“’You’ve seen his MMPI.  His F Scale? Falsifications, distorted thought processes… The scores show it clearly; he’s psychopathically deviant, obsessive, a latent paranoiac- well, Pavlov believed that obsessions and paranoid delusions were a result of certain- call them cells, neurons, on the mosaic of the brain, being excited to the level where, through reciprocal induction, all the area around becomes inhibited.  One bright, burning point, surrounded by darkness.’” (Pynchon 90)

In this particular section of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon has just finished explaining the strange occurrence of Slothrop’s erections response to the explosion of the V2 bombs, followed by the actual sound of the V2 approach. The actual passage I have referenced though, is explaining that Slothrop is abnormal when it comes to the way his brain functions, and deviant, meaning that he sort of strays away from the normal standard when it comes to psychology.  I have taken a number of psychology classes, so the reference to Pavlov and his beliefs in relation to this topic are something I am pretty familiar with. I do not claim to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I found this particular passage to be pretty interesting because of the slight previous experience I do have with this topic. 

In Weisenburger’s companion to Gravity’s Rainbow, he explains to the readers what both MMPI and an F scale are.  MMPI, or the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, includes a series of four validity scales that evaluate the test results that are obtained (Weisenburger 59).  An F Scale, indicates “undesirable behavior (Weisenburger 59).   This scale could indicate a number of things, such as that the subject was trying to outsmart the test, or even “deliberate malingering” or “gross eccentricity.” (Weisenburger 59).

For my research, I decided to dig a little bit deeper into the research of Pavlov, and what kinds of things he actually did for research.  Weisenburger does a great job to start the readers out into a better understanding of what Pynchon was getting at, but obviously he cannot go into great detail to explain every little section of the novel. I actually discovered a journal article through Pitt Cat, that explains that Pavlov did a great deal of research on dogs, and he created a conditioned reflex model to study individual differences in dogs (Strelau). In one experiment, he noted the strength of excitation in dogs based on intensity of stimuli, level of arousal, and strength of excitation understood as a property.  Pavlov believed that CNS properties (Central Nervous System), were very important to the research of personality in a biological aspect (Strelau). There are four CNS properties, but Pavlov believed strength of excitation to be the most important one (Strelau). This is because individuals are confronted with amazing events so often which are of high stimulative value. This simply refers to the ability of the cortical cells being able to work (Strelau).  

I did note that a few pages earlier in Pynchon, he refers to stimulus in reference to the cortex of Dog Vanya’s brain.  “A stronger stimulus no longer gets a stronger response.  The same number of drops flow or fall” (Pynchon, 79). I just found that it was very interesting to note that not only is Pointsman doing experiments on dogs, but shorty after, they are discussing the strange occurrence of Slothrop’s erections, and comparing it to studies done by Pavlov, who also did experiments involving dogs.  I think it was very interesting to find this connection, and it kind of suggests to me that Pynchon is possibly trying to incorporate Pavlov into this novel in the form of a character. I think the reader can make an argument that the character Pointsman was based off of Pavlov, and I believe he mentions the beliefs of Pavlov when he is explaining his views of obsession and paranoia to kind of guide the reader to that realization.            


Strelau, Jan. “The Contribution of Pavlov’s Typology of CNS Properties to Personality Research.” 2.2 (1997): 125-38. PsycARTICLES. Web. 23 Mar. 2014. 

Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. 2nd ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2006. Print.


Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

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3 Responses to Pavlov

  1. iamsayshoe says:

    While taking AP Psychology in high school, I found Pavlov’s experiment and his results to be fascinating. I found that in real life, Pavlov’s results apply greatly. For one project for class, we were instructed to covertly condition someone to react to a stimulus. I chose to condition my friend by asking him what time is was everyday and rewarding him with gum. Soon enough, I would ask for the time and he would respond with the time and with his hand out, expecting his daily dose of gum. I think that Pynchon’s use of Pavlovian principles are really interesting and, although Pavlov’s theory is scientific, Pynchon uses it as a fantastical plot device, which I think is a feat.

  2. cjc127 says:

    It’s interesting to think of the information you gave about Pavlov’s experiments and the chnage in Slothrop’s erections. You mentioned the strength of excitation was one of the most important properties in CNS because of the frequent occurance of exciting events in someone’s life. Slothrop gets erections so frequently, that they are starting to change. I think that his interaction with Trudi on page 446 is a point where the changes really begin to show. Instead of a penile erection, Slothrop gets a nasal hardon. The facts you presented about Pavlov’s experiments and changes in excitement are seen in Slothrop here. The erections have become so normal, they get a different response. However, Slothrop is still an exception to this information because his erections still occur, just in a different form in this case. Really interesting post overall with a great source.

  3. Nico Falgione says:

    I thought this was really interesting. Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to react to respond to a certain stimuli, but only after the stimuli is present. The reverse is true of Slothrop, who experiences the response to the stimulus before the stimulus occurs. A major theme of Gravity’s Rainbow seems to be the reversal of cause and effect, and this reference to Pavlov really seems to show it.

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