Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or, Pearls Before Swine is the story of a multimillionaire who, traumatized by a wartime experience, tries to compensate with philanthropy and by treating the underprivileged with kindness. He seeks to enact the slogan, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,” which some have seen as the essence of Vonnegut. This proves to be difficult and complicated, however, in a society that equates riches with merit and morality, and poverty with sloth and undeservingness. Eliot Rosewater’s egalitarian efforts cause universal doubt about his sanity, drive his wife to a breakdown, infuriate his father to the point of obsession, and eventually lead to his own mental collapse.
Vonnegut writes that a sum of money, the Rosewater fortune, is the central character of the novel. The distribution of wealth and its social and psychological consequences is certainly the novel’s central theme. One can see the impact on Vonnegut’s life of the Great Depression behind this novel. Through prolonged unemployment, his father became purposeless and reclusive, while his mother could not live in the style in which she had been raised, and she was anguished to the point of suicide.
A second major theme of this book is neurosis. Almost every character suffers some degree of mental affliction, often accompanied or caused by physical malaise. The craziness contributes to both the poignancy that occurs in this novel and the humor...
(The entire section is 875 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The focal point of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is Eliot Rosewater’s sustained effort to comfort the unredeemable poor. Son of the famous Senator Lister Rosewater, born to great wealth, and with a Harvard University Ph.D. in international law, Eliot gradually comes to reject the values and traditions of his family and turns heavily to drink as he approaches middle age. One day, he leaves his New York town house and returns dramatically to the one-time family seat, Rosewater, Indiana, where he eventually opens a wretched office in a shotgun attic above a lunchroom and liquor store. As president of the Rosewater Foundation, Eliot controls millions of dollars for disbursement to worthy applicants. He advertises in local telephone booths: “Don’t Kill Yourself. Call the Rosewater Foundation,” and he dispenses minor sums of money (one hundred dollars for the promise to go on living another week), small doses of medicine (two aspirins in a glass of wine), and modest expressions of love (“Call any time you want, dear. That’s what I’m here for”).
The Senator is appalled by his son’s perverse compassion for “the maggots in the slime on the bottom of the human garbage pail,” but Norman Mushari, a sly lawyer with access to the Rosewater money package, is delighted by Eliot’s evident insanity. For if that insanity can be proved legally, then the listless, incompetent Fred Rosewater, the next closest relative in the absence of...
(The entire section is 661 words.)