After the publication of his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, however, the work of Kurt Vonnegut received increasingly serious critical commentary. He emerged as a consistent commentator on American culture through the second half of the twentieth century. His short stories range from satiric visions of grotesque future societies, which are extensions of modern societies, and portrayals of ordinary people, which reassert the stability of middle-class values. In his novels, the social satire predominates, and Vonnegut blends whimsical humor and something approaching despair as he exposes the foibles of American culture and a world verging on destruction through human thoughtlessness. As in the short stories, however, attention to an unheroic protagonist doing his or her best and to the value of “common human decency” persists.
Best known for his novels, Vonnegut acknowledged the ancillary interest of short stories for him. In the preface to his collection of short stories Welcome to the Monkey House, he describes the stories as “work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels. Here one finds the fruits of Free Enterprise.” Vonnegut’s blunt comment, however, does not imply that the stories can be dismissed out of hand. The themes of the stories are the themes and concerns of all his work. Again, in the preface to Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut describes those concerns in a characteristically tough style. He recalls a letter his brother sent him shortly after bringing his firstborn home from the hospital: “Here I am,” that letter began, “cleaning the shit off of practically everything.” Of his sister, Vonnegut tells us that she died of cancer: “her dying words were ‘No pain.’ Those are good dying words. I realize now that the two main themes of my novels were stated by my siblings: ‘Here I am cleaning the shit off of practically everything’ and ‘No pain.’” These terms apply equally well to the themes of Vonnegut’s short stories. His muckraking is frequently social satire; his concern is with the alleviation of human suffering.
Vonnegut’s short stories generally fall into two broad categories: those that are science fiction, and those that are not. The science fiction characteristically pictures a future society controlled by government and technology, whose norms have made human life grotesque. The protagonist is often an outlaw who has found such norms or conventions intolerable.
In contrast, Vonnegut’s stories that are not science fiction regularly affirm social norms. Ordinary life in these stories is simply not threatened by large-scale social evil. Some of these stories indeed depict the victims of society—refugees, displaced persons, juvenile delinquents—but primarily they show such people’s efforts to recover or establish conventional lives. It is within the context of conventional life that Vonnegut’s protagonists can achieve those qualities which in his view give a person stability and a sense of worth. These are the qualities of modesty, considerateness (which he often calls common human decency), humor, order, and pride in one’s work. They are values interfered with, in the science-fiction stories, by governmental and technological controls.
Vonnegut resented any dismissal of his work merely because it is science fiction, a kind of writing he described as incorporating “technology in the human equation.” In the novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Eliot Rosewater speaks for Vonnegut when he delivers an impassioned, drunken, and impromptu defense of the genre before a convention of science-fiction writers:I love you sons of bitches. You’re all I read any more. You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple...
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- Critical Essays