Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories Quotes and Analysis

"Took me about six months to find out I was killing myself for peanuts, that a little guy couldn't even save a village three blocks long, and that the world wasn't worth saving anyway. So I started looking out for Number One."

Lou Flammer, "Deer in the Works," pg. 231

Lou Flammer, David Potter's new supervisor, personifies the mindset of the automated industrial campus called the Works. Here, he explains to David why he gave up trying to "save the world" in his youth. While David reacts to Flammer's history with admiration, Flammer himself dismisses it, concluding that the only way to survive is to be selfish. But in doing so, he has sacrificed his individuality, instead becoming part of the automated, almost inhuman team of workers at Ilium Works. In this way, Flammer is a mouthpiece for many of the worlds Vonnegut creates, in which individuality has been sacrificed to some pretense of greater comfort or efficiency.

"Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom."

General Honus Barker, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," pg. 182

This is the general's response to Professor Arthur Barnhouse's protestations against using his power for military intimidation. It represents the mindset of the United States at the outset of the Cold War and, arguably, even today. The sentiment suggests that we are all at the mercy of the belligerent government, all for the pretense of safety. In this statement, Vonnegut encourages the reader to question if this is truly an exchange that makes sense and, if so, if it is a price worth paying. Since Barnhouse escapes and uses his power to destroy the world's weapons stockpiles instead of aiding the United States military, Vonnegut's answer seems to be "no."

"Dr. Brainard Keyes Bullard, President of Wyandotte College, said in an address tonight that most of the world's ills can be traced to the fact that Man's knowledge of himself has not kept pace with his knowledge of the physical world."

News commentator, "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," pg. 321

This piece of wisdom addresses the issues of overpopulation and selfish human nature that plague the characters in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow." And yet it serves as something of a warning for many of the dystopias that Vonnegut creates. Often, Vonnegut creates worlds in which humans have traded their individuality and humanism for comfort. Wyandotte College is also the institution where Professor Barnhouse makes his discovery in "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" and is a recurring place of isolated sanity and knowledge for Vonnegut. Gramps's response to this information, "Hell! We said that a hundred years ago!" ironically demonstrates its truth (321). If humans had said that a hundred years ago and had actually listened to it, the current situation could have been avoided.

"Is it for the love of God that Americans make bombs and jet planes and tanks?"

Pi Ying, "All the King's Horses," pg. 96

Pi Ying yells this at Margaret when she begs for the lives of her sons, saying, "How can you do this to children! For the love of God-" (96). Pi Ying's response represents a moment of clarity for an otherwise insane rebel leader, and points to one of the larger themes of the story. As Americans, Margaret and the soldiers are unable to understand the suffering their country's military inflicts on innocent civilians on a daily basis. Her husband, Colonel Bryan Kelly, must distinguish his emotional self from his mechanical, military self in order to do his job, but in the process demonstrates the mentality that has engendered such a brutal world as the one they now suffer under.

"If you're really not afraid, corporal," said the old man, "that would be a very nice thing to do - a Christian thing to do."

Bearse Hinkley, "Miss Temptation," pg. 85

The pharmacist Bearse Hinkley says this to Corporal Norman Fuller in advising him to deliver the newspapers to Susanna, whom Fuller has recently scorned and chastised. This quotation draws attention to the irony of Fuller's position against Susanna, which he touts as representative of a Christian mission. In fact, it points out the irony of Puritanism, one of the main themes of "Miss Temptation." In acting according to pride disguised as Christianity, Puritanical zealots in fact quash individuality and demonstrate cruelty rather than kindness. Here, Hinkley offers Fuller a way to demonstrate true Christian kindness, by delivering newspapers to the woman he has hurt, in the process showing humility and asking forgiveness.

"A woman's not a woman till the pills wear off."

