Identity Crisis: An Analysis on “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon

Analysis essay on the novel “The Crying of Lot 49” written by Thomas Pynchon.

Thomas Pynchon is an American writer who criticizes the alienation of individuals by placing them in a chaotic modern society (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). He is a novelist and short story author, best known for writing Gravity’s rainbow. His writings combine both fiction and non-fiction, in a vast range of topics which he explored in depth to expose their meaning (FamousAuthors.org).  

In 1965, he published the novel The Crying of Lot 49 which revolves around a woman named Oedipa Maas. Who struggles to define her identity and questions the meaning of life as she circumnavigates San Narciso, California as the executor of the state of Pierce Inverarity. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon uses Oedipa to represent the crisis that society faced in the early 60s. It questions the ability of humans to achieve happiness by exploring ideas such as that of belonging to or being a part of society, being trapped or feeling trapped in the circumstances that surround us, and the inability to define one’s identity as an individual independent to the surroundings. 

The 1960s were a decade that redefined America by achieving sociopolitical changes such as the rights for women and the end of segregation. The decade started with the election of President J.F. Kennedy, who became a symbol of hope for the minority groups that desired justice. After the assassination of J.F. Kennedy the country lost the sense of hope and fell into a spiral of violence that lead to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The situation led young Americans to question the American – Middle Class– values (hard work, belief in God, and service to the country) and struggle to redefine new values that would help them deal with the social unrest (Ember).

In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon shows the detachment or loss of values and the struggle to find answers to the sociopolitical situation, by creating a secret or “underground” society called W.A.S.T.E. When Oedipa first encounters “the waste symbol” she becomes curious about its meaning: “She found a pen in her purse and copied the address and symbol in her memo book, thinking: God, hieroglyphics.” (Pynchon, 38)However, it isn’t until later, when she meets Stanley Koteks, that she realizes that W.A.S.T.E might lead her to the truth: 

Oedipa took out her little memo book and opened to the symbol she’d copied, and the words shall I project a world? 

“Box 573” said Koteks. 

“In Berkeley” 

“No” his voice gone funny, so that she looked up, too sharply, by which time, carried by a certain momentum of thought, he’d also said, “In San Francisco; there’s none” and by then knew he’d made a mistake. “He’s living somewhere along Telegraph” he muttered. “I gave you the wrong address.”

She took a chance: “Then the WASTE address isn’t good anymore.” But she’d pronounce it like a word, waste. His face congealed, a mask of distrust. “It is W.A.S.T.E, lady” he told her “an acronym, not ‘waste’, and we had best not go into it any further.” (Pynchon 69-70) 

Through out the book, Oedipa is looking for answers to explain the relationship between Pierce Inverarity and The Tristero so that she can perform her task as executor of Inverarity’s state. However on a personal level she seeks information to understand why Pierce Inverarity chose her to execute his state. The reason why she is so keen to finding out why he chose her, is because he is not only her ex boyfriend but he also represents a time in her life in which she felt trapped, a time in her life that represents unhappiness (Miller). In a sense the realization of her unhappyness with Pierce has become part of her identity: 

What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field stregth, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a usefull hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey (Pynchon, 12).

Due to the fact that Pierce Inveriarity is part of her identity, not understanding why she has been chosen makes her question up to what point she defines herself and finds her indentity within her relationships, which makes her realize that she has no sense of who she is as an individual. When she finds W.A.S.T.E she believes to be closer to getting an answer, just to realize that this underground society is filled with people that, just like her, feel trapped and are looking for answers. The more information she finds about W.A.S.T.E and The Tristero, the more she realizes that there isn’t one universal truth that will tell her what she did wrong and how she can fix it. 

           The existence of underground societies in The Crying of Lot 49 mirrors the society of the 1960s because of the many sociopolitical movements that resulted from the American’s unsatisfaction of the situation they lived in. The W.A.S.T.E is composed by citizens who do not agree with the sociopolitical situation and desire change, yet not knowing how to address the problem, they unite to console eachother: 

Sure this Koteks is part of some underground”, he [Fallopian] told her a few days later, “an underground of the unbalanced, possibly, but then how can you blame them for being maybe a little bitter? Look what’s happened to them. In school they got brainwashed, like all of us, into beliving the Myth of the American Inventor…. Then when they grew up they found they had to sign over all their rights to a monster like Yoyodyne; got stuck on some ‘project’ or ‘task force’ or ‘team’ and started being ground into anonymity. (Pynchon, 70)

Even though both groups, the W.A.S.T.E and the movement groups from the 60s, are not unhappy due to the same reasons they are both conformed by people who do not feel like they belong in society and therefore desire to change it –or find a group they do belong to–. The groups that araised in the 1960s desired to change aspects of peace and justice, such as sexism, racism and the vietnam war (Ember). While W.A.S.T.E figths agaisnt the loss of one’s individuality to big corporations, because they “started being ground into anonymity” (Pynchon, 70). 

