Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3290
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...
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cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstandings, mistakes, accidents and catastrophes do to us.
In Eliot Rosewater’s opinion, society’s “greatest prophet” is an obscure writer of science fiction named Kilgore Trout, a recurring character in Vonnegut’s fiction. His masterpiece, the work for which he will be revered in the far future, is a book entitled 2BR02B, a rephrasing of Hamlet’s famous question.
“Welcome to the Monkey House”
The story of 2BR02B, in Vonnegut’s précis, corresponds closely to his own short story, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” Vonnegut writes of his fictional character, “Trout’s favorite formula was to describe a perfectly hideous society, not unlike his own, and then, toward the end, to suggest ways in which it could be improved.” The approach describes Vonnegut’s writing as well. 2BRO2B predicates an America crippled by automation and overpopulation. Machines have taken over most jobs, leaving people idle and feeling “silly and pointless.” The government’s solution has been to encourage patriotic suicide. Ethical Suicide Parlors have been widely established, each identifiable by its purple roof and each located next to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant (with its orange roof), where the prospective client is entitled to a free last meal.
This is also the world of “Welcome to the Monkey House.” The story takes place in Cape Cod in an unspecified future time. Fourteen Kennedys, by now, have served as presidents of the United States or of the world. There is a world government; in fact, in this world, Vonnegut writes, “practically everything was the Government.” Most people look twenty-two years old, thanks to the development of antiaging shots. The population of the world numbers seventeen billion people. For Vonnegut, the world’s dilemma is the result of advanced technology combined with backward human attitudes. Suicide is voluntary, but everyone, under law, must use “ethical” birth control pills that, in fact, control not birth but sexuality. Their effect is to make people numb below the waist, depriving them not of the ability to reproduce, “which would have been unnatural and immoral,” but rather of all pleasure in sex. “Thus did science and morals go hand in hand,” Vonnegut ironically concludes.
The kind of morality that could produce these pills is exemplified in J. Edgar Nation, their inventor. Walking through the Grand Rapids Zoo with his eleven children one Easter, he had been so offended by the behavior of the animals that he promptly developed a pill “that would make monkeys in the springtime fit things for a Christian family to see.” In the opinion of Billy the Poet, a renegade in this society, throughout history those people most eager “to tell everybody exactly how God Almighty wants things here on Earth” have been unaccountably terrified of human sexuality.
Billy the Poet’s special campaign is to deflower hostesses in Ethical Suicide Parlors, who are all, as part of their qualifications for the job, “plump and rosy” virgins at least six feet tall. Their uniform is a purple body stocking “with nothing underneath” and black leather boots. In this world, only death is permitted to be seductive. Billy’s modus operandi is to single out a hostess and send her some bawdy doggerel, calculated to offend (and to excite) narrow sensibilities. Nancy McLuhan, his present target, is more intrigued than she will admit to herself. Billy kidnaps her and takes her to his current hideout, the old Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, now “a museum of how life had been lived in more expansive times. The museum was closed.” The original lawn is now green cement; the harbor is blue cement. The whole of the compound is covered by an enormous plastic geodesic dome through which light can filter. The only “light” in which an earlier graciousness can now be seen is colored by the world’s pervasive vulgarity. The current world president, named “Ma” Kennedy but not the “real thing,” keeps a sign reading “Thimk!” on the wall of her office in the Taj Mahal.
