Kurt Vonnegut


In Popular Fiction in America, Beacham Publishing, 1987.

Publishing History

Kurt Vonnequt began writing for the Cornell Daily Sun as an undergraduate, and he continued to work as a reporter while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago after World War II. After taking a job in the public relations department at General Electric, Vonnegut began to publish stories in Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1950 this success encouraged him to quit his job with G.E. and to move to Barnstable, Cape Cod where he supported himself by publishing stories in science fiction magazines such as Galaxy and Fantasy.

Because of Vonnegut's reputation as a commercial science fiction writer, his first novels-- Player Piano (1952), The Sirens of Titan (1959), and Mother Night (1962)--were published as paperbacks with lurid covers that misrepresented the novels and discouraged serious critical attention. The hardcover editions of Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) were a significant improvement, although they sold only a few thousand copies. In 1966-1967 all of his novels were reissued in paperback, and Vonnequt began to develop a substantial underground following, particularly among college students. But it was the publication of Slauqhterhouse-Five (1969) by Boston independent publisher Seymour Lawrence that changed Vonnegut's career. The novel's great popularity and broad critical acclaim focused new attention on his earlier work, and soon The Sirens of Titan had sold over 200,000 copies. From that point on anything with Vonnegut's name was virtually guaranteed success.

When he published the play Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971), Vonnegut stated that he was "through with novels," and he withheld Breakfast of Champions from publication. But he returned to the genre that had brought him his greatest success by releasing the novel in 1973 with an initial printing of 100,000 copies. He has since continued to publish novels as well as collections of autobiography, opinion, and nonfiction.

Critical Reception, Honors, and Popularity

Slaughterhouse-Five was a critical and personal breakthrough for Vonnequt, yet the extravagant praise afforded the novel has sometimes been turned against the author when his subsequent books have been dismissed as "cute" and "thin" in comparison. many critics continue to praise Vonnegut as a 'masterly stylist," a jazz improviser in prose, and an author who has reinvented the American novel, but others complain of his "coy rhetorical trickiness," oversimplification, and sentimentality. one reviewer of Galapagos (1985) maintains that Vonnegut's "complacent detachment and sentimental cynicism have been fossilized for years." Another suggests that "Vonnegut's recent work has seemed fatigued, marred by sloppy writing." None of this, however, has diminished his continued popularity with the reading public, for each new offering has been an immediate bestseller.

Vonnequt received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967 and a literature award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970. In 1974 he was awarded an honorary LHD by Indiana University, and in 1975 he was named a vice-president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Analysis of Selected Titles


Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children's Crusade, 1969.

Social Concerns

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden on February 13, 1945 when the city, a cultural center of no military value, was destroyed by Allied incendiary bombs, and in Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut, who was born on Armistice Day 1922, focuses on the particularly human madness of war. He consciously wanted to avoid writing a novel that glamorized the brutality of war, so as his subtitle suggests, he portrays wars as fought by young and uncomprehending innocents. He is equally appalled by a technology that can destroy 135,000 people in two hours, and the absence of an adequate moral response to such destruction.

The novel, which was published as America was escalating its involvement in Southeast Asia and nightly newscasts were filled with body counts and bloody footage from the field, makes explicit and implicit references to Vietnam. This was also a time of widespread experimentation with mind-altering drugs. Thus, the novel's mixture of fantasy and anti-war philosophy made the book particularly relevant and popular.


Slaughterhouse-Five describes man's inhumanity to man, and the mass destruction of Dresden by Allied forces serves as Vonnegut's primary example. Although a humanist at heart, Vonnegut repeatedly demonstrates the human aptitude for cruelty, and he shows how technology magnifies this cruelty beyond human control.

At a deeper level the novel explores the moral vacuum in which contemporary human life exists. Vonnegut's outrage over Dresden was as much a result of the lack of attention given to this event as it was to the bloodshed, but there are no villains in Vonnegut's novels, and he fully recognizes the ambiguous connection between agent and victim. Thus, in one of the novel's many biblical allusions he sympathizes with Lot's wife who looks back at the destruction she is escaping before being turned to stone.

