Kurt Vonnegut



Eine Ausarbeitung zum Englischspezialgebiet

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., a successful architect, and Edith Sophia Vonnegut.  He had two older siblings, a brother Bernard, and a sister Alice. 

Fourth-generation Germans, the Vonnegut children were raised with little, if any, knowledge about their German heritage - a legacy, Kurt believed, of the anti-German feelings vented during World War I. With America's entry into the Great War on the side of the Allies, anything associated with Germany became suspect. The anti-German feeling so shamed Kurt's

parents, he noted, that they resolved to raise him 'without acquainting me with the language or the literature or the music or the oral family histories which my ancestors had loved. They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism.' His parents did pass on to their youngest child their love of joke-telling, but, with the world his parents loved

shattered by World War I, Vonnegut also learned, as he put it, 'a bone-deep sadness from them.'

Part of that unease may have come from the idealism he learned while a public school student - an idealism that is often reflected in his writings. To Vonnegut, America in the 1930s was an idealistic, pacifistic nation. While in the sixth grade, he said he was taught 'to be proud that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing

to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it.'

Along with instilling Vonnegut with a strong sense of ideals and pacifism, his time in Indianapolis's schools started him on the path to a writing career. It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, that Vonnegut first began to express his talents, as the editor of the school newspaper.

'It just turned out,' Vonnegut noted,

'that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can't imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it.' In his case that something was writing.

After graduating in 1940, he entered Cornell University to study biochemistry.

To the young Vonnegut, Cornell itself was a 'boozy dream,' partly because of the alcohol he imbibed and also because he found himself enrolled in classes for which he had no talent. He did, however, find success outside the classroom by working for the Cornell Daily Sun.

Vonnegut's days at the eastern university were interrupted by America's entry into World War II. 'I was flunking everything by the middle of my junior year,' he admitted. 'I was delighted to join the army and go to war.' In January 1943 he volunteered for military service.

He ended up as a battalion intelligence scout with the 106th Infantry Division.

On Mother's Day in 1944 Vonnegut received leave from his duties and returned home to find that his mother had committed suicide the previous evening.

Three months after his mother's death, Vonnegut was sent overseas just in time to become engulfed in the last German offensive of the war - the Battle of the Bulge. Captured by the Germans, Vonnegut and other American prisoners were shipped in boxcars to Dresden - 'the first fancy city' he had ever seen, Vonnegut said. As a POW, he found himself quartered in a slaughterhouse and working in a malt syrup factory. On Feb. 13, 1945, the air raid siren went off in Dresden and Vonnegut, some other POWs and their German guards found refuge in a meat locker located three stories under the slaughterhouse. 

They happened to live through the firebombing of Dresden (an incident that killed more people then in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined).

'It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around,' Vonnegut said. 'When we came up the city was gone. They burnt the whole damn town down.'

Freed from his captivity by the Red Army's final onslaught against Nazi Germany and returned to America, the soldier - Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - tried for many years to put into words what he had experienced during that horrific event. At first, it seemed to be a simple task. 'I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do

would be to report what I had seen,' Vonnegut noted.

It took him more than twenty years, however, to produce Slaughterhouse-Five wich has retained the reputation as Vonnegut's greatest, and most controversial, work. It has been used in classrooms across the country, and also been banned by school boards. In 1973 school officials in Drake, North Dakota, went so far as to confiscate and burn the book, an action Vonnegut termed 'grotesque and ridiculous.' He was glad, he added, that he had 'the freedom to make soldiers talk the way they do talk.'

All his books are strongly satirical and ironical (Vonnegut often uses  very dark humor), funny,  compassionate and extremely wise. They mostly have a very poor  plot (or none at all) and the emphasis is  put onto the  rather comic and  pathetic characters. Kurt Vonnegut also very often uses science fiction and comic book formulas (quick action, short dialogues etc.), which usually puts his  books  onto  bookstore  shelves  marked  'sci-fi'.




Slaughterhouse-Five;  or  The  Children's  Crusade,  A Duty Dance With Death is surely  the best achievement of Kurt Vonnegut and  even one  of the   most acclaimed  works in  modern American literature.  It  is  a  very  personal  novel  which  draws  upon Vonnegut's  own experience  in World  War Two. Vonnegut manages to  tell the reader many things  and it is hard to  decide, what exactly  is the main  theme. It is  a novel about  war, about  the cruelty  and violence  done in war, about people and their nature, their selfishness, about love, humanity, regeneration, motion, and death.

