Kurt Vonnegut

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What is the plot of "Report on the Barnhouse Effect"? What social commentary does Vonnegut provide?

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Kurt Vonnegut’s “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” actually contains a story within a story, each with a plot that intertwines with the other. Let’s look at how this works.

We begin with the frame story. The first-person narrator, a student of the famous Professor Barnhouse, is writing a report about the professor, who has disappeared. The narrator begins with a statement that he does not know where the professor is. He then provides an explanation of the Barnhouse Effect and the chaos that the professor’s disappearance has caused. Most of this serves as exposition to the story, although it does present the conflict involved, and the action does begin to rise, along with readers’ curiosity, as the narrator hints at a “new twist” in the armaments race.

The narrator then flashes back to the main story. The exposition of this part introduces us to Professor Barnhouse, his discovery of dynamopsychism, and his effort to learn about and control it (the conflict). The action rises as the professor studies his new talent and the narrator comes into the story as his student. The action continues to rise through the professor’s experiment with the inkwell and then to Operation Brainstorm. We reach the climax of the story as Barnhouse successfully passes the test of Operation Brainstorm (and then some) and then makes his escape.

The narrator then returns to the frame story. We think that the action is falling as the narrator tells us how the professor has been carefully destroying weapons around the world. He also speculates about the professor’s death (which may not be long in coming) and the danger the professor is in from his enemies. However, we then reach the climax of the frame story, in which the narrator explains that he now proposes to vanish, for he has figured out how to control dynamopsychism. “Barnhouse will die,” he says. “But not the Barnhouse Effect.” The story resolves as the narrator explains his “fifty consecutive sevens” and ends with a mere “Good-by.”

As for social commentary, Vonnegut certainly makes a strong statement on the arms race and on the motivations for war. The professor refuses to become another weapon, and he goes into hiding to pursue his own plans for peace.

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