Nancy’s encounter with Billy is not the licentious orgy she expects but an approximation of an old-fashioned wedding night. Billy explains to her that most people only gradually develop a full appreciation of their sexuality. Embarrassed and confused, she tries conscientiously to resist her comprehension of his motives. As he leaves, Billy offers Nancy another poem, this time the famous sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The implication is that sexuality is one dimension of human love sorely lacking in their world. Far from being obscene, that love pursues a larger “ideal Grace,” in the words of the poem, wholly unavailable either to the vulgarity of “Ma” Kennedy or to the narrow-minded purity of J. Edgar Nation. Billy also leaves with Nancy a bottle of birth-control pills that will not hamper sexual enjoyment. On the label are printed the words “WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE.” If Browning’s poem risks sentimentality, the story ends in a comic readjustment of the reader’s sense of proportion. Sex need not be humorless; the reader need not view himself and the human condition with the chilling seriousness and inflated self-importance of J. Edgar Nation. The reader is left with the impression that Nancy McLuhan has begun her conversion. There is a measure of hope in this world where, as Billy assures her, the “movement is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Governmental domination of private life is nearly total, however, in the world of “Harrison Bergeron,” whose inhabitants are tortured and shackled as a matter of course, all in the name of equality. In the United States of 2081, equality of all persons has been mandated by the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution. People are not merely equal under the law, but “equal every which way.” Those people of “abnormal” capacities must wear equalizing handicaps at all times. Hazel Bergeron is a person of average intelligence, which means that “she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.” Her husband, George, however, as a man of superior intelligence, has to wear a “mental handicap radio” in his ear which broadcasts at twenty-second intervals strident noises designed to break his concentration: burglar alarms, sirens, an automobile collision, or a twenty-gun salute. A strong man as well, George wears “forty-seven pounds of bird shot in a canvas bag” padlocked around his neck.
Neither George nor his wife is able to recall that their fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, has just been arrested. They are watching on television a performance by ballerinas also weighted down with bird shot and masked to disguise their beauty. As a law-abiding couple, George and Hazel have only fleeting suspicions that the system is a bad one. If not for such handicaps, George says, “pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else.” When the television announcer cannot deliver a news bulletin because he—“like all announcers”—has a serious speech impediment, Hazel’s response is a well-meaning platitude, “he tried. That’s the big thing.” A ballerina, disguising her “unfair” voice, reads the announcement for him: Harrison Bergeron, “a genius and an athlete,” has escaped from jail.
Suddenly Harrison bursts into the television studio. A “walking junkyard,” he wears tremendous earphones, thick glasses, three hundred pounds of scrap metal, a rubber ball on his nose, and black caps on his teeth. In this reductio ad absurdum of the ideal of equality, the technology is pointedly silly. “I am the Emperor!” Harrison cries, and tears off his handicaps, revealing a man who “would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.” Harrison is rival to the gods. A ballerina joins him as his empress. Freed of her restraints, she is “blindingly beautiful.” Whatever the reader may perceive as ultimate human beauty, Harrison and the ballerina are that. Together the two of them dance in “an explosion of joy and grace” equally as fantastic as the shackles they have thrown off. They leap thirty feet to kiss the ceiling and hover midair to embrace each other, “neutralizing gravity with love and pure will.” They have defied the laws of the land, the law of gravity, the laws of motion. They dance out the soaring aspiration of the human spirit, for a moment made triumphantly manifest.
The United States Handicapper General, ironically named Diana Moon Glampers, then breaks into the television studio and shoots them both. Her ruthless efficiency is in marked contrast to the bumbling capabilities of everyone else. The reader is suddenly aware that the idea of equality has been made an instrument of social control. Clearly some are allowed to be more equal than others. In their home, Harrison’s parents are incapable of either grief or joy. They resume their passive, acquiescent lives, having forgotten the entire scene almost as soon as they witnessed it.
If the conventional life depicted in Vonnegut’s work other than his science fiction has not been made this grotesque by technology and government, it is, nevertheless, also humdrum and uninspiring. These limitations, however, are more than compensated for by the fact that ordinary people feel useful, not superfluous, and they are capable of sustaining love. This dynamic is especially true of “Poor Little Rich Town,” first published in Collier’s and reprinted in Bagombo Snuff Box. In this story an entire village rejects the wisdom of an efficiency expert, Newell Cady. The bonds of community love win over logic, because the townspeople do not want the postmistress to lose her job.
“Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son”
In “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son” the narrator’s occupation is selling and installing “aluminum combination storm windows and screens” and occasionally a bathtub enclosure. He marks as “the zenith of [his] career” an order for a glass door for a film star’s bathtub specially fixed with a life-sized picture of the film star’s face on it. He is comically intent on installing the enclosure and on doing the job well, even as the star’s household disintegrates around him. Yet if it is funny, the narrator’s pride in his mundane work is also the basis of stability in his life, a stability visibly lacking in the apparently glamorous life of Gloria Hilton, the film star. Also installing two windows for her, he says about them,The Fleetwood Trip-L-Trak is our first-line window, so there isn’t anything quick or dirty about the way we put them up. You can actually fill up a room equipped with Fleetwoods with water, fill it clear up to the ceiling, and it won’t leak—not through the windows, anyway.
