Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is a contemporary American author whose works have been described by Richard Giannone as “comic masks covering the tragic farce that is our contemporary life” (Draper, 3784). Vonnegut’s life has had a number of significant influences on his works. Influences from his personal philosophy, his life and experiences, and his family are evident elements in his works. Among his “comic masks” are three novels: Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Throughout these novels, elements such as attitude, detail, narrative technique, setting, and theme can be viewed with more understanding when related to certain aspects of his life. These correlations are best examined in terms of each influence.
One of the most significant influences from Vonnegut’s life on his personal philosophy has been his participation in World War II. During the war, Vonnegut served in the American army in Europe and was captured by German soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he witnessed the Allied bombing of the city of Dresden, in which more than 135,000 people died due to the resulting fires (Draper, 3785). This experience had a profound impact on Vonnegut. From it, he developed his existential personal philosophy and his ideas about the evils of technology. He states, “I am the enemy of all technological progress that threatens mankind” (Nuwer, 39). The influence of Dresden shows up in each of the novels.
In Cat’s Cradle, one element of his experience at Dresden that Vonnegut portrays is his fear of technology. Initially, the intention of the story is for the narrator to write about what the scientists who invented the atomic bomb were doing the day it was dropped on Hiroshima. To this effect, one of the scientists in the story said, “Science has now known sin,” to which another replied, “What is sin?” (Vonnegut, Cradle, 21). The focus on technology quickly changes to a material called ice-nine, which has the ability to freeze water at room temperature. This technological breakthrough, by a scientist who worked on developing the atomic bomb, has the ability to destroy the world by freezing all its water. Even though the people with ice-nine are very careful all through the plot, they lose control of it in the end and the world becomes frozen. With ice-nine, Vonnegut thematically demonstrates how relatively simple technology can lay waste to the world, as the Allies did to Dresden (Draper, 3785).
Cat’s Cradle is an excellent example of Vonnegut’s existentialism, “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in. . . an indifferent universe, and regards human existence as unexplainable” (Bookshelf ’94). Before the novel even starts, just below the dedication, he declares, “Nothing in this book is true. ‘Live by the foma harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy'” (Vonnegut, Cradle). Vonnegut carries this concept all through the story, that the universe is meaningless and each person must exist for oneself. He even goes to the extent of inventing a religion, Bokononism, with which humans attempt to make some sense of everything, while realizing that everything is nonsensical.
Vonnegut’s existential philosophy also takes the form of a religion in The Sirens of Titan. The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is established, on the principle that “puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God” (Vonnegut, Sirens, 180). Toward the end of the story, two existential ideas are developed: first that human life is incomprehensible (in this case controlled by aliens from another planet for a trivial purpose), and second that people must make a meaning for life on their own. When one character states, “The worst thing that could possibly happen. . . would be to not be used for anything by anybody,” Vonnegut is suggesting that a good meaning for life might simply be to be useful (Vonnegut, Sirens, 310). The theme and plot of meaninglessness and uselessness mirror Vonnegut’s experiences in the aftermath of Dresden (Amer. Lit. Bio., 301, 303-304).
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater also exhibits elements of Vonnegut’s take on technology and existentialism in plot and theme. The protagonist, millionaire Eliot Rosewater, gives up the life of riches and comfort to live in an impoverished town full of very ordinary, simple people. He discovers that these people need him. They are people of such low esteem, and he, someone of such high social position, can help them find value in their lives. His abandonment of what modern society offers a rich man like him ties in with the existentialism of the story. A conversation between Eliot and his ex-wife Sylvia demonstrates this quality:
Eliot: Can I help being human?
Eliot: Can anybody?
Sylvia: Not that I know of.
Eliot: How is everybody?
Eliot: I’m glad. (Vonnegut, Rosewater, 90-91)
Instead of using religion, Vonnegut expresses existential concepts through the compassion of one man for people who feel no self-value (Reed, 146-171).
Other parts of Kurt Vonnegut’s life have influenced his writing. Among these are his mother’s suicide, places from his life, and his careers. Each of these elements shows up in his works.
His mother’s suicide shows up in a subplot of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. While Vonnegut was in Germany during World War II, his mother became depressed and killed herself with sleeping pills the night before he came home for a Mother’s Day visit (Amer. Lit. Bio., 301). He once wrote:
Suicide has always been a temptation to me, since my mother solved so many problems with it. The child of a suicide will naturally think of death, the big one, as a logical solution to any problem, even one in simple algebra. (Streitfeld, C13)
In fact, Vonnegut himself made a suicide attempt in 1984, using sleeping pills and alcohol. Some one found and saved him, and he has a casual attitude toward his attempt: “‘If I do myself in sometime, and I might, it will be because of my mother’s example,’ he adds in his usual tone of slight bemusement. ‘If I ever get really pissed off, screw it all'” (Streitfeld, C14).
