Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Describe how Vonnegut uses technology metaphors and similes in his descriptions of certain characters.

    Vonnegut often employs technology in his figurative language to call into question the relationship between humans and machines. For example, in "Miss Temptation," Susanna's objectification by the villagers and Fuller is reflected in the narrator's comparison of her to "a piece of big-city fire apparatus" (78). In the moment in which she defends herself to Fuller, stalking toward him as he backs away, she seems to "throw off heat like a big iron radiator," but this mechanical simile is immediately followed by the seemingly contradictory assertion that she is "appallingly human" (86). This juxtaposition suggests that the line between humans and machines is not as clear cut as one might assume. In "Thanasphere," Major Allen Rice is predicted to "function as perfectly as the rocket motors, the metal hull, and the electronic controls" (18). This machine-like personality is necessary for the carrying out of the government mission Project Cyclops. Overall, Vonnegut's use of technology offers a figurative expression of the distinction between human and mechanical life.

  2. 2

    How does the theme of technology interact with the ideas of government control and the suppression of individuality in Vonnegut's short stories?

    One of the themes throughout Vonnegut's short stories is the ever-increasing ubiquity and advancement of technology. It is often linked to those of government control and suppression of individuality, since the government often uses technology to suppress the individuality of its citizens. In "Welcome to the Monkey House," for example, "practically everything was the Government. Practically everything was automated, too" (34). In "Harrison Bergeron," the government has mandated that people of exceptional talent wear handicaps in order to level the playing field with average people. Ultimately, Vonnegut uses technology as a reflection of the human tendency towards prizing comfort and efficiency over individuality. We all have the capability to operate like machines but reach our fullest potential when we embrace our humanity.

  3. 3

    Explain how class prejudice affects at least one character in Vonnegut's short stories.

    As with most of Vonnegut's theme, class prejudice usually manifests by impacting or suppressing a person's individuality.

    In "The Package," class prejudice affects both Earl and Maude. Earl is still indignant about having to wait on his peers while in college, and resents Charley for being born into wealth. Though he likely only imagined this poor treatment, and though Maude knows few of the actual details, they express themselves terribly because they are so driven to see Charley in terms of class.

    Another example of class prejudice is evident in "Any Reasonable Offer." The Peckhams are complete phonies, but because they treat the other characters with the disdain common to an elite upper class, they are believable. Peckham passes himself off as a colonel who was called in to "straighten things out" at the National Steel Foundry, and everyone believes him only because his attitude is so condescending. Here, Vonnegut suggests that even the 'lower' classes enable class prejudice by refusing to judge it. They see a person's wealth, and not his personality.

  4. 4

    Based on evidence from his stories, what message does Vonnegut send about individuality?

    Vonnegut's short stories support the idea that individuality cannot be suppressed without disastrous consequences. 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. In requiring that each new life come at the cost of any other one, the United States government in "2BR02B" assumes that lives are interchangeable. In all of these situations, characters either take drastic action or unwittingly end up in trouble when they fight for themselves. Vonnegut's theme is clear even when the character is not exactly human, as in "EPICAC." Even as a machine, EPICAC cannot function in a world that prohibits his dreams. After understanding that fate prevents him from being loved in return by a woman, he short-circuits himself. Overall, Vonnegut writes mini-tragedies when individuality is suppressed.

  5. 5

    The relationship between a father and son is a common thread throughout Vonnegut's novels, and it is prevalent in some of his short fiction as well. Describe his presentation of this relationship in relevant stories.

    Vonnegut often depicts the relationship between father and son as uncomfortable and fraught with tension. 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," Colonel Kelly decides to sacrifice his son, Jerry, 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.

  6. 6

    Many of Vonnegut's female characters are ostracized from society. Examine the reason for this ostracization in one of his short stories.

    Female characters are often singled out and punished for their sexuality, whether it is perceived or real. As an extension of Vonnegut's exploration of suppressed individuality, he often presents women as kept outside of society because of their gender.

    The best example is "Miss Temptation," in which Susanna is ostracized by Corporal Norman Fuller for the way she makes him feel. The villagers acknowledge that she is different, treating her with fear and admiration. When Corporal Norman Fuller confronts her in the drugstore, she feels ostracized for her sexuality. Norman blames Susanna, an innocent victim of his fear of his own sexual desire. The next day, she confronts him when he enters her room, drawing attention to the objectification that all beautiful women feel. They are viewed only as beauty, not as people. Though this story ends almost sweetly, it does contains a warning about how we view women.

  7. 7

    Describe the theme of government power in Vonnegut's short fiction, focusing on how it prohibits citizens from controlling their own fates.

    In many of the worlds Vonnegut creates, the government has grown tyrannically powerful, to the detriment of individuality. In most of these, the individual has sacrificed his or her uniqueness for the sake of comfort or efficiency. In "Harrison Bergeron," the United States government has required that all people of above-average ability must be handicapped at all times through the use of special gadgets invented for this purpose. In "All the King's Horses," 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 government control in demanding that the general population be kept in the dark about the existence of a spiritual world. These are just three examples of how Vonnegut poses central authority as diametrically opposed to individuality.

  8. 8

    How does Vonnegut's short fiction deal with the problem of overpopulation?

    Overpopulation is an issue that Vonnegut treats differently in many of his short stories. In "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," we learn that the government has raised taxes for the purpose of funding defense and old-age pensions. The result is stifling 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. If there is a common message between these different treatments, it is simply that overpopulation has no easy solution, yet is a major cause for concern.

  9. 9

    How does the mindset of Cold War era America permeate Vonnegut's short fiction?

    Some of Vonnegut's short stories are allegories for the Cold War, while others reflect the combination of fear and paranoia that marked this time period in American history. 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 the chess game they are playing. No one, it seems, understands quite why they are in this prisoner-of-war situation in the first place, since there is not actually a war underway. The fate of the prisoners depends on the mind game taking place between the Russian Major Barzov and Colonel Kelly. In "Thanasphere," Dr. Groszinger considers how civilians might react if they knew about the existence of a spiritual world. He wonders whether, in a world that threatens to destroy itself at any moment, they will even be surprised at the news. While Vonnegut's stories rarely make an explicit argument about the Cold War, they reflect the unfortunate side effects of a world always on edge about war, and the way government exploits these fears to justify its own intrusions.

  10. 10

    How does Vonnegut approach sexuality in his short fiction?

    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 defends sexuality, especially as it is tied to individuality, suggesting in "Welcome to the Monkey House" that fake moralism, in this case imposed by the World Government, 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).