Study Guide

Player Piano

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Player Piano Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, belongs to a category referred to as dystopian fiction. Such works depict a future in which scientific advances create a new, nightmarish world. Vonnegut’s setting is the fictional city of Ilium after World War III. Society is run by an elite of manager-engineers. They all live on one side of the river. On the other side of the river live those whose jobs have been taken by automation. They are supported by the state on pensions or in make-work employment. Without jobs or purpose, these displaced persons lack identity and feel that their lives are meaningless.

Paul Proteus is the son of a former Works Manager and seems capable of moving into the highest levels of management himself, but he is troubled by doubts. His wife, Anita, pushes him to advance, but many evenings he slips into old clothes and goes to a bar on the other side of the river. In the bar is a player piano, a key symbol in this novel, as it represents perhaps an early automated replacement of a human.

Increasingly torn between dissatisfaction and pressure to advance, Paul considers the option of buying a farm and opting out of the conflict. Anita rejects that idea. Paul continues to be like his mythical namesake, Proteus, who survived by changing his identity, especially when the company makes him pretend to be a traitor and spy on the rebel Ghost Shirt Society.

Paul is tried as a traitor, and at last forced to...

(The entire section is 440 words.)