This attitude appears in the character of Fred Rosewater….. in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Fred’s father was a suicide, and Fred has the same indifferent perspective on suicide as Vonnegut. In describing Fred’s situation, the novel states, “Sons of suicides seldom do well. They find life lacking a certain zing. . . they suspect that they, too, will probably kill themselves” (Vonnegut, Rosewater, 103). He even begins to hang himself, but embarrassedly stops before being discovered. Fred Rosewater’s entire attitude toward suicide is an expression of Vonnegut’s own attitude.
Places from Vonnegut’s life also appear in his works. He was born and grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. He attended college at Cornell University. At one point in his life, he worked in Schenectady, New York, and at another he lived on Cape Cod (Wakeman, 1494). In Cat’s Cradle, all of these locations are used. The narrator himself is from Indiana, and meets another Hoosier, who makes an especially big deal about the number of important Hoosiers. The scientist who invented ice-nine was living on Cape Cod when he died. The narrator corresponds with a student from Cornell, and makes a trip to Ilium, NY, a fictitious city based on Schenectady (Vonnegut, Cradle, 66, 82, 14, 23). In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one of the main settings of the story is Rosewater County, Indiana. The people in this once great county are impoverished and for the most part feel worthless. Eliot Rosewater leaves New York City behind to focus his attention on these Hoosiers, and when his mind snaps, he ends up in Indianapolis (Vonnegut, Rosewater). Vonnegut makes use of significant places from his life in both of these works.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Kurt Vonnegut worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau, and then as a public relations writer for the General Electric Company in Schenectady (Wakeman, 1494). He used his various experiences as a writer to create the narrator for Cat’s Cradle. The narrator is a writer planning to write a book called The Day the World Ended. His research for this book provides a base plot for the story, on which all of the other action happens. He also includes writers in The Sirens of Titan and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In the former, the writer is an omniscient man who writes about the history of mankind on Mars and revises the Bible (Vonnegut, Sirens, 196). In the latter, the writer is Kilgore Trout, a relatively unknown science fiction author whose numerous stories get shelved with pornography. This is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s fear of what he himself might become (Amer. Lit. Bio., 305). In the preface of a different book, Vonnegut states, “I want to be a character in all of my works. . . . I have always rigged my stories so as to include myself, and I can’t stop now” (Amer. Lit. Bio., 308). Therefore, he has put himself into these novels as writers.
Finally, Vonnegut’s family has played a role in influencing his works. Both his brother and his sister have had some effects on his writing. In Kurt Vonnegut: A Self Portrait, he states that he has a tendency to create his characters in groups of three: two men and a woman. This is his brother, his sister, and himself, he says (Mantell). Each of these three novels demonstrates that pattern. In Cat’s Cradle, three main characters are the Hoenikker siblings: Frank, Angela, and Newt. In The Sirens of Titan, the group of three is Malachi Constant, Beatrice Rumfoord, and their son Chrono. Eliot Rosewater, his ex-wife, and his father are the three main characters in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,, and also fit the pattern.
Vonnegut’s brother, who was several years older than him, had been having a successful career as a chemist when his parents decided that Kurt would become a chemist, too. Therefore, he went to Cornell University and studied chemistry for three years (Wakeman, 1494). Even though he did not become a chemist, he used the knowledge from his years of study in Cat’s Cradle. In that story, one of the key elements is the substance ice-nine. Vonnegut uses his scientific knowledge to describe the entire concept and all the properties of this fictitious substance, which makes it seems all the more real.
Vonnegut’s sister, who died at age 40, has had a different influence on his writing. She is the perfect reader whom he writes for. “‘That’s the secret of artistic unity,’ he said in an interview, ‘Anyone can achieve it by making something with only one person in mind.'” (Nuwer, 39). In this way, his sister may be the final influence on his work.
Kurt Vonnegut’s writings owe a lot to influences from his life. By sticking with what he knows for settings, details, and characters, he is able to create realistic, easily comprehended stories. He bases the theme and plot on what he has learned from life, and makes each story his perception of life. All of this comes together to make an enjoyable collection of “pungent satirical depictions of modern society” (Draper, 3784).
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