The book has two narratives.  One is personal and the other is  impersonal. The  later is  the story  of Billy  Pilgrim who, similarly  to  the  author,  fights  in  World  War Two, is taken prisoner  by  the  Germans  and  witnesses  the  fire-storming of Dresden and is unsimilar to him kidnapped by the small green inhabitants of planet tralfmador.  The personal  narrative is  Vonnegut's own  story of writing a book about the worst experience of his life. It appears mostly  in the  first chapter,  and describes  his temptation  to write a book about Dresden and his efforts to finally produce it.

Billy Pilgrim has a unique ability to become 'unstuck in time', which means that he can uncontrollably drift from one partof his  life to another  'and the trips  aren't necessarily fun,' The whole book is  organized in the same  way Billy moves in  time. It consists  of numerous sections  and paragraphs strung together  in no chronological order,  seemingly at random. The whole  narration is written  in the past  tense, so that  the reader cannot identify where the author's starting point is. This Aspect of the  book is identical with the  Tralfamadorian type of books:

"There isn't any  particular relationship between

all the messages, except that the author has chosen them

carefully, so that, when seen  all at once, they produce

an image  of life that  is beautiful and  surprising and

deep.  There  is  no  beginning,  no  middle, no end, no

suspense, no moral, no causes,  no effects. What we love

in our  books are the  depths of many  marvelous moments

seen all at one time."

In my opinion, however, the narration is linear. One period of Billy's life  is told in a line -  Billy's story from the war. I admit  that  the  line  of  narration  is  broken by many other events,  but every  time a  war  story  begins, it  takes up  the narrative  at the  moment when  the previous  war story ended. It seems that  Vonnegut, who had  wanted to write  a war novel,  now  wanted  to avoid  writing about  it. The  war seems  to have been a great  tempting  magnet  for  him,  and  Vonnegut was trying to escape its power. He managed to  do so, to some extent, but every now and then the story falls back into World War Two.

The Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five

The  first theme  of Slaughterhouse-Five,  and perhaps  the most  obvious, is  the war  and its  contrast with  love, beauty, humanity,  innocence  etc.  Slaughterhouse-Five manages to tell  us that war  is bad for  us and that it would  be better for us to love  one another. To find the war's  contrast with  love is  quite difficult,  because the book doesn't talk about any couple that  was cruelly torn apart by the war (Billy didn't seem to love  his wife very much, for example.) Vonnegut expresses  it very lightly,  uses the word  'love' very rarely, yet effectively. He tries to  look for love and beauty in things  that  seemingly  are  neither  lovely  nor beautiful. For example,  when Billy  was captured  by the  group of  Germans, he didn't see them as a cruel enemy, but as normal, innocent people. 'Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of  a fifteen-year-old boy. The boy was as beautiful as Eve.'

An  interesting contrast  in  Vonnegut's  books is  the one between  men and  women. Male  characters are  often engaging  infights and  wars, and females  try to prevent  them from it. 

The most often expressed theme  of the book, in my opinion, is that we, people, are 'bugs in amber.' The phrase first appears when Billy is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorian flying saucer:

"Welcome   aboard,   Mr.   Pilgrim,'   said  

the loudspeaker. 'Any questions?'

Billy licked his lips,  thought a while, inquired

at last: 'Why me?'

'That is  a very Earthling  question to ask,  Mr.

Pilgrim. Why you? Why us  for that matter? Why anything?

Because this  moment simply is. Have  you ever seen bugs

trapped in amber?'

'Yes.' Billy,  in fact, had a  paperweight in his

office  which was  a blob  of polished  amber with three

lady-bugs embedded in it.

'Well, here  we are, Mr. Pilgrim,  trapped in the

amber of this moment. There is no why."

This rather  extraterrestrial opinion can  be interpreted as  our being  physically stuck  in this  world, that  we don't  have any choice over what we, mankind as a whole, do and what we head for. The only thing we can do  is think about everything, but we won't affect  anything. This  idea  appears  many times  throughout the novel. For  example, Billy knew the exact time when he would be killed, yet  didn't try to do anything about it. Anyway, he  couldn't have changed it.  The death bears comparison with  mankind's fate.  The  main  thing Vonnegut  probably wanted people to  think about has  something to do  with wars on  Earth. Vonnegut says so in the part  where Billy discusses the problems about wars  with the Tralfamadorians. They tell him that everything is structured the way it is and that trying to prevent war on Earth is stupid. This means that there always will be wars on Earth, that  we, people, are 'designed' that  way. There might be people  striving for eternal  peace, but those  people must be very naive  and probably don't  know humankind's nature.  We know that wars  are bad and  we would  like  to stop them,  but we are 'stuck in amber.' This  point of  view also  might explain  why there  are no villains or  heroes in Vonnegut's  books.  All  the characters are  "Comic, pathetic pieces,  juggled about  by some  inexplicable  faith,  like puppets,' If  there  is  no-one  to  take  the  blame  for the bad happenings in the book, it can  only mean that the villain is God Himself. God Almighty had  to be the one who put us into the amber, who had created us the way we are.

