Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories Summary and Analysis of "Welcome to the Monkey House"


Pete Crocker, the sheriff of Barnstable County, enters the Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor in Hyannis, Massachusetts, to warn its two hostesses - Nancy McLuhan and Mary Kraft - about Billy the Poet. Though Billy the Poet is allegedly moving in their direction, the police do not know what he looks like.

The narrator then explains the situation. Billy the Poet is a "nothinghead," meaning he has not been taking his ethical birth control pills, and hence enjoys sex (30). Because the world is so overpopulated, the World Government has required all citizens to take the pills - which make sex pleasureless - in order to dissuade unnecessary reproduction. The second part of the government's plan involves ethical, voluntary suicide via Suicide Parlors, where beautiful hostesses like Nancy and Mary use syringes to peacefully kill suicide volunteers.

Like all hostesses of Ethical Suicide Parlors, Mary and Nancy are virgins, at least six feet tall, and experts in judo and karate. They are annoyed with the sheriff's news, since it implies they would be either afraid of Billy the Poet or the slightest bit interested in having sex with him.

The mailman arrives with a letter addressed to Nancy. As she suspects, it is from Billy the Poet; it contains one stanza of the lyrics to a dirty song. Nancy ignores it and attends to her client, whom she calls a "Foxy Grandpa" because he has been taking his time in the booth, unable to decide upon a last meal from the menu of the Howard Johnson's next door (33). Unlike most people, who look twenty-two thanks to anti-aging shots, Foxy Grandpa looks his age.

Impatient, Nancy asks him again about the meal, and he chides her for her tone. It is her job to keep him engaged so that he does not leave, so she listens to his story of J. Edgar Nation, the man who invented ethical birth control in an attempt to control the sexual behavior of monkeys at the Grand Rapids Zoo. Foxy Grandpa claims he was with Nation when the latter first visited the monkey house.

The telephone rings, and Nancy is called to the phone. The caller recites another dirty rhyme, claiming he is delivering it for a friend. Immediately after finishing the poem, he is attacked by the police; Nancy hears his defeat and arrest. Assuming this man is Billy the Poet, Nancy is actually upset that she will not have the chance to fight him.

Both Sheriff Crocker and Mary rush out to see what Billy the Poet looks like, and Nancy returns to Foxy Grandpa, who tells her about how ethical birth control was eventually adapted for use on humans. There was a conflict in the United Nations between scientists - some saw population control as the paramount concern, while others "understood morals" (38) and saw a danger in using sex for nothing more than pleasure. Nancy is bored, having heard this story many times before.

Suddenly, Foxy Grandpa pulls a revolver and removes his rubber mask to reveal that he is actually Billy the Poet. Though he looks twenty-two like most people, he is a foot shorter than Nancy and forty pounds lighter. Nevertheless, he forces her to leap out the window and down into the sewers. He admits his intention to keep her prisoner until her ethical birth control pills wear off in eight hours. As they wander, Nancy keeps her eyes open for a moment to attack Billy.

Eventually, they emerge from the sewer into the Kennedy Museum. The current President of the World is a Kennedy - "Ma" Kennedy - but her capital is located in the Taj Majal, and she will never be memorialized there since she is not "the real thing" (42). When Nancy sees that Billy has a gang of at least eight people, she decides not to attack him. Realizing that the gang is comprised of ex-hostesses, she insults them and they attack her.

They carry her upstairs into one of the museum bedrooms, and inject her with a truth serum that also knocks her unconscious. Before she passes out, Nancy is asked how it feels to be a virgin at age sixty-three, and she answers, "Pointless" (44).

When Nancy wakes up, her ethical birth control has worn off; she is a nothinghead. The women bathe her, dress her in a white nightgown, and lead her outside to the Kennedys' old yacht, now rooted in cement where the ocean used to be.

In one of the yacht cabins, Billy the Poet waits with champagne, which is illegal. She insists she will have to be forcibly restrained if he is rape her. She is in fact held down, and he rapes her, though without hurting her.

Afterwards, she is humiliated and hides her face under a blanket. Also seemingly upset over the incident, Billy explains that her experience was much like the wedding night virgins would have experienced a hundred years before, in which they would have been entirely unaccustomed to the act. He argues that she might come to enjoy sex with the passage of time, and the argument resonates with Nancy, who listens quietly.

Billy then explains that she resents him for his ugliness, but that she will eventually find a mate worthy of her beauty since the nothinghead movement is growing. He contends that sex has come to equal death in their world, so that most people only witness sexual beauty at the moment of hostess-assisted suicide.

He leaves her with a poem to read, the poem his grandfather read his bride on their wedding night. It is "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He also leaves her a bottle of birth control pills, which he tells her she can take once per month to avoid getting pregnant, but without dulling her sex drive. The bottle of birth control pills is labeled, "Welcome to the Monkey House."


