Vonnegut introduces this theme in the Preface, saying the concept stems from his observation as a boy of men suffering from locomotor ataxia. It dictates the narrator's control over the characters in his created universe in this way:
I could only guide their movements approximately, since they were such big animals. There was inertia to overcome. It wasn't as though I was connected to them by steel wires. It was more as though I was connected to them by stale rubberbands.
In fact, the narrator is not able to control actual machines in his own created universe any more than he is able to control the machine-characters. In the Epilogue, as he accosts Kilgore Trout, he struggles with the windshield wipers and cigarette lighter of the car he is driving as he tries to turn on the dome light and let Trout see him.
The narrator does not come to a conclusion about humans as machines until Chapter 19, when he decides, "There was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide."
In the first chapter, this theme carries an evil connotation, as thinking of human beings as machines was used to justify slavery and racism. The conquistadors of the new world, to whom Vonnegut refers as "pirates," used guns to "wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away."
This theme also has relevance in terms of Hoover's insanity: his problem is that he is convinced "everyone on Earth was a robot, with one exception - Dwayne Hoover." It is used to justify war in Chapter 19, when Harold Newcomb Wilbur is described as having earned his medals:
[The] Second World War [...] was staged by robots so that Dwayne Hoover could give a free-willed reaction to such a holocaust. The war was such an extravaganza that there was scarcely a robot anywhere who didn't have a part to play. Harold Newcomb Wilbur got his medals for killing Japanese, who were yellow robots. They were fueled by rice.
This description enforces the idea that eventually overcomes Dwayne Hoover, presented to him in Trout's novel Now It Can Be Told. After reading it, in fact, Dwayne uses the idea of humans as machines to justify attacking everyone, since they cannot feel. When he rants to Wayne Hoobler outside in the parking lot, he concludes that nothing is really a shame, since "Why should I care what happens to machines?" This rationale could be used to justify any type of injustice.
The description of the humans in West Virgina furthers this characterization. The driver of the Pyramid truck tells Trout how he observed them going "around and around," unsmiling. This behavior is very much like a machine, especially since they were on wheels.
In Chapter 15, the people of Midland City are excused for not realizing that Dwayne Hoover was insane because of their machine-like qualities:
Their imaginations insisted that nobody changed much from day to day. Their imaginations were flywheels on the ramshackle machinery of the awful truth.
This description is particularly important because it likens not only the human body to a machine, but the mind, which is often seen as the most distinctive quality of humans.
Dwayne Hoover likens himself to a machine, specifically a car, when he confides in Francine about his visit to the Pontiac Division of General Motors. He saw the "destructive testing" room, and couldn't help wondering if God had put him on Earth just to "find out how much a man could take without breaking."
Francine is later described as a machine herself, in Chapter 18 when she returns to work in the Pontiac agency: "Francine was pure machinery at the moment, a machine made of meat - a typing machine, a filing machine."
Emotional State of American Citizens
In the first chapter, the United States is introduced as important because it is the country in which Hoover and Trout live. Its citizens are described as "so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made." Vonnegut cites the national anthem, which is "gibberish sprinkled with question marks," the law against flag-dipping, and the motto "E pluribus unum" as factors that exacerbate the "nonsense" that makes America unique.
This disenchantment is explored in the character of the Pyramid truck driver, who posits that "the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way." He comes to this conclusion since his own job causes pollution and requires roads to be built; in this way, the destruction of the planet is inextricably linked to the destruction of humankind. And since we are the ones destroying the planet, we are destroying ourselves.
In Chapter 19, the narrator decides he finally understands what is plaguing American citizens: "They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books." This revelation is possibly the opinion of Vonnegut as well as of his narrator. He notes:
This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
Ideas as Disease
"Ideas or the lack of them can cause disease!" This is what Trout proclaims when he realizes what his ideas have done to Hoover. He "became a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases." Trout's story Plague on Wheels, first described in Chapter 2, expresses the idea that "human beings could be as easily felled by single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague." In this case, it is the idea of the automobile that destroys them. This theme is further developed in Chapter 8, when Trout's account of what happened the night he was attacked on Forty-second Street leads to the fabrication of The Pluto Gang. "His comment turned out to be the first germ in an epidemic of mind-poisoning."
Trout calls mirrors "leaks," because it amuses him "to pretend that mirrors were holes between two universes." In Chapter 10, he tells the driver of the Pyramid truck that where he comes from in Bermuda, mirrors are called leaks. The driver then tells his wife, and she tells her friends. In this way, the mirror=leak idea is used to demonstrate another theme, that of ideas spreading like disease.
