The Crying of Lot 49

How much of our "reality" is manufactured by authority figures and used to keep the masses in check? How much about our world are we entirely oblivious? Thomas Pynchon (1937-) explores these questions in his 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49. This postmodernist novel follows the character Oedipa Maas as she searches for the truth in what is either a massive conspiracy or the modern world's best-kept secret. Featuring a dead millionaire ex-lover, addicts who lose their minds on LSD, and a secret underground postal service, The Crying of Lot 49 explores themes such as reality vs. conspiracy and mainstream society vs. counterculture. 

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Table of contents

    Content warning: Drug usage and suicide

    The Crying of Lot 49, Content warning, StudySmarter

    The Crying of Lot 49 Characters

    The Crying of Lot 49 primarily centers around a young woman named Oedipa Maas as she investigates a mystery left behind by her deceased ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity. Along the way, Oedipa meets a variety of strange characters who become involved in her search for the truth.

    Oedipa Maas The protagonist, Oedipa Maas spends most of the novel searching for the truth, although she doesn't discover many definitive answers. Oedipa's obsessive investigation begins when her ex-lover leaves her as the co-executor of his massive estate. His apparent involvement in a secret organization drives her all over California as she searches for answers in what is either a massive conspiracy or the modern world's best-kept secret.
    Pierce InverarityOedipa Mass's ex-boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity built a business empire in San Narciso. A real estate tycoon, Pierce left his estate to Oedipa after his death. It is unclear if he is playing an elaborate prank on Oedipa with the Tristero conspiracy or if he was involved in the secret organization.
    MetzgerPierce Inverarity's lawyer, Metzger has a brief affair with Oedipa while sorting through Pierce's estate. Metzger is involved with other shady lawyers and spent his youth as a child actor. He disappears from the novel about halfway through.
    Mucho MaasOedipa's husband, Mucho Maas is a disc jockey and works for the local radio station. Their marriage dissolves after Mucho becomes addicted to LSD.
    Mike FallopianMike Fallopian is involved in an anti-government organization. He claims to be part of a secret underground mail operation that rivals the postal service. Fallopian suggests that Pierce might have sent Oedipa on a wild goose chase as his final prank.
    Randolph DribletteRandolph Driblette directs The Courier's Tragedy and purposefully includes a line about the infamous "Tristero" that Oedipa spends most of the novel searching for. Driblette claims the play has no hidden meaning, but he commits suicide by walking into the ocean toward the novel's end.
    John NefastisA scientist, Nefastis is obsessed with the idea of perpetual motion. He claims to have a machine that defies the laws of thermodynamics and has psychic abilities. The machine doesn't work for Oedipa.
    Genghis CohenA stamp expert, Genghis Cohen helps Oedipa work through the mystery while examining Pierce's stamp collection.
    Dr. HilariusOedipa's psychotherapist, Dr. Hilarius asks Oedipa to participate in an experiment he is conducting on LSD. She refuses. He later goes crazy, hysterically claiming he helped the Nazis and will soon be punished.
    Emory BortzAn English professor, Emory Bortz shines some light on Oedipa's investigation through his knowledge on Jacobean revenge plays.

    The Crying of Lot 49 Summary

    Oedipa Maas is disillusioned with her comfortable life and her marriage to Mucho Maas, an ex-car salesman turned disk jockey. Oedipa's life turns upside down when she learns that her ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity, has died and left her the executor of his large estate. Pierce made a fortune off lucrative business investments and now essentially owns San Narciso, a fictional suburb outside of Los Angeles. Despite her initial shock, Oedipa assumes responsibility for the estate and travels to San Narciso.

    Pierce's handsome lawyer, Metzger, meets Oedipa in her hotel room. They watch a movie Metzger starred in when he was a child actor. During the movie, Oedipa sees commercials for some of Pierce's absurd business ventures, including a neighborhood specifically designed for scuba divers and cigarettes with filters made of bone.

    After the movie, Metzger and Oedipa spontaneously have sex while the hotel manager and his band, the Paranoids, play music. The Paranoids become obsessed with watching Oedipa and Metzger and begin following them.

