In Their Own Hands: Ways out of Patriarchal and Colonial Control in Pynchon’s “V.”
Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. sometimes comes under fire for being misogynistic. While some of these critiques are valid, they ignore subtle hints in the novel that suggest the possibility of female empowerment. V. focuses on two men in 1956, a discharged Navy sailor named Benny Profane, and the strange quester Herbert Stencil. Stencil’s father Sidney Stencil was a spy before mysteriously disappearing off the coast of Malta in 1919. While perusing his father’s journals, Stencil comes across a contact named V. who Stencil has never heard of and assumes to be a woman. This mysterious detail consumes him and he tries to interview anyone who knew his father and potentially knows who V. is. Benny’s chapters occur exclusively in the present (1956) while Stencil’s bounce between present and past because most of them are interviews. One character hints that Stencil’s version of interviews that are delivered to the reader have all been “Stencilized” (246) and the question of what Stencil has tampered with is often discussed in critical circles. This plays an important role in my reading of Stencil’s chapters because he is the author trying to build a patriarchal construction of events. Thus any challenge to Stencil’s perspective also disputes patriarchal narrative. I’ll be looking specifically at Patriarchal regulations of female sexuality and gender and the control of colonial subjects.
Herbert Stencil’s sections illustrate his patriarchal misogyny particularly in his construction of V. as “both virgin and vamp” (Fitzpatrick, 104). V.’s eventual deviation from Stencil’s narrative coincides with the deviation of the colonized nations that many of Stencil’s chapter take place in. Both repel his patriarchal ordering. First, we’ll look at V. and other women in the Stencil sections.
V. first appears under the name Victoria Wren in Egypt during the Fashoda Incident of 1898. In the Fashoda Incident, Britain and France almost fought for Eastern Africa’s colonization. The chapter’s action takes place in Cairo rather than southern Egypt where French and British forces almost started a war. Here two British spies, Porpentine and Goodfellow, protect the English consul in Cairo from two German agents trying to assassinate the consul and frame France in order to start a war.
The first Stencil chapter mentions his technique of “forcible dislocation of personality” (60) and reveals that what follows is “impersonation and dream” (61). The chapter’s eight sections provide glances at the core action dealing with Porpentine, Goodfellow and Victoria, but they’re told from the perspective of African natives who appear entirely imagined. Stencil’s first two imagined personae that present a view of Victoria Wren are the self-proclaimed anarchist Yusef, and Max the pedophile. Yusef thinks about the coming apocalypse but is charmed by Victoria. He mentions at one point that “an anarchist or devotee of annihilation must have some childhood memory to be nostalgic about” (65) and that he “loved balloons” (65). He then describes Victoria as “A balloon-girl” (65) before thinking up a joke asking if she has “any other cavities” she “wish[es] filled” (65-6). This juxtaposition of comfort along with the male desire to immediately sexualize women objectifies Victoria both as a novelty and a simple comfort. Max’s view is more sinister with no humor to undercut the misogyny. He compares Victoria to his ten-year-old victim from the past and notes that both of them are now roughly the same age (71). Both male speakers attempt to sexualize Victoria and draw her in to their male narratives but she proves to be more than their approximations. Yusef’s joke is immediately undercut by self-reflection on his resolve to take part in whatever violent apocalypse he imagines. He attempts to objectify and limit Victoria, but her presence shakes his underlying political and religious resolves. Max’s assumptions about Victoria, her younger sister Mildred, Goodfellow, and Porpentine prove entirely wrong. In his conversation with them he initially believes them to be tourists but quickly realizes they are something else. Because they do not fit the identity Max (or Stencil) imposes on them Max finds himself outside the conversation and immersed in something he deems ominous (73). By escaping Max’s assumptions Victoria et al elude Stencil’s attempts to define them in Patriarchal terms. The ominous or threatening quality Max detects suggests resistance to Stencil and Max’s potential for the kind of reflection Yusef is forced into. However, Max stays in his own head and doesn’t speak for most of the exchange. This scene mirrors the inadequacy of Stencil’s narrative that tells the reader more about him than anything else.