The theme of mirrors is addressed in terms of Sugar Creek, "the only significant surface water within eight miles of Midland City." In Chapter 11, we learn that it floods sometimes, forming "a vast mirror in which children might safely play." This mirror acts as a leak in the sense that Kilgore Trout understands it, as a hole between the universe of the book and that of the speaker/author:
The mirror showed the citizens the shape of the valley they lived in, demonstrated that they were hill people who inhabited slopes rising one inch for every mile that separated them from Sugar Creek.
The inhabitants are able to look into the mirror/leak and see themselves through the eyes of an observer.
In Chapter 18, when the narrator interacts with his characters in his created universe in the new Holiday Inn cocktail lounge, he tells us the readers that he is wearing sunglasses so that he can be incognito. His sunglasses likewise embody the idea of mirrors as "leaks":
The lenses were silvered, were mirrors to anyone looking my way. Anyone wanting to know what my eyes were like was confronted with his or her own twin reflections. Where other people in the cocktail lounge had eyes, I had two holes into another universe. I had leaks.
Now the reader understands the purpose of Trout's calling mirrors "leaks" throughout the story. The narrator's sunglasses are truly leaks between universes: his own and that of the characters. He is able to watch his characters through the "leaks," but to the characters in their universe they are merely mirrors.
In Chapter 20, when Kilgore Trout arrives at the new Holiday Inn, he finds himself surrounded by "leaks" in the lobby: "And when Trout looked through them to see what was going on in the other universe, he saw a red-eyed, filthy old creature who was barefoot, who had his pants rolled up to his knees." Trout seems to be able to actually use the mirrors as "leaks," seeing himself as the narrator sees him.
In the Epilogue, as the narrator leaves the universe of his characters and, presumably, travels through the "void" back to his own universe, a small hand mirror floats by him. This literal mirror accompanies the "leak" it has represented throughout the whole story: the gap between universes through which the narrator now travels.
There are sketches of tombstones throughout the book. This suggests that humans will be "gone but not forgotten," as stated by Kago in Trout's story Plague on Wheels.
The first tombstone is that of Kilgore Trout, at the end of Chapter 1. It is actually a monument constructed in his honor by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It reads: "We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane." The words are a quotation from his last novel, which was unfinished.
In Chapter 16, we learn the story of Now It Can Be Told, Trout's novel and a book that will drive Hoover crazy once and for all. In it, The Man (the experimental creature with free will) has a tombstone. The Man's tombstone reads: "Not Even The Creator of the Universe Knew What The Man Was Going to Say Next. Perhaps The Man Was a Better Universe in its Infancy."
In Chapter 18, the narrator suggests a tombstone for Wayne Hoobler, which reads: "Black Jailbird. He Adapted to What There Was to Adapt to." This tombstone message hints at the theme of race, since we usually think of animals as adapting to their environments. Black people throughout the story have been compared to animals, and here Wayne Hoobler's entire existence is summed up as one of adaptation. He misses what he knows, even though it is captivity, much as an animal would. In fact, this passage links him to Trout's bird Bill, who flew back into his cage because he was afraid of everything outside the window.
This theme is important because Dwayne Hoover owns almost all of Midland City, including the new Holiday Inn where he snaps and begins hurting people.
The speaker seems to have a skeptical view of the idea of humans owning land, and this opinion is demonstrated in Trout's story "This Means You," in Chapter 8. In the story, all the land of the Hawaiian Islands is owned by about forty people, and they don't allow any trespassers. So all the other people who live there are forced to dangle from the strings of helium balloons, in order to obey the No Trespassing signs. This story is a hyperbole, in that it is unlikely this level of ownership and enforcement will ever occur, but it draws attention to the real problem at hand of some people (like Dwayne Hoover) owning everything, and others (like freed black slaves) owning nothing.
The problem of freed black slaves owning nothing is referenced directly in Chapter 8, in the form of the ancestors of the young black prostitutes, who were forced to come to cities because of No Trespassing signs everywhere else. It is again addressed in Chapter 10 when Trout catches a ride on the truck at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel: "The slaves were simply turned loose without any property. They were easily recognizable. They were black. They were suddenly free to go exploring." But from the tone of the rest of the book, we know the slaves' exploring didn't get them very far, and their lack of property was extremely hindering.
In Chapter 12, we are told of how Kilgore Trout once encountered the Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, and didn't recognize him. The speaker takes this opportunity to demonstrate his cynicism about the rules of ownership, by noting that:
Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth's surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
Another symbol of ownership is the old miner whom Trout encounters in West Virginia. He represents the feelings of a lot of Americans, saying that it "don't matter if you care if you don't own what you care about." The land he worked on was owned by Eliot Rosewater's company. The old miner tells Trout:
"It don't seem right that a man can own what's underneath another man's farm or woods or house. And any time the man wants to get what's underneath all that, he's got a right to wreck what's on top to get at it. The rights of the people on top of the ground don't amount to nothing compared to the rights of the man who owns what's underneath."
