It is summer at the Ilium Works, the second-largest industrial plant in America, and applicants are waiting in line for job interviews. David Potter is eventually admitted to the employment office, and asked about his skills. When he reveals that he is a writer, the receptionist refers him to booth 26, to speak with Mr. Dilling about a possible opening in sales and advertising. Mr. Dilling reveals that there are few openings at the time, but asks David to have a seat anyway.
David explains to Mr. Dilling that he owns a weekly newspaper in a nearby town, but that he is seeking a new job to support his wife and four children, two of whom had been born only days earlier. Seemingly impressed, Mr. Dilling mentions he might have a position for David, at a low starting salary that could increase over time. Mr. Dilling then steps away for a few minutes, and soon returns with news that Lou Flammer, the publicity supervisor, has an opening for a stenographer.
After passing a physical that qualifies him, David calls his wife Nan from the company hospital with the news. Nan is still at another hospital with their newly-born twin girls, and hesitantly warns him that he might not fit in well at a place like Ilium Works. Whereas he has "always been so free" as his own employer, the corporate lifestyle requires subservience to rules (226). She argues that the paper is profitable, but he is convinced that a new job will be more sustainable and dependable. Though she accepts his reasoning, she asks him not to sell the paper to his assistant Ed Jason - whose father had shown interest in buying it - until he is certain about the new job. He agrees.
David steps out of the hospital into the vast world of the Works, and asks a passing elderly man for directions to Building 31, where Mr. Flammer's office is located. Explaining he has worked there for 50 years, the man leads him to the building.
There, Mr. Flammer greets him sweetly, mistaking him for a scoutmaster; he is set to give a tour to Boy Scouts later in the day. When he realizes that David is his new stenographer, he drops his charming attitude and explains the rating sheet system: every six months, each employee is rated by three people who have worked closely with him. Ratings cover appearance, loyalty, initiative, and other qualities. These rating sheets and seniority determine raises for the employees.
While he is explaining company policies, Mr. Flammer receives a phone call with news that a deer is running loose in the Works. It had been hiding under the bleachers, but is now cornered near the metallurgy lab. Flammer sends David to meet a photographer there so he can cover the story and control the P.R., but gives confusing directions.
Overwhelmed, David rushes towards the lab, but gets lost and ends up near an alley. Unable to remember which lab he is looking for, he cannot ask for directions, and nobody knows anything about the deer.
David takes refuge in a random factory building, and decides to call Flammer. He asks directions from a machinist, whose words are obscured by the sound of the huge machines around them. Finally, a receptionist directs David to a nearby telephone, but only crystallographers are allowed in the building that day. David claims he is a crystallographer, and a man named Stan Dunkel shows him an X-ray spectrogoniometer, asking for feedback. David gives a vague response.
Finally, David reaches the telephone booth and calls Mr. Flammer's office, but the man is not in. However, Mr. Flammer has left a message for David with his receptionist: once the team catches the deer, David is to ensure it is butchered and served at the Quarter-Century Club picnic, a celebration for people who have been with the company at least twenty-five years.
David walks back outside to a baseball field, and sits down behind the bleachers to rest. Suddenly, he sees the deer, with broken antlers and a limp, being pursued by a group of men. The deer ends up trapped against the outer fence of the Works.
Suddenly, a limousine pulls up, and Mr. Flammer leans from its window to command the team to keep the deer alive until his photographer gets a picture. Seeing David there, Flammer assumes that he has followed directions and successfully gotten the story. But when the deer rushes along the fence toward David, he impulsively reaches out, opens the latch, and lets the deer escape back into the woods. Then he follows it himself.
"Deer in the Works" depicts a dystopian future in which industry, funded by a controlling government, has overpowered individuality. The basic idea is that David almost loses his individuality to the bureaucracy of the Ilium Works, in only one day's time. This theme - the loss of individual spirit - is common in Vonnegut's short fiction, and here is explicitly related as a conflict between writing and commerce.
Writing, Vonnegut's own profession, is deemed useless in the eyes of the Ilium Works, unless it is used for sales and advertising (in other words, to make money). Writing as an art form has become obsolete. Instead, the Works views life only in terms of its bureaucratic efficiency. It is telling that David's newspaper follows the lives of a small town - it seeks to tell the stories of the individuals in his community. David's ability to detail the lives of his small town stands in contrast to the rating sheet system, which judges each individual via a set of numbers. The tension between individual humanity and systematic industry is clear in David's realization that, "The graph left no questions to be asked and was deaf to argument. David looked from it to the human being he would also be dealing with" (231). The Ilium Works is so 'perfect' that nothing has any individual or eccentric flair. Every building looks the same, and every person is obsessed the same concerns: seniority and efficiency.
This story also reflects Vonnegut's penchant for comic science fiction, using humor to make depressing situations ironic and/or silly. When Mr. Flammer tells David that fifty-six percent of Federal Apparatus' executives were Eagle Scouts, David's instinct is to laugh - he and the reader see the irony that Eagle Scouts, who have mastered the skills of working and living in the natural outdoors, would become executives at an industrial place like Federal Apparatus. Lou Flammer comments that it "says something for scouting and something for industry"; the open-endedness of this seemingly arrogant comment allows the reader to find humor in just what that something might be (229). And of course, the entire story operates around a situational irony: this world so modeled on efficiency and bureaucracy is nearly impossible to navigate because everything looks the same.
The theme of technology is prominent in "Deer in the Works," especially as it relates to machinery and industrial work. The very first sentence describes the way in which machinery overpowers people: "The big black stacks of the Ilium Works of the Federal Apparatus Corporation spewed acid fumes and soot over the hundreds of men and women who were lined up before the redbrick employment office" (222). People are being overwhelmed by the machines they are now practically subservient to. This motif resurfaces several times, such as when David cannot hear directions over a machine, or when the crystallographer immediately wants David's feedback on a new invention. As the old man walks David over to Mr. Flammer's office, the machinery is personified as "spitting, whining, grumbling," as if it has taken the life from the people who operate it (228-229). Indeed, it seems that these humans have allowed machines to become their primary concern.
To develop the stark contrast between the Works and the natural world, Vonnegut uses the metaphor of a river to describe David's bewilderment as he looks for the deer and the photographer: "He was swept this way and that by the currents of the Works, stranded in backwaters, sucked back into the main stream," all as if drowning in a huge river (233). But in fact, the Works is cordoned off from the natural world by a fence, one that the employees there would seemingly never open. The division between the two worlds is evident in one of the men's directions as they close in on the deer: "Shoot into the woods, not the Works" (236). It is the natural world that is losing this battle, being destroyed by overpowering technology.
All of these themes coalesce in the metaphor of the deer, which represents both the threatened natural world and David's own outsider position. It is a symbol of freedom, vitality, and pride: just as David almost sacrifices these aspects in himself, on the brink of trading in his simple life running a newspaper in favor of mechanized work at the huge industrial plant, the deer almost loses its life. The story's climax occurs in its final moments, when David, almost by impulse, opens the fence and frees the deer rather than allowing it become part of the corporate machine that sees in it only a P.R. story and a meal for the Quarter-Century Club picnic. And yet it is telling that the deer does not escape unscathed - it is streaked with the dirt and soot produced by the Works, and suffers broken antlers and a limp. Likewise, while the final moment is certainly triumphant for David, he has lost a degree of innocence, and it is likely he will have to encounter this new dominant way of thinking again in his lifetime.