 "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."

Another theme of  the novel is that there  is no such thing as a soldier. There is only a man, but never a soldier. A soldier is  not a  human being   any more. 

Vonnegut opposes  any institution,  be it scientific,  religious, or  political, that  dehumanizes man  and considers him a  mere number and not a  human being. 

Another  obvious  theme  of  the  book  is  that  death  is inevitable and that  no matter who dies, life  still goes on. The phrase 'So it goes' recurs one  hundred and six times: it appears everytime anybody  dies in the  novel, and sustains  the circular quality  of the  book. It  enables the  book, and thus Vonnegut's narration, to go on. It must  have been hard writing a book about such an experience and it probably helped the author to look upon death through the eyes of Tralfamadorians:

 "When  a  Tralfamadorian  sees  a  corpse,  all he

thinks is  that the dead  person is in  bad condition in

the particular moment, but that  the same person is just

fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear

that somebody is  dead, I simply shrug and  say what the

Tralfamadorians say  about dead people, which  is 'So it


But does it mean tat when something awful happens,  we should just say 'So it goes,' turn our heads, and think of happier things. There is a slogan that appears twice throughout the novel:

"God grant me the sevnity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,and wisdom always to tell the difference"

But among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.



Mother night

Mother Night is Vonnegut's third novel and centers on an American playwright, Howard Campbell, who finds himself in Germany when WWII erupts. Rather than return to the States he is convinced by an American secret agent to remain in Germany as a spy while posing as a Nazi propagandist.He does this job all too well and is considered by many to be one of the most powerful war criminals. After the war he returns home and plods along in obscurity, until, late in his life he confides his true identity to his neighbour, who, in reality, is a Russian spy. His address is given to American nazi organisations who celebrate him as their hero. His long lost wife appears again, but in truth the woman who pretends to be her is her sister, a Russian spy as well. Betrayed by his friend and lover, he turns himself in to his Jewish dentist and is taken to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. When the American agent who recruited him offers proof of his true identity he commits suicide. 'Tonight is the night I will hang Howard W. Campbell for crimes against himself'

This novel is about innocence and guilt, about truth and fiction, about love and betrayal. It is a challenge to our moral sense.

Is Howard W. Campbell guilty? And of what? By carrying out the orders of the government of the United States he committed crimes against mankind. By writing brilliant propaganda pieces he turned against his own art, but lived very well with his beloved wife. In order to be a good spy he was a good Nazi. So it becomes difficult to distignuish between guilt and innocence. 'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about wht we pretend to be.'

Cats Craddle

This 127 chapter novel is the story of Hoenikker family and the ultimate destruction

of the world. Felix Hoenikker is the man responsible for creating the doomsday device known as 'Ice-9.' The Ice-9 is unique in that it freezes water at a much higher temperature. After his death, the children go their seperate ways only to wind up on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo when Frank Hoenikker gives Ice-9 to San Lorenzo's dictator, Papa Monzano. Tragedy strikes when Papa Manzono accidently ingests the Ice-9 and turns himself into human icicle. Matters complicate further when Papa's dead body accidently tumbles down a great hill and into the sea, thus freezing all water in the world and killing nearly everyone. The narrator John, who is to marry Papa's daughter Mona, is one of the few to survive along with the contraversial religeous figure Bokonon. Bokonon proclaims to John that Ice-9 is God's final practical joke whereupon the novel ends with this quote from Bokonon:

'If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity

I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men;  and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumb my nose at You Know Who.'

In this novel Vonnegut makes a very cynical evaluation of the world and its possibility for human-assisted apocalypse and our inability to do anything about it.

Vonneguts main idea

I think that Vonnegut wanted to tell us, the readers, that no  matter what happens, we should retain our humanity. We should not let anybody or anything reign upon our personalities, be it  a god, be it a politician or anybody else. We should be ourselves - human and humane beings.



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