The Destruction of the Planet
This theme is addressed in Chapter 10, when the truck driver points out that "The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large."
The underground stream that passes through the Sacred Miracle Cave owned by Lyle and Kyle Hoover is polluted, and the bubbles smell like athlete's foot. This detail links the pollution of the stream under Sacred Miracle Cave to the disease that killed off the Ern in Bermuda. Pollution by humans not only destroyed the species of bird, it is destroying a tourist trap created by humans for humans.
West Virgina, as described in Chapter 14 as Trout passes through it with the driver of the Pyramid truck, can be seen as representing the greater problem of the destruction of the planet. Its surface "had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal." Now, "with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, it was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it." The speaker makes sure to point out that:
The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.
Thus, the blame lies on everyone.
Communism is introduced in Chapter 1, with relation to "the wrecked planet" Earth. America's opinion of Communists is important:
Dwayne Hoover's and Kilgore Trout's country, where there was still plenty of everything, was opposed to Communism. It didn't think that Earthlings who had a lot should sare it with others unless they really wanted to, and most of them didn't want to. So they didn't have to.
In this way, the theme of anti-Communism is linked to the theme of ownership: some people, like Dwayne Hoover in the beginning of the story, are "fabulously well-to-do," while others have "doodley-squat."
This theme is addressed again in Trout's conversation with the Pyramid truck driver in Chapter 10. The driver's brother works in a factory that makes chemicals to kill foliage in Viet Nam, "a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes." By killing the plants and trees, the driver's brother is killing a source of life on the planet, and thus indirectly committing suicide. The fight against Communism proves a self-destructive one.
In Chapter 4, Dwayne Hoover notices the advertisements on the radio in his car after he has stopped his crazed ride. He hears an advertisement for "ten different kinds of flowering shrubs and five fruit trees for six dollars, C.O.D." It sounds good to him, because he is susceptible to the charms of advertising, like a child. The speaker notes that:
Almost all the messages which were sent and received in his country, even the telepathic ones, had to do with buying or selling some damn thing. They were like lullabies to Dwayne.
The diction choice of "lullabies" is significant, since it draws attention to the childlike quality necessary to be so moved by advertisements.
This theme is introduced again when Trout notices the word "PYRAMID" on the side of the truck he's been riding in in Chapter 10. He wonders "what a child who was just learning to read would make of a message like that," and decides that the child would think it was "terrifically important" since it is so big. In Chapter 12, Trout asks the Pyramid truck driver why the company is called Pyramid, since the truck is meant to transport things rapidly and pyramids don't move. The driver responds that his brother-in-law, who started the company, "liked the sound of it. Don't you like the sound of it?" Trout agrees just "to keep things friendly," then creates a little story in his head. It is about a planet where the creatures were so "enchanted by sounds" that the language kept turning into music. This was a problem since the music was useless as a conveyor of information, so the leaders had to keep inventing "new and much uglier vocabularies and sentence structures all the time, which would resist being transmuted to music." Thus, Trout harkens back to the advertisements "like lullabyes" in Chapter 4.
Wayne Hoobler banks his only hope in his new free life - to work for Dwayne Hoover at the Pontiac dealership - on an advertisement he's seen. He further links susceptibility to advertising to childishness: his whole existence in the story is based upon advertising, and his ideal world is called Fairyland, a word which the speaker points out is "childish." From the information he gathers from the advertisement, Wayne Hoobler believes that working for Dwayne will help him reach this quixotic destination.
In Chapter 16, Trout asks the driver of the Galaxie why he thinks a fire extinguisher brand would be named Excelsior, and the driver shrugs and answers, "Somebody must have liked the sound of it." This conversation recalls the one between Trout and the driver of the Pyramid truck, in which that driver had the same answer for why a truck company would be named Pyramid. It is significant to note that although the radio advertisements in the parking lot were "lullabies" to Dwayne Hoover's ears, Trout is for some reason unable to identify advertisements that work because of the way they sound. This is a key difference between the two men: Dwayne is susceptible to advertisements, while Trout is not, instead questioning their logic.
This theme is introduced clearly in Chapter 1: "They had too many people and not enough space," Vonnegut writes. "They had sold everything that was any good, and there wasn't anything to eat anymore, and still the people went on fucking." The overpopulation of the planet is linked to the theme of the destruction of the planet, since "more babies were arrivign all the time - kicking and screaming, yelling for milk."
Overpopulation is addressed again in Trout's story "This Means You," in which forty people own all the land of the Hawaiian Islands and don't allow anyone else to trespass - forcing the other inhabitants to dangle from the strings of helium balloons. Vonnegut wields allegory to demonstrate the gravity of the issue, teasing out the terrible implications of overpopulation through pop imagery and cartoon prose.
