Sixes and Sevens

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To be "at sixes and sevens" is an English phrase and idiom, common in the United Kingdom. It is used to describe a state of confusion or disarray. Wikipedia
"He'd never told her, he avoided telling himself, but that was the measure of his faith, as this seventh Christmas of the War came wheeling in another charge at his skinny, shivering flank..." - Gravity's Rainbow, p.126 [1]
"A miscount" - Weisenburger [2]

In the two consecutive sections on Gravity's Rainbow's star-crossed lovers, Roger Mexico (124-26) and Jessica Swanlake (126-27), Pynchon uses an interesting structural device to convey the confusion the two characters are experiencing. Using rhyming word-pairs in each section, "Eerie, dearie" and "faucet, Dorset" (p.124) in Roger's and "distress, Jess" and "fag, Mag" (p.127) in Jessica's, to reinforce the pairing of the two sections, Pynchon then plays off the old phrase "at sixes and sevens," which means "to be in a state of confusion," by using sevens in Roger's section and sixes in Jessica's.

Roger's section begins "One morning — he had not seen her for about a fortnight [...]." The use of "fortnight" (14 days) establishes the sevens. The section ends with "as this seventh Christmas of the War came wheeling in another charge at his skinny, shivering flank [...]" [emphasis added] and it is this passage that clues in the reader that something is going on here, someone certainly is confused. In his A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, Steven Weisenburger explains away Pynchon's count of seven Christmases: "A miscount: from the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 until V-J day in August 1945, this war encompassed six Christmas days. On the next page Pynchon gets it right: 'six years of slander, ambition and hysteria'." [3].

Not so fast, Steve. Pynchon simply does not make this kind of "mistake" in his novels. Surely the man can count to six! If he says "seventh," one should assume he means "seventh" and try to interpret the passage in that light. Roger is paranoid and confused. His section is about sevens, beginning with "fortnight" and ending with "seventh Christmas." And, if it was simply "a miscount," why is it still present in the latest editions of Gravity's Rainbow, over three decades since publication?[4]

The section on Jessica (who "can't remember ever being so confused" [p.126]) is about sixes, using multiples and divisibles of six. First, "Three years with Jeremy." Then, "Weepers, he's supposed to be past thirty [...]." Then, "six years of slander, ambition and hysteria" (referring to the War). Numerically, the clincher is "unwholesome obsessions with who said what to whom in the spring of 1942 for God's sake [...]." As you math wizzes out there might already know, "42" is "6 x 7."

I believe this explanation transcends the trap of "Kute Korrespondences" to which we exegetes of Pynchon are so often prone. This explanation works, there's plenty to support it and nothing to contradict it. Rog and Jess are "at sixes and sevens" and Pynchon slyly reinforces this.


  1. Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon, Thomas, Viking Press, 1973, p.126
  2. A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel, Second Edition, p.93
  3. A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel, First Edition, p.78
  4. Checking the "Deluxe" Edition of Gravity's Rainbow (Penguin, 2006), all the obvious typos have been corrected. Two of Weisenburger's suspected typos — "seventh Christmas of the War" (Penguin, p.128) and "Nusselt heart-transfer coefficients" (Penguin, p.225) have never been changed. The "heart-transfer" (Weisenburger insists it should be "heat-transfer", which is technically correct, but Pynchon has Slothrop tripping over this phrase — mentally, no less — and, if you google "Nusselt heart-transfer" you get an amazing number of positives, indicating it's a common typographical error. And "heart-transfer" for "heat-transfer" is quite understandable given Slothrop's mental state at the time!
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