    If the story seems all over the place and hard to follow, that's okay! It's important to remember that The Crying of Lot 49 is a postmodernist novel, so bizarre plot lines are to be expected. Postmodern literature became very popular in the 1960s and 1970s and is characterized by metafiction, historical and political references, intertextuality, unrealistic plots, and unreliable narration. Pynchon uses the apparently aimless plot to satirize both dominant culture and counterculture.

    Metzger takes Oedipa to a bar, where she meets Mike Fallopian, a right-wing engineer who is part of an anti-government group called The Peter Pinguid Society. Fallopian claims he is developing an underground postal system to rival the government's monopolized postal service.

    Oedipa goes to the bathroom and sees a strange symbol she later realizes is a muted post horn and the label WASTE. She thinks the message is sexual and returns to the bar.

    The Crying of Lot 49, Postal horn hung outside, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1: The symbol of the muted post horn is based on the post horn used in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    At a resort Pierce owned, Oedipa and Metzger learn that the Inverarity estate is being sued for not paying a member of the mafia for the bones of World War II soldiers. The bones were used to make the bone charcoal for Pierce's cigarettes. One of the Paranoids, who have followed Oedipa and Metzger to the resort, says the story sounds like the plot of The Courier's Tragedy, a Jacobian revenge play from the 17th century.

    Oedipa has Metzger take her to see the play, and she becomes convinced there is a hidden message to decipher. She becomes especially obsessed with the word "Tristero" and asks the director, Randolph Driblette, what it means after the play. Driblette tells Oedipa not to overanalyze things, but Oedipa does not give up.

    Tristero, also spelled "Trystero" throughout the book, is a (fictional) secretive organization of mail carriers. It has historical roots in the Thurn and Taxis Postal System in the Holy Roman Empire. Thurn and Taxis was a real, private postal system run by a wealthy family in the 19th century. Pynchon takes this piece of history and creates Tristero as a counterculture alternative.

    When Oedipa sees a man drawing the same symbol she saw in the bathroom, she takes it as a sign to keep searching for clues. The man points her toward John Nefastis, a scientist who has built a technically impossible machine that allows for perpetual motion by manipulating thermodynamics. When Oedipa visits Nefastis, the machine doesn't work for her, and Oedipa leaves when Nefastis begins hitting on her.

    Oedipa becomes even more intrigued when she sees the symbol on an old man's ring that was once stolen from a mail carrier. Genghis Cohen, a stamp expert reviewing Pierce's extensive collection, informs Oedipa that the watermarks on Pierce's stamps also feature the horn. Later, when Oedipa visits the publisher of The Courier's Tragedy, she is surprised to learn the original play did not include the word "Tristero."

    The Crying of Lot 49, Tweezers holding a stamp in front of a larger collection, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2: Genghis Cohen tells Oedipa many of the stamps in Pierce's collection have watermarks with the muted horn symbol.

    Oedipa begins seeing the horn symbol everywhere and worries her grip on reality might be slipping. In a gay bar, a man wearing the symbol on a lapel tells her it is the symbol for Inamorati Anonymous, a group of people who isolate themselves from the evilness of love. Later, an old man asks her to mail a letter using the WASTE system. Oedipa attempts to follow the courier along his route but is shocked when 24 hours pass and she ends up back at Nefastis's house.

    Oedipa decides to go home and seek advice from her psychotherapist, Dr. Hilarius. But Hilarius has gone insane and begins shooting at her when she arrives at his office. Hilarius hysterically claims he assisted the Nazis during World War II and will be punished for his crimes.

    While the police take Hilarius away, Oedipa's husband arrives on the scene to cover the incident for the radio. Later, Oedipa realizes Mucho has been taking LSD and is losing his mind. She returns to San Narciso.

    Also called acid, LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) is a hallucinogenic drug that can affect the user's perception of time, color, movement, and sound. This psychedelic can cause the early onset of schizophrenia in some individuals.

    Oedipa meets with the English professor Emory Bortz, who helps to contextualize the history of the Tristero. Bortz also tells her that Driblette, the play's producer, has committed suicide. Fallopian, meanwhile, suggests that the hunt for Tristero might be an elaborate prank.

    Oedipa's health steadily declines. She almost gives up on the search for Tristero until Genghis Cohen tells her a secret buyer stepped up at the last second to bid on Pierce's collection of stamps. Believing the buyer might be a member of Tristero, Oedipa travels to lot 49 and waits to hear the crying of the auctioneer, hoping to discover the truth about the buyer and Tristero.