The most pertinent scene for our look at V. in this chapter concerns Victoria turning down Porpentine romantically for his partner Goodfellow. The jilted Porpentine throws prominent patriarchal definitions on Victoria. He attempts to devalue Victoria by describing her as “faceless” and “expendable” (89). Porpentine’s failed romance with Victoria illustrates the grand narrative of too many entitled young men who feel entitled to romance or sex for simply being nice. Porpentine says, “She [Victoria] will be in ‘love’ with him [Goodfellow], whatever that means. He will leave her. Do you think I care?” (89). These statements assume Porpentine’s detached dominance over the situation and that Victoria requires male protection and direction from someone like Porpentine. His assumptions reveal his belief in patriarchal narrative but this narrative is undercut when the reader learns that Victoria seduced Goodfellow.
Victoria’s sexual debut ends up marking the beginning of her independent personhood and the ability to craft her own narrative. Because of her encounter with Goodfellow Victoria’s father ceases contact and doesn’t want Victoria contacting her younger sister (176). Soon after, Victoria’s described as a “young lady of enterprise” and “acquiring political convictions” (177). Her distance from societal norms appears in how she talks about her sexual partners. It’s from her perspective; “She didn’t regard her time with Goodfellow or with the three since him as sinful” (177). Her religious beliefs also mirror her new independence. Earlier she discusses her religiosity with Max, Goodfellow and Porpentine mentioning that she considered “the Son of God as a young lady will consider any eligible bachelor” (72), but the “harem” (72) of nuns put her off. This displays Victoria’s independence from traditional confines of female sexual regulation in her sexualizing of Jesus.
Another example of Victoria’s power and her independence from outside narratives of sexual control appears later in Italy. Here she is saying an act of contrition for “impure thoughts” (176) about a boy (Evan Godolphin) but goes on to say that the sex she has had so far was an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace belonging to Victoria alone” (177). She sees sex with human beings as the physical consummation from Christ her husband (178). Victoria chooses her beliefs, partners, and politics. She has become her own priest choosing her own rituals and deity/deities.
The next scenes deal with sexual and colonial control in South-West Africa during the 1922 uprising involving Abraham Morris, a co-commander in the Great Resistance war of 1903-1909 against the Germans. In 1915 the Union of South Africa gained control and allowed German expatriates to keep their land. The Union of South Africa belonged to the British Empire so the divide between Europeans and native peoples persisted. Our protagonist Mondaugen is recording atmospheric radio disturbances in South-West Africa when the Europeans around him begin panicking about Abraham Morris leading a native uprising. Afraid for his life, Mondaugen seeks safety in a plantation owned by the German expatriate Foppl. A number of other Europeans have done the same including Vera Meroving and her lover Lt. Weissmann. Vera, another V., differentiates herself from Victoria as more sexually open and linked with violence. The most direct instance of this occurs when Mondaugen sees Vera and Weissmann having sex. She is “striking his chest with…a small riding crop” while he pulls her hair and speaks in obscenities (256). Vera lashing Weissmann parallels with Foppl who viciously whips the Bondels working on his farm. The chapter links Vera to violence by portraying her interest in the last African uprising and resulting genocide in 1904. She says “Lieutenant Weissmann and Herr Foppl have given me my 1904” (267) like “a schoolgirl enumerating birthday gifts” (267). In other words her whipping Weissmann is like the Bondels attempting to reverse colonial methods of violence to overthrow the Europeans. Weissmann translates to “White man” and Vera’s use of a riding crop on Weissmann subverts the sjambok from a weapon of German oppression to a way of striking back at the oppressors. However, Weissmann maintains control of the action and Stencil’s narrative by closing the door and blocking Stencil’s view. This further links Vera’s efforts against Stencil’s Patriarchal order to the failed African uprising. While V. does not defeat Stencil here, a few details suggest the African peoples and V. preserve their identities just by fighting back.
Mondaugen’s interactions in the scene above and with the African peoples reveal that both the natives and Vera are engaging in something outside of him as a Stencilized character. Mondaugen sees Vera and Weissmann’s interaction in a mirror and doesn’t hear a sound. This distance and its dream-like quality suggest he cannot really understand the scene. That scene relates with a part of Vera Mondaugen cannot access. His inability to hear Vera and Weissmann while seeing them in the mirror parallels his inability to understand the pennywhistle (250) or the song in Hottentot dialect at chapter’s end (304). Both correspond with an identity and cultural context outside of Mondaugen’s experience. Upon hearing the pennywhistle, “Mondaugen listened as if it had something to say to him. It didn’t” (250). Similarly the man riding on a donkey at chapter’s end sings a song that “was lost before it reached the nearest Ganna bush. The song was in Hottentot dialect, and Mondaugen couldn’t understand it” (304). This situation is certainly tragic but it can be read positively as though the song were personified and it had lost its way until finding the bush, thus linking the song with a place and culture. In V., throwing off oppressive narratives occurs not by reversing existing methods of oppression but by subverting those methods in a way that corresponds with identity and culture. The man’s song encompasses the language and culture of the Bondel people that eludes Mondaugen and Stencil’s patriarchal system.
