Study Guide

Galápagos

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Galápagos Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Galápagos is narrated from a future one million years hence by the ghost of Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s frequently used character, science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Leon was beheaded while working as a shipbuilder, and his ghost inhabits a cruise ship bound for Guayaquil, Ecuador, to carry tourists to the Galápagos Islands.

While the ship is awaiting its maiden voyage, the world economic system breaks down under the burben of global debt, and World War III is triggered. Those events, however, which contain typical Vonnegut warnings about contemporary conditions, do not end the human race; what does is a corkscrew-like microorganism that destroys ovaries.

As order breaks down in the port of Guayaquil, ten people escape in the cruise ship. They reach Santa Rosalia, one of the Galápagos Islands. At this point there is only one male, the ship’s captain, and the women include an Indianapolis schoolteacher who eventually becomes the mother of the new human race. She transmits the captain’s sperm to six Indian girls and impregnates them. The male line survives in the baby of a Japanese woman. He is born furry as the result of a genetic mutation caused when his grandparents were caught in the atom bombing of Hiroshima.

Over the succeeding million years, as the descendants of these original survivors reproduce, they adapt to their largely marine life by developing flippers, instead of hands and feet, and smaller, streamlined heads. They also inherit the fur of the Japanese mutant ancestor. Thus they evolve as seal-like “fisherfolk.”

Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory are major themes in this book, and evolution is even reflected in the form of Galápagos. The novel has fifty-two chapters, as the year has weeks. The first part of the book is called “The Thing Was,” capturing the colloquial way to refer to complications in a narrative as well as alluding to the original form of the human animal. The second part’s title is “And the Thing Became,” recounting the adaptation to aquatic life. Having Galápagos...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

Galápagos Extended Summary

Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut is a satiric novel published in 1985. Its primary target is the “oversized human brain” and its role in natural selection. The novel is narrated by Leon Trotsky Trout, the deceased son of Vonnegut’s recurring character, Kilgore Trout. Leon, a ghost, speaks to the reader from a million years in the future, by which time humanity has evolved to become like seals. This evolutionary process can be traced back to the year 1986, on Santa Rosalia, a fictional addition to the Galápagos Islands.

The novel begins by introducing the Galápagos Islands, particularly the mystery of how these isolated islands came to have such a diverse population of animals. The narrator explains that the "big brains" of people a million years ago speculated that the animals might have traveled aboard natural rafts. Others suggested that the animals might have traveled across a land bridge that later disappeared, though there was no trace of such a bridge. The islands were clearly created by volcanic activity, so they could not once have been part of the landmass of South America. Were they put there by a divine creator? Or perhaps the animals were deposited there from Noah’s Ark? That last hypothesis is noteworthy since Galápagos is about another collection of isolated animals that survive the extinction of the rest of the earth. Before the end of the novel, Santa Rosalia will have become like a second Ark. Why not credit the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark with the transport of those animals to the Galápagos Islands?

The narrator explains that James Wait, like any other person in 1986, intends to travel to the islands from Guayaquil, Ecuador, aboard a boat. In fact, Wait will travel as part of the “Nature Cruise of the Century” aboard the Bahía de Darwin. Leon explains that the ship is named after Charles Darwin, the naturalist who famously traveled to the Galápagos Islands and who wrote On the Origin of Species. The theories that Darwin produced in his work would do

more to stabilize people’s volatile opinions of how to identify success or failure than any other tome…and the name of his book summed up its pitiless contents.

James Wait, incidentally, is a “fabulously well to do” con artist that marries women and then takes their fortunes. He views his way of life as one that tests his survival skills, though Leon describes him as a “monster.”

The Nature Cruise of the Century was originally to include celebrities like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mick Jagger, but the final group was comparatively common. The passengers range from Mary Hepburn (an American teacher) to Hisako Hiroguchi (a Japanese teacher of ikeban, or flower arranging) to Adolph von Kleist (the captain of the ship in whose genes are the code for Huntington’s chorea). Zenji Hiroguchi, who is married to Hisako, has invented a device that translates language and stores information, which has itself evolved from the Gokubi to the Mandarax. (Vonnegut relies on this device to insert quotes from figures ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Benjamin Franklin throughout the novel.) It is a diverse passenger list, but a million years after 1986, all of humanity will have descended from members of this group.

The narrator outlines several catastrophes that are about to take place. Sadly, the world of 1986 is in the midst of a financial crisis. The value of paper money has been reevaluated. Now, many countries are facing serious economic problems, ones that are causing citizens to starve in countries that rely on international trade for food. Countries like Peru, Ecuador, and others have gone bankrupt, and the Bahía de Darwin is one of only two ships in...

(The entire section is 1568 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear