by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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"Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops." What does Vonnegut mean in this quote from Slaughterhouse-Five?

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Billy Pilgrim's mother buys a crucifix from a gift shop on a family trip to Santa Fe; though she is not deeply religious, she buys it to make herself feel better in some way. It is a trivializing act and signals the crass and empty commercialism that is another target of Vonnegut's satire in the novel; this anecdote is especially emphatic because it includes a sacred symbol that she treats so thoughtlessly.

A common criticism of America is that its consumer culture is too closely tied to the nation's identity. Success is defined by the size of one's home and the proliferation of one's possessions; conspicuous consumption is the ideal. Even among people without much disposable income, buying trinkets to clutter up one's home in some way fills a void. Gift shops are a place where items are staged to suggest a lifestyle, and people like Billy's mother buy into the idea, literally and figuratively, in a vain attempt to feel like they are worthy.

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Vonnegut is referring to two things in his typical acerbic way.  For one thing, Americans often think that "things" will buy them happiness, and frequently these "things" are useless pretty junk. 

But more importantly, I believe Vonnegut is criticizing the platitudes found on gift shop trinkets, philosophically dumbed down phrases that have little or nothing to do with thinking.  For example, "Grow where you're planted!"  or "If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, it's yours!" ... things like that. 

By purchasing these items with their words of dubious wisdom, we try to give the appearance of caring and thought, and fork over the $9.99, and hope it works.

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