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Kurt Vonnegut Literary Research Paper

In: English and Literature

Submitted By ganelle64
Words 3597
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Ganelle Curry
Professor Meredyth Puller
English 102-12
February 27, 2013
Literary Research Paper This literary research paper is based on the book Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works by Kurt Vonnegut. Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works consists of 25 short stories most of which had previously appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Ladies Home Journal, Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Collier’s Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, Esquire, Venture, and Cosmopolitan. The title story appeared in Playboy magazine the same year the collection was released. Eleven of the stories were reprinted from Vonnegut’s 1961 short story collection Canary in a Cat House (Vonnegut). This paper will focus on four futuristic science fiction stories from the collection. These stories, “Welcome to the Monkey House”, “Harrison Bergeron”, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, and “Unready to Wear” all share a dystopian science fiction theme. Science and technology are supposed to make the world a better place, but instead, Vonnegut concludes they only create a new set of problems (Farrell, “Science and Technology in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut”). Television is often a target of satire in much of his fiction from the 1950’s. He describes it as desensitizing and numbing while deceiving the masses (Werlock). Vonnegut uses satire and pessimism throughout these dystopian stories. Satire is a special form of literature that seeks to uncover ridiculous ideas and customs in a society (Mowery). Each story portrays a totalitarian government that proposes an irrational solution to genuine problems. Vonnegut uses dystopian fiction and his aversion to science, technology, and television to expose what he feels are foolish ideas and weaknesses in our society. This paper will analyze each story, contrasting how each deal with dystopian scenarios and the common themes and style of each. “Welcome to the Monkey House” portrays a future where criminal mastermind, Billy the Poet, is on the loose and on his way to Cape Cod. His goal is to deflower one of the hostesses, Nancy McLuhan, at the Ethical Suicide Parlor in Hyannis (Vonnegut 30). The world government runs the parlors and encourages older people to commit suicide to help keep the population of 17 billion under control. In addition, the government makes citizens take pills to numb them from the waist down to suppress the population’s sexual desire while still allowing reproduction (Vonnegut 30-31). This was done after the inventor of the pills; J. Edgar Nation witnessed a monkey at the zoo masturbating while taking his children to the zoo after church (Vonnegut 36). Despite the authority’s attempts to capture him, Billy the Poet outsmarts them and kidnaps the six-foot, virgin, blond hostess, Nancy McLuhan. McLuhan vows to fight Billy to the very end, but the drugs wear off, and she is deflowered by Billy (Vonnegut 46-49). Billy convinces her that birth control pills are the answer, not sex and death. In the end, Billy lets Nancy go and leaves her with a poem of love and a bottle of birth control pills that read: WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE (Vonnegut 50). “Harrison Bergeron” is another example of Vonnegut’s satire. The year is 2081, and the government has finally succeeded in making everyone equal. This means that all people are seen as equal in every way; in intelligence, in beauty, in athleticism, and in talent (Vonnegut 7). People who seem to be above average in any area are given handicaps by the United States Handicapper General. The handicaps include: a mask to cover beauty, small ear radios transmitting deafening noises every 20 seconds to make intelligent people unable to concentrate and form thoughts, and heavy weights to slow those who are too strong or fast (Vonnegut 7-8). The Handicapper General and a team of agents ensure the laws of equality are enforced. The title character, Harrison Bergeron, is a super human who is so exceptional he cannot be properly handicapped by the government. He is jailed, but escapes and attempts to take over a government television broadcast before being shot to death. The entire story takes place at Harrison’s parents’ house as they watch the story unfold via their television set. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is set in the year 2158. The invention of an anti-aging drug named “anti-gerasone” made out of mud and dandelions, has contributed to the current overpopulation and depleted resource problems (Vonnegut 317). The story takes place in a three room apartment shared by 11 couples, all related, and Gramps Schwartz, the 172 year old patriarch of the family, who occupies the only bedroom in the small apartment. Gramps Schwartz controls the family by updating and revising his will according to who is sucking up and doing the most for him at the moment (Vonnegut 321). He also controls the television set and has his family members bring him breakfast in bed. He eats bacon and eggs while the other family members are forced to eat food manufactured from seaweed