Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

It is characteristic of Vonnegut’s fiction that no political or economic program is advanced as a solution to the problems posed in the novel. Instead, he offers rewordings of the Sermon on the Mount, the most memorable of which is Eliot Rosewater’s formulation: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Vonnegut does distinguish between mere poverty and “uselessness” (being skilled, yet unemployed), noting that “uselessness will kill strong and weak souls alike. . . .” Among Eliot’s clients, for example, is Sherman Wesley Little, “a suicidal tool-and-die maker who had been laid off.” Another character related to this theme is Harry Pena, a professional fisherman and chief of the Pisquontuit Volunteer Fire Department. He is strong, masculine, virile, fishes for real fish in a real boat on a salty sea—the ultimate symbol of dignity in this novel. Instead of showing, however, how the wretched masses might attain Pena’s pinnacle, Vonnegut informs the reader, through the homosexual restaurant owner Bunny Weeks, that Harry Pena is about to go bankrupt. “That’s all over,” says Weeks, “men working with their hands and backs. They are not needed.”

Vonnegut makes a point of extolling volunteer firemen, who attain dignity by helping others without pay.