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 that dominates it, but through the wacky characters and events, Vonnegut examines troubling social issues that he sees pervading America: excessive wealth alongside dire poverty; attitudes that make the poor despised, even by themselves; purposelessness, bred alike by unemployment and unearned riches; and the loneliness, depression, and suicidal complexes generated by such an economic and moral structure.
The trigger for Eliot’s neurosis seems to be that in the war he killed some German soldiers who were actually noncombatant volunteer fire fighters. For Eliot, volunteer fire fighters are the perfect symbolic saviors. Without pay, they will go to the point of risking...
(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 children by Eliot, will come into the presidency of the foundation, and it is Mushari’s aim to be in attendance when the package changes hands—for that...
(The entire section is 661 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Boon, Kevin A. Chaos Theory and the Interpretation of Literary Texts: The Case of Kurt Vonnegut. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Extending the scientific theory of chaos to literary criticism, Boon uses words and phrases such as “strange attractors,” “fractals,” and the “micro/macro connection” to describe certain aspects of Vonnegut’s prose. A somewhat offbeat but nevertheless astute analysis of Vonnegut’s work.
Broer, Lawrence. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. Broer offers an in-depth analysis of individual novels by Vonnegut, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. His study gives the reader a unique perspective on the common themes that run throughout Vonnegut’s work.
Mustazza, Leonard, ed. The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Critical essays present a detailed study of Vonnegut’s various works, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. A biographical introduction as well as a selected bibliography make this a valuable resource.
Reed, Peter J., and Mark Leeds, eds. The Vonnegut Chronicles. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Presenting a series of interviews and critical essays on Vonnegut’s writing, this volume offers a broad variety of opinions and observations from scholars and journalists. A good source of information that helps the reader see more clearly the unique characteristics of individual novels against the wider context of Vonnegut’s work.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991. This collection of Vonnegut’s essays examines both the personal issues and social events that shaped his distinctive writing style as well as his view of modern culture. Vonnegut offers a rare glimpse of his heart in this intimate self-portrait.