    The Crying of Lot 49 Analysis

    The most important and prolific symbol in the novel is the muted post horn. After first seeing it in the bathroom at the bar, the symbol haunts Oedipa throughout the rest of the novel. Before she even knows what it means, she is convinced it is significant. The prevalence and mysteriousness of this symbol convince Oedipa there is some greater secret to discover.

    The Crying of Lot 49, Muted Post Horn, StudySmarter

    Fig. 3: Pynchon's symbol of the muted post horn.

    Oedipa ultimately discovers the horn is a symbol of the Tristero organization. In the novel, Tristero is an organization that began in the 16th century and functioned as an alternative to the mainstream, government-sponsored Thurn and Taxis Postal System. Unfortunately, Thurn and Taxis monopolized the mail industry and quelled any opposition, essentially forcing Tristero out of business.

    Immigrants brought Tristero to America in the 1800s, where it was met with yet another monopoly controlled by the United States government. Members of Tristero reacted with violence and attacked mail carriers on their routes on the Pony Express. Although the organization is said to be disbanded, Oedipa believes it still exists.

    The Crying of Lot 49, U.S. mailboxes, StudySmarter

    Fig. 4: Tristero is presented as a rival faction to the mainstream postal service.

    As a variation of Thurn and Taxis's coat of arms, the muted horn is the symbol for the company's rebellious offshoot, Tristero. By association, the horn becomes a general symbol of opposition to the status quo. Oedipa views Tristero as a way of life that oppressive government forces cannot control. It exists secretly, operating beneath the government's radar and allowing rebels to keep in contact with one another. It is also kept secret from mainstream society, as the government manipulates reality to fit into a designated picture.

    Oedipa later meets a man in a gay bar who is wearing the symbol. The man says the muted horn represents an organization dedicated to renouncing love. When the novel was written in the 1960s, gay marriage was illegal and homosexuality was taboo. Therefore, the muted horn once again symbolizes a pushback against the status quo and a version of society that does not fit into the government's accepted reality. Like Tristero, homosexual love is seen as a threat to the government's carefully curated depiction of reality.

    The Crying of Lot 49 Symbolism

    As is common in postmodernist literature, much of the plot in The Crying of Lot 49 seems meaningless and incoherent. Characters flit in and out of the pages and respond to their constantly changing environment but never really solve anything. Consider the lawsuit over the bones Pierce uses as filters for cigarettes. Although this issue is illegal and morally problematic, Oedipa soon becomes preoccupied with discovering the meaning of Tristero and abandons the bones altogether. The same can be said for the rest of Pierce's lucrative business dealings, which are largely forgotten by the end of the novel.

    All of the novel's absurdity is used to reveal the pitfalls of real life. Pynchon is likely satirizing the human tendency to become so preoccupied with meaningless circumstances that they ignore the pressing issues of the world around them. When taken as a satirical look at modern society, the characters' actions aren't nearly as important as the things they ignore or choose not to do. Pynchon may also be criticizing humanity's constant demand for novelty and entertainment. People tend to lose all interest in things once the thrill of newness has faded, creating a society that only cares about issues if they're unique, new, or interesting.

    The Crying of Lot 49, Exchanging a gift, StudySmarter

    Fig. 5: The Crying of Lot 49 satirizes the human tendency to lose interest in things once they are no longer new.

    It's important to note that Pynchon is critiquing both mainstream society and counterculture at the same time. Mainstream characters are presented as ignorant and arrogant, while the characters involved in counterculture (like Mucho on LSD) lose their identity in the midst of their movement. Neither mainstream society nor counterculture is presented as better than the other; Pynchon warns readers to think critically for themselves instead of falling completely into either category.

    The names used in the novel are also metaphorical and nonsensical at once. Oedipa, for example, comes from the Greek hero Oedipus, reflecting how Oedipa is stuck in a vast conspiracy that pulls her along with it, no matter what she does to fight fate. Fallopian's name refers to female sex organs, while his right-wing anti-government group gives birth to a vast array of ideas and conspiracies. And Dr. Hilarius gets Mucho addicted to mind-altering drugs and holds Oedipa hostage with a rifle, making his occupation as a psychiatrist almost laughable (i.e., hilarious).

