Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 297

To understand Player Piano, we need look no further than its protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus. At first, it seems that he has an ideal life: he is the highest-paid worker at Ilium Works, and he is married to a beautiful and charming woman (Anita). He is a man of his...

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To understand Player Piano, we need look no further than its protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus. At first, it seems that he has an ideal life: he is the highest-paid worker at Ilium Works, and he is married to a beautiful and charming woman (Anita). He is a man of his time, and even his ambition is "ideal" in a sense. However, we soon start to see the cracks. Not only is his wife barren, she is also cheating on him with a man who wants to oust him from Ilium Works. As the novel progresses, he starts to experience increasingly severe doubts about his ideal job and ideal ambition: he begins to see all that's wrong with an apparently perfect post–Second Industrial Revolution world in which everyone is either a "doctor" of some sort or an unskilled worker, working either on the roads or in the nominal army. However, even though Paul is fascinated by a life of manual labor, he is not entirely convinced by the lifestyle and ethos of the ex-proletarians any more than he is by the lifestyle and ethos of the bigwigs at Ilium Works.

He is, thus, a character who is deeply conflicted and torn in two opposite directions without being completely convinced by either. It's this conflict that makes him such a perfect microcosmic representation of society at large, both in the 1960s and now. We still face similar concerns and dilemmas about the nature of scientific progress and what it means for morality and politics. This is a book that lays out, quite chillingly, the consequences of the ideology of local optimization and of efficiency as an end in itself. Machines are more efficient than humans, and so they replace them, irrespective of the consequences for humanity at large.

The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

The world envisioned in Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, is one in which highly efficient, automated machines have replaced most industrial workers except for a managerial class, largely consisting of engineers who maintain the machines. The protagonist is Dr. Paul Proteus, the son of the chief architect of the second industrial revolution, which resulted in the new machine age. As manager of the Ilium Works, one of America’s foremost industrial centers, he is in the upper echelon of the managerial class. Proteus’ rise to even greater prominence seems certain. He is intelligent, is obviously being groomed by his superiors, and is driven by his ambitious wife, Anita, whom, he constantly reminds himself, he dearly loves.

There is, however, something that eats at Proteus, some grating dissatisfaction that he never quite understands and that leads to eccentric behavior. He drives an old car with a broken headlight that he never repairs, enjoys crossing Ilium’s river bridge to the seedy side of town to mix with the chronically unemployed in run-down gin mills, and insists on maintaining a dangerous friendship with Dr. Edward Finnerty, a genius who finally ensnares Paul in a full-scale rebellion against the system.

Initially, Paul does not seem a very likely leader against his own class. Unlike Finnerty, who resigns an important post and flaunts his contempt for the system, Paul, far less sure of himself, is circumspect and deferential, unwilling to risk his job. At worst, he is guilty of violating some security regulations at his plant. What he first seeks is meaning in his personal life and in his marriage. He buys an old farmhouse that lacks all modern conveniences, planning to use it as a romantic trysting place where he and Anita can renew their love and mutual commitment. He hopes that shared labor, tending to a garden, and making do with primitive facilities and utensils will make their marriage stronger. The magic of the retreat completely escapes Anita, who cannot understand why someone would choose to live a primitive existence, and her negative response reveals to Paul their essential incompatibility.

Proteus’ disenchantment leads to a decision to resign his post, but he awaits an appropriate moment. He chooses to make his announcement during the annual booster session for the managerial class at the Meadows, an island camp sacred to the new order. It is there that he has to deal with two new disclosures: His superiors want him to perform a Judas role by infiltrating and then betraying the rebel forces, and his wife has begun an illicit relationship with his chief nemesis, Lawson Shepherd, his second in command at the Ilium plant and a dedicated team player. Paul announces his resignation, but the statement is viewed as part of a clever scheme to destroy the rebels. He is thrown off the island in apparent disgrace.

Proteus is later drugged and held prisoner by the rebels, led by Finnerty and the Reverend James J. Lasher, a shadowy figure first encountered by Paul in an Ilium bistro. Deciding that Paul’s name would lend dignity to the revolt, the conspirators make Paul their figurehead, even though his loyalty is suspect. The authorities capture Paul and bring him to trial for treason, and it is at his trial that he finally openly embraces his belief that humankind had become enslaved by its own inventions, the machines. The rebels manage to free him, and even though it becomes clear that the revolt will be suppressed, the spirit of the insurgents remains undaunted.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

Suggested Readings

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and J. Somer, eds. The Vonnegut Statement. New York: Dell Books, 1973.

Leeds, Marc. The Vonnegut Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Merrill, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

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