Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories Summary and Analysis of "Miss Temptation"


"Miss Temptation" begins with a description of Susanna, who is living in a small village one summer while performing in the community theater nearby. She is poetically beautiful and seductive, sleeping away half the day before embarking on a sensual, barefoot walk through the village. She is polite to everyone, but the only person she speaks to is the elderly drugstore pharmacist, Bearse Hinkley, who sells her the New York City newspapers each day. After this routine, she returns to the room she is renting over the firehouse.

One day, while buying her newspapers at the drugstore, she is interrupted by Corporal Norman Fuller, who has just returned from a tour of duty in Korea. He has never seen her before, and deliberately turns his squeaky stool towards her before confronting her about the way she walked down the street, like a temptress. He criticizes all American women, calling them the "greatest actresses in the world" (77). An actress by profession, Susanna does not initially understand his meaning, and thanks him. But he redoubles his sarcasm, blaming her aloud for the way women like her make ordinary men like him feel, like "lonely, ordinary people" (78). He then storms out, leaving Susanna completely shaken. After a moment, she runs out of the drugstore and back to her room over the firehouse.

That evening, Norman eats dinner with his widow mother. Norman's mother tries to start lighthearted conversation, but Norman only sulks, explaining that he has not reconnected with any of his old friends, who have all married since he left. When she suggests he might meet a woman soon, he tells her that he plans to go to divinity school because of an experience he had earlier that day. He then describes how he berated Susanna.

Later that night, Norman strolls towards the firehouse, smoking a cigar. He joins Bearse Hinkley, who is sitting around feeling nostalgic as he usually does. Norman complains about how women act, saying that he would never want a beautiful daughter. Bearse then tells Norman that Susanna has apparently skipped her show that night, since she never left the firehouse. Norman is surprised and strangely pleased to realize how his outburst impacted her.

The next day at noon, Bearse Hinkley and all the other villagers wait expectantly to see whether Susanna will emerge as usual from her room. Norman himself arrives at the drugstore just before noon, exhausted from a sleepless night spent obsessing his resentment for beautiful women. He and Bearse are surprised when a truck pulls up in front of the firehouse, and two men begin moving Susanna's things out. When Norman again begins to rant about Susanna, Bearse accuses him of being frightened of the girl. When Norman rejects the claim, embarrassed to be called out in front of others, Bearse challenges him to deliver Susanna's newspapers to her. Norman reluctantly agrees.

In the room, Norman finds Susanna dressed conservatively. He is also surprised that the room is bare and boring, hardly the sensual lair he had imagined. After a moment, he admits he did not mean to chase her away, and she confronts him. She explains that she has been up all night imaging conversations with him, and now insists that he was out of line to comment on her appearance. She complains that she has always suffered judgment because of her beauty, and he admits he has always been resentful because he never had a chance with beautiful girls like her. When he suggests that only people with money could attract someone like her, she counters that all a man needs to do is "be friendly" (87). When he tries to leave, she insists that he walk down the street with her, in order to redeem her before the village.

Susanna makes Norman wait for her outside the firehouse while she changes. She has decided not to leave after all. In order to deal with his humiliation, Norman pets her cat over and over, repeating "kitty, kitty, kitty" (88).

Eventually, Susanna emerges, barefoot as usual and dressed in her normal, sensual clothes. She takes his arm and leads him down the street. As they walk, she instructs him to smile to show others that he is not ashamed of her, and he smokes a cigar, quite shaken by the experience.


The narrator's ironic voice in "Miss Temptation" is established from the story's first paragraph: Vonnegut begins by bemoaning the state of puritanism, which has "fallen into such disrepair" that no one superstitiously believes Susanna's sexuality might cause them misfortune (75). Even his uses of poetic description - "her skin was the color of cream" and "her hips were like a lyre" - are ironic; they suggest a knight's courtly love, a style quite out of place with the setting (75).

Vonnegut continues to use such exaggerated romantic language throughout the story. Later, he describes her as "Susanna, the golden girl of a thousand tortured daydreams" and Norman as "Fuller the lonely, Fuller the homely, Fuller the bleak" (86). This language is more than just humorous; it also indicates the exaggerated way in which people are affected by beauty. The story's overall point is similar to that of "Welcome to the Monkey House": overly-moralizing about sex is not just silly, but also harmful. In this case, that moralizing is rooted in fear and resentment, and not in morality at all.

In fact, the theme of sexuality is stark in "Miss Temptation," particularly as it creates tension and imbalance between men and women. Norman resents all American women for rejecting him, and he takes this bitterness out on Susanna. Vonnegut channels the Puritan fear of sexuality through Fuller, describing him as having been possessed by his Puritan ancestry, speaking with "the voice of a witch hanger, a voice redolent with frustration, self-righteousness, and doom" (81). In other words, he is suggesting that such moralizing is a social construct, not a natural antipathy. With that voice, Norman emotionally cripples Susanna, suggesting that she is too is affected by those social constructs. Everyone has internalized some degree of this moral judgment.

However, because of his ironic detachment, the narrator does not serve as the objective voice of reason in contrast to Norman Fuller. Instead, Bearse Hinkley fulfills that function. Bearse understands the way that Norman feels, the way he has transformed his own fear of sexuality into self-righteousness masked as morality. When he challenges Norman to deliver Susanna's papers, Bearse calls the gesture "a Christian thing to do" (85). Bearse is not so subtly indicating the hypocrisy behind Christian anti-sexual morality: in targeting people for expressing their natural, even innocent sexuality, puritanical Christians like Fuller are in fact acting with hate, not love, towards their neighbors.

Overall, Vonnegut is exploring the absurdities that lie behind the objectification of women. His use of figurative language helps to establish this point, especially when describing the way others see her. While the narrator paints her initially in the almost pastoral terms described above, he views her from the village perspective in soulless, technological similes. They see her as "a piece of big-city fire apparatus," and Norman's attack leaves her devastated, with "every fuse in her nervous system blown" (78). Likewise, Norman is introduced by a mechanical sound: the "cruel, sustained screech" of his soda-fountain stool (76). When she confronts him in the penultimate scene, she seems to "throw off heat like a big iron radiator" (86). In short, humans tend to rob sexuality of its ethereal beauty, by treating it as either a commodity or as a sin.

However, though they see sexuality as soulless, the characters are also painted as animals. Vonnegut's use of animal imagery suggests that they are also driven by mindless impulse even if they attempt to control sexuality in the same way they control machines. For instance, while waiting for her to emerge each day, the villagers grow "as restless as beagles with a thunderstorm on the way" (75). Norman is later described as "mousetrapped by egoism," (82) and Bearse Hinkley thinks of his newspapers as "bait" (83). Overall, the story presents then a dichotomy between the commoditized, soulless way society views innocent sexuality, and the natural, intense, animalistic impulses that actually describe us. Ultimately, what Susanna teaches Norman is that not only is it natural to be attracted to women, but it also should be an occasion for celebration and decency, not for a hatred that does nobody any good.