On the edge of the Lybian desert in 1898, Porpentine the spy sits in a café. Through this protagonist, Pynchon immediately introduces two other characters: the absent Moldweorp, Porpentine's superior; and Goodfellow, Porpentine's partner of two and a half years, who joins him for coffee. We learn a bit of history, Porpentine's personality, that he has played the espionage game for more than a decade, and is still actively fleeing some Opposition. Goodfellow has met an English girl he fancies, the tourist Victoria Wren, and invites Porpentine to a party at the Austrian Consulate where she will be present. At the party, among a smattering of European guests, Porpentine makes contact with an agent of the Other side, confirming his own Situation as prey. Porpentine, Goodfellow and Victoria go to the Fink restaurant, sit among more Europeans. Hugh Bongo-Shaftsbury is introduced as a rival for Victoria's attentions and revealed as an ally of Lespius, enemy of Porpentine and Goodfellow. Porpentine has a flashback in which he recollects a violent attack by Moldweorp on a prostitute in Rome. The next day, the crew boards a train for Cairo. Bongo-Shaftsbury's connection with Lespius and his role as a new, mechanical brand of spy are confirmed. Upon arrival in Cairo, Goodfellow and Victoria symbolically split from Porpentine, who simulates stalking Lord Cromer to find out who is really after the Consul-General. Porpentine witnesses a failed sexual encounter between Goodfellow and Victoria. He reflects that the Situation has become a Crisis. Later at the opera, where Cromer is to be assassinated, Porpentine realizes Moldweorp has turned against him. A moonlit chase ensues. Bongo-Shaftsbury, Moldweorp's new line of spy, kills Porpentine under the Sphinx. Goodfellow, witness to this murder, lives--only to fail as a lover and in the prevention of the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand.
In reference to "Under the Rose" in his Slow Learner introduction, Pynchon details three major ideas related, but not restricted, to writing. First, he deals with the notion of ignorance. ["Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person's mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well"(p. 15).] Pynchon pilfered Baedeker's guide to Egypt for material for "Under the Rose," and in this admission addresses plagarism, the need to corroborate one's data, and the importance about writing of what one knows while realizing what one does not know. He then notes that a "shadowy" sense of history led to the question underlying the story: "is history personal or statistical?"(p. 18). Finally, Pynchon suggests the influence of his understanding of Surrealism at the time he wrote "Under the Rose" upon the work. He criticizes his lack of management of the diverse elements combined within the frame of "Under the Rose."
Things "under the rose," or sub rosa, are prevalent in Pynchon. These terms are used in V., The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow. Espionage is the most obvious system of secrecy in this short story. A variety of elements or systems may be recognized as sub-versions of the rose. Victoria Wren's sexual aura (bud or bloom?) is paralleled to the Yorkshire sunset which reminds Porpentine of Home--but it is under the Egyptian sun that the English Porpentine feels exposed to the "danger" of becoming Eastern. Her sexuality is also linked to religious love, under which Porpentine's sense of morality tends towards a general regard for humanity as opposed to an identification with individuals. Porpentine notes that his own generation "has budded, bloomed, and, sensing some blight in the air, folded its petals up again like certain flowers at sunset"(p. 114). Pynchon uses vocabulary of location such as the "rue de Rosette," the "Rosetta arm" of the Nile and the "Quartier Rosetti." Spying, sexuality, issues of Imperialism and the subaltern, systems of faith and morality (in particular, related to a Christian model), time and spatial orientation are all themes which Pynchon develops in his later works. In many ways, "Under the Rose" may be read as a type of allegory in which Porpentine the protagonist tries to protect himself from decadence as he struggles to understand the system under which he is living. Characters like Goodfellow, Victoria and Palmerston, places like Shepheard's hotel and Porpentine's literal falls contextualize his questions of "cleanness" and "virtù." Pynchon later deals with typically allegorical material, the cardinal virtues and the seven deadly sins, in Gravity's Rainbow, in which a main character is named Slothrop. It is also interesting to compare "Under the Rose" to works of the late nineteenth-century Decadence movement in France, in which flowers a malaise similar to Porpentine's realizations of ambiguities in gender roles (intuition, virility), inversions of moral norms, the subversion of biological nature (Bongo-Shaftsbury's arm), and information gained by picking up a prescription for laudanum.
Whatever perspective is taken in reading "Under the Rose," it is obviously a story about viewpoints. It begins with an afternoon actively progressing, is written primarily in third person but voices an "I" belonging to the main character, and ends with an evaluation of Goodfellow that could be classified as a woman's opinion about his capacity as a lover. In Chapter 3 of V., "In which Stencil, a quick-change artist, does eight impersonations," the material in "Under the Rose" is processed from seven human vantage points, and one inanimate view. V. also develops ideas from "Under the Rose" involving Machiavellian ideals.
Pynchon's parallel of Porpentine to the chevalier Des Grieux from Manon Lescaut is an extended allusion used to illuminate the level of construction inherent in Porpentine's society and espionage ring. Des Grieux pines over the lovely Manon in Prévost's book, which has been made into an opera from which Porpentine pulls arias. This is not the first or last example of the song in Pynchon. The storyline of Manon Lescaut deals with ambiguous sexual roles, allegiance and secrecy, the subaltern (French vs American colonies), and morality and fate (Jansenism). At one point in "Under the Rose," Porpentine is implied to be like the "Romantic, horny Des Grieux," and so the allusion also serves as comic relief in fiction aware of its own staging.