Oedipa Maas. Who names a kid that?

Names in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

A story in the New Yorker in the mid-1990s once captured my attention. It suggested Thomas Pynchon sometimes concealed his name and identity in public. Who can blame him?

In “Godzilla Meets Indie Rock,” the members of the rock band Lotion suggest that Pynchon initially protected his identity from them by introducing himself only as Tom. As their relationship developed and he took them out to eat, the band members noticed he always paid for their lunches with cash.


Tony Zajkowski, the lead singer, expresses a desire to confirm Pynchon’s identity and name when he is quoted as saying, “I’m dying to see the Amex card. You know-Thomas Pynchon, card member since 1978” (44). This New Yorker story presented us with a Pynchon who seemed to know the power of a name.

Pynchon’s Character Names

It doesn’t take long for readers of The Crying of Lot 49 to realize there is something up with the names. The central character’s name is not one most of us have heard before: Mrs. Oedipa Maas.

Of course, eccentrically named characters, whether central or supporting characters, were not new to Pynchon when he wrote The Crying of Lot 49. After all, Benny Profane led the cast of V. The names continued in his works long after Lot 49: Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, Prairie Wheeler in Vineland, Wicks Cherrycoke in Mason and Dixon, Webb Traverse in Against the Day, Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice, and Conkling Speedwell in Bleeding Edge.

Oedipa Maas Changing Names and Their Meanings

Attentive readers of The Crying of Lot 49 know that Oedipa’s name changes throughout the story. Oedipa, the narrator, and other characters call her by various names: Oedipa  [9]; Oed [12]; Mrs. Maas  [28]; Miz Maas [94]; Oedipa Maas  [108]; Arnold Snarb [110]; Mrs. Edna Mash [139]; Edna [140]; missus [146]; Miles, Dean, Serge,  and/or Leonard  [170]; and Grace Bortz  [171].

Photo of Sophocles bust

It’s no wonder that Oedipa Maas is a name that has intrigued readers and critics as much as any name given by Pynchon. There are dozens of interpretations of the name. Some take the name as it is. Most readers see Oedipa is close to Sophocles’ Oedipus. The name suggests she might be a tragic character, a quester for truth, or a riddle solver.

Many others suggest the name alludes to modern ideas. Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal Complex is often mentioned, and abbreviation for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also emerges.

Others play with the initials of Oedipa Maas: The OM make the sound of used by some meditating or in some rock songs. The O at the start of her name and the A at the end also suggest Alpha and Omega.

Oedipa on the Web

Obviously, there are a lot of interpretations. Check out The Crying of Lot 49 Wiki for some ideas or Emma Miller’s “The Naming of Oedipa Maas” for a scholarly analysis.

Two that seem to fit our setting on the web relate to the last name Maas. Catherine Davidson noted in her 1977 article that Oedipa sounds like the Afrikaner word for “Net” or “Web.” Colvile and Duyfhuizen have suggested the sound of the last name is not too far from “Mass,” as in mass communications.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s