Death Battle: Marx vs. Manchu

At some point, apparently on a whim, though how can a fellow be sure, Slothrop decides to raise a mustache. Last mustache he had was at age 13, he sent away to that Johnson Smith for a whole Mustache Kit, 20 different shapes from Fu Manchu to Groucho Marx. (Pynchon 213)

The Pynchon Wiki provides context for Johnson Smith. It says, “A mail-order company officially established in 1914 that sells novelty and gag gift items such as x-ray goggles, whoopee cushions, fake vomit, and joy buzzers. They often advertised in comic books” (Ware). Based on what we know of Slothrop’s appreciation for comic books, a novelty mustache kit fits his character and makes for a classically humorous image. However, the two example mustaches mentioned will be the figures I look into.

This section appears in GR at a point where Slothrop’s realized They are out for him. Tantivy and Bloat have already disappeared, and Slothrop’s identified Katje and Sir Stephen as conspirators. The text suggests Slothrop grew the mustache “on a whim,” but then immediately casts doubt on that with the addition of “how can a fellow be sure[?]” The quote suggests to me that Slothrop, whether intentionally or not, has already begun to slip into a new persona and disguise, because he’s already decided to flee.

This quote, though, is followed by a conversation where Katje and Slothrop discuss what kind of mustache he’ll grow. He says “bad guy,” but Katje doesn’t think the villainous look suits him, and she points out a few different examples of “good guy” mustaches.

Initially I wanted to look exclusively at Groucho Marx, because his name appears three times within a hundred pages, and a fourth time later in the novel, according to the Pynchon Wiki. I was surprised that the same reference was repeated so many times, but that’s the definition of Pynchonian multiplicity. And weirdly, Fu Manchu often appears in conjunction with Marx. So I’ll provide brief details on both figures and their notorious mustachios.


Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx (1890-1977) was an American actor and comedian from New York. He was one of five brothers who all went on to the stage, often performing musical comedies. After some success in theatre, the Marx brothers started making Hollywood movies. After Hollywood, Groucho started working in radio (Bland).

Groucho’s famous mustache comes from the brothers’ first Broadway success, I’ll Say She Is. He would normally glue a fake mustache on for the show, but when he arrived late at the theatre for a performance, instead of taking the time to do so, he used greasepaint to achieve the same effect (Bland).

So basically, Groucho Marx’s famous mustache wasn’t even real. He preferred the rapidity of the greasepaint ‘stache and never glued one on again. He was also never seen without a cigar in hand, bushy eyebrows, stooped walk, and a few one-liners (Nehrenz). One thing he doesn’t seem to do is traditional stand-up comedy; he’s more in the line of musicals and TV appearances. However, if you’re curious and up for a laugh, I’ve included two links to see him in action:

Groucho Marx roasts Johnny Carson.

Groucho Marx on a game show called “What’s My Line.”


Changing gear now, Fu Manchu is a fictional character who originally starred in the novel The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913) by Sax Rohmer, but who became so popular as a villainous archetype he was adapted into other media, like film, TV, and radio (“Fu Manchu”). Interestingly enough, his most popular appearance came in a 1965 film called The Face of Fu Manchu, where he was played by Christopher Lee (also Count Dooku and Saruman, for those who get the references).

In all of my research, I kept coming across this quote to describe Fu Manchu. So I’ll leave it in the author’s hands:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, … one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present … Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man. (The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu)

That phrase “yellow peril” already sets off triggers to some of the character’s more controversial aspects. Rohmer was a newspaper reporter who covered Chinese criminals before he took to authorship, and though he denies that Manchu was based on those figures, I don’t really buy it. Also, Fu Manchu books were banned from publishing during WWII, and were generally believed to contribute to the yellow peril stereotype (“Fu Manchu”).

Now that I’m enlightened to these figures’ identities, the juxtaposition that occurs in the text seems so insane in its delicate craftiness. Squaring these two against each other based on their mustaches is one thing (Marx’s is thick and ostentatious, Manchu’s is very fine), but the characters themselves seem to represent the best and worst of the 20th century. Marx is a clean, working-class humorist while Manchu becomes a diabolical, foreign criminal genius and purveyor of Chinese stereotypes to Western audiences.

This undoubtedly planned comparison also hearkens back to the scene where Katje and Slothrop discuss whether Slothrop will grow a good guy or a bad guy mustache. Groucho Marx and Fu Manchu pretty much embody those opposite connotations.

Works Cited

Bland, Frank. Groucho Marx (Julius Henry). The Marx Brothers, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

Fu Manchu. Wikipedia, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.

Nehrenz, John. Groucho Marx. The Internet Movie Database. n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.

Ware, Tim. Gravity’s Rainbow Wiki. MediaWiki, 21 Nov. 2006. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.


About Steph Roman

2015 University of Pittsburgh grad with majors in nonfiction writing and English literature. Formerly of the Pitt News and PublicSource. I like games and nerd culture in general.
This entry was posted in Gravity's Rainbow, Reading Response and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Death Battle: Marx vs. Manchu

  1. iamsayshoe says:

    I don’t think that I can think of a book, or author, who used celebrities or characters and their respective facial hair to provide an insight on other characters in the novel. I’m still amazed at Pynchon’s ability to allude to pop culture idols, such as Groucho Marx and Fu Manchu, in a non-superfluous, meaningful way. Sometimes authors will simply refer to events which happened during the time frame or allude to a movie or character that was introduced at the time. Pynchon, on the other hand, uses these references as so much more. He connects these allusions back to the text at hand and gives each allusion a very specific purpose.

  2. cjc127 says:

    For me, the hardest part of reading Pynchon is understanding his many references. Honestly, I’m sometimes annoyed with the amount of references in some sections of the book. I never thought of the references as a reinforcement of the ideas within the conversations around the outside information. When I don’t understand the references, like Groucho Marx and Fu Manchu’s mustaches, I start to give up a little. Your most reminded me, like our classmate above said, each illusion has a very specific purpose. I also think I learn better visually, so thanks for including the pictures! I’m thinking what an interesting picture book Gravity’s rainbow would make! Even a companion with picture references would be enjoyable to look at along with the book.

  3. Nico Falgione says:

    Pynchon must have truly been a genius. To be able to not only keep track of all the references that he incorporates, but to actually know what each one is would be amazing. This post really shows that Pynchon was drawing on everything from pop culture to the news, it’s all incorporated into Gravity’s Rainbow. This post was great for me, as I did not know that Fu Manchu was actually a character in a novel. I thought that it was a specific style of facial hair, similar to the picture above or for those who remember to the mustache Joe Flacco had a few years ago. Pynchon’s ability to use these references and truly link them to the text makes Gravity’s Rainbow seem like it is it’s own world, complete with pop culture.

  4. Alan Schultz says:

    You might want to know that the picture of Groucho Marx you are using is not Groucho Marx but Frank Ferrante doing a Groucho Marx impersonation

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