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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Galápagos is narrated from a future one million years hence by the ghost of Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s frequently used character, science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Leon was beheaded while working as a shipbuilder, and his ghost inhabits a cruise ship bound for Guayaquil, Ecuador, to carry tourists to the Galápagos Islands.

While the ship is awaiting its maiden voyage, the world economic system breaks down under the burben of global debt, and World War III is triggered. Those events, however, which contain typical Vonnegut warnings about contemporary conditions, do not end the human race; what does is a corkscrew-like microorganism that destroys ovaries.

As order breaks down in the port of Guayaquil, ten people escape in the cruise ship. They reach Santa Rosalia, one of the Galápagos Islands. At this point there is only one male, the ship’s captain, and the women include an Indianapolis schoolteacher who eventually becomes the mother of the new human race. She transmits the captain’s sperm to six Indian girls and impregnates them. The male line survives in the baby of a Japanese woman. He is born furry as the result of a genetic mutation caused when his grandparents were caught in the atom bombing of Hiroshima.

Over the succeeding million years, as the descendants of these original survivors reproduce, they adapt to their largely marine life by developing flippers, instead of hands and feet, and smaller, streamlined heads. They also inherit the fur of the Japanese mutant ancestor. Thus they evolve as seal-like “fisherfolk.”

Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory are major themes in this book, and evolution is even reflected in the form of Galápagos. The novel has fifty-two chapters, as the year has weeks. The first part of the book is called “The Thing Was,” capturing the colloquial way to refer to complications in a narrative as well as alluding to the original form of the human animal. The second part’s title is “And the Thing Became,” recounting the adaptation to aquatic life. Having Galápagos narrated by the son of Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout, makes it seem as if the novel itself has evolved out of Vonnegut’s own earlier fiction.

Vonnegut recognizes that evolutionary theory is often misunderstood and that it leaves unanswered questions. He points out that evolution is not simply an inevitable progression of constant improvement. Contingency often shapes the course of events, such as the occurrence of a new virus that destroys female reproductive organs or the mutation caused by the Hiroshima bomb. Moreover, evolution is not always toward the better. For example, in the Irish elk, the deer family’s defense mechanism of antlers was taken to such an extreme that it ultimately led to the extinction of the species.

Some of these ideas Vonnegut treats with typical humor. The convoluted development of the first part of the book, with its many characters, digressions, histories, and coincidences, creates its own kind of whimsical evolution into the main plot concerning the few who reach Santa Rosalia. The short chapters, chopped into subsections, end with suspenseful jokes. It is as if Galápagos itself, like evolution, is shaped not by grand design but by chance and coincidence.

One of the central ideas, comical but pointed, that the novel presents is that the huge human brain has become as burdensome an evolutionary step for humans as the Irish elk’s huge antlers were. Humans’ brains, with their capacity to invent, imagine, and hold opinions, have become their greatest enemies. One problem, Vonnegut posits, is that it has proved impossible for humans to imagine something that could happen without trying to make it happen, often with disastrous results. Similarly, opinions, not necessarily grounded in fact, become so firmly held that they drive humans to irrational acts. In Galápagos , then, Vonnegut reverses the general supposition that as people evolve to higher intelligence they...

(The entire section is 2,427 words.)