    Oedipus was a Greek hero fated as a baby to kill his father and have sex with his mother. Oedipus's father sent him away in an effort to circumvent fate. Utterly ignorant of the prophecy, however, Oedipus unwittingly fulfills it as a grown man.

    Even the city name of San Narciso, a play on San Fransisco, reflects the narcissism found in American culture, specifically in California's self-obsessed society. The metaphorical nature of the names might give the text some additional meaning, but they are so utterly ridiculous that Pynchon is likely also using them to mock the literary trope of giving characters symbolic names.

    The text as a whole should be read as a purposefully absurd, hyperbolized satire, critiquing everything from society's conformity and superficiality to literary tropes. The absurd nature of the postmodernist text reminds readers not to take everything literally at face value but to dig deeper into the text and consider what it might reveal about the real world.

    The Crying of Lot 49 Themes

    Although Oedipa never discovers the truth of Tristero's existence, her obsessive investigation leads her to contemplate the difference between reality and conspiracy. Along the way, Oedipa also peers into the circumstances surrounding mainstream society and counterculture.

    Reality vs. Conspiracy

    Oedipa struggles to know whether the existence of a contemporary Tristero is real or a massive conspiracy. She sees symbols of the organization everywhere, and the non-answers she gets from people along the way suggest that it might exist. This mystery still isn't solved at the novel's end, and Oedipa starts to question her sanity when she sees the symbol everywhere. Fallopian even suggests she might be on a wild goose chase crafted by Pierce as one last prank. Oedipa's complicated relationship with Tristero reveals the theme of reality vs. conspiracy, where one is never sure which is the truth and which is a lie.

    Mainstream Society and Counterculture

    As an underground organization that opposes mainstream society's postal service, Tristero represents a pushback against the status quo and the emergence of a counterculture. Members of the Peter Pinguid Society and Tristero fight back against the government monopoly on mail that has been normalized and has overtaken mainstream society. Oedipa believes there is an entire secret society or counterculture that authority figures keep hidden from the general public because the government and big companies like the postal service want to maintain their control over the American people.

    Pynchon is likely also satirizing counterculture by making the conflict of the novel center around something as mundane as the postal service. The novel features an entire underground movement that exists, not to revolutionize money, technology, or anything impactful, but to challenge the established postal service. Everyone in the novel takes this nonissue so seriously that the resulting chaos is almost laughable.

    Pynchon may be satirizing counterculture movements that only exist to be different and challenge the status quo instead of contributing anything meaningful to society. Members of Tristero are so intent on being different (even though Tristero performs the same task at the established postal service) that no one has time to focus on issues that matter.

    The Crying of Lot 49, Outside of a US Postal Service Building StudySmarter

    Fig. 6: Pynchon uses the boring and mundane subject of the postal service to satirize counterculture that blindly fights the status quo for the sake of being different.

    The Crying of Lot 49 - Key takeaways

    • The Crying of Lot 49 was written by Thomas Pynchon and published in 1965.
    • This postmodernist novel centers around a fictional conspiracy theory involving the postal service and a secret underground rival (Tristero).
    • The central character, Oedipa Maas, searches for the truth about Tristero after inheriting her ex-lover's massive estate. It is unclear if Tristero exists or if he is playing an elaborate prank.
    • The main symbol in the novel is the muted postal horn, used to symbolize rebellion and the things authority figures keep hidden.
    • The main themes in The Crying of Lot 49 are reality vs. conspiracy, modern society, and counterculture.

    The Crying of Lot 49, Crisis banner, StudySmarter


    1. Fig. 3: Muted Post Horn ( by Zafiroblue05 ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Crying of Lot 49

    How many pages is The Crying of Lot 49?

    The Crying of Lot 49 is about 150 pages but varies depending on the edition. 

    What is the point of The Crying of Lot 49?

    The Crying of Lot 49 is about discerning the actual truth from what those in charge present as fact. 

    Who wrote The Crying of Lot 49?

    The Crying of Lot 49 was written by Thomas Pynchon.

    What is the central message of The Crying of Lot 49?

    The central message in The Crying of Lot 49 is not everything is as it seems. 

    What genre is The Crying of Lot 49?

    The Crying of Lot 49 is a postmodernist fiction novel. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What does John Nefastis claim his machine can do?

    True or false: Tristero is a real organization

    Where is Oedipa at the end of the novel?


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