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Kurt Vonnegut (1922- ) is an author with a unique
perspective on life. He sees in a vivid technicolor things in
this world that the rest of humanity may only see in black and
white. By the same token he sees life as a rather dark subject,
it's the ultimate joke at our expense (Lundquist 1). His life
experience has been one of hardship. His mother committed suicide
in 1942. Two years later he was captured by Nazis in World War
II's epic Battle of the Bulge. In 1943 he survived the massively
destructive fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. He returned with
the distinguished Purple Heart. In 1958 his sister and
brother-in-law died, leaving him to raise their children, along
with his own (Campbell 2). Despite these hardships, however, to
Vonnegut life is still worth living. It shows through in his
novels. Vonnegut utilizes black humor and irony to show many
recurring themes noted in his works which are we, as a race, must
learn to keep happy illusions over evil ones and that a soothing
lie is sometimes the best truth (Lundquist 1).
To say that Vonnegut feels life is worth living despite
the horrors of the world is to say that Vonnegut really longs for
the life of his childhood. It was a life of family and good,
Midwestern upbringing. Wholesome morals like self-respect and
pacifism were fed to him along with other staples of the Midwest.
America was an idealistic, pacifistic nation at the
time. I was taught in the sixth grade to be proud that we
had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and
that generals had nothing to say about what was done in
Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity
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spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply
never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got
a very good grade (Lundquist 2-3).
In fact, in each of his novels there is at least one
character from his native region. This can be compared to
director Alfred Hitchcock's practice of self cameos on screen.
The core of his novels usually attacks corruption in the heart of
humanity. Evils such as pornography, war and pollution are
bombarded with satiric views and patronizing notes. These attacks
can be argued as something unique to his style or, rather,
a style that reveals a homesick author. He is homesick for the
life of old when there was a bold line between right and wrong
It is ironic, however, that in most of his novels
a character described as Vonnegut's alter ego, Kilgore Trout,
keeps resurfacing. Kilgore Trout is a poor science-fiction
writer, an ugly old man whose works are published only in
pornographic magazines (Schatt 105). It seems funny to Vonnegut
that even though his own views on pornography are said to be
pointed, his alter ego's only form of expression is to write for
Trout's stories are a refreshing bit of comic relief in
Vonnegut's novels. Trout's stories are also exhibited by Vonnegut
to further show the irony of the current situation in the novel.
In Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel about a time
travelling veteran named Billy Pilgrim, Trout tells a story about
a man who built a time machine so he could see Jesus. He found
Jesus in the midst of learning carpentry from his father at the
age of twelve.
Two Roman soldiers came into the shop with
a mechanical drawing on papyrus of a device they wanted
built by sunrise the next morning. It was a cross to be used
in the execution of a rabble-rouser.
Jesus and his father built it. They were glad to have
the work. And the rabble-rouser was executed on it.
So it goes (Vonnegut, Jr. 179).
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim has a soft spot in his
heart for the science-fiction writer. Trout's book Maniacs in the
Fourth Dimension is about victims of an incurable disease. The
disease is only incurable, however, because they exist only in
the fourth dimension. Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist and is
expected to help people to see better. He is dubbed insane,
however, because he sees the incidents at Dresden as a typical
example of what war can do to the winners as well as the losers
Another one of Trout's books called The Gutless Wonder
can also be linked even closer to Pilgrim and his creator,
Vonnegut. It is about a robot who is ostracized by the world
because of his bad breath. He has his halitosis treated, though,
and quickly becomes popular with the humans. Lacking
a conscience, the robot drops napalm on people. This seemingly
dreadful act is not protested by humans though. "...they found
his halitosis unforgivable. But then he got that cleared up and
he was welcomed to the human race" (Schatt 90).
Here, Vonnegut shows the futility of being human. To be
ostracized for something as menial as bad breath, but later
accepted when it is gone. The robot does some more human acts,
acts of violence that are really typical of humans. He murders.
No one complains. As long as his social manner is acceptable,
humans are willing to look the other way.
Amidst his story telling, though, it should be remembered
that "Vonnegut is a comic writer" (Lundquist 17). He finds the
humor, black or otherwise, in life. Humor is what makes life
precious. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut tells the story of
Pilgrim's mother. She had worked as a substitute organist for
several churches, but had belonged to none. She had developed
a longing for a crucifix. On a trip out West one day, she bought
one she liked in a gift shop. This crucifix eventually came to
rest in Billy's room. Vonnegut explains that "Like so many
Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense
from things she found in gift shops" (Lundquist 17).
This side note about Pilgrim's mother is a prime example
of Vonnegut's style of black humor. He realizes that humans try
to "discover or impose order on the pluralistic universe in which
they live" (Lundquist 17). Billy Pilgrim's mother obviously has
the drive in her to make sense of her world. This is typical of
many of Vonnegut's characters. It is futile to try to give
meaning to life. Vonnegut knows this and shows it through his
asides about Billy Pilgrim's mother. This is his "cosmic irony."
The prospect of man's attempt to bring order to chaos through
religions, philosophies and science is laughable at best. "In one
way or another, each of Vonnegut's novels is an extended
cosmically ironic joke," (Lundquist 18).