Slaughterhouse-Five, which is about Vonnegut's effort to tell his story as much as it is about Billy Pilgrim, explores the ambiguous nature of communication, a recurrent theme in his work. In Mother Night Howard Campbell's Nazi propaganda broadcasts are also strategically coded messages to the Allies, messages that even he does not understand. In the end it is uncertain whether his strategic assistance to the Allies has outweighed the moral support his broadcasts gave the Nazi regime. Accordingly, Vonnequt approached the narration of his war experiences cautiously, fearful that by retelling his adventures he would inadvertently glamorize war. The result is a mix of historical and fantastic perspectives that discourages suspension of disbelief.

Finally, the novel explores the irreconcilable conflict between free will and determinism. Billy Pilgrim's motto--"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference"--is undercut by the narrator's comment that "among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future." The book accepts the logic of Tralfamadorian determinism, but it is nevertheless clear that Vonnegut cannot excuse the fire-bombing of Dresden as fated, and although Billy Pilgrim escapes into the Tralfamadorian belief that the perpetual existence of all moments of time eliminates the negation of death, he still finds himself at times inexplicably shedding tears.


As though to emphasize his vision of the life-denying nature of most modern existence, Vonnegut abandons the mimetic effort to develop character through motivation and causality. He explains that "there are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces."

Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut's conscious leap toward a more personally revealing fiction. However, he directly presents himself as the spokesman only in the opening and closing chapters. Inside this autobiographical framework, the protagonist is Billy Pilgrim. Born in Vonnegut's version of Schenectady, New York (Ilium) in the year of Vonnegut's birth (1922), Billy also experiences the fire bombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war. He later marries Valencia Merble, becomes a successful optometrist, and fathers two children, including a Green-Beret son. Billy has been described as one of Vonnegut's "crucifieds, a passive, suffering character who fights brutality by shutting it out of his mind.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a self-consciousness novel, and Vonnegut tries to insure that his readers will remember that it is only a novel. He emphasizes the artificial nature of his book by populating it with characters from his earlier work: Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, Howard Campbell, the Rumfoords, and the Tralfamadorians.


On the title page Vonnegut says that Slauqhterhouse-Five is written in the "telegraphic schizophrenic manner" of the Tralfamadorians, a self-deprecatinq, but fairly accurate description of the author's nontraditional approach. Actually, Slaughterhouse-Five was the first broadly popular work to completely abandon traditional restrictions of linear time and fixed space. Billy Piqram's time travel is paralleled by Vonnegut's free movement through narrative time, mixing descriptions of historic Dresden and his personal wartime experiences with Tralfamadorian fantasy and bits from his earlier fiction to create fragments of meaning. Similarly, Vonnegut uses stream of consciousness to portray Billy's difficulty in fully adopting the Tralfamadorian objectivity toward the Dresden bombing and to underscore the inexplicable interrelatedness of experience.

Related Titles

Just as Vonnegut mixes history and fantasy in Slaughterhouse-Five, he combines his new material with characters and references to his earlier fiction. The city of Ilium was the setting for Player Piano (1952); the Tralfamadorians were the central focus of The Sirens of Titan (1959); Howard Campbell was the protagonist of Mother Night (1961); and Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout return from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965).

The apocalyptic nature of Slaughterhouse-Five is echoed in many of Vonnegut's other works: In Mother Night Howard Campbell defends the holocaust; in Cat's Cradle the earth is destroyed by Dr. Hoenniker's ice-nine; in Deadeye Dick (1982) the citizens of Midland City are inadvertently killed by a neutron bomb; and Galapagos (1985) is narrated from a distant future long after man has been all but wiped out by an AIDS-like virus.

Literary Precedents

Slaughterhouse-Five's numerous references to other books emphasize the multiplicity of Vonnegut's vision. The books, actual and fictional, that become part of Slaughterhouse-Five range from documentary studies such as The Bombing of Dresden and The Execution of Private Slovik through realistic portrayals such as Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage to Kilgore Trout's fantastic Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension . The stylistic conflict between these books echoes the novel's examination of fact, fancy, and the place of art in society.

The protagonist's name suggests a connection with Bunyan's allegory, and like Bunyan's Christian, Billy is exposed to the evils of the world. Unlike Christian, however, Billy is not supported by the vision of a Celestial City at the end of his journey; instead he envisions the moment of his own death.


The film version of Slaughterhouse-Five, directed by George Roy Hill, starring Valerie Perrine, Michael Sacks, and Ron Leibman, with a screenplay by Stephen Geller, was released by Universal in 1972. The film won a special jury prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.


Breakfast of Champions , 1973.

Social Concerns

Breakfast of Champions is set in an America stripped of physical and spiritual beauty. Before setting out on the darkly humorous journey to the heartland that takes him past various scenes of ecological and human destruction, Kilgore Trout cries out, "I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can't live without a culture anymore." But when he arrives in Midland City, where antipersonnel bombs and body bags are manufactured, he is confronted by a garish array of fast-food restaurants and neon-lit motels divided by a vile stream called Sugar Creek.

The interspersed historical notes, which rewrite American history as a tale of racist sea pirates, place these observations in a larger context, reminding the reader of the dark and paradoxical nature of American capitalism. The contradiction between the ideal of American independence and the actual carceral experience of Vonnegut's Americans is symbolized by Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves. In summary, the book reminds its readers of the continuing bloodshed in Vietnam, addresses Americans' increased concern over the ecological destruction of the planet, satirically explores the vacuity of American culture, questions the benefits of capitalism, and suggests that racism is central to the structure of American society.


One important theme explored in Breakfast of Champions is the proper role of the artist, a particularly difficult question in a society so adept at transforming art into commodity and so immersed in the consoling fantasies supplied by Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood. By writing a self-conscious, anti-novel Vonnegut hopes to prevent his readers from trying to "live like people invented in story books." It is a reworking of a favorite Vonnegut theme, explicitly stated in the preface that was added to the 1966 reissue of Mother Night: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

In Breakfast of Champions Dwayne Hoover, the man of property, is set against Kilgore Trout, the man of vision, and at the center of their confrontation is the question of free will. Near the end of Breakfast of Champions Hoover reads Trout's Now It Can Be Told which tells him that he is the only creature in the universe with free will and that other people are only robots. This message seems to confirm the alienation Hoover has experienced and encourages a psychotic binge of violence that leaves both of the principal characters physically and spiritually damaged.

Yet in Breakfast of Champions there is some hope for melioration. Although experiential evidence indicates that life is mechanistic, intuition suggests, in the words of the minimalist painter Rabo Karbekian, that there is an "unwavering and pure" 'immaterial core' in people, the "I am' to which all messages are sent." In this sense, Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut's attempt to define a new humanism, a world in which "we are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane."

The difficulty of true communication is repeatedly emphasized in the novel, as the author portrays trite conversations and failed efforts to express the truth. In one absurd example, Vonnegut records the bodily measurements of all the main characters, but the language used in Midland City is an equally meaningless amalgamation of clichés and ritualistic responses. Before he goes mad, Dwayne Hoover starts repeating the last words spoken to him, but the citizens of Midland City do not notice the change. The book shows that faulty communication can be dangerous too. After Hoover's rampage "it shook up Trout to realize that even he could bring evil into the world--in the form of bad ideas." Yet, when Trout sees "What is the purpose of life?" scrawled on a men's room wall, he immediately answers, "to be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool."


The characters in Breakfast of Champions are puppets, and Vonnequt makes sure that his reader is aware of their artificiality. Like Robbe-Grillet, Vonnegut believes that the novel of character is dead, so Breakfast of Champions is filled with cartoon figures who can be adequately described with a single identifying phrase, but Vonnegut also fears that actual human beings are little more than robots leading determined existences. This depressing view of character is tempered in the novel by the minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian. In defense of his abstract painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Karabekian passionately argues that "our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery."