"Welcome to the Monkey House" is a perfect example of Vonnegut's signature style of comic science fiction, a style that digresses from the science fiction tradition. Whereas traditional science fiction is often noted for its seriousness, Vonnegut peppers his descriptions of a bizarre and terrifying world with absurdist humor. For example, after describing Nancy and Mary as "at least six feet tall," the omniscient narrator notes that, "America had changed in many ways, but it had yet to adopt the metric system" (32). When Billy the Poet, disguised as the Foxy Grandpa, tells Nancy the story of J. Edgar Nation - the inventor of ethical birth control - he includes the detail that the man had eleven children himself. Much like many traditional science fiction stories, "Welcome to the Monkey House" exploits an ugly possibility born out of a recognizable human quality. Whether or not Vonnegut's use of humor heightens or detracts from that ugliness is a matter of taste, but it is certainly unique.

The human quality which Vonnegut exaggerates for this story is sexuality, a particularly taboo topic in 1968, when the story was first published in Playboy. Vonnegut suggests here that fake, strict morality denies human nature, and hence cannot be tolerated. Though the story does feel dated in some ways, it remains extremely relevant considering how many forces in America - both in politics and in everyday life - continue to demean open sexuality as sinful. In fact, Vonnegut comments on the real-world nature of the problem through the name J. Edgar Nation, which combines those of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director at the time, and Carrie Nation, who fought for Prohibition.

Vonnegut exaggerates this type of morality for comic effect, suggesting that the overly-moral set has an unrealistic sense of how sex affects a person. In contrast to those good citizens who take the mandated ethical birth control, the nothingheads are described as "bombed out of their skulls with the sex madness that came from taking nothing" (33). The idea of "sex madness" is necessarily absurd, considering that sexuality is so natural.

The sexual strictures in the story are criticized not only for denying human nature, but also for working against human individuality, another central theme in Vonnegut's work. By numbing everyone's sex drive, the government has effectively equalized people, similar to the situation in "Harrison Bergeron." Taken this way, Billy the Poet becomes a powerfully rebellious leader, one whose mission is not just the reemergence of sexuality, but also of individuality.

This story is one of several that takes its inspiration from the problem of overpopulation. A real problem even today, overpopulation often allows Vonnegut to empower his fictional governments with excessive power. In this story, the Earth is full of 17 billion human beings, most of whom are unemployed because nearly all work can be accomplished by machines. As the narrator explains, "Practically everything was the Government. Practically everything was automated, too" (34). The implicit suggestion is that governments exploit realistic fears in order to justify their extreme control over individuals.

And what this type of world robs humanity of is its natural, human quality. The tragic element of this situation - wherein humans have been replaced by machines - is particularly clear when Billy and Nancy walk below the Howard Johnson's restaurant: in order to replicate the sounds of humans working in the kitchen, a tape recorder plays conversations and kitchen noises for guests. But this tape recorder is decidedly not human and, as a machine, cannot offer Nancy any help.

Another of Vonnegut's common motifs present here is that of ethical suicide. The flipside of making life too comfortable for ourselves is that people tend not to die. (See "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" for a similar treatment of this theme.)

And yet he treats the idea of ethical birth control with the most irony here. The omniscient narrator explains that, "the pills were ethical because they didn't interfere with a person's ability to reproduce, which would have been unnatural and immoral. All the pills did was take every bit of pleasure out of sex. Thus did science and morals go hand in hand" (31). Of course, Vonnegut and the reader know that science and morals have not historically gone hand in hand, but have rather almost always worked at odds in most debates. Consider Galileo or the evolution controversy, for instance. Secondly, Vonnegut expects us to know that sex without pleasure is quite unappealing. Through his use of irony, Vonnegut compels the reader to question whether the government's mandate is, in fact, more "unnatural and immoral" than the birth control itself (31). By forcing us to consider the absurdity of the government's position, Vonnegut leads us to consider the absurdity of other similarly moral strictures that we might encounter in everyday life.

Finally, the approach to the rape scene reveals the sexist misconceptions of the time in which Vonnegut wrote this story. In particular, Vonnegut's view of women is (unintentionally) patronizing. The narrator states unironically that Billy the Poet is attracted to Hostesses in Ethical Suicide Parlors, as if sexual assault were interchangeable with sexual attraction. When Nancy tells Billy the Poet that he makes her feel like an object rather than like a person, he answers that she can "thank the pills for that," as if sexism is only a problem due to the ethical birth control pills (41). After raping Nancy, just as he has raped all the other women in his gang, Billy is treated as the story's voice of reason. And when explaining that wives have always suffered a difficult wedding night, he seems to accept the patriarchal idea that a virginal women has little agency in her own sexuality. The power that Billy has over Nancy and the other Hostesses, the way that he explains the situation to her as if she is a child, and her switch from abhorrence to silent submission are not problematized here, suggesting a rather unbalanced view of sexual politics.