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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of a man who wants to help the less fortunate and another man who wants to gain control of his employer's fortune.

Eliot Rosewater is a veteran and the head of the Rosewater foundation, which oversees millions used for...

(The entire section contains 1219 words.)

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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of a man who wants to help the less fortunate and another man who wants to gain control of his employer's fortune.

Eliot Rosewater is a veteran and the head of the Rosewater foundation, which oversees millions used for charitable donations and helping people. He decides to go out into America and meet people, view small towns, and try to figure out how to help people more. He ends up in Rosewater, Indiana, and decides that he'll help those people.

Meanwhile, Norman Mushari, a lawyer for the Rosewater Foundation, is scheming to prove that Eliot is insane so that the money goes to his heir, Fred. Mushari believes he can control Fred and profit from this. He tracks Eliot, recording his conversations and saving his letters. Eventually, he pays people in Rosewater to say negative things about him. His actions become obvious to Lister, Eliot, and their lawyer; Mushari is unsuccessful in his gambit.

Eliot's plans enrage his father and distress his wife. Sylvia eventually divorces him, returns to Paris, and eventually enters a nunnery in Belgium where she's not allowed to speak. Eliot spends a year in a mental institution and is visited by his favorite science fiction author, Kilgore Trout. Trout explains that the things Eliot is doing are good things even if they don't make a great impact. He says that it's important to care about people simply because they are people. He helps show Eliot's father, Senator Lister Rosewater, that Eliot isn't insane. This helps Eliot keep control of the Foundation.

Ultimately Eliot claims all the fatherless children in Rosewater as his own children. They'll receive his inheritance. He gets the idea from Mushari having women pretend Eliot fathered their children. His father is trying to defend him and proves the first woman who said Eliot fathered her children was lying—but Eliot doesn't care about their genetics. Eliot says to let the children he's claimed know that he loves them no matter what they grow up to be.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

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 several novels and is perhaps his best-known character. Trout argues that Eliot is not insane—what he has done is to conduct a social experiment. “The problem is this,” says Trout: “How to love people who have no use?” The answer, he says, is to find a way of “treasuring human beings because they are human beings.” That is what volunteer fire fighters do and what Eliot has tried to do in a society in which such a response is rare.

Vonnegut once said in an interview that the Dresden firebombing was less of an influence on him than the Great Depression. True or not, he is certainly deeply concerned with the kinds of socioeconomic issues stamped in his memory in those years; this novel emphasizes those issues (as does the later Jailbird). It offers no easy answers, but its implications seem almost as religious as political and may owe as much to the Sermon on the Mount as to the political or economic theories of Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes. At the end, Eliot is echoing biblical language and might be seen as a kind of modern saint or Christ figure. The novel asks what this acquisitive age would make of someone who advocated giving everything to the poor. Where limitless greed is condoned and approved, a new Christ would seem crazy unless a crafty Trout could help out.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater has some of Vonnegut’s most interestingly developed characters. The interactions between Eliot, his father, and his wife are psychologically complex. The rest of the cast are caricatures, but they are just what is needed for the novel’s moral commentary—and for the broad comedy that stops it from becoming too didactic.

At the point that Eliot’s mind snaps, he imagines that he sees Indianapolis consumed by the Dresden firestorm. Other than the references to fires and fire fighters, there is little other allusion to the apocalypse that is to dominate Vonnegut’s next novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Yet the story of a man who returns from the war haunted and changed by what he has seen parallels the author’s experience and paves the way for his next protagonist, Billy Pilgrim.

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