Kurt Vonnegut Essay - Critical Essays

Kurt Vonnegut American Literature Analysis

Vonnegut has spoken of his experience of being in Dresden in 1945, when that city was firebombed and perhaps a hundred thousand lives were lost, as being an early motivation to write. Although it was not until his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, that he actually based a book on that experience, his first five novels point in that direction. Notably, there is an apocalyptic event involved in each of those novels. There is also the descent into an underground place—much as he went underground to survive Dresden—from which the protagonist emerges with a new view of the world. In this way, Vonnegut weaves together personal experience with the mythic pattern of descent (Jonah into the belly of the whale, Orpheus into the underworld) as prelude to rebirth, transformation, or new knowledge.

Other patterns discernible in Vonnegut’s novels clearly draw on personal history. Vonnegut’s father was a retiring person who, after his prolonged unemployment, became reclusive. The novels contain numerous father-son relationships in which the father is distant. Vonnegut’s mother committed suicide, and he speaks frankly of his “legacy of suicide” and his proneness to depression. He repeatedly treats the themes of isolation, depression, mental illness, and suicide in his characters as manifestations of the stresses of society.

Vonnegut was very close to his sister Alice—in Slapstick, he speaks of her as the imaginary audience to whom he writes—and her death touched him deeply. Perhaps the early loss of the two women closest to him gave rise to a fear of entrusting love to women, as seen in his earlier fiction, in which women frequently withdraw, die, or betray. Certainly a triangle of two men and a woman, reflecting his family structure of the two brothers and the sister, is repeated.

Apart from Dresden, Vonnegut speaks of the Great Depression as being the other shaping event in his life. It gives rise to his interest in socioeconomic topics such as how to achieve full employment, how to distribute the wealth of the nation equitably, how to preserve a sense of individual worth in an automated system, and how to ensure that technology is applied with thought for human needs. Novels such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Jailbird make issues of economics and ethics their main themes, and these issues also make up one of the most persistent themes throughout Vonnegut’s work.

Because his prewar education had a science emphasis, because his brother was a scientist, and because he worked for General Electric’s Research Laboratories, his interest in science and technology was always considerable. In fact, he has said that he did not write science fiction but simply wrote about the world he saw, which was a technologically sophisticated one. He is the product of a generation that saw science produce the atomic bomb and hoped-for breakthroughs such as the insecticide DDT prove poisonous. Science, technology, and the moral and ethical issues raised by their uses occupy a major place in Vonnegut’s fiction. As early as his college years, Vonnegut wrote antiwar columns, and his subsequent works continued such antiwar sentiments as themes, most conspicuously in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Other recurrent motifs bear on social issues: how to overcome individual loneliness in an indifferent urban society; the treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, and women in American history; the plight of the homeless; and the inadequacy of the small nuclear family to deal with the stresses of modern life. Vonnegut describes himself as being like a shaman who responds to and comments on the flux of daily life. This description makes him sound solemn, whereas he is, for many, a comic writer. Much of his humor is satire, mocking the foibles of human behavior and ridiculing aspects of modern society. He sees himself in the tradition of previous satirists such as Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, and Twain.

Such mythic humor is often barbed. At other times, Vonnegut is farcical, finding humor in odd-sounding words, ludicrous situations, comical names, oddly proportioned bodies, and almost anything that might provoke laughter. It is laughter, he sees, that helps people through many testing moments in life. Growing up in the Depression, he saw how the comedy of such entertainers as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, W. C. Fields, and Jack Benny boosted public morale. Vonnegut has even described his books as being like mosaics, where each tile is a separate little joke.

A characteristic of the slapstick comedians such as Laurel and Hardy whom Vonnegut applauds is that they “bargain in good faith with destiny.” They are decent people who honestly try and who naïvely expect fair return. Vonnegut sees most people as being like that, which is one reason why there are few villains in his books. Romantic love, he argues, is overestimated, but what is important is treating other people with “common human decency,” a phrase he often repeats. That also may account for the kindly tone that persists in Vonnegut’s fiction, however sharp the satire.

Stylistically, Vonnegut’s work suggests the influence of his early work in journalism. There is little flourish, elaborate description, or prolonged psychological characterization. His prose is compressed, functional, and curt. In the middle novels, notably Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, exaggeratedly short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are conspicuous.

