Critical Context

Vonnegut’s novels are protest literature, full of black humor and satire employed to provide a moral commentary on the evils of twentieth century life. His early works, such as Player Piano (1952) and Cat’s Cradle (1963), earned for him an enthusiastic cult following, but he emerged as one of the most influential and provocative leaders of the black-humor literary movement of the 1960’s with his apocalyptic Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). These early works often employed science fiction in order to depict bleakly humanity’s self-destructive nature.

In the 1970’s, Vonnegut’s work began focusing more on American social and political history. Jailbird represents his response to the Watergate era as well as important earlier events in American history, but it continues in the parodic, black-humor tradition. Some critics believe that Vonnegut’s work in the 1970’s, and in Jailbird in particular, represents a diminishment of his early creativity. Nevertheless, much of the social and political satire in Jailbird is very effective. Also, Vonnegut seems, for the first time, to be suggesting some moral alternatives to the evils that he depicts. The emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, on kindness and courtesy, on the giving and caring natures of Sarah Wyatt and Mary Kathleen, shows the values that Vonnegut would have replace the impersonal and greedy capitalism that he condemns. His books since Jailbird, especially Deadeye Dick (1982) and Galápagos (1985), continue to offer in small ways some optimistic alternatives to the corrupt systems that humanity has created.