Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

Hocus Pocus is perhaps Vonnegut’s grimmest and most powerful indictment of Americans and American life, indicative of why fifteen years later he would title his collection of essays A Man Without a Country . This novel is set in 2001, enabling Vonnegut a decade earlier to project his vision of...

(The entire section contains 726 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your subscription to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Start your Subscription

Hocus Pocus is perhaps Vonnegut’s grimmest and most powerful indictment of Americans and American life, indicative of why fifteen years later he would title his collection of essays A Man Without a Country. This novel is set in 2001, enabling Vonnegut a decade earlier to project his vision of what America would soon become. What he sees is revealed by his first-person narrator, his typical war veteran; this time, it is a veteran of the Vietnam War—fittingly for this novel, America’s most humiliating military venture. The narrator is presented as the last person to leave by helicopter from the top of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and the experience enables him to emerge from this personal underground a changed man, convinced that all pro-war propaganda is “hocus pocus,” of which he was an admitted master as a military spokesman himself and dedicated to trying to tell the truth, without self-serving deception.

What America has become in the near future is a schizophrenic, disintegrating world, symbolized both by the college for the wealthy but learning-disabled where the narrator finds postwar employment and by the prison for impoverished and uneducated minorities directly across a lake from the college. The U.S. Supreme Court has reinstituted segregation, at least in prisons, and while the number of learning-disabled wealthy students has remained a constant number at three hundred, the prison population has grown constantly, to ten thousand. Also, America is basically under absentee ownership, having been sold bit by bit to foreign nations and individuals by wealthy Americans who “take the money and run,” unwilling to be responsible for America’s future. Race-and class-based uprisings are prevalent, including in the South Bronx, and gasoline is so scarce and expensive that it is to be found only in semisecret locations.

In his role as teacher of physics, the narrator attempts to expose the overweening pride and abysmal ignorance that have generated much of the disintegration of America, both represented by the failed perpetual motion machine created by the college’s founder and prominently placed in the foyer of the college’s library, proof of blind faith in technological solutions by humans who are, in the words of the narrator’s dead war buddy, “1,000 times dumber and meaner than they think they are.” The narrator’s efforts only get him fired as a college teacher, though, with the firing orchestrated by a college trustee who is a conservative television talk-show host and whose daughter uses the technology of voice recording to take the narrator’s statements out of context and thereby convict him of anti-American teaching. As the narrator notes, a history professor at the college says much worse but only about the distant past; however, the narrator, Eugene Debs Hartke (aptly named), talks about America’s present inequalities, injustices, and delusional destructiveness.

After being fired, the narrator is hired by the prison, whose director is a Hiroshima survivor by the mere chance that he went into a ditch to retrieve a ball when the explosion occurred, with all around him incinerated, reflecting Vonnegut’s belief that time and chance are the prime movers of the universe. Inevitably in a race-and class-divided world, a prison break occurs, and the minority prisoners (who are not rehabilitated but only watch television reruns) attack the college and kill the faculty and staff who are present (the students are away on vacation) and are themselves killed when enough American military finally arrive from the Bronx and other intracountry battle fronts to address the prison revolt. Then, since he is Caucasian and educated, and under the assumption that no members of a minority could have planned the break, the narrator is arrested, charged with being the ringleader, and imprisoned, from which location and viewpoint he putatively authors the novel.

Unlike in Galápagos and Bluebeard, there is very little optimism in Hocus Pocus, aside from the narrator’s humane insight and understanding. The novel conveys Vonnegut’s conviction that humans will ultimately destroy themselves, probably sooner than they think, given their arrogance and ignorance and self-deception—their hocus pocus. Vonnegut has admitted that he struggled mightily in writing one more novel, Timequake, and one reason is probably because he subconsciously realized that he said it all in Hocus Pocus and said it incredibly well. Hocus Pocus is the powerful culmination of Vonnegut’s fiction.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Hocus Pocus Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Next

Themes