In God Bless You Mr. Rosewater Kilgore Trout was the pathetic science fiction hack, a vision of what Vonnegut had feared he might become. In Breakfast of Champions he is a visionary who accepts the invitation to appear at the Midland City Arts Festival in order to confront Americans' romantic notions of art with his own experience of frustration and failure.

Dwayne Hoover, the "hero of this book' is a businessman whose wife has killed herself with Drano, whose lover is scarred by the death of her husband in Vietnam, and whose son is a homosexual. Until he reads Trout's "explanation," Hoover, despite having followed the path of success, leads a life of mystifying loneliness and despair.


Written after a brief-lived rejection of prose, the novel is a conscious effort to break away from the successful formulas of his earlier writing. Vonnegut openly addresses himself in the role of creator "on a par with the Creator of the Universe," and with a Prospero-like gesture releases the characters from his earlier fiction. He also talks freely of his own personal experiences, including his mother's suicide and his relationship with his psychiatrist.

The result is a colloquial anti-novel, a further break from the confines of realistic fiction. Vonnegut undercuts suspense by revealing his plot in the first few chapters. In one of his numerous authorial intrusions, Vonnegut states that his purpose is to bring "chaos to order," to undercut his readers' comfortable expectations. Vonnegut freely ranges in time from 1492 forward into the future, saying that life is like an endless polymer without beginning or end. He stylistically emphasizes this notion of continuity by beginning many of his sentences with the word "And." In another rebellion against the order of realistic fiction, he makes no effort to dish out moral justice; the good and the evil suffer equally.

Other technical experiments in Breakfast for Champions derive from pop art. Vonnegut's felt-tip-pen illustrations reduce experience to its inexorable essence while parodying Americans' tendency to accept simplistic, commercial versions of reality. Their crudeness mocks a culture that rewards efficiency more than truth, as did the original hardcover edition of the novel, which was packaged to resemble a box of cereal.

Related Titles

Although Vonnegut frees his characters in Breakfast of Champions, several are recalled in later books: In the Prologue to Jailbird (1976), Vonnequt announces that "Kilgore Trout is back again. He could not make it on the outside"; Deadeye Dick (1982) is set in Midland City in the years prior to Kilgore Trout's disastrous visit and describes many of the same characters; The ghost of Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of Kilgore Trout, narrates Galapagos (1985) from a distant future long after humanity has extinguished itself.

Literary Precedents

Perhaps the most important literary precedent is The Tempest, Shakespeare's symbolic exploration of the role of the artist. Like Shakespeare, Vonnegut explores the ambiguous connection between the real and the invented, questions the authority of the artist, and considers the paradox of freedom. In a Prospero-like gesture, he frees his literary thralls at the novel's end although he cannot grant them the happiness and immortality they want.


Cat's Cradle , 1963.

Social Concerns

Cat's Cradle, published in the wake of the Cold War weapons buildup and the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis, focuses on man's ability to destroy life on earth. The narrator sets out to write a book The Day the Earth Ended about the Hiroshima bombing, but soon his background research into Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the creators of the atomic bomb, and his family, shifts the focus of the story to the new apocalypse brought on by his discovery of ice-nine, a substance that causes any water it contacts to freeze at 114 degrees Fahrenheit.


In Cat's Cradle Vonnegut brought together themes from his first three novels: the threat of technology from Player Piano, the question of free will from The Sirens of Titan , and the problem of communication from Mother Night.

The overriding theme of Cat's Cradle is the narrator's warning that if technological advancement continues without a concurrent growth in ethical awareness, annihilation of the human race is a real possibility. This, of course, parallels the biblical story of Jonah who so vividly prophesies the destruction of Ninevah that the city repents and is spared by God. As in other books Vonnegut shows that intellect harbors the temptation to rule over life, death, and nature, and he hopes that his novel will have the cautionary effect of Jonah's prophecy.

