“Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’: Undermining Signifying Practices” by Mª del Carmen Pérez-Llantada Auría – Questions

“Throughout the novel, embedded stories, dreams, fantasies, films, and even the narrator’s retrospective accounts on Frenesi’s life have all worked as representations, as empty, or rather, incomplete, problematic references cut off from their external, “real” referent. Vineland thus becomes a narrative grounded in the play of textual dissemination” (Auría 179).


What are some of the instances in the novel in which we get information on who Frenesi is? What do these instances say about Frenesi and the person describing her? Why is it important to make the distinction between the Frenesi of the stories, and the “real” Frenesi, whom we never see? How is Auría’s use of Derrida’s dissemination applied to the many different “readings” (stories) Frenesi in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland?

Audience Interference

There are so many strange and interesting things about K., most of which are introduced in the first chapter of the novel, and the thing that I find really interesting (besides the acceptance of his arrest that Melissa talked about in her post) is the audience that he has throughout the beginning of his day and his subsequent arrest (I’m not quite sure what else to call it even though he is never taken into custody). It starts off with him and the familiar elderly woman across the way watching each other, and with each subsequent irritation he feels with the proceedings, another person is added, starting with an ancient man and ending with the red-haired man. Who are these people and what do they have to do with K. and his arrest? The woman and his interaction seem like it could possibly be a daily thing, the way that they gaze or glance at one another in the mornings, she is something familiar and comforting. Both of the men are foreign to him, the ancient one does not pose any sort of perceived threat to K., but the red-haired man is now blonde, and proves as a distraction to K. in which he doesn’t realize the departure of the inspector and the guards. K. goes along with a lot of interesting twists and turns throughout the novel, but there always appears to be an audience watching him, and distracting him from what is really going on. The audience is something for K. to perform for, like in the court scene and even here is giving them a bit of a reluctant performance, and something to distract K. from asking real questions to help him figure out what is really going on. Is the audience even there, or paying him that much attention? I am positive that this older woman is at least present, whether or not she is paying that close of attention to K. is a whole other question, but shouldn’t the other people she is seen with, presuming they are family, also look familiar to K.? Why does the man with the red goatee change to blonde by the end of the chapter? How does the audience interfere with the events surrounding K. and the entirety of his arrest and trial instead of help, add, or clarify them?

How Things Should Be Done: The Easy Way or The Convoluted Way?

I tried another tack, spoke sharply and refused to listen to any nonsense. Hadn’t it ever happened to her to be paid in advance in the same way? I asked. Of course, I meant by people who were well off, some of the consuls, for example? Never? Well, it wasn’t fair that I should suffer because she was unfamiliar with that social custom. It was accepted practice in foreign countries. But maybe she had never been abroad? Ah, there you are! Then she didn’t have a word to say in this matter… And I made a grab for several cakes on the table (Hamsun 194).

It is clear throughout the entirety of the story that the narrator, even though he is suffering some kind of mental collapse, is in some ways his own worst enemy. He does not readily accept handouts and feels guilty when he receives things that don’t belong to him, such as earlier in the novel when the cashier gives him too much change, and he feels like he must get rid of it, instead of using it to help himself and his ever-present hunger. Along with this, he has an inflated sense of self when it comes to multiple aspects of his life.

I find the exchange towards the end with the woman who has the cakes to be quiet interesting. He believes that by her accepting his charity, she is actually agreeing to some non-stated contract, that at some point in the future he will come to collect on his end of the deal. Does a deal count if only one person knows about it, and even then seems to come up with the deal when it best suits him? The Narrator seemed to think that this was the best course to get food to feed his hunger because he can claim to be one of those important men, the consuls that have had the luxury of traveling abroad. By implying that this is a known phenomenon and exacting it out on this woman, he is putting his own self-importance up with men like that.

He then goes on and on, displaying his “crazy” to all of the people in town when he can’t get over the fact that she was trying to cheat him out of his downpayment, and not the charity that it was perceived to be. Even with basically stealing the cakes, the best cakes, from the woman, he completely wastes one of them. He leaves it for the boy that spat on to find, even though I don’t think he will be the one to find it. If anything, some animal, like a rat, will find and eat it. I found this whole encounter, right before he departs on the ship, as a way to show that his own self-importance is still highly inflated and that when there is an easy way to do things, he will find the convoluted way to be honorable instead.

Signifier and Signified

In Derrida’s analysis of Lacan and “The Purloined Letter,” he talked about many things that I personally found confusing in Lacan’s analysis. He continued the analysis into the male and female bodies, which frankly I don’t really see as a big issue within the short story, it was definitely not something that I picked up on when I read it for the first time. What interests me the most, is his own interpretation of the signifier and the signified. Derrida mentions that “the displacement of the signifier, therefore, is analyzed as a signified, as the recounted object of a short story,” which to my understanding means that Derrida believes that the missing signifier (the letter) is treated as the signified (the contents of the letter (179). This calls back to mind when Lacan mentions that “the displacement of the signifier determines the subjects…willingly or not…will follow the path of the signifier” (44). Honestly, this is all just confusing me more on what is going on in “The Purloined Letter,” and in these literary criticisms, because it has been a long time since I studied Saussure, and signifier and signified don’t even seem like real words/concepts to me anymore.

Lacan and the Possession of Knowledge

Katie Roberts

In Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” we never learn of the contents of the letter, or even hinted at what it could be about. All that matters throughout the short story is that the letter, which has been exchanged between many hands, is returned to the Queen where it belongs. This has led Lacan to state that the letter itself is actually a signifier, and the content is the signified. My interpretation of this is that the letter is signifying knowledge, and that who possesses and the knowledge it contains, can use that knowledge to gain power. Lacan states that “we cannot say of the purloined letter that, like other objects, it must be or not be in a particular place but that unlike them it will be and not be where it is, wherever it goes (39/24)” when talking about the letters many locations throughout the text (58). Possession of the letter is something that one can retain, if they know of its contents, even if the letter is not physically in their possession. Take D—for instance, he wants to use the letter for his own gain, and even though it is implied that he will not be able to back up his claims because the letter is no longer within his possession, he can still use the knowledge he gained to leverage for what he wants. D— no longer has the letter, but he still had the contents of what is in the letter. The letter, the signifier, the knowledge, is something that someone cannot lose so easily as a physical object. I believe that Lacan was saying in the previous quote, that you cannot unlearn something once you know it, and so a piece of the letter will stay with all of the hands that it passed through, no matter where the physical copy is currently residing.