Both groups expose the idea that one’s sense of identity is influenced by the society we belong to and the situations that surrounds us. When Oedipa starts to work on Inverarity’s state she begins to question her identity because she realizes that throughout her life she has always identified herself according to her circumstances (Mattthews). Just like many young Americans at the time, Oedipa realizes that her identity is not only who she is as an individual but who she is as part of the society she belongs to. In the 1960s Americans adopted as part of their identity the cause they were fighting for because it defined their belief system and course of action. That identity then determined whether they belonged or fit into society or not. 

Another way in which The Crying of Lot 49 mirrors the sociopolitical situation of the 60s is by placing the control of society under one determined group. In both cases there is a desire to break from the government: “delivering the mail is a government monopoly. [says Metzger] You would be opposed to that.” Movements initiated in the 60s desired to accomplish change in the laws that segregated women and African Americans, and that gave privilege to white males. On a deeper layer however, both cases have a private corporation that places dominion over the cultural aspect of society. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pierce Inverarity poses a wide range of property which gives him control over corporations like Yoyodyne, that become the cause for underground societies like the W.A.S.T.E. Which mirrors elite society groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, that determined the belief system and cultural behavior of the 1960s. Becoming, also the cause for movement groups to raise in the hopes of breaking that monopoly (History.com Staff).   

The last resemblance between The Crying of Lot 49 and the sociopolitical situation of the 60s is how the crisis in both situations begins with the death of an important figure. The death of President J.F. Kennedy represented a loss of guidance for a nation that hoped to change. When J.F. Kennedy was assassinated many Americans lost the hope that society would be changed by the government and therefore decided to rise and demand the change. Movements that began with peaceful protest, such as the ones lead by Martin Luther King Jr, soon broke into violence creating a chaos in society (Ember).  

In The Crying of Lot 49, the crisis happens to Oedipa on a personal level after she is named executor of the state of Pierce Inverarity, due to his death. While in the 1960s the whole nation struggled to redefine values and find a sense of unity, in The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa struggles to define herself as more than her relationships, and to find the truth that will set her free from the unanswered question of why Pierce Inverarity chose her and how does that affect who she has become. 

Oedipa Maas, then represents a young American who seeks not only to define her identity but also to find her place in society. Thomas Pynchon uses The Crying of Lot 49 to represents the struggles that individuals face when exposed to a chaotic society. Even though the book was written as criticism to the situation of America in the 60s it can be extrapolated to almost any generation and society. Because it explores topics such as belonging to or being a part of society, being trapped or feeling trapped in the circumstances that surround us, and the inability to define one’s identity as an individual independent to the surroundings, that are not particular of the 1960s but rather the human ability of self-awareness. In this way, Pynchon achieves a sociopolitical criticism that becomes an exploration of human psychology and the innate desire that humans have to be part of something greater than ourselves. 

Works Cited

Ember, Steve. “American History: The 1960s, a Decade That Changed a Nation.” 17 November 2011. VOA News: Learning English . 26 April 2018.

FamousAuthors.org. “Thomas Pynchon.” 2012. FamousAuthors.org. 26 April 2018.

History.com Staff. “Ku Klux Klan.” 2009. History.com. 26 April 2018.

Mattthews, Kristin. “Reading America Reading in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.” Arizona QuarterlySummer 2012: 89-122.

Miller, Sydeney. “Oedipa’s Unsentimental Journey: Preempted Pathos in The Crying of Lot 49.” Studies in the Novel Spring 2017: 69-90.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: HarperPerennial: Modern Classics, 1965.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Thomas Pynchon .” 28 January 2016. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 26 April 2018.

2 Comments

  1. Pampán

    Muy buen ensayo Andrea. Me motivaste a buscar por internet “The Crying of Lot 49” No lo conozco pero toda la historia de esa época es apasionante. Verdaderamente cambió la sociedad estadounidense. Tuve la suerte de ser testigo presencial durante mi adolescencia (secundaria 60-65) y universidad hasta casamiento en 70).

    Liked by 1 person

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