by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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In Slaughterhouse-Five, why is "spooning" syrup considered a crime?

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For Kurt Vonnegut, a veteran of World War II (the most horrendous period of mass destruction in human history), writing Slaughterhouse-Five was something of a cathartic experience. Vonnegut precedes his novel with a biographical preface that informs the reader of the author’s need to come to literary grips with the death and destruction to which he was a witness.

Vonnegut was not just a veteran of the war, however. He was also witness to the fire bombing of the German city of Dresden, where he and other prisoners of war had been taken by their captors. The deprivation he witnessed and to which he was subjected during his period of captivity unsurprisingly influenced his perception of reality. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, exists in a series of parallel universes in which he represents the surrealistic experiences of the author.

Just as Vonnegut had been held as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Billy Pilgrim is similarly detained there and, along with his fellow prisoners, forced to perform menial labor. As such, and with the knowledge that American, British, and Russian prisoners (as well as those from other nations allied against the Axis) were poorly treated and denied enough food, Vonnegut logically injects into his description of Billy’s labors in a factory in Dresden the struggle among the prisoners for sustenance.

The factory in question manufactures “malt syrup” and attempts at stealing the syrup are common. As such, the prisoners (and, presumably, factory workers) hide spoons throughout the factory. Vonnegut describes the scene as follows:

There were spoons hidden all over the factory, on rafters, in drawers, behind radiators, and so on. They had been hidden in haste by persons who had been spooning syrup, who had heard somebody else was coming. Spooning was a crime.

Spooning was a crime because maintaining prisoners on minimal food rations was the practice in German POW camps. Prisoners caught stealing syrup were subject to additional punishment. The vision of spoons concealed around the factory and the attempts at stealing spoonfuls of syrup by prisoners were simply elements of the broader picture of absurdity that Vonnegut portrays. Such was his only way of confronting and rationalizing the nightmares he witnessed during the war.

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The malt syrup in the book is a symbol for the extreme poverty and hunger felt by the citizens of Dresden. Despite propaganda, there is not enough food, and what food exists is not very nourishing. The syrup, made for pregnant women, is "enriched with vitamins and minerals" so that the pregnant women can give birth to healthy babies. Naturally, the workers who make it steal spoonfuls of the syrup when they can; the act is called "spooning."

The syrup tasted like thin honey laced with hickory smoke, and everybody who worked in the factory secretly spooned it all day long. They weren't pregnant, but they needed vitamins and minerals, too. Billy didn't spoon syrup on his first day at work, but lots of other Americans did.
(Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, Google Books)

Spooning is illegal for the obvious reason that it is stealing. Less obvious is the matter of control: the workers are intended by their masters to remain weak and hungry; this allows the workers to be more easily controlled, and keeps them from having thoughts of uprising or rebellion. Spooning syrup is a minor act of defiance; yet, it comes out later that there aren't enough nutrients in the syrup to be truly useful. This indicates that while spooning is punished, the masters of the factory are well-aware that everyone is doing it, and so are not worried that it will foster rebellion. After all, the act itself satisfies the urge to rebel, and the lack of real nutrition means that the workers will never be strong enough to mount a revolution.

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