and sawdust (Vonnegut 318). His behavior is tolerated only because each couple hopes to someday inherit Gramp’s private room. Lou Schwartz, 112 years old, catches his great grandnephew Morty diluting Gramps’ anti-gerasone in hopes of speeding up the process of his death. Lou attempts to dump out the diluted bottle and refill it with the good potion when he drops the bottle and the crash alerts Gramps (Vonnegut 324). Lou and his wife Em, who is 93, spend the night worried about what Gramps will do to them. The next morning, everyone awakes to find Gramps missing and a farewell note along with the will stating that his possessions are to be divided equally among his relatives (Vonnegut 327). Each couple desperately wants the private bedroom and a riot breaks out ending with the police arriving and taking the 11 couples off to jail. The living conditions in prison turn out to be more pleasant and comfortable than living in the crowded apartment. Lou and Em are finally enjoying privacy in a four-by-eight foot private cell, each with its own washbasin and toilet, lying on luxurious cots (Vonnegut 328-29). Back at the apartment Gramps has returned and hired the best lawyer he can find in order to convict his relatives and keep them from returning home. The story ends as Gramps is ordering a new “Super-anti gerasone” from a commercial on television, which will not only keep him young, but also take away his wrinkles (Vonnegut 330). “Unready to Wear” is also a futuristic science fiction story. An absentminded mathematician, Dr. Konigswasser, has discovered how to separate human psyches from their bodies. Bodies are an inconvenience and no longer necessary; people no longer need to eat, sleep, or experience illness, and their lives have improved and are wonderful as a result (Vonnegut 257-58). The best of the abandoned bodies are maintained at storage facilities where people can still slip into them. People who have parted from their bodies have been given the name “amphibious” (Vonnegut 255). The ones who have refused to leave their bodies are at war with the amphibious people but it is impossible to attack them when there are no bodies to harm.
The narrator and his wife, Madge, decide to fly over and take a look at the enemy. Madge sees a storage facility with the most beautiful woman’s body and the most handsome male body she has ever seen. She cannot resist and decides to try on the female body when she is instantly surrounded by the enemy (Vonnegut 263). This was a trap set by the enemy. The narrator hoping to help his wife enters the male body. They are both hauled to jail, put on trial, and found guilty for “desertion” of the human race. The narrator and Madge demand to be released. They threaten the judge telling him the amphibious people will enter the enemy bodies and march them off cliffs. The narrator and his wife are released and return to their happy life (Vonnegut 268).
Utopia is defined as a place of ideal perfection specifically in laws, government, and social conditions. Dystopic literature describes a future world that is the opposite of utopia. Vonnegut writes about future societies controlled by government, science, and technology, whose norms have made human life absurd. The protagonist is often an outlaw who has found such norms or conventions intolerable (Mowery). As is shown, Vonnegut’s utopias always fail despite the good intentions of those who try to create them (Farrell, “Harrison Bergeron”).
In “Welcome to the Monkey House”, the population has reached 17 billion and the government runs suicide parlors where clients are willing participants in their own death. The future consists of ocean water replaced by blue concrete, the extinction of birds and bugs, and government ownership of everything. The next contributor to the dystopia is the campaign against sexual pleasure. Instead of addressing the overpopulation problem with birth control pills, this society is robbed of the pleasures of sexuality. “The pills were ethical because they didn’t interfere with a person’s ability to reproduce, which would have been unnatural and immoral. All pills did was take every bit of pleasure out of sex. Thus did science and morals go hand in hand.” (Vonnegut 31). Peter Reed believes Vonnegut is satirizing organized religion and its attempts to enforce its morality through the government; something he sees as a genuine threat to humanity. Susan Farrell states, the story advocates the sexual revolution that was taking place across the country at the time of its publication in 1968 (“Welcome to the Monkey House”). At this same time, Reed, discusses the Catholic Church’s refusal to allow the use of contraceptives along with American society’s more open view of sexuality. Vonnegut also satirizes the outlaws and sheriffs stories in the names of his characters. Billy the poet is clearly a play on the 19th century bank robber Billy the Kid and J. Edgar Nation is making fun of the F.B.I. founder and director J. Edgar Hoover, “a conservative moral crusader thought by some historians to be a closet homosexual and cross dresser, and thus considered a hypocrite by many” (Farrell, “Welcome to the Monkey House”). Ma Kennedy, a descendant of the famous Kennedy clan, is the current president of the world with an office in the Taj Mahal. She is an ex Suicide Hostess and has produced 14 U.S. or world presidents.
