Women.” Hayden and Hallstein 269–90. Hayden, Sara, and D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, eds. Contemplating Maternity in an Era of Choice: Exploration into Discourses of Reproduction. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “‘Who Was Saved?’ Families, Snitches, and Recuperation in Pynchon’s Vineland.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 32.2 (1990): 77–91.
Hays, Sharon. The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Hite, Molly. “Feminist Theory and the Politics of Vineland.” The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon’s Novel. Ed. Geoffrey Green, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffrey. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994. 135–53.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. London: Routledge, 1992.
Kaufman, Marjorie. “Brünnhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity’s Rainbow.” Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Ed. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976. 197–227.
Kinser, Amber E. Motherhood and Feminism. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010.
Kirkpatrick, Jennet. “Selling Out? Solidarity and Choice in the American Feminist Movement.” Perspectives on Politics 8.1 (2010): 241–45.
Marcus, Greil. “Self Portrait No. 25.” Rev. of Self Portrait, by Bob Dylan. Rolling Stone 23 Jul. 1970: 16–19.
Mattessich, Stefan. “Imperium, Misogyny, and Postmodern Parody in Thomas Pynchon’s V.” ELH 65.2 (1998): 503–21.
Mazec, Robert P. The Mid-Atlantic Region. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006.
———. Bleeding Edge. London: Jonathan Cape, 2013.
———. The Crying of Lot 49. London: Vintage, 2000.
———. Gravity’s Rainbow. London: Picador, 1975.
———. Slow Learner. London: Picador, 1985.
———. Vineland. London: Minerva, 1991.
Severs, Jeffrey. “‘The abstractions she was instructed to embody’: Women, Capitalism, and Artistic Representation in Against the Day.” Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide. Ed. Jeffrey Severs and Christopher Leise. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2011. 215–38.
Snyder-Hall, R. Claire. “Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of ‘Choice.’” Perspectives on Politics 8.1 (2010): 255–61.
Stevenson, Deborah, Christine Everingham, and Penelope Robinson. “Choices and Life Changes: Feminism and the Politics of Generational Change.” Social Politics 18.1 (2011): 125–45.
Thurer, Shari L. The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Traynor, Desmond. “Part Detective Story Part Paean to New York City.” Rev. of Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge. Irish Independent 2 Dec. 2013, www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/part-detective-story-part-paean-to-new-york-city-29796570.html. Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.