Billy the Poet, "Welcome to the Monkey House," pg. 41

Billy says this to Nancy McLuhan, the Suicide Parlor Hostess he has kidnapped, as he leads her through the sewers. He is referring to the ethical birth control pills that she and all other citizens are required to take, which make them numb from the waist down so that they feel no sexual urges. Once the pills wear off, Nancy will be a "nothinghead," able to feel sexual desire. This quote suggests that sexual desire is an intrinsic, necessary part of human identity. Without it, a woman is not even a woman. By making this claim, Billy reiterates the importance of individuality, a common theme in Vonnegut's short fiction. Doing away with sexuality by mandating ethical birth control pills is one way the government has robbed its citizens of individuality in "Welcome to the Monkey House."

"Maybe that was the spirit of this era of the atom bomb, H-bomb, God-knows-what-next bomb - to be amazed at nothing. Science had given humanity forces enough to destroy the earth, and politics had given humanity a fair assurance that the forces would be used. There could be no cause for awe to top that one."

narrator, "Thanasphere," pg. 29

Dr. Groszinger considers this truth as he wonders whether or not it would be beneficial to reveal the existence of a spirit world in outer space to the general population. "Thanasphere" is a critique of the combination of fear and apathy that marked the United States during the Cold War. This idea reveals Dr. Groszinger's shift from a cold, skeptical, scientific approach to a more imaginative, empathetic view of the world. And yet the story ends quite darkly, as Groszinger ignores this insight and remains quiet out of loyalty to the military.

"A body's a body, eh?"

The painter, "2BR02B," pg. 317

The painter says this to Leora Duncan as she considers which body he should paint her face on in the mural [The Happy Garden of Life.] He has already painted in most of the bodies; now, he has the task of filling in the faces of staff at the hospital and of the Federal Bureau of Termination, including Leora. These words reflect not only her immediate choice regarding the mural, but the philosophy of the United States government in requiring a suicide in exchange for each new baby. In mandating such a strict exchange, the government sends the message that each life is interchangeable with the next. This detached view of humanity stands in contrast to the power of individuality, which Vonnegut touts as superior to a life of comfort that robs us of any uniqueness.

"The richest moments in his life were and had been - even before the Memory Clinic - his daydreams."

narrator, "Mnemonics," pg. 38

At his company's Memory Clinic, Alfred Moorhead learned to use his imagination to remember details by creating a mental image. Though this technique mostly feeds his business-like efficiency, it is ironically by tapping into his imagination that he is finally able to overcome his paralyzing shyness and approach his secretary, Ellen, with whom he is in love. Alfred seems like a bland, unexciting character, but his daydreams are intricate and humorous. Vonnegut uses them to demonstrate the importance of individuality in all aspects of life: whether he uses it to help him remember tasks at work or to express his love to Ellen, Alfred's imagination is what gives him confidence and purpose. It is one of the more optimistic expressions of the conflict between efficiency and individuality, which exists in most of Vonnegut's stories.

"If you can't see it, no one could possibly point it out to you."

Mrs. Peckham, "Any Reasonable Offer," pg. 49

Pam Peckham dismisses the narrator's question about the deficiency in Mr. Hurty's estate with this answer. Her words demonstrate the effectiveness of the upper class in creating a vague feeling of discomfort and alienation in those they see as below them. She and her husband are conning the narrator and his wealthy clients, but succeed simply by adopting a pretense of elitism. Here, she takes advantage of the narrator's susceptibleness to class prejudice. He assumes she must have some insight he does not because of her classy demeanor, and accepts her lack of an answer without pressing her further. In other words, Vonnegut suggests that we all allow the upper class their 'superiority.'

"Maude and I'd like to start today all over again," said Earl. "Show us which button to press, Lou."

Earl Fenton, "The Package," pg. 74

Earl and Maude have just lied in order to deny Charley Freeman a place to stay for the night, assuming Charley had been smugly judging them. When Lou Converse reveals that Charley has spent the past thirty years funding and working in a hospital in China before being imprisoned there, they feel remorseful, but have lied too convincingly to invite him back. The irony is that despite the many amazing things their new home can do, there is no switch that will allow them to restart the day and treat Charley differently. It is one of the limitations of technology.