Vonnegut admits, however, that he is not rebelling
against organized religion, "I never had any," he said (Lundquist
5). It is ironic, too, that Vonnegut's works hold themes that are
meant to be dear to the heart. Themes that touch the soul of
one's desire to make sense of the universe. His themes embody the
essence of religion, yet Vonnegut himself has none.
In his book Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut ironically invents
a religion. It is called Bokonism, named for its founder,
Bokonon. To show even its futility, its humorous place in the
grand scheme of things, he writes his own Book of Genesis.
In the beginning, God created the earth and He looked
upon it in His cosmic loneliness (Bryan 4073).
God then goes on to create man out of mud. Man blinks and
asks the meaning of it all. "'Everything must have a purpose?'"
God asked. When man affirms this, God said, "Then I leave you to
think of one for all this." Then God walked away. This gives
a glimpse into the mind of Vonnegut. It is said that Vonnegut
keeps two messages in his writings. The first is to be good. The
second is that God doesn't care either way (Bryan 4073).
In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut also uses a minor
character to show the craziness of war. Edgar Derby had survived
both the Battle of the Bulge and the fire bombing of Dresden. He
later makes the terrible mistake of stealing a teapot from the
ruins of the tattered city. For this unspeakable crime, he is
tried and shot. This is yet another example of how Vonnegut uses
irony, with black humor to show the futility of life. This story
also shows the ambiguities of the human conscience and soul
In Trout's "Plague on Wheels" a planet named Lingo-Three
is dying and is inhabited by a people that resemble American cars
and have destroyed all their natural resources. It is appropriate
that Trout's story appears in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions,
a novel about Dwayne Hoover, a Pontiac salesman, whose every sale
brings earth that much closer to death (Schatt 105).
Another one of Trout's stories from Breakfast of
Champions "The Dancing Fool," shows the irony that comes from
A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to
explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer can be
cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where
the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.
Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner
touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the
house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the
terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained
Zog with a golf club (Vit 3).
Inadequacies of science are also relevant in Vonnegut
novels. In Breakfast of Champions, a meeting between a waitress
and Dwayne Hoover comes to pass. Vonnegut interrupts to point out
that the waitress had just read the tectonic plate theory of
moving continents. He then goes on to give the exact measurement
of characters' penises and busts and hips. At first to the reader
these details seem grotesque and entirely irrelevant. Vonnegut's
interruption, however, serves to illustrate a common theme
associated with black humor: the futility of science to deal with
human practical problems.
Knowing that San Francisco and Japan are in hideous
danger because they are undergoing tremendous geological
stress and knowing the exact measurement of Dwayne Hoover do
not help either the two cities or the Pontiac salesman
This may be one reason Vonnegut prefers science fiction
to real life science. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim is abducted
by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. When asked where he was
and how he got there, the Tralfamadorians replied,
It would take another Earthling to explain it to you.
Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this
event is structured as it is, telling how other events may
be achieved or avoided (Lundquist 51).
The Tralfamadorians also explain the real meaning and
concept of time.
All time is all time. It does not change. It does not
lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take
it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as
I've said before, bugs in amber (Lundquist 51).
The aliens go on to explain that all moments in time
happen at once. Therefore, nothing can be done to change the past
or future, because there really is no past or future. If someone
is dead, the are just technically in bad shape at that particular
moment. By the same token, they are quite alive in another. At
the conclusion of the novel, Vonnegut reflects on what his
puppets, the Tralfamadorians, had said,
If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians
is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead
we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still--if
I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that,
I'm grateful that so may of those moments are nice
Judging by the preceding events that make the novel, it
can be surmised that Vonnegut is being sarcastic. He knows that
if that theory is true, then really all of the moments in history
will go on forever. Lundquist reveals that he turned his book
about Dresden into a story with a "horrible twist--if we all live
forever, so too will the fire-bombing of Dresden go on forever
On the subject of black humor, Vonnegut noted that
One day I was sitting on the beach at Cape Cod and
this enormous bell jar was lowered over me and I managed to
read the label. It said, 'Black Humor by Bruce Jay
Friedman.' I find the label mystifying (Bryan 4073).
Vonnegut is referring to a paperback anthology of bleak
and comical writers by Bruce Jay Friedman. Black humor is more of
a state of mind than anything. It was connected to much of the
turmoil that arose from the 1960's, politically and socially.
Black humor is a category that incorporates the "theater of the
absurd" (Lundquist 19). That entails not only the bleak or absurd
situations in life, but how one reacts to them, and sometimes,
the best way is to just laugh. No one knows this better than Kurt
Vonnegut. He has had a life filled with absurdity and bleak days,
but as Bokonon professes, "Live by the foma that makes you brave
and kind and healthy and happy" Foma, Vonnegut tells us, are
soothing lies (Bryan 4073).
Bryan, C.D.B. "Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bokonist" In Twentieth
Century American Literature Ed. Harold Bloom New York: Chelsea
House Publishers, 1988 pp. 4072-4074
Campbell, Collin Andrew Brady (12-3-97) "Kurt Vonnegut
Directory: Kurt Vonnegut File: Chronology
Lundquist, James Kurt Vonnegut New York: Frederick Ungar
Publishing Co., 1971
Schatt, Stanley Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twane Publishing,
Vit, Marek (12-10-97) "Kurt Vonnegut Corner"
Directory: Kilgore Trout File: Breakfast of Champions
Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt Slaughterhouse-Five USA: Delacorte Press,