Vonnegut has spoken of his experience of being in Dresden in 1945, when that city was firebombed and perhaps a hundred thousand lives were lost, as being an early motivation to write. Although it was not until his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, that he actually based a book on that experience, his first five novels point in that direction. Notably, there is an apocalyptic event involved in each of those novels. There is also the descent into an underground place—much as he went underground to survive Dresden—from which the protagonist emerges with a new view of the world. In this way, Vonnegut weaves together personal experience with the mythic pattern of descent (Jonah into the belly of the whale, Orpheus into the underworld) as prelude to rebirth, transformation, or new knowledge.
Other patterns discernible in Vonnegut’s novels clearly draw on personal history. Vonnegut’s father was a retiring person who, after his prolonged unemployment, became reclusive. The novels contain numerous father-son relationships in which the father is distant. Vonnegut’s mother committed suicide, and he speaks frankly of his “legacy of suicide” and his proneness to depression. He repeatedly treats the themes of isolation, depression, mental illness, and suicide in his characters as manifestations of the stresses of society.
Vonnegut was very close to his sister Alice—in Slapstick, he speaks of her as the imaginary audience to whom he writes—and her death touched him deeply. Perhaps the early loss of the two women closest to him gave rise to a fear of entrusting love to women, as seen in his earlier fiction, in which women frequently withdraw, die, or betray. Certainly a triangle of two men and a woman, reflecting his family structure of the two brothers and the sister, is repeated.
Apart from Dresden, Vonnegut speaks of the Great Depression as being the other shaping event in his life. It gives rise to his interest in socioeconomic topics such as how to achieve full employment, how to distribute the wealth of the nation equitably, how to preserve a sense of individual worth in an automated system, and how to ensure that technology is applied with thought for human needs. Novels such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Jailbird make issues of economics and ethics their main themes, and these issues also make up one of the most persistent themes throughout Vonnegut’s work.
Because his prewar education had a science emphasis, because his brother was a scientist, and because he worked for General Electric’s Research Laboratories, his interest in science and technology was always considerable. In fact, he has said that he did not write science fiction but simply wrote about the world he saw, which was a technologically sophisticated one. He is the product of a generation that saw science produce the atomic bomb and hoped-for breakthroughs such as the insecticide DDT prove poisonous. Science, technology, and the moral and ethical issues raised by their uses occupy a major place in Vonnegut’s fiction. As early as his college years, Vonnegut wrote antiwar columns, and his subsequent works continued such antiwar sentiments as themes, most conspicuously in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Other recurrent motifs bear on social issues: how to overcome individual loneliness in an indifferent urban society; the treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, and women in American history; the plight of the homeless; and the inadequacy of the small nuclear family to deal with the stresses of modern life. Vonnegut describes himself as being like a shaman who responds to and comments on the flux of daily life. This description makes him sound solemn, whereas he is, for many, a comic writer. Much of his humor is satire, mocking the foibles of human behavior and ridiculing aspects of modern society. He sees himself in the tradition of...
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- Critical Essays