Symbolic Shirley Temple

“they are giggling and reaching to drape around his neck lush garlands of silvery B nuts and flange fittings, scarlet resistors and bright-yellow capacitors strung like sausages, scraps of gasketry, miles of aluminum shavings as curly-bouncy ‘n’ bright as Shirley Temple’s head” (309)


Remembering Shirley Temple from my own childhood, I found it interesting that Pynchon alludes to her during Slothrop’s tour of the rocket factory in Part 3.  In my mind, she was the cute little girl who sang and danced in musicals, but in American culture she represents so much more.  Pynchon’s use of her symbolic head in the description of materials used to build machines of war, is very powerful when you understand more about the child star.


Shirley Temple acted in her first film in 1934.  She was only 5 year old, and therefore had little dramatic training.  However, because she was so adorable, she became immensely popular in American culture.  In fact, she was the top entertainer in the entire film industry for the next 5 years.  During that difficult time period, the Great Depression,  many Americans were living lives filled with poverty.  They were experiencing “economic and psychological depression” (Hammontree 190), and yet they still spent the little money they had to go to the movies and see little Shirley Temple.  The irony here is truly incredible, for skilled and highly trained Americans were out of work, and a 5 year old with little more talent than a smile was a millionare.  Furthermore, little Shirley Temple and her family were not the ones receiving the largest percentages of profit from her box office hits. Rather, Fox Entertainment was making an absurd amount of money from her.  Her face did not only sell tickets to the movies, but also everything from lunch boxes to playing cards to cigar bands.  The people saw her as an escape from their daily hardships.  Their love for the young blonde with curly hair made corporate America, the elite, even wealthier.


The idea of a young child being used to fuel capitalism reminded me of what I discussed in my last post, about how young the soldiers were when they were sent to war.  Just as Shirley became famous for simple superficial reasons, she was 5 years old and no real training, many of the soldiers were also ridiculously young amateur.  The demand for men, the simple need for bodies carrying guns, caused soldiers to be sent into battle with little training.  They were unprepared for what they were about to experience, maybe another factor in the astonishing death toll (60 million).


Furthermore, Pynchon’s use of a movie star, and a child movie star and that, satirizes the outlook that much of society had towards WW2.  It was not so bad, not so real, just like a movie, a cute children’s movie.  They didn’t want to think of it as real life, what was actually happening. The war couldn’t be so monstrous.  It was also glamorized, the idea of fighting for your country, fighting for the cause, dying for a cause, and thus benefited the military and government, those projecting the war. 


As Shirley grew into adolescence, her popularity plummeted. Although she was more dramatically talented she was no longer “cute”.  This aspect of Temple’s life may also be what Pynchon is playing on.  Just as Temple’s career ended as her innocence did, the soldiers loss of innocence through war experiences brought many endings.  It ended ideas and dreams about the world they had had previously, it ended friendships, it ended families, it ended cities.  Much was lost that they did not know would be.


Another reason Pynchon may have referenced Shirley Temple hand in hand with war machinery also stems from the beginning of her fame.  One of her first films was “War Babies” (1932), again showing high irony.  In 1932 she was also in “Baby Burlesks” which was a series satirizing pornographic films of the time.  This reference would play on the high absurdity of Pynchon.


GR was published in 1973, and in 1969 Temple began to work for the United Nations.  Because of the date of publication, Pynchon could very well be using Temple in yet another way.  The irony that a child star who was used to mask the Great Depression and WW2 would grow up to work for the United Nations.  This work for the UN may be seen to help the people, the preterit, who gave her fame and fortune, or may be seen as Temple continuing veils and masking of the public.


The mocktail drink “Shirley Temple” is still featured in restaurants today.  It is said to have been created for Temple herself, so that she could have something to drink at the bar with her parents in her young years of stardom.  Pynchon could potentially be alluding to this as well in GR.  The idea of a child having to act older than their years, a child skipping through their childhood, a child being pushed into the adult world and adult situations, etc. which all again relate to the youth and innocence used in war.


This research into the life of Shirley Temple reiterates the vital importance Pynchon places upon history, the thought and purpose he puts into every line, and the vast number of ways a single illusion may be read.



Works Cited

Barclay, Eliza. “Thank You, Shirley Temple, For The Original ‘Mocktail'” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

Brumfield, Ben, and Jo Shelley. “Famed Former Child Actress Shirley Temple Dies.” CNN. Cable News Network, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

Hammontree, Patsy Guy. Shirley Temple Black: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998. Print.


Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York, NY: Penguin, 2006. Print.

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