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The Crying of Lot 49

Thomas Pynchon

Names and Language

Chapter 6, Part II

Overall Analysis

It would be difficult to fully analyze The Crying of Lot 49 without giving special attention to the names used in the novel. Many critics have tried to make sense of all the character names, and there is by no means a definitive correct answer. None of the names are very realistic and all seem to carry at least some sort of symbolic baggage. "Oedipa Maas," for example, is an impossible name; no one is really named that, just as "Pierce Inverarity" sounds equally ludicrous. While it is beneficial to look into some of the theories, it is important to keep in mind that Pynchon is almost certainly using the names not as another clue in a long, puzzling novel, but rather as a type of red herring to make a commentary about the role of language in defining who we are while making fun of authors who place too much value in characters' names.

"Oedipa" sounds very much like the female form of the name "Oedipus"--the subject of the Theban Cycle, a series of three plays by the Greek dramatist Sophocles. Oedipus, like Oedipa, has a mystery to solve related to his parentage, and he ends up successfully figuring out the problem. "Maas" sounds like a corrupted form of "mass"--something that resists change. Perhaps then, we are to believe that Oedipa is at once an active detective who also is sluggish and reluctant. The novel certainly shows both those sides of her character, particularly toward the end when she begins to stop caring as the mystery deepens unendingly. Or, as one critic has pointed out, the name may be read as "Oedipa, my ass," as though to humorously indicate that Oedipa is in no way a type of Oedipal figure. "Pierce Inverarity" sounds like "piercing variety" or "peers in variety," an identification that could be supported by Pierce's use of many different voices and vast array of dissimilar land-holdings.

While the names do seem to offer some insight into their characters, their sheer absurdity, from Dr. Hilarious to Mucho Maas, indicates that Pynchon is also using the names as a means of satire. There is a common tradition in literature, spanning from medieval dramatists to Henry Fielding, John Gay, Charles Dickens, and even John Steinbeck to use names as a subtle encapsulation of a character. By using completely unrealistic and somewhat obvious name symbolism, Pynchon is wildly, and yet somehow generously, mocking these authors, in much the same way that The Crying of Lot 49 mocks a thoroughly mockable California culture that the book nonetheless seems to find endlessly interesting.

From a different perspective, the names can be seen as a small commentary on the use of language. After all, why could someone not be named "Oedipa Maas"; the name itself is no less absurd than other names used by other novelists. Pynchon may be indicating the absurd nature of associating people and names so closely together and inferring things about people from names. In effect, Pynchon is exploding the assumption that any type of meaning can be inferred from a name, that names might be some kind of understandable communication.

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