Vonnegut as a "Bug in Amber"
Connection of Fiction and Autobiography in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Previous page | Page 1 | Next Page ------------------------------------------------------------- Introduction Kurt Vonnegut Junior is a name that is well known in the field of literature. The attitudes of both critics and the general public differ regarding this novelist. While some people consider him a distinguished writer, others dismiss his writing and himself as a writer completely. In libraries and bookstores, his books can be found both on shelves among genres like fantasy and science fiction and on shelves among "serious literature". One Czech critic once wrote that "to look for psychological and philosophical depth in the writing of Vonnegut is really futile. It would also be pointless and unnecessary." (Jarab:235, transl.) This is definitely not the only example of such criticism. However, the spirit of this essay does not agree with these critics. This work contradicts what has been written by Jarab and seeks and finds this supposedly missing psychological and philosophical depth. Readers who have read any of the works of Kurt Vonnegut must have come across many things that caught their attention. It is not only his unusual style that makes him special in contemporary American literature. It is not only the skill and various literary techniques with which he manages to convey the main message to readers of various age groups. It is not only the message itself which always makes people think and discover startling facts about our world. Looking on Vonnegut's works from a holistic point of view, a reader or a critic can see recurring themes and ideas. Throughout this author's books, the reader can notice a unique relationship between the created image of Humanity, people in general, and Divinity, a divine power or God. Humanity, in this case, seems to be in a rather peculiar situation, unable to escape an invisible grasp that has a hold on it. Vonnegut, through his life, novels and stories, appears to have been looking for a way out of the grasp, a way of making a m an free. In some books he succeeds, in some he does not. What the way out (or the ways out) is, is the main focus of this essay. A common reader may have noticed that Kurt Vonnegut's works seldom have villain characters. This has been observed by many of his readers and many literary critics as well (e.g. Ranly, Reed). However, it can be noted that there is always at least one villain character, although it is definitely not a human being. Whom Vonnegut tends to present as a villain is God. Sometimes he calls Him God Almighty, sometimes The Creator of the Universe, sometimes Mother Nature. Sometimes Vonnegut does not mention God at all, but always there is a force that carries the attributes of a villain character. However, in most cases he refers to 'Christian' God. 'Christian God', though, does not mean that the image that is created by Vonnegut is the same as the Christians' image of God. This essay will prove that it is very different. 'Christian God' means only that Vonnegut refers to the same God as Christians do, even though Vonnegut sees Him in an altogether different light. This conclusion can be arrived at from various references to the Bible, the life of Jesus, or criticising Christians and their faith. Hero characters also do not appear in Vonnegut's books very frequently. All human beings in his literary works are little people which seem to be lead by a Master Puppeteer from above and therefore cannot be responsible for what they do and thus cannot be considered to be villains. In his autobiographical collage Palm Sunday, Vonnegut himself says that his books argue that "most human behavior, no matter how ghastly or ludicrous or glorious or whatever, is innocent," (PSU:xviii). Maybe humanity in general could be considered to be a hero character, since it has to live through the neverending attacks of the villain character, that is - God; a hero character that can never win. However, Vonnegut seems to find a way for humans to conquer the villain. This work, being written by a believing Christian, will not focus on religious meditation about Vonnegut and God, neither will it try to ridicule Vonnegut's opinions and views. It will by no means judge if the way how Vonnegut sees God is right or wrong. The focus of this essay should be different. Firstly, this work will study aforementioned Humanity and Divinity, two literary characters which, though not actually appearing in any of the books, play the major part in Vonnegut's novels and stories. Numerous quotations from Vonnegut's literary works will be used to create accurate character traits and to illustrate their relationship. Understanding the relationship between these two poles is essential for creating a comprehensive the concept of being stuck and finding a way out, especially for Vonnegut's concept of "Bugs stuck in amber" (SH5). Finally, this essay will explore and identify the theme of being stuck and looking for or finding the way out in Vonnegut's books written throughout his life. It will try to show that even though each book and story is different, the main theme is very similar, and the way out may be there, for the characters of the particular book, for the general character of Humanity, or perhaps for Vonnegut himself. Consistent biography of Kurt Vonnegut will not be presented in this thesis. His life, however, will be explored to some extent in order that arguments on autobiography in Vonnegut's novels may have better grounding. Creating a consistent picture It cannot be very difficult to write about the themes of one particular book by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Certainly, an essay written on the themes of one book would not reveal anything the reader might not notice during his own reading. The reason for this is the fact that Vonnegut does not leave any mysteries in his books, but with endurance explains himself over and over again. This usually takes the wind out of the potential critics' sails. Kakutani, for example, is irritated by this and writes th at what is most disturbing about the novel Galapagos is the author's