One of the themes throughout Vonnegut's short stories is the ever-increasing ubiquity and advancement of technology, specifically futuristic gadgets. Many of the stories feature worlds overwhelmed with technology. For instance, in "The Package," the Fenton's new home is described as a "machine for living" (56). Rather than a space where they can relax and feel comfortable, it is a monstrosity that confuses them.
The theme of technology is often linked to those of government control and suppression of individuality, since it is often one of the ways the government suppresses the individuality of its citizens. What technology and government have in common is a focus on bureaucratic efficiency over self-expression. In "Welcome to the Monkey House," for example, "practically everything was the Government. Practically everything was automated, too" (34).
Vonnegut often employs technology in his figurative language to question the relationship between humans and machines. What he explores through this connection is the human ability for emotionless life. For example, in "Miss Temptation," Susanna's objectification is reflected in the narrator's comparison of her to "a piece of big-city fire apparatus" (78). And yet Susanna later shows great humanity, suggesting that we are all capable of descending to the bland worldview of machines. And in the same way that Major Allen Rice in "Thanasphere" is praised for his emotionless efficiency, so is EPICAC distinguished by his desire for an emotional life.
Overall, Vonnegut uses technology not only to instill fright of what the world is becoming, but also of what we ourselves are capable of becoming if we do not nurture our individuality.
As with most of his themes, Vonnegut explores class prejudice in terms of how it impacts individuality. He often explores characters who demonstrate pretenses about class, rather than showing or demonstrating their authentic selves.
In "The Package" both Earl and Maude allow their resentments to overshadow their actual pride, and lead them towards ungracious, judgmental behavior. In "Any Reasonable Offer," the Peckhams are complete phonies, but are coddled simply because they enact a display of elitism. In both of these stories, Vonnegut expresses situations where characters ignore their actual selves and desires in an effort to conform to some other standard of quality.
A common theme in Vonnegut's novels, the relationship between father and son, is often depicted as uncomfortable and tense in his short fiction as well. This tension often has to do with the way a father's identity forces itself on the son, and the father's anxiety over how the son views him.
In "All the King's Horses," the only father-son relationship is that between Colonel Kelly and his son Jerry, whom he sacrifices in order to win the human chess game and save the other prisoners' lives. Kelly is willing to unemotionally ignore his human feelings for his son in order to triumph. Another example of a father-son dynamic (or several of them) is in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," where the relationship between Gramps and his son, Willy, as well as that between Willy and his son, Lou, are challenged by world overpopulation. When they all must survive in such close quarters, their selfish natures prevail and they fight for their own privacy. Overall, Vonnegut suggests that even profound relationships can quash individuality and force us to ugly places under certain circumstances.
Arguably the most poignant and recurring of Vonnegut's themes is individuality. A natural skeptic, the one thing Vonnegut implicitly praises time and again is the human capacity for individuality.
However, he usually explores this theme by writing about situations where it is suppressed. Often, this suppression is mandated by the government; this theme is linked to that of government control. For instance, in "Harrison Bergeron," handicaps are used to equalize all people, so that less talented people will not be threatened or hurt by those who exceed them. In "EPICAC," the computer cannot function in a world that denies him from realizing his dreams. After understanding that fate prevents him from being loved in return by a woman, he short-circuits himself. In requiring that each new life comes at the cost of any other one, the United States government in "2BR02B" assumes that lives are interchangeable. The suppression of individuality here is also reflected in the painter's resentment of the mural he's working on, which represents life as an orderly garden with no mess.
Suppression occurs even in less science-fiction situations. For instance, Susanna in "Miss Temptation" is viewed not as a person, but as an object, only in terms of her sexuality. Even a sweet story like "Who Am I This Time?" explores how an individual must become someone else in order to foster a happy relationship.
In "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," a television announcer asks, "Wouldn't you pay $5,000 to be indistinguishable from everyone else?" (330). It is a rhetorical question. Thanks to the messages the population has been receiving from the media and government, the answer is obviously yes. And based on the way Vonnegut so frequently explores this theme, he seems to believe that most people would say yes even today.
In many of his stories, Vonnegut presents women who must live outside of society, who are not appreciated for their individuality.
In "Miss Temptation," Susanna is admired and feared by the villagers. When Corporal Norman Fuller confronts her in the drugstore, she feels ostracized. Norman blames Susanna, an innocent victim of his fear of his own sexual desire. Though the story ends well - she confronts him - Vonnegut presents a rather disheartening situation that women face.
Helene Shaw in "Who Am I This Time?" is another example of a female character who is living on the outside of the community. When the narrator asks her to play Stella, she accepts and comments that it is "the first time anybody ever asked me to participate in any community thing" (17). Before this, she has always been viewed simply as the telephone company worker. Overall, Vonnegut often sees women as living outside of a primary situation, until they are invited in.
The theme of government overstepping its control arises throughout Vonnegut's short fiction. In general, he presents frightening situations of tyrannical control in an amusing way. Further, he tends to create worlds where the public welcomes the government intrusion, since government has remade culture and has thereby validated its presence.
For instance, in "Harrison Bergeron," the United States government has required that all people of above-average intelligence and/or physical ability must be handicapped at all times through the use of special gadgets invented for this purpose. Everyone simply accepts this situation, and the only rebel - Harrison - is destroyed.
Government control is also an important theme as it relates to war and citizens' loss of control over their own fates. In "All the King's Horses," which is an allegory for the Cold War, no one other than Kelly, Pi Ying, and Major Barzov understands the rules of chess - not even the sergeant or the pilot lieutenant. This drives home the point that those victimized by war are not in control of their own fates, nor do they even understand why they and their loved ones are suffering. In "Thanasphere," General Dane exercises a similar government control in demanding that the general population be kept in the dark about the existence of a spiritual world.
In "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," we learn that the government has raised taxes for the purpose of funding defense and old-age pensions. This government control is linked to the problem of overpopulation, since the drug anti-gerasone has enabled everyone on earth to live an indefinitely long life. In contrast, in "Welcome to the Monkey House," another government-mandated drug - ethical birth control - is used to control the population to avoid such an inevitable dystopia. In "2BR02B," the government controls the population by mandating that each new life come at the price of a volunteer suicide.
Though each of these situations is distinct, Vonnegut's work shares an inherent distrust of a large central authority that necessarily comes at the cost of individuality.
Vonnegut often deals with the theme of sexuality, particularly as it creates tension and imbalance between men and women. It can be tied to the theme of ostracized women; for example, in "Miss Temptation," Corporal Norman Fuller resents all American women for rejecting him, and he takes this bitterness out on Susanna.
Vonnegut sometimes defends sexuality, especially as it is tied to individuality. For instance, in "Welcome to the Monkey House," he attacks fake moralism, claiming it denies human nature. In contrast to those good citizens who take the mandated ethical birth control, the "nothingheads" are ironically described as "bombed out of their skulls with the sex madness that came from taking nothing" (33). As with most of his themes, sexuality usually stands either in support of or antithetical to individuality, and is judged based on that position.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Short Stories Questions and Answers
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Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories study guide contains a biography of author Kurt Vonnegut, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis of Vonnegut's most famous stories.