A large portion of the novel’s final quarter takes place on the island of Malta. Here patriarchal control of female sexuality and the control of colonial subjects align more clearly than in the previous sections. Fausto Maijstral was a Maltese priest living on Malta during the extensive bombings enacted by the Axis powers from 1940-1942 because Malta belonged to Great Britain at that time. He communicates with Stencil and the reader via his confessions written during the bombings. Fausto’s consciousness is the battleground of colonial influence. This primarily manifests itself in his conception of the divine and language.
Fausto’s comments on rebuilding Malta indicate hope for a Maltese society created and defined by the island’s inhabitants, rather than the British Empire. He links rebuilding the island with the divine by saying prayers on the job (347). The Germans have “leveled the churches, the Knights’ auberges, old monuments. They have left us Sodom” (352). The old myths and links to the divine have been obliterated; a new and more personal connection must be forged (361). Fausto attempts to define himself as a multicultural person caught between the domineering narratives of Germany and the United Kingdom. The bombing of Malta allows for “Anglo-Maltese intercourse” and “now even the most sacrosanct room [the bathroom] of that temple is open” (368). While this is a joke Fausto tells his wife, it contains the personal and naked truth that comes out of the inevitable comingling between Maltese and English speaking cultures.
Fausto mentions a few times the difficulties of knowing English and how it has made him a “dual man” (339). He cannot explain his thoughts or poetry to his wife (339). This binary division demonstrates one of the more deceptive methods of colonial control. By disrupting indigenous peoples with an outsider language fundamental areas of thought can be altered. Fausto derides the simplicity of Maltese language and culture but lusts after it when faced with the “exhausted intellectual searching” (339) he sees in Western society.
Racial duality plagues Fausto’s daughter Paola who poses for part of the novel as a black prostitute named Ruby. She chooses not to define herself as Maltese because most people don’t know anything about the Maltese and because the race is not “pure” (388). One character asks if she is “something we can look at and see whatever we want?” (388) This is a turning point where Paola embraces her heritage and who she chooses to be rather than accepting shame for not fitting into society’s narrow racial categories. Paola experiences a similar binary when she owns her femininity by choosing to marry Pappy Hod (492).
The reader’s first interaction with Paola reveals that she had fled her lover Pappy Hod who was “built like the island of Malta itself” (12). This language draws a comparison between Paola and the fertility goddess Mara whose spirit is confined to Malta (517). Put a less sinister way, both Paola and Mara are distinctively Maltese. As Ruby, Paola has a relationship with the jazz musician McClintic Sphere who points her back to Malta and Pappy Hod. By accepting her ethnicity and her sexual identity Paola defeats the Patriarchal binary between white and black and woman as either prostitute or housewife. This choice connects Paola with another opponent of patriarchal order, the goddess Mara.
Mara literally translates to “woman” and the novel suggests that she killed Stencil Sr. with a waterspout. In a way, she is another V. Both possess mythic status and Mara’s spiritual omnipresence is comparable to V.’s death via disassembly. Mara is another colonial subject who was abducted and taken to Constantinople. There she disrupted the Sultan’s harem by teaching the men and women to love their bodies causing them to copulate among themselves thus destroying the need for patriarchs like the Sultan (514). Like Paola, Mara does not confine herself to society’s binaries and at novels end Mara kills Stencil Sr. Note that this is not just the kind of oppressive reversal discussed in the South-West Africa chapters. This death lays the groundwork for Stencil’s narrative that will provoke subversions in the form of competing identity narratives thus placing potential antidotes for freedom within the poison of Patriarchal control.
V. may not be Pynchon’s strongest rallying cry for women and colonially oppressed people groups, but it’s finer details point toward potential subversions against oppressive control. Pynchon’s characters accept their choices and identities allowing them to define themselves rather than being defined by simplistic and domineering narratives in society. If nothing else, I hope I’ve shown that this work does not fit the label of unredeemable misogyny that some have leveled against it.