Consider also the following excerpt, from Now It Can Be Told:
"The Creator of the Universe would now like to apologize not only for the capricious, jostling companionship he provided during the test, but for the trashy, stinking condition of the planet itself. The Creator programmed robots to abuse it for millions of years, so it would be a poisonous, festering cheese when you got here. Also, He made sure it would be desperately crowded by programming robots, regardless of their living conditions, to crave sexual intercourse and adore infants more than almost anything."
Race is used in the characterization of every character in the book, except for the anonymous attackers who become known as The Pluto Gang. Thus, the speaker demonstrates his claim in Chapter 1 that "Color was everything."
Dwayne Hoover, a white "fabulously well-to-do" man, and Wayne Hoobler, a black ex-convict, are made doppelgangers by their similar names. In Chapter 14 we find out that Dwayne Hoover's stepparents originally had been named Hoobler, but had changed their last name when, in West Virginia, they realized that Hoobler was a "Nigger name." His stepfather's racism is explicit in the story Dwayne remembers in Chapter 21, which his stepfather told him when he was ten years old. It involves a black father being brutally murdered for spending the night in Shepherdstown; Dwayne's stepfather "told the story so gleefully."
Black people are likened to machines even more so than others, since white people have seen them that way since the days of slavery. For example, in Chapter 15, Dwayne is at the construction site of the new high school and asks a white worker about one of the machines. The worker tells him it is called "The Hundred Nigger Machine", simultaneously referencing the common theme of humans as machines, as well as demonstrating the racism that persists in the world of the story.
But black people are also likened to animals throughout the book. Harry LeSabre and his wife Grace use the code word "reindeer" when talking about black people, and in Chapter 15 the narrator describes what they see as "the reindeer problem." Blacks were reproducing, and whites didn't see much use for them; to them there were "useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions." In Chapter 18, Wayne Hoobler is likened to an animal, in that he misses prison - which recalls Bill, Trout's bird, who when freed from its cage decided to hop back inside because it was afraid of what was beyond the window.
The narrator comments on the theme of race directly in Chapter 21, when he hypothesizes:
I think that the end of the Civil War in my country frustrated the white people in the North, who won it, in a way which has never been acknowledged before. Their descendants inherited that frustration, I think, without ever knowing what it was.
The victors in that war were cheated out of the most desirable spoils of that war, which were human slaves.
When Dwayne Hoover speaks to Wayne Hoobler during his rampage, he acknowledges that "white robots were just like black robots, essentially, in that they were programmed to be whatever they were, to do whatever they did." This conclusion reconciles the idea of humans as machines with the theme of race. Thinking of humans as machines allows them all to be equal, regardless of race.
Humans as Bands of Unwavering Light
This theme is introduced by Rabo Karabekian in his defense of his painting in Chapter 19. It is contrary to the idea that so far has permeated the book, that of humans as machines. These two themes clash, but the narrator attempts to reconcile them in Chapter 20 in this description of Kilgore Trout:
His situation, insofar as he was a machine, was complex, tragic, and laughable. But the sacred part of him, his awareness, remained an unwavering band of light.
And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic. The plastic, incidentally, is a close relative of the gunk in Sugar Creek. And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light.
At the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.
This passage characterizes us all, in all universes (that of Kilgore Trout, that of the narrator, or the "meat machine," and that of the readers) as having some sacred awareness that makes us unlike machines.
Birds in Breakfast of Champions can be read and interpreted in conjunction with the twin themes of race and the destruction of the planet. The character of Wayne Hoobler represents this connection because he, like Bill the parakeet, has been kept in cages all his life, "orphanages and youth shelters and prisons of one sort or another." He misses prison - as Bill missed his cage - since now that he is free he doesn't know what to do with himself.
This connection also builds upon the theme of race, with black people being viewed as animals thanks to the society in which they have been brought up. All the black people in Midland City can imitate birds of the British Empire, a skill they learned from Fred T. Barry's mother, who did so for her amusement. In the Epilogue, Elgin Washington asks Kilgore Trout to listen to him as he imitates a Nightingale from his hospital bed.
Machines as Living
This theme is introduced in the Epilogue as a foil to the theme of humans as machines. The reader is informed that Fred T. Barry wishes to make a museum out of the old Keedsler mansion, on the condition that the first Robo-Magic is exhibited, showing "how machines evolved just as animals did, but with much greater speed."
As the narrator chases Kilgore Trout, he stops running in front of the General Electric Company. The monogram and motto read, "Progress is our most important product." This motto hearkens back to the theme of advertising, now tying it to the idea that has just been introduced of machines evolving like living things. General Motors products are making "progress," just as the Robo-Magic evolved.
Breakfast of Champions Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Breakfast of Champions is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.