Kurt Vonnegut

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Which literary term significantly shapes the story "All the King's Horses" by Kurt Vonnegut?

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Irony is the most important literary technique in Vonnegut's story because it undermines the theme of inhumanity and absurdity of war, enhances meaning in "All the King's Horses," and draws the reader's attention to these themes. Verbal irony is used to alert the reader that the Americans are in danger. Satire upon the absurdity of war occurs with Major Barzov declaring that "philosophically" there was no difference between lunatic ordeal and battle. Further, verbal irony occurs as Pi Ying says that he and his men will treat their American guests like kings when they are really preparing them for a deadly chess game. Verbal irony and satire occur as Pi Ying gives "

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Kurt Vonnegut's short story "All the King's Horses" is a satire in which, as literary critic Northrop Frye observes, "irony is militant." And, in this story, the militant irony is also a double entendre;  for, Vonnegut satirizes the inhumanity of war, the heartlessness of military manoeuvres, and the...

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absurdity of war.

Indubitably, irony is the most important literary technique in Vonnegut's story as it assaults the narrative with Black Humor and incongruities, drawing the reader's attention constantly to the theme of the absurdities of war.

Here are some examples of how irony is used to further the themes of inhumanity and the heartless absurdity of war and enhance meaning in "All the King's Horses":

  • In the exposition of the story, verbal irony is used to alert the reader that the American soldiers are in danger when the sergeant jokes that the captors are preparing sandwiches for them.
  • There is satire upon the absurdity of war when Pi Ying tells Colonel Kelly that the American soldiers' "lunatic ordeal" was no different "philosophically" from battle. "Philosophically" is an example of verbal irony. 
  • It is ironic that all the Americans survived the crash only to become prisoners and possibly lose their lives. (irony of situation)
  • Before the "game" begins, irony of situation occurs as Major Barzov declares that hie is "powerless to intervene" on behalf of the Americans even though Russia was an ally in World War II, the backdrop of this story.  Later, he tells Major Kelley,

"I have no choice, as a representative of my government but to see that all of you are conducted safely through the lines."

  • It is ironic that the room in the palace was set up for human chess and there are enough Americans for each square.
  • After giving the soldiers the deadly rules of the chess game, with verbal irony and satire, Pi Ying shrugs and says, "Now, you must all be good sports." Later, he calls the deadly encounter "a game."
  • When Mrs. Kelly cries against his murderous intent, "For the love of God," Pi Ying satirically mocks her, "Is it for the love of God that Americans make bombs and jet planes and tanks?"
  • Major Barzov declares with verbal irony, "I am only an observer here" when he is certainly involved.
  • It is ironic that the Chinese girl is described as a "delicate...ornamental girl" when she later indelicately kills Pi Ying and herself.
  • Verbal irony occurs as Pi Ying says, "The Americans have furnished their own chessmen. Fascinating idea." Of course, he has orchestrated this situation. Further, he calls the Americans "My friends."
  • It is satirical that Vonnegut has Kelly with "militant irony" thinking of the lieutenant in "those terms--no longer human, but a piece capable of moving diagonally across the board...." because he has gone into his leader mindset.
  • With verbal irony and satire Pi Ying alludes to the colonization of the East by the British in past decades when he says that the chess "match" is an excellent way of bringing the Eastern and Western minds together, and he gives the "honor of the first move...to the white men....[A]n ancient tradition."
  • Major Barzov ironically says the deadly nature of the match will "get us into the spirit of the game right off." Later he remarks ironically that the sergeant who is moved onto a square will "learn to be a pawn yet...It's an Oriental skill American's could do well to learn for the days ahead, eh?"
  • With irony of situation Barzov declares that there is not "grain of luck" to the game; however, later luck does come to the Americans with the death of Pi Ying.
  • Satiric words are used to describe Pi Ying's inclination to move his knight: "a fresh, poignant (this word is used ironically) opportunity for sadism."
  • "Militant irony" occurs after Barzov sees that Kelly has sacrificed "a knight"--his son--as he has the expression of "an experimenter, keen expectant, entranced." Later, he displays this same irony as he feels only "irritation, resentment of inconvenience" for the deaths of the Chinese girl and Pi Ying.
  • Satire and "militant," biting irony again enter with Major Barzov resuming the game only because he wishes "to prove that he was one hell of a bright fellow, and that the Americans were dirt."
  • Doubt ironically enters Kelly's mind because he is playing "for flesh and blood" rather than for no stakes.
  • The sadistic Barzov ironically plays the "pedant once more, the wielder of profundities" as he tells Kelly after the death of Pi Ying, "...I won't take the boy....I look upon you as prisoners of war."
  • Kelly responds with verbal irony, "That's very chivalrous of you, Major." Not only does he not think Barzov chivalrous, but Kelly toys with this word because Barzov has previously said that Russians are never chivalrous to Americans.
  • At the end, both Kelly and Barzov exchange ironic barbs as they speak of replaying each other: "nice of you, but not this evening...Some other time..."  "If you insist on arranging another game, issue an invitation, Major, and I'll be there."
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