Kurt Vonnegut

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What are some study notes for "Unready to Wear"?

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In this short story, Dr. Konigswasser has developed a technique that allows one to extricate his psyche/soul from his body and live as a disembodied essence or place it into another body. This has huge implications because it basically allows everyone to move into better, younger bodies, thus giving people much longer lives. This seems to be a dystopian (or utopian, depending on your interpretation of the story) scenario for the future. Konigswasser’s technique seems to be an exercise of mind over matter rather than some computerized technological advance.

The narrator and his wife, Madge, lived during the time of this discovery. Dr. Konigswasser published his findings and soon thereafter, millions put it into practice. While walking, and with concentration, people could leave their bodies. This led to the storage and housing of countless extra (presumably better and younger) bodies that people could plop back into. Being able to leave one’s body and move into another is called “amphibious.” This refers to amphibians which live in land and in water. But the notion “amphibious” also alludes to evolution. At some point in the distant evolutionary past, animals from the sea came onto land and eventually adapted to life on land. This suggests that Konigswasser’s discovery is a sign of progress.

The narrator notes that with a body, he has many worries: hunger, pain, fear, etc. Without a body, none of these things are a concern. One concern, however, is the war (a kind of cold war) with the “oldsters,” people who refuse to jump on the body-swapping bandwagon. The narrator and Madge get kidnapped by this enemy group, but manage to escape by threatening to take over their bodies and march them off a cliff.

There are drawbacks. They have to house and sustain warehouses of bodies. They need food for when people use bodies. The narrator also misses his old life and business. They experience nostalgia. He still cleans the equipment and his wife still cleans the house (after getting a body to do it), but the narrator implies that youngsters do not have emotional ties to this old way of living: ergo, no emotional ties to the physical world. Such a story begs the question: are they truly better off? Is this “progress?” The narrator also hints at a future drawback. He notes that “youngsters” (those born after amphibious living became mostly standard) will probably forget about taking care of the storage centers.

This is the kind of science fiction that is ripe for analysis and comparison. There are themes of ignoring the physical world, superficiality, homogenization, mind/body dualism, and environmentalism to name a few. The story predates the internet, but comparisons could be made between the disembodied amphibians and online avatars/virtual reality (people living out of their bodies).

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"Unready to Wear" by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a short story that features a male narrator, Herb; his wife, Madge; and the inventor of being amphibious, Dr. Konigswasser. Herb describes his life as an "amphibious" being. To be "amphibious" in the new sense of the word means that Herb, and many others like him, can exist just as a thought or a soul for most of the time, and he can choose to inhabit a human body when he wants to. He explains, however, that most of the time being in a body is annoying because it has so many practical wants and there are so many things you need to do to maintain it. Bodies "are pure nuisances when you stop and think about them" (Vonnegut, 147). They make people tired, hungry, sick, irritable, and so on. Since bodies make people feel insecure, feeble, weak, or just plain annoyed, they also cause problems between people. At a big event, for example, when many "amphibians" are occupying bodies, "people couldn't help being out of sorts, stuck in sweltering, thirsty bodies for hours" (Vonnegut, 150).

Dr. Konigswasser first discovered how to become amphibious and wrote a book about it that changed the world. Herb and Madge decided to become "amphibious" because Madge was so sick that her body was going to die soon anyway. Everyone who is "amphibious" appears to love it, but humans who still occupy bodies are afraid of the "amphibians" and are at war with them. They end up trapping Madge and Herb with some booby-trapped bodies and put them on trial. They accuse them of deserting humanity and shirking their duties as humans. During the trial, Herb reaches the conclusion that because people are afraid of having their bodies be uncomfortable or captive or destroyed, fear is the only weapon humans have. Without fear of capture, pain, or destruction, they are powerless. Herb uses this fear to make the court afraid and escapes with Madge.

Some of the major themes of the story include the following:

  1. The drudgery of human life and how much people have to go through to simply survive.
  2. Fear as a motivator in human behavior.
  3. Body image and its ties to self-esteem, value, and worth.
  4. Body competition and the envy and conflict it creates between people.
  5. The inability to let go of material worth and material possessions.
  6. The debate between staying and fighting for what you believe in or abstaining from the struggle.
  7. The value of the mind versus the body, action versus thought, and pure reason versus emotion.
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