In his novels, Kurt Vonnegut coaxes the reader toward greater sympathy for humanity and deeper understanding of the human condition. His genre is satire—sometimes biting, sometimes tender, always funny. His arena is as expansive as the whole universe and as tiny as a single human soul. Part philosopher, part poet, Vonnegut, in his fictive world, tackles the core problem of modern life: How can the individual maintain dignity and exercise free will in a world overrun by death and destruction, a world in which both science and religion are powerless to provide solutions? The reader will find no ready answers in Vonnegut, only a friendly guide along the questioning path.
Vonnegut himself behaved with a commendable sense of responsibility, dignity, and decency: He labored long to show humankind its ailments and to wake it to the work it has to do. He admitted to having lived comfortably while many of the world’s population suffered, but in quoting the words of American socialist Eugene Debs in his dedication to Hocus Pocus, he seems to define the position that he himself took as human being and as author and public figure for half of the twentieth century: “While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” He spoke out in many forums for many causes and for all of humankind, and his has been a wide audience.
Ilium, New York, sometime in the near future, provides the setting for Vonnegut’s first dystopian novel, Player Piano. Ilium is a divided city. On one side of the river live the important people, the engineers and managers who program and operate the computers and machines that run people’s lives. On the other side of the river, Homestead, live the downtrodden inhabitants of the city, those locked into menial, dehumanizing jobs assigned to them by the central computer.
Paul Proteus, theprotagonist, is the brilliant young manager of the Ilium Works, a man being groomed for even greater success. Just as Ilium is a divided city, however, so is Paul divided about his life and his future. Paul suffers a growing discontent with his job at the Ilium Works, where people have been replaced by machines and machines are supervised by computers. Outwardly, Paul has no reason for worry or doubt. He has the best job and the most beautiful wife in Ilium, he is being considered for the highest post in his company, and he is climbing the ladder of success. Nevertheless, Paul’s uneasiness increases. At first he seeks escape, settling on a farm in an attempt to get back to nature and free himself from his automatic life. He finds, however, that he has become an automaton, completely out of touch with the natural world, and his attempt at escape fails.
Finally, Paul is drawn to the other side of the river. His sympathy for the dehumanized masses and his acknowledgment of complicity in their plight drive Paul to join the masses in armed revolution. The fighters take to the streets, frantically and indiscriminately destroying all machines. The revolution fails, leaving Paul disillusioned and defeated, realizing that he has been manipulated by leaders on both sides of the conflict. Now he must surrender and face execution.
Paul’s manipulation, first by those who would replace people with machines and then by those who would destroy the machines, is symbolized by the “player piano” of the title. The simplest of machines, the player piano creates its music without the aid of human beings, neatly rendering the skilled musician obsolete. Paul is entranced by the music of the player piano, in his fascination manipulated by the machine just as it manipulates its ivory keys.
The most striking symbol of the story, however, is the small black cat that Paul befriends as it wanders aimlessly through the Ilium Works. The cat, symbol of...
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