Kurt Vonnegut

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Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–

Vonnegut, an American novelist, fantasy writer, short story writer, and playwright, is one of America's best-known and most influential writers of fiction. His great achievement has been the combination of black humor and science fiction to form a powerful commentary on contemporary culture and its destiny. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

For years the literary establishment viewed Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., as a writer of science fiction, certainly nobody to be taken seriously. In 1969 when Slaughterhouse-Five was published, critics seemed confused. The novel did contain flying saucers and robots, but its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, seemed more concerned with problems of morality and religious faith. What was a science fiction writer doing writing a modern sequel to Pilgrim's Progress? A reading of Vonnegut's earlier novels reveals that rather than a science fiction writer, he has always been a social critic whose marked use of ambivalence and complex personas serves as an objective correlative with which to present his view of man and man's proper role in the universe.

One point that must be stressed is that Vonnegut is a novelist and not a theologian. If his readers keep this in mind, they will find it easier to grapple with the implications of Vonnegut's intermingling of Old Testament and New Testament characters in his novels, especially the intriguing relationship between an Old Testament Jonah figure and a New Testament Messiah or Jesus figure. Vonnegut's protagonists in at least four of his novels assume the role of a Jonah figure when urged to follow … a course of action by a Messiah figure…. Apparently for Vonnegut Jonah's most significant characteristic is his marked passivity, especially when contrasted with the Messiah figure. While Vonnegut indicates that the Jonah and Messiah figures are polar in intentions while achieving the same end and carrying the same message, he does not clarify the precise nature of this relationship or how it varies from novel to novel. The many parallels in Vonnegut's fiction to various other aspects of the biblical Jonah tale, particularly the conception of human and divine love, offer possible answers to these questions….

[There] is a definite progression from a situation in which a Jonah figure faces a hostile world with only an ineffectual, indifferent, or even hostile Messiah figure to help him, to a situation in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in which the Jonah figure has the full support and encouragement of Kilgore Trout…. Yet, even though this self-confessed Jesus figure expresses his full support for Eliot [Rosewater], he does not follow the young altruist's example…. The difference between the two now becomes clear. While Eliot lives by Trout's precepts and becomes an altruist, Trout … accepts a job within the corrupt society and receives something in return for the gifts he dispenses…. Vonnegut is ambiguous, but at this point it appears that Trout is speaking for the author and that his words are more important than his actions.

Vonnegut appears to believe that whether or not man lives in a godless universe is really inconsequential. What man must do is to seek to create a better world in which human love and compassion are paramount.

Stanley Schatt, "The Whale and the Cross: Vonnegut's Jonah and Christ Figures," in Southwest Review, Winter, 1971, pp. 29-42.

The life of [Cat's Cradle] is in its movement, the turns of plot, of character, and of phrase which give it vitality. Vonnegut's prose has the same virtues as his characterization and plotting. It is deceptively simple, suggestive of the ordinary, but capable of startling and illuminating twists and turns. He uses the rhetorical potential of the short sentence and short paragraph better than anyone now writing, often getting a rich comic or dramatic effect by isolating a single sentence in a separate paragraph or excerpting a phrase from context for a bizarre chapter-heading. The...

(The entire section is 9,883 words.)