V cover2 sm.jpg
AuthorThomas Pynchon
CountryUnited States
PublisherJ. B. Lippincott Company
ReleasedMarch 1963
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages492 pp
ISBNISBN 0-397-00301-3
Followed byThe Crying of Lot 49

V. is the debut novel of Thomas Pynchon, published in March, 1963. It describes the exploits of a discharged U.S. Navy sailor named Benny Profane, his reconnection in New York with a group of bohemian artists and hangers-on known as the Whole Sick Crew, and the quest of an aging traveller named Herbert Stencil to identify and locate the mysterious entity he knows only as "V.".

Original Dust Jacket Blurb

This will almost certainly be the most original novel published in 1963. It is a wild, macabre tale of the twentieth century and of two men. One of them is looking for something he has lost; the other never had much to lose and so isn't looking for it. But no two readers will agree about this book because, like life itself, it is big, mysterious, and absolutely fascinating.

Thomas Pynchon's creative imagination appears to be boundless. Set in various and wonderful places (New York, Alexandria, Cairo, Paris, Florence, Malta, Africa), peopled with vivid characters, V. is indescribably original. In a madcap, sometimes sad, frequently hilarious way, it captures the ruthlessness and multiplicity of the modern world. Incident piles on incident until, in what amounts almost to a revelation, the pattern of the book and the century it describes emerge with a terrible beauty.

As for "V.," the unknown lady of the title, she is somebody's mother, somebody's mistress, and a world gone mad with despair. Neither the reader nor the American novel will remain unchallenged and unchanged by this astonishing book.

Dust Jacket Design

Ismar David
The dust jacket for the original hardback edition of V. was designed by Ismar David (1910-1996). David was born in Germany and, in 1932, after winning an international design competition, moved to Jerusalem where he worked as a designer. In 1953, David moved to New York and set up his graphic design studio. During his career, he designed over 200 book jackets and covers.

NOTE: You can view the many approaches to V. cover art over time at ThomasPynchon.com


In 2012 it emerged that there were multiple versions of V. in circulation. This was due to the fact that Pynchon's final modifications were made after the first edition was printed and thus were only implemented in the British, or Jonathan Cape, edition and the Bantam paperback. The fact was forgotten soon after in the U.S., so most US editions, including the newly released eBook, follow the first printing and are therefore unauthorized versions of the text, while the British editions, which follow the first edition printed by Jonathan Cape, contain Pynchon's final revisions.

Plot summary

The novel alternates between episodes featuring Benny, Stencil and other members of the Whole Sick Crew (including Profane's sidekick Pig Bodine) in 1956 (with a few minor flashbacks), and a generation-spanning plot which comprises Stencil's attempts to unravel the clues he believes will lead him to "V." (or to the various incarnations thereof). Each of these "Stencilised" chapters is set at a different moment of international historical crisis, however, the framing narrative involving Stencil, "V.", and the journals of Stencil's British spy/diplomat father threads the sequences together. The novel's two storylines increasingly converge in the last chapters (the intersecting lines forming a V-shape, as it were), as Stencil hires Benny to travel with him to Malta.

The Stencil chapters are:

chapter three
In which Stencil, a quick-change artist, does eight impersonations

This chapter, set among the British community in Egypt toward the end of the 19th century, consists of an introduction and a series of eight relatively short sections, each of them from the point of view of a different person. The eight sections come together to tell a story of murder and intrigue, intersecting the life of a young woman, Victoria Wren, the first incarnation of V. The title is a hint as to how this chapter is to be understood: Stencil imagines each of the eight viewpoints as he reconstructs — we do not know on how much knowledge and how much conjecture — this episode. This chapter is a reworking of Pynchon's short story "Under the Rose", which was first published in 1961 and is collected in Slow Learner (1984). In the Slow Learner introduction, Pynchon admits he took the details of the setting ("right down the names of the diplomatic corps") from Karl Baedeker's 1899 travel guide for Egypt. Stencil's reconstruction follows the same basic conflict as "Under the Rose", but it gives the non-European characters much more personality.

