Breaking Down Barriers

“‘What’s integration mean?’ Tim asked Grover.
‘The opposite of differentiation,’ Grover said, drawing an x-axis, y-axis and curve on his greenboard. ‘Call this function of x. Consider values of the curve at tiny little increments of x’ – drawing straight vertical lines from the curve down to the x-axis, like the bars of a jail cell – ‘you can have as many of these as you want, see, as close together as you want.’
‘Till it’s all solid,’ Tim said.
‘No, it never gets solid. If this was a jail cell, and those lives were bars, and whoever was behind it could make himself any size he wanted to be, he could always make himself skinny enough to get free. No matter how close together the bars were.’
‘This is integration,’ said Tim.
‘The only kind I ever heard of,’ said Grover.” (186-187)

In “The Secret Integration,” Pynchon draws an analogy between racial integration and Grover’s explanation of the term used for integral calculus. According to Pynchon’s analogy, racial integration breaks down the barriers between whites and blacks so that they become a community, just as the young boys have initiated Carl Barrington into their group. The young boys exemplify a judgment-free, ideal, classless group. With the forthcoming civil rights movement, the young boys struggle to understand the meaning of integration and their parents’ stubborn racism while growing up in a generation of change and acceptance as they instinctively invite Carl into their gang. Although Carl Barrington is revealed to be a figment of the young boys’ imaginations, his acceptance into the group of young boys shows the hope of a new generation’s first step toward racial integration.

In his analogy, Pynchon demonstrates not only the importance of integration and racial tolerance, but also the innate humanity that a younger generation can demonstrate. The lines of Grover’s graph, as he points out, can be seen as bars of a jail cell. Racial integration allows blacks to be free of those bars.

The young boys occupy their time playing practical jokes while also plotting a large-scale anti-institution revolt. Grover hates institutions and any “scaled-up world adults made” that they live in without him (143). He also hates the world “uneducable,” which he refuses to explain to his friends, because it suggests inequality as he compares it to derogatory terms (150). The young boys, especially Grover, are clearly aware of discrimination and see it as the fault of higher institutions, which are led by adults, but they are also surprised by their own parents’ stubborn racism. Although the group may seem rowdy, they are political minded youth looking to reverse a system that they view is wrong. And with the surprising twist that Carl was a figment of their imagination, it is revealed that Carl was their secret integration. For the adults, Carl is not there, and they never want him to be there. Carl is a playmate the young boys can spend endless hours with because he is a collection of phrase and images “that grownups had somehow turned away from” (192).

One thought on “Breaking Down Barriers”

  1. I find it interesting that Grover uses math in metaphor to explain integration to Tim. Besides the reference to prison, Grover uses the logical means of trigonometry and, in doing so, inadvertently uses one of three universal languages in the world: Mathematics overcomes social, class, racial, national, and generational barriers. Like music and motion, it is something that unites every human on earth. The point of the bars is to show that the races will never be separated no matter how hard the older generation tries. “The next day he was in school, and every day after that…the teacher never called on him, though he was as smart on grover in some things.” (188).

    It is not a coincidence that Grover is the one speaking the universal language. He is the leader of the progressives who are in active revolt against those who would betray their ambiguous friend Carl even before they know him. Grover has always had the sense that something isn’t right “I hate Tom Swift!’ He yelled…’it’s awful the guys a …racist.’..Do they want me to ready that stuff so i’ll be like that?” (144-45).

    Before the name calling, the integration, the adult pranks, and the harassment; before all of the evil and eventually, Carl’s estrangement, Grover, Etienne, and Tim had felt that there was something off about their parents and, as people who broke down the borders that their elders built, tried to usurp them at every turn.

Leave a Reply