Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) were the British surveyors best remembered for running the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that we know today as the Mason-Dixon Line. Here is their story as re-imagined by Thomas Pynchon, featuring Native Americans and frontier folk, ripped bodices, naval warfare, conspiracies erotic and political, and major caffeine abuse. We follow the mismatched pairone rollicking, the other depressive; one Gothic, the other pre-Romanticfrom their first journey together to the Cape of Good Hope, to pre-Revolutionary America and back, through the strange yet redemptive turns of fortune in their later lives, on a grand tour of the Enlightenment's dark hemisphere, as they observe and participate in the many opportunities for insanity presented them by the Age of Reason.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.22(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, Slow Learner (a collection of stories), and Vineland. He received the National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow in 1974. He lives in New York.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 8, 1937
Place of Birth:Glen Cove, Long Island, New York
Education:B. A., Cornell University, 1958
Reading Group Guide
1. "Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware, " It is clear from the first sentence that Pynchon has abandoned modern syntax for eighteenth-century prose, an ambitious undertaking. How does this serve the themes and action of the novel? Why do you think the author has chosen to write this way?
Does it impede or enhance your reading of the novel? Which elements of the prose and language can be identified as archaic, and which elements can be termed modern?
2. The events of the novel are narrated by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who tells the story of
Mason and Dixon after dinner for the entertainment of his family. How does he gain access to the details of the events? How does he fill in the gaps of events he doesn't actually witness? Do his perspective and morality color the narrative? Is he reliable? Does the fact that he is trying to entertain a youthful audience account for the appearance of talking dogs, conversing clocks, and mechanical ducks?
3. There are actually two narratives taking place simultaneously in Mason & Dixon: the story of
Mason and Dixon and the framing narrative, set in the LeSparks' living room many years later, as the
Reverend Cherrycoke tells his tale. How does the framing narrative serve the novel? How do the discussions, comments, and arguments by the framing characters affect the relation of the narrative?
What undercurrents of tension can you identify in the framing narrative? How do they affect the
4. Pynchon's works tend to spill over the edge of their pages into the real world, pulling in science,
history, philosophy, and the arcane nature of popular culture. In Mason & Dixon, he has two worlds to flood into: the world of the eighteenth-century, and the modern world. Does he limit himself to the eighteenth-century? Is there a macrocosm or two macrocosms imbedded in the microcosm of
Mason & Dixon?
5. Mason is an astronomer, Dixon a surveyor. But the opposing natures of their characters go much deeper than that. "Mason is Gothickally depressive, as Dixon is Westeringly manic" (p. 680). "Mason and Dixon would like to stay, one to fuss and the other to flirt" (p.27). Account for all the ways their natures are divergent. How does this serve the narrative throughout the novel?
6. Pynchon is nothing if not playful with language. Any reading of his work is more enjoyable if you keep your eyes open for allusions, illusions, tricky metaphors, symbols, puns, pop-cultural references,
and more. Share and discuss your discoveries with fellow readers, and try to determine whether they serve the narrative or simply display the author's sense of literary playfulness.
7. "Mason, pray You, 'tis the Age of Reason . . . we're Men of Science," states Dixon (p. 27). How,
then, do they account for ghostly visitations, giant beets, and talking dogs?
8. The Reverend Cherrycoke says, "As to journey west . . . in the same sense of the Sun, is to live,
raise Children, grow older, and die, carried along by the stream of the Day, whilst to turn Eastward,
is somehow to resist time and age, to work against the Wind, seek ever the dawn, even, as who can say, defy Death" (p. 263). How does this observation resonate throughout the novel during Mason and
9. The Mason-Dixon Line is seemingly insignificant, merely "Five degrees. Twenty minutes of a day's
Turn," as Dixon notes (p. 629). But, as later events testify, it becomes symbolic of much more than that, the division of a country. Do the characters have any sense of the significance of what they are creating? Mason asks, "Shall wise Doctors one day write History's assessment of the Good resulting from this Line, vis-à-vis the not-so-good? I wonder which list would be longer" (p. 666). Why does
Captain Zhang declare that the line's feng shui is the "worst I ever saw" (p. 542)? What moral implications do Mason and Dixon face as they create the line? What other lines and boundaries are there in the novel?
10. "Whom are we working for, Mason?" inquires Dixon (p. 347). Later, he says, ". . . Something invisible's going on, tha must feel it, smell it ?" (p. 478). Conspiracies abound in Pynchon's oeuvre,
and Mason & Dixon is no exception. Identify the conspiracies, real and imagined, in the novel. Are they rooted in paranoid speculation or in real events? Do they find any echoes in modern conspiracy theories?
11. On pages 349–352, Cherrycoke and Uncle Ives argue about the nature of history. To understand history, Ives says, "You look at the evidence. The testimony. The whole Truth" (p.352). Cherrycoke,
in contrast, sees history as "a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong,
vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep." Which definition do you think Pynchon credits? Which do you?
Who, according to Cherrycoke, is best able to convey history?
12. In chapter 53 (p. 511), the novel embarks on an entirely new narrative, that of Eliza, a novitiate in the Widows of Christ, and Captain Zhang, the feng shui expert who rescues her. The source of the new narrative turns out to be a bawdy book that Tenebrae and Ethelmer secretly read in 'Brae's bedroom.
However, the new narrative soon melds into the one being told by Cherrycoke. How does Pynchon account for this? How is it resolved? What does this tell us about the nature of storytelling and writing?
13. A Quaker reminds Mason and Dixon that the sugar they enjoy is "bought . . . with the lives of
African slaves, untallied black lives broken upon the greedy engines of the Barbadoes" (p. 329). Dixon later declares, ". . . we lived with Slavery in our faces, more of it at St. Helena, and now here we are again, in another Colony, this time having drawn them a Line between their Slave-Keepers, and their Wage-Payers, as if doom'd to re-encounter thro' the World this public Secret, this shameful Core .
. ." (p. 692). How do the surveyors respond to slavery throughout the book? Do their awareness and their response change?
14. Pynchon offers up an alternative ending, sending the surveyors farther and farther west, ". . . away from the law, into the savage Vacancy ever before them . . ." (p.709). What purpose does this false
ending serve? What do Mason and Dixon discover as they voyage on?