chapter five
In which Stencil nearly goes West with an alligator

Only marginally part of the Stencil/V. material, this chapter follows Benny and others, as Benny has a job hunting alligators in the sewers under Manhattan. It figures in the Stencil/V. story in that there is a rat named "Veronica" who figures in a subplot about a mad priest — Father Linus Fairing, S.J. — some decades back, living in the sewers and preaching to the rats; we hear from him in the form of his diary. Stencil himself makes a brief appearance toward the end of the chapter.

chapter seven
She hangs on the western wall

In Florence in 1899, Victoria appears again, briefly, but so does the placename "Vheissu", which may or may not stand for Vesuvius, Venezuela, or even (one character jokes) Venus.

chapter nine
Mondaugen's story

Kurt Mondaugen, who will appear again in Gravity's Rainbow, is the central character in a story set in South-West Africa (now Namibia) partly during a siege in 1922 at which one Vera Meroving is present, but most notably in 1904, during the Herero Wars, when South-West Africa was a German colony; in V., Pynchon clearly sees the German treatment of the Herero at that time as prefiguring the Holocaust of the Jews in the Nazi era.

At the same time, this part of the novel is a haunting indictment of Western colonialism and racism; later, in Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon would emphasize this latter aspect, acknowledging the facile identification made between the Herero genocide and the Nazi Holocaust in his earlier novel as "superficial". In a letter to Thomas F. Hirsch, reprinted in David Seed's book The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon, London, MacMillan, 1988, pp. 240-3), Pynchon wrote, "…When I wrote V. I was thinking of the 1904 campaign as a sort of dress rehearsal for what later happened to the Jews in the 30s and 40s. Which is hardly profound; it must occur to anybody who gets into it even as superficially as I did. But since reading McLuhan especially, and stuff here and there on comparative religion, I feel now the thing goes much deeper. […] I feel that the number done on the Herero head by the Germans is the same number done on the American Indian head by our own colonists and what is now being done on the Buddhist head in Vietnam by the Christian minority in Saigon and their advisors: the imposition of a culture valuing analysis and differentiation on a culture that valued unity and integration."

chapter eleven
Confessions of Fausto Maijstral

Fausto Maijstral, Maltese civilian suffering under the German bombardment and working to clear the rubble during World War II writes a long letter to his daughter Paola, who figures in the Benny Profane story; the letter comes into Stencil's hands. The letter includes copious quotations from Fausto's diary. Besides the place name Valletta, V. figures in the story as an old — or possibly not-so-old — woman crushed by a beam of a fallen building while children play around her.

chapter fourteen
V. in love

In this chapter V. — if V. it is — is entranced with a young ballerina, Mélanie l'Heuremaudit. The story centers on a riotous ballet performance, almost certainly modeled in part on the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The performance centers on a virgin sacrifice by impalement. The young ballerina fails to wear her protective equipment, and actually dies by impalement in the course of the performance; everyone assumes her death throes simply to be an uncharacteristically emotional performance.

chapter sixteen


As the British Navy mass on Malta in the early stages of the Suez Crisis, Stencil arrives with Benny in tow, searching for Fausto Maijstral. (As always, Kilroy was here first, and Pynchon proposes a novel origin for the face: that Kilroy was originally part of a schematic for a band-pass filter.)

Chapter 18 The last chapter is a flashback to Valleta when Stencil sr. was still alive. He becomes entangled in an incident involving a Maltese couple.

At the end of the chapter he leaves in a ship and a water spout throws into the air then plunges into the depths of the Mediterranean.

The paths of Stencil and Profane through the novel form a sort of metaphorical V. The incident of the boat sinking on the last page could be seen as the dotting of the apex on the v, the final plunge into nothingness.

External links

References to V. in other works

  • The title of the American post-hardcore band Thrice's album Vheissu, released in October 2005, refers to Pynchon's book V.
  • In congruence with his V.-themed speech and surroundings, the main character in the comic book series V for Vendetta reads Pynchon's V.
  • Los Angeles based porn actor/director Benny Profane takes his stage name from Pynchon's character.
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