Vonnegut’s mature fiction also displays characteristics associated with postmodernism, such as declaring its own fictionality, refusing to be consistent in form, and not trying to order a chaotic world. Such elements are seen in the chopped-up and shuffled chronology of Slaughterhouse-Five; Vonnegut’s own appearance in Breakfast of Champions as the author, discussing what he will do next with the characters; his use of drawings and his mixing of history and fantasy in that same book; his basing the world of Deadeye Dick on the characters and setting of his previous work Breakfast of Champions; and the number game ending of Hocus Pocus, in which the reader must unravel a sequence of numerical puzzles to learn the answer to questions posed by the novel’s narrator.

Such characteristics add up to a highly individualized style. This effect is heightened by the way in which Vonnegut enters many of his novels directly and personally. Often there is a character who seems partly autobiographical, standing for some aspect of Vonnegut: Billy Pilgrim, the soldier and prisoner of war in Slaughterhouse-Five, or the science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout, for example. Frequently there is also an autobiographical preface or introduction in which Vonnegut discusses his life and how it relates to the present story. Hence the reader may sense an unusually overt connection between the fiction and the author when reading Vonnegut’s work.

Mother Night

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

A former American double agent comes to suspect that he really was the Nazi he pretended to be.

Mother Night, Vonnegut’s third novel, differs from its predecessors in having no emphasis on technology or use of a fictional future. It is the first to be written with a first-person narrator, which deepens the characterization of the protagonist and intensifies the soul-searching, both on his part and the author’s, that goes on in this novel. Mother Night is also the first of his novels to have an autobiographical introduction, added to the 1966 edition, in which Vonnegut ruminates about his own wartime experience and his being of German origin. He notes: “If I’d been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.” That thought illustrates the moral that Vonnegut sees in this novel: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

The pretense in this story concerns Howard Campbell, an American playwright living in Germany with a German wife as World War II breaks out. Campbell is persuaded to remain in Germany, cultivate the Nazis, and become an American agent. He becomes increasingly successful as a Nazi propagandist, although his broadcasts contain coded information vital to the Allies. At war’s end he is spirited back to New York because his secret role cannot be revealed and he is generally thought to be a Nazi. He is hunted by vengeful patriots and by admiring neo-Nazis racists—and by the Israelis, to whom he eventually delivers himself.

Campbell’s narrative is written in an Israeli prison as he searches himself for the answers to the question of whether he was really the Nazi he pretended to be or the secret spy, whether he did more to further Nazi crimes than he needed to, and what he would have done if the Germans had won. He had always believed that his propaganda was too ludicrous to believe and that he could remain detached from the horrors around him, yet the fact remained that many Nazis found him inspirational. What sustained Campbell during the war was the love of his actress wife, Helga Noth. They would retreat into a private world of love, defined by their big double bed, and become a separate “Nation of Two.” That escape is denied when Helga disappears while entertaining German troops.

Clearly, this novel raises questions of the “good Germans” who opposed the Nazis but never spoke out against them or their atrocities, and it probably looks back to the Joseph McCarthy hearings of the early 1950’s, when the American government was involved in a “witch-hunt” for suspected Communists. Almost certainly it reflects some doubts on Vonnegut’s part about his former role as a public relations person at General Electric. It also prompts readers to ask themselves about those situations in which they may have believed they remained inwardly loyal to certain values while doing nothing publicly to oppose their violation. The novel takes a hard look at how people survive in such times as the Nazi reign, either believing themselves secretly aloof or escaping into narrow personal worlds, or by what Vonnegut calls “schizophrenia”—simply obliterating a part of their consciousness.

In the end, Campbell commits suicide, condemning himself for “crimes against myself.” He is unable to unravel the pros and cons of his public role; what he does know is that he betrayed his conscience and misused both his love for Helga and his integrity as a writer. The issue of a writer’s integrity comes up in several of Vonnegut’s novels, starting with Player Piano. His writers frequently have to decide whether to compromise in order to achieve sales, for example, or determine what responsibility they bear for actions to which they may prompt their readers.

Campbell goes from being a romantic playwright dealing in pure fantasy to a propagandist contributing to hideous atrocities. Mother Night also extends the moral issue to include everyone, inasmuch as they may try to author parts of their lives, create illusions for themselves, and manipulate others like characters. Mother Night, especially with its added introduction, reflects Vonnegut’s ruminations about Dresden and about the contradictions implicit in his being a German American fighting against Germans, who then is nearly killed by the Americans. It reflects his concerns about the Allies’ destruction of historic, nonmilitary Dresden and thousands of civilian lives in the name of a noble cause. It also shows him moving to a first-person voice, which enables him to explore directly the inner doubts such issues raise. The novel is especially compelling because its questions are not easy to resolve. Howard Campbell’s dilemma is no easier for the reader to resolve than it is for him. He remains one of Vonnegut’s most complete characterizations, the more haunting because the reader may think, on a smaller scale, that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Cat’s Cradle

First published: 1963

Type of work: Novel

A careless scientific genius leaves his children crystals that turn all the world’s water into ice.