The next common theme in this story is science and technology. Everything in this future society is automated; few people have jobs and most spend their time watching government run television programs. These television programs brainwash the society into conforming to government policies. Every 15 minutes the television urges them to “vote intelligently or consume intelligently…or obey the law—or pay a call to the nearest Ethical Suicide Parlor…” (Vonnegut, “Welcome to the Monkey House” 34-35). This clearly shows Vonnegut’s distaste of television. He believes people watch television “like zombies, fascinated and even hypnotized by what they see on screen, but also shutting down their thinking while under the television’s spell” (Farrell, “Harrison Bergeron”). Euthanasia is another form of population control along with the pills J. Edgar Nation invented to prevent pregnancy by taking away all sexual desire. Anti-aging shots make everyone appear no older than 22. Vonnegut believes that scientific discoveries at first glance promise to be a miracle to humankind and discoveries that end disease, stop aging, or extend life artificially are presented as “double edge swords, creating whole new problems such as overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, and reduced quality of life” (Farrell, “Science and Technology in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut”). He is in favor of a new kind of science that is aware of moral issues (Farrell, “Science and Technology in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut”). “Harrison Bergeron” is another example of Vonnegut’s dystopic literature. Set in 2081, the government has addressed the problem of inequality with an absurd and comedic solution. Instead of raising standards for the disabled or handicapped, Vonnegut chooses to hinder those who have intelligence, beauty, athleticism, or strength. He satirizes the idea of handicapping people to enforce equality, the failure of rebellion, the desensitizing of people who watch television, and authoritarian government. Farrell believes Vonnegut is clearly satirizing a society that strives so hard to be equal; it ends up honoring mediocrity (“Harrison Bergeron”). Abby Werlock feels that Vonnegut was trying to express “that without conformists, the dreamers, and the different, society is doomed. The good intention of equality is marred by the way society decides to maintain it… if the brilliant and talented are hindered, society will be unable to improve and the status quo will be all it can hope for.” Carl Mowery thinks Vonnegut is making an attack against the idea of enforced equality but at the end of the story, he implies that government can never suppress an individual completely. Others believe it to be a simple story describing the difficulties of achieving equality (Reed).
The entire story takes place at Harrison’s parents’ house as they watch the story unfold via their television set. When Harrison escapes, he ironically goes to the television station to publicly declare himself emperor. Vonnegut uses some of the same ideas in this story when he portrays television as a “kind of desensitizing, numbing, and clearly thought-stifling, rather than thought-provoking, medium” (Alvarez). Harrison’s mother is watching her son on television when he is shot and killed. She is sad and begins to cry but is immediately distracted by something else on television and has no recollection of the incident or what made her sad. This illustrates Vonnegut’s belief that “the history of mankind is a history of progressive desensitization partly spurred on by the advent of television” (Alvarez). During the time this story was written in 1961, Newton Minnow made his famous speech about television programming called “The Vast Wasteland”. This speech talked about the ramifications of instantaneous sight and sound and the desensitization that occurs when repeatedly exposed to violence and murder among other things. He felt the television was an awesome power and it had limitless possibilities for good and for evil (Alvarez). While Joseph Alvarez does not think television is to be blamed completely for the society in “Harrison Bergeron”, he does think encouraging people not to think was a negative consequence that formed the basis for the rest of the story. The anti-intellectualism shown in Harrison’s parents was formed by what they saw on television and little else (Farrell, “Harrison Bergeron”).
In “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” the year is 2158 and the world is extremely overcrowded; most natural resources have been depleted, people must eat seaweed and sawdust, and many families, including the Schwartz family are forced to live with three or more generations in a small one bedroom apartment. A powerful drug called anti-gerasone intensifies the existing overpopulation problem by allowing individuals to extend their life span and ultimately prevent death from aging. The planet filled with geriatrics that appear to be in their twenties, are lured to ethical suicide parlors via television. Vonnegut warns of dangers to the survival of humans and the planet due to overpopulation and threats posed by pollution, exhaustion of natural resources, irresponsible science, and misapplied technology fueled by greed and lack of common sense (Reed). Reed states that Vonnegut’s concern with social issues influences his satirical tone. The ironic ending of the story shows the only place the Schwartz family can find freedom and privacy is in jail. When they are arrested, they delight in solitary confinement. Farrell believes Vonnegut wanted to present readers with a twist on Henry David Thoreau’s famous statement: “Under government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” (“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”). When society becomes an overcrowded prison, then prison may be the only place for privacy (Farrell, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”).