tendency to repeatedly italicize the moral of his story: as in most of Mr. Vonnegut's fiction, deciphering the message is never the reader's problem, and Galapagos is obvious enough without our having to be told, point-blank, that Mandarax stands for "the apple of knowledge" or that Captain von Kleist represents the "new Adam." (Kakutani:17) Even though it might be pointless to discuss one book in particular (it has been done many times already), this essay will do something different. It will put Vonnegut's books and stories together, identify the common themes, merge the ideas that are expressed in various books by Vonnegut, thus creating one consistent picture out of fragments scattered throughout Vonnegut's works. Through this picture it will be enabled to get deeper into the meaning of Vonnegut's writing and maybe into the psyche of Kurt Vonnegut himself. Interchangeability Characters, main or less important ones, tend to reappear throughout Vonnegut's work. For example Eliot Rosewater, who appears "full time" in the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, shows up to occupy a few pages of Slaughterhouse-Five. Diana Moon Glampers playing her important role in the story "Harrison Bergeron", where she destroys the world's only hope of salvation, becomes a wretched character in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Dwayne Hoover first appears in Breakfast of Champions, then in Deadeye Dick. Kilgore Trout, as the last example, shows up in many novels, either as a minor or a major character (e.g. SH5, BOC, JAI, TQK, ROS, GAL). This habit, this tendency of reappearing characters makes Vonnegut's novels interchangeable. It is not only characters which are interchangeable. There are various recurring themes (predestination and fatalism), ideas (handicapping people in order to be equal in "Harrison Bergeron" and Sirens of Titan) and places (e.g. Indianapolis, Ilium). Sale notices this when he says that what he resists in Vonnegut's books is the fact that they seem formulaic, made of interchangeable parts, though this is one quality which may endear him to others. Once Vonnegut finds what he takes to be a successful character, motif or phrase he can't bear to give it up, so he carries it out from novel to novel. (Sale:3) Though this fact may make Vonnegut's books appear to be non-attractive to some people and interesting to others, it can also help in creating the image of Humanity as a character and later characterize the main theme of the works of Kurt Vonnegut. The interchangeability makes it possible to put the works, the themes, the characters and the ideas together in order to form one consistent image. Reed also sees that the numerous recapitulations of previous themes, resurrections of characters who have appeared before, and recollections of earlier mentioned incidents ... represent an attempt at integration, an effort to bring together all that Vonnegut has been saying about the human condition and contemporary American society. (Reed:172-173) The reason for the recurrence described by Reed above will be used in this essay: to integrate and to bring together. Certainly, there are major differences in Vonnegut's novels, especially, they are constantly changing and evolving through time. It would be wrong to assume that all novels and stories can be used identically in criticism. Vonnegut's fiction does seem to evolve, from more sci-fi-like fiction to more autobiographical fiction. His style evolves, his themes evolve, his characters evolve, too. Humanity as a character In this essay, Humanity will be treated in the same way as any literary critic would treat a literary character. It is true that there are individual human characters in Vonnegut's books, but it will be necessary to generalize a little and deal with Humanity as one literary character (hence the capitalization of the two words). Vonnegut himself indirectly hints at the fact that all human beings behave the same way and can, therefore, be considered as one entity. It is typical of Vonnegut that he describes something and then suddenly stops and concludes the paragraph by a simple "and so on" or "etc." phrase. Here is presented just one small example out of many: In some places people would actually try to eat mud or suck on gravel while babies were being born just a few feet away. And so on. (BOC:13) In Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut explains himself and his almost obsessive usage of and-so-on's and et-cetera's. Here he draws a part of a structure of a plastic molecule with numerous "etc." endings. "The molecule went on and on and on, repeating itself forever to a form of a sheet both tough and poreless." He says that the abbreviation "etc." means "sameness without end" and that "the proper ending for any story about people . . . , since life is a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be that same abbreviation." After a large drawing of an "etc." Vonnegut continues, "And it is in order to acknowledge the continuity of this polymer that I begin so many sentences with 'And' and 'So' and end so many paragraphs with '...and so on" (BOC:227-228). "It's all like celophane!" Vonnegut cries out (BOC:228). This obviously implies, that Vonnegut considers all human beings, without exception ("poreless"), to be of the same nature. Therefore, Humanity can be treated like this tough and poreless piece of plastic, like a roll of celophane -- like one literary character. ------------------------------------------------------------- Previous page | Page 1 | Next Page ------------------------------------------------------------- TABLE OF CONTENTS: INTRODUCTION CHAPTER I: Humanity Characteristics of Humanity Playthings, puppets Human life and its value Bugs in Amber CHAPTER II: Divinity Characteristics of Divinity Other Divinity characters The Divine Father Religion CHAPTER III: Hero vs Villain Hero vs. Villain Unsuccessful Ways Out Successful Ways Out Humanity vs. Divinity On meaning and purpose of life CHAPTER IV: Vonnegut as the Hero Fiction and Autobiography merged Vonnegutīs amber Vonnegutīs ways out CONCLUSION List of Abbreviations Used Bibliography BACK TO MAIN PAGE
Last modified: Apr 2, 1998