The Politics of Doubling in "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna"

Author: Douglas Keesey (Cal Poly)

  • The Politics of Doubling in "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna"


    The Politics of Doubling in "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna"



When Pynchon's short stories were collected in Slow Learner (1984), his first--and, I think, best--short story was unaccountably left out. "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" (1959) deserves to be better known, for, even though it shows to a still greater degree than his other stories the kind of self-conscious literariness Pynchon found to be a major flaw in his early work, that very foregrounding of literary devices can help us see how style functions to convey Pynchon's critique of certain individuals and institutions. This essay examines the politics of doubling: the way Pynchon uses the double as a literary device to explain and to judge the complex relation between his protagonist and the institutions--family, college, army, government-which surround him. Although critics have often made passing mention of Pynchon's use of the double, no one has yet described its full complexity (Pynchon's doubles are also internally divided) or its systematic function in Pynchon's fiction. As I show here, the figure of the split double allows Pynchon to dramatize the force of hereditary and environmental influence upon character while at the same time insisting that that character is never without some remaining freedom of choice. Pynchon's use of the double may be self-consciously literary ("Doppelgänger," "semblable"), but the device enables him to present both a fully realized world and a nuanced critique.

How to Cite:

Keesey, D., (1989) “The Politics of Doubling in "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna"”, Pynchon Notes , 5-19. doi:

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Published on
21 Sep 1989