Cat’s Cradle is narrated by “Jonah,” or John, who originally intends to write a book about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima called “The Day the World Ended.” The book he ends up writing is the present one, which could have the same title, although it is about a different apocalypse. John sets out to interview “Newt,” the son of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “’Fathers’ of the first atom bomb.”

There are three Hoenikker children: Frank, the oldest; Angela, a tall musician; and the diminutive Newt. The father has left each of his children a vial of crystals of ice-nine, a compound that turns water to ice at room temperature. Angela has used hers to buy a “tom cat husband” who turns out to be a United States agent, Newt has turned over his to a tiny dancer from the Bolshoi Ballet who is a Soviet agent, and Frank uses his to gain his position as chief adviser to Papa Monzano, dictator of the island of San Lorenzo, where most of the plot is set.

Also on San Lorenzo is a fugitive preacher named Bokonon, founder of a religion called “Bokononism,” which has been invented as a panacea for the population of an island so destitute that no economic system can possibly help them. Bokononism is outlawed but practiced by virtually everyone on the island. Its tenets are contained in the Books of Bokonon, which begin, “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Vonnegut, the former anthropology student, obviously enjoys inventing this religion, parodying the way religions are shaped to fit the needs of particular times, places, and populations. He also has fun inventing the language made up of the dialect of San Lorenzo and the vocabulary of Bokononism. To Bokononists, nations are “granfalloons,” lies are “foma,” and one’s inevitable destiny is one’s “Zah-mah-ki-bo.”

Ultimately, Papa Monzano uses his ice-nine crystals to commit suicide, thus starting the chain reaction that turns all the world’s water to ice and dooms humanity. Those islanders not already killed join Bokonon in suicide. Jonah plans to write his story of “The Day the World Ended” before he, too, takes ice-nine.

While Cat’s Cradle takes a view of religions that is at once spoofing and anthropologically valid, it also comments on the nature of fiction. In so doing, it draws analogies between preachers and writers. Both use words to persuade audiences of the truth of the visions of the worlds they create. Both, this novel seems to say, may be like the maker of the cat’s cradle, who tells the child it sees the cat and sees the cradle, where there is only string. Bokonon makes a religion of a fiction, just as the writer makes up a plausible world out of words. Bokonon, however, admits his religion is “shameless,” if helpful, lies. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut essentially does the same, prefacing it with the epigraph “Nothing in this book is true” and beginning with a borrowing of Herman Melville’s opening of Moby Dick (1851), possibly the most conspicuous sentence in American literature. He then spoofs serious fictional forms with 127 “chapters,” each with its own joke title, made-up words, calypsos, and poems; a digressive, rambling plot; and a bizarre array of slapstick characters.

While Cat’s Cradle typifies earlier Vonnegut with its ending in mass suicide and the end of the world, it is irresistibly comic and light in tone. In the previous three novels, Vonnegut had worked with recognizable forms: the dystopian novel in Player Piano, the space opera with The Sirens of Titan, and the confessional novel in Mother Night. Cat’s Cradle is strikingly different and shows the author emerging with a style that is uniquely his own. The blend of serious social commentary and irreverent lampooning, of cynicism and compassion, of caricature figures and staccato style, would become Vonnegut’s trademark.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

First published: 1965

Type of work: Novel

An alcoholic philanthropist tries to prove that his obsession with the needy does not mean he is insane.

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 their own lives to help anyone, regardless of who or what they are. Eliot’s philanthropy seems an effort to atone for his mistake and to become a kind of social fire fighter, rescuing those suffocating in the flames of the economic system. At first he tries giving money to charities, museums, and other causes but feels no satisfying consequences of his actions and sinks into alcoholism. He then moves back to Rosewater County, Indiana, his ancestral home, where he organizes fly hunts for the unemployed and dispenses aspirin, sympathy, and glasses of wine to the distraught. He becomes a slovenly slum saint, to the despair of his conservative, hygiene-obsessed senator father, while his wife, Sylvia, breaks down under Eliot’s neglect of her and his obsession with the needy.

An avaricious attorney named Norman Mushari (first seen in The Sirens of Titan) tries to overturn Eliot’s inheritance by proving him insane, but Eliot is rescued by Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s shabby science-fiction writer who reappears in...

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