While the narrator is at work in the bathroom, Gloria Hilton is engaged in dismissing her fifth husband. She speaks to him, as she always speaks, in a series of fatuous clichés. She tells him, “You don’t know the meaning of love,” after earlier seducing him away from his family with the words, “Dare to be happy, my poor darling! Oh, darling, we were made for each other!” She had then promptly announced to the press that the two of them were moving to New Hampshire “to find ourselves.” In the narrator’s (and the reader’s) only glimpse of Gloria Hilton, she is without makeup (“she hadn’t even bothered to draw on eyebrows”) and dressed in a bathrobe. He decides, “that woman wasn’t any prettier than a used studio couch.” Her actual commonplaceness and utter self-absorption are patent.
Her hapless fifth husband is a writer, George Murra, of whom she had expected no less than “the most beautiful scenario anybody in the history of literature has ever written for me.” In the constant publicity and tempestuousness of their lives together, however, he has been unable to work at all. He had been lured by a hollow glamour, she by the possibility of greater self-glorification. The superficiality of their marriage is revealed in his references to her as “Miss Hilton,” and her contemptuous parting words: “Go on back to your precious wife and your precious son.”
In a long drinking session together after Gloria leaves, Murra explains to the narrator his earlier dreams of breaking free from the petty marital squabbles, the financial worries, the drab responsibility and sameness of conventional life. The narrator momentarily and drunkenly succumbs to the appeal of the glamorous life; when he staggers home he immediately offends his wife. Murra is now repentant and nearly desperate for the forgiveness of his son, living at a nearby preparatory school. When the boy arrives to visit his father, it is apparent that the hurt and bitterness of his father’s desertion have made him rigid with intolerant rectitude. The situation looks hopeless until the narrator (back to finish his job) suggests to Murra that he topple the boy from his pedestal with a kick in the pants. The gambit works, the family is reconciled, and the narrator returns home, having agreed to exchange bathtub doors with Murra. He finds his own wife gone and his own son stuffily self-righteous; but his wife returns, her equanimity restored. The new bathtub enclosure with Gloria’s face on it amuses his wife. She is exactly Gloria’s height; when she showers, the film star’s face on the door forms a “mask” for her. Gloria’s glamour is all mask and pose; but his wife’s good humor is genuine. The ordinary lives of the narrator and his wife have provided them with exactly what Gloria lacks and what Murra and his son need to recover: the saving grace of humor, tolerance, and a sense of proportion.
Bagombo Snuff Box
The 1999 publication of Bagombo Snuff Box presented again several of the previous stories, plus others that achieved magazine exposure in the 1950’s and 1960’s but had since been forgotten. In the introduction to this volume, Vonnegut explains that his stories are “a bunch of Buddhist catnaps” designed to slow the pulse and breathing and allow one’s troubles to fade away. He also provides his eight rules for writing stories in this introduction. Only three of the twenty-three stories here could be construed as futuristic. The title story focuses on a braggart who attempts to win favor with a former wife by false exaggeration of the exotic snuffbox, which her son quickly identifies as a common item. As in his previous work, the high and mighty are deflated and the average person is ennobled. George M. Helmholtz, a band director, is the qualified hero of three of these stories. An authorial “coda” at the end of the volume argues for the importance of the “Middle West” of Ohio and Indiana.
Despite the fact that most of Vonnegut’s short stories are not science fiction and similarly applaud conventional life, the happy triumph of kindness and work seems contrary to the thrust of his novels. What he values remains the same, but the prospect of realizing those values becomes more desperate as the vision of normalcy recedes. The crises of the planet are too extreme and the capabilities of technology too great for Vonnegut to imagine a benign society in the future which could foster those values.
Vonnegut’s novels are often described as “black humor,” wholly unlike the generous good humor of “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son.” This is another label that annoys the author (“just a convenient tag for reviewers”), but his description of black humor recalls his own lonely rebels whose cause is seriously overmatched by the monolithic enemy: “Black humorists’ holy wanderers find nothing but junk and lies and idiocy wherever they go.” Vonnegut has said that the writer functions like the canaries coal miners took with them into the mines “to detect gas before men got sick.” He must serve society as an early-warning system so that one can work to improve the human condition while one still may.