This is another story where technology and science backfire. Science has eradicated all disease and anti-gerasone is the miracle fountain of youth promising the user near immortality. What was supposed to better mankind has instead overpopulated and resource depleted the planet. One of Vonnegut’s biggest concerns is the threat to our survival and survival of the planet from overpopulation (Reed). He also feared threats caused by pollution, exhaustion of natural resources, irresponsible science, and misapplied technology fueled by greed and lack of common sense (Reed). Television is also a target of satire in this story. The Schwartz’s own family life is so miserable they retreat into the television world. The “McGarvey’s” is a long running soap opera the family is entranced by. In addition, their lives are marked by huge sporting events. Gramps has suggested he may stop taking his anti-gerasone after the Five-Hundred-Mile Speedway Race and all the family members rush to check the race date. When Gramps disappears, the family is sad only because he will not be able to see how the Speedway Race turned out, or the World Series, or whether “Mrs. McGarvey got her eyesight back” (Vonnegut 327). Just as in “Welcome to the Monkey House”, they were also encouraged by government run television to visit the Ethical Suicide Parlors. Vonnegut feels Americans watch television “like zombies, fascinated and even hypnotized by what they see onscreen, but also shutting down their thinking while under the television’s spell” (Farrell “Harrison Bergeron”).
Unlike the other stories, Vonnegut’s “Unready to Wear” really is a utopia. Dr. Konigswasser believes the body is nothing more than “a bag of skin, blood, hair, meat, bones, and tubes” (Vonnegut 257). He discovers a way to leave the physical body behind because it only causes irritations and inconveniences for humans. Dr. Konigswasser believed the problem with the world was not too many people, but too many bodies. This shows Vonnegut’s concern once again for the overpopulation problem (Reed). Farrell believes Vonnegut’s satire is directed at the ones who were unwilling to leave their bodies behind. This point is made clear during the trial when the “enemy”, those who refuse to leave their physical bodies behind, tries to hold onto the present circumstances, no matter how miserable, unfair, or even cruel it might be (“Unready to Wear”). According to Farrell, Vonnegut suggests with imagination, daring, and lack of fear, people can make the world a better place although it may involve evolving into something not so human to do it (“Unready to Wear”).
Each critic cited in this paper agrees Vonnegut uses satire and pessimism throughout these dystopian stories. His use of satire was evident as he sought to uncover ridiculous ideas and customs in each society (Mowery). Each futuristic story portrays a totalitarian government that proposes an irrational solution to genuine problems. Vonnegut uses dystopian fiction and his aversion to science and technology to expose what he feels are foolish ideas and weaknesses in our society. Television is often a target of satire in much of his fiction from the 1950’s. He describes it as desensitizing and numbing while deceiving the masses (Werlock). In these stories, Vonnegut is very outspoken and passionate about a range of social issues which also influences his satirical tone (Reed).

Works Cited
Alvarez, Joseph. “Harrison Bergeron.” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. N. pag. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.
Farrell, Susan. “Harrison Bergeron.” Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2008. N. pag. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
---. “Science and Technology in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut.” Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2008. N. pag. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
---. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow." Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2008. N. pag. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
---. "Unready to Wear." Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2008. N. pag. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
---. “Welcome to the Monkey House.” Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2008. N. pag. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Mowery, Carl. "Harrison Bergeron." Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. N. pag. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Reed, Peter J. "The Short Fiction and the Canon." The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena Krstovic. Vol. 155. Detroit: Gale, 2011. N. pag. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Vonnegut, Kurt. "Harrison Bergeron." 1961. Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works. New York: Dell, 1998. 7-14. Print.
---. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow." 1954. Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works. New York: Dell, 1998. 315-31. Print.
---. "Unready to Wear." 1953. Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works. New York: Dell, 1998. 254-69. Print.
---. "Welcome to the Monkey House." 1968. Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works. New York: Dell, 1998. 30-50. Print.
Werlock, Abby H. P. "Harrison Bergeron." The Facts On File Companion to the American Short Story. 2nd ed. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009. N. pag. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.…...

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