The confrontation between technology and morality is represented in the book by the two primary settings: Ilium, New York is the city of science, a world of materialistic absolutism in which scientists create in a moral vacuum; San Lorenzo is an island of belief, a tyrannic and hopelessly impoverished island nation in which the religion of Bokononism has been created to provide "dynamic tension" that will distract the people from the oppression and material suffering that mark their lives.

The book also shows how lies can overcome truth. Bokonism's purpose is to "provide people with better and better lies," lies that will keep them from seeing the Hobbesian truth, that "life was as short and brutish and mean as ever." This view justifies fiction and art, yet Vonnegut cannot easily resolve the "cruel paradox of Bokonist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it." The uncertainty of truth is emphasized in the biblical parallel, for when God spared Ninevah he made Jonah's prophecy a lie.


John, the novel's narrator, opens by echoing Moby-Dick with the line, "Call me Jonah," an allusion that connects him with the biblical story of rebellion and suffering as well as with Melville's Ishmael, a prophet tempered by affliction. Like Melville's narrator, John's function is to observe, and he remains after the apocalypse to tell the tale.

Other characters in the novel exhibit various forms of deception. Dr. Hoenikker epitomizes self-deceived intellect untempered by human feelings. His misshapen children (the amoral Franklin, the horse-faced giantess Angela, and the dwarf Newt) are love-starved indications of his disinterest in humans. Dr. Asa Breed is a spokesman for the spirit-crushing marriage between science and industry that transforms truth into commodity. Papa Monzano, San Lorenzo's brutal dictator, threatens Bokonists with torture and death, but secretly works with Bokonon, a cynical American named Lionel Boyd Johnson who established his phony religion as a means of controlling the people.


Some critics have dismissed Cat's Cradle as a thin summation of the three books preceding it, but technically the novel marks some significant changes for Vonnegut. The fragmentary effect of 127 chapters, short units of prose often structured as three-line jokes, marked the beginning of Vonnegut's subsequent method.

It is also a book marked by irony. The book is cautionary, even prophetic, but it also makes fun of prophets. In keeping with its warning to beware of the ascendancy of lies, the novel ends with the statement that "Nothing in this book is true."

Literary Precedents

Most obviously, Cat's Cradle uses the Book of Jonah and Moby-Dick. This levianthic motif is broadened by references to Hobbes and in descriptions of the landscape--the highest mountain in San Lorenzo looks like a "blue whale". Some critics have compared the novel to prophetic works such as Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Swift's Tale of a Tub, and others have concentrated on its place in the tradition of dystopian literature. However, Cat's Cradle is also a mock-apocalyptic novel that reacts to the popularity of books such as Seven Days in May and On the Beach.

Other Titles

Player Piano , 1952 (novel); The Sirens of Titan , 1959 (novel); Mother Night , 1961 (novel); Canary in a Cat House , 1961 (stories); God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 1965 (novel); Welcome to the Monkey House , 1968 (stories); Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons , 1974 (nonfiction collection); Slapstick, 1974 (novel); Jailbird, 1976 (novel); Palm Sunday , 1981 (autobiographical collage); Deadeye Dick 1982, (novel); Galapagos , 1985 (novel).

Additional Sources

Goldsmith, David H. Kurt Vonnequt: Fantasies of Fire and Ice. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972. Apocalypse in Vonnegut's writing.

Giannone, Richard, Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels . Analyzes Vonnegut's novels, concentrating on his development as an artist.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, Vonnegut . London: Methuen, 1982. Surveys nine of Vonnegut's novels, emphasizing his relationship to American culture.

Klinkowitz, Jerome and John Somer, eds. The Vonnegut Statement . New York: Delacorte, 1973. Collection of essays written to explain Vonnegut's popularity.

Lundquist, James, Kurt Vonnegut . New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. Argues for essential mid-western quality of Vonnegut's work.

Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1972. Biography and analysis of novels through Slaughterhouse-Five.

Schatt, Stanley, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Outlines the concurrent development of Vonnegut's style and epistemology.

Tanner, Tony. "The Uncertain Messenger." City of Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1971, pp. 181-201. Examines the ambiguity and uncertainty of communication in Vonnegut's first five novels.

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