Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories Summary

In "Harrison Bergeron," it is the year 2081 and all people have been made "equal" through the use of mandated physical and mental handicaps. As George and Hazel Bergeron watch television, they see their fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, who has just escaped from jail for not wearing his many handicaps. He appears on the screen into the midst of a dance show, tears off his handicaps, and announces that he is the Emperor, taking a ballerina as his Empress. They begin to dance intensely and beautifully, leaping so high that they kiss the ceiling. Suddenly, Diana Moon Glampers appears in the studio, and shoots Harrison and the ballerina dead with a shotgun. George misses the murder because he is in the kitchen, but his wife has forgotten the reason for her grief by the time he returns.

In "Who Am I This Time?", hardware clerk Harry Nash is cast as the lead in an amateur production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Helene Shaw, who has just arrived in town through her job with the telephone company, is cast opposite him despite her lack of acting talent. Harry completely embodies the character of Stanley Kowalski, accidentally causing Helene to fall in love with him. But after each performance, he disappears back into his unremarkable life alone. On the final night, Helene presents him with a copy of Romeo and Juliet. They read it together and get married a week later, continuing to use plays in order to transcend the banality of their normal lives.

In "Welcome to the Monkey House," the World Government has dealt with overpopulation by requiring the population to take ethical birth control pills, which do not prevent reproduction but rather make sex a distasteful, pleasureless experience. In addition, the government encourages the use of Suicide Parlors to assist in ethical, or voluntary, suicide by hypodermic syringe. Billy the Poet, a "nothinghead," or someone who refuses to take his ethical birth control pills, is on the loose and raping the hostesses at Suicide Parlors on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He kidnaps a hostess named Nancy, bringing her to his gang hideaway and depriving her of her birth control so that she, too, becomes a nothinghead. Then he rapes her, in the tradition of virgin brides on their wedding night, and leaves her with a love poem and a bottle of birth control pills. He believes he has now saved her from the empty existence that most people suffer under.

In "Miss Temptation," Susanna is a beautiful, seductive young woman working as an actress in a summer theater near the small village where she is staying. One day, during her daily trip to the drugstore, she is accosted by Corporal Norman Fuller, who has just returned from a tour of duty in Korea. He criticizes all American women for being so tempting to him, and blames Susanna for the way he feels when he sees her. The next day, a distraught Susanna is about to leave the village. The pharmacist, Bearse Hinkley, convinces Fuller to bring her her daily newspaper. In her room, Susanna confronts Fuller for his behavior, asking him if he has ever considered what it is like for her. Then she insists that he owes it to her to parade down Main Street by her side, in order to redeem her before the village.

In "All the King's Horses," a group of Americans including Colonel Bryan Kelly, his wife Margaret, and his ten year old twin sons named Jerry and Paul, have been captured by the communist guerrilla chief Pi Ying. Rather than just shooting them, Pi Ying demands make Kelly play chess for their lives, using the American prisoners as human chess pieces. If Kelly wins, those who survive will be freed; otherwise, it is implied they will all be killed. As they play, Pi Ying is joined by the Russian military observer Major Barzov. After losing four prisoners, Kelly sees that he can win the game if he sacrifices his own son, Jerry. He decides on the sacrifice, but before Pi Ying can make the subsequent move, his young female companion stabs him and then kills herself. Major Barzov resolves to let Jerry stay alive until the game is over. When Colonel Kelly eventually wins, Barzov shows mercy, announcing that he will let them all go free since there is no official declaration of war.

"Report on the Barnhouse Effect" is presented as an article written by the narrator, a psychology professor who was the first person to learn about Professor Arthur Barnhouse's discovery of "dynamopsychism," or "force of the mind." It allows Professor Arthur Barnhouse to direct "dynamopsychic" radiations toward specific targets, like individual people or objects, by conjuring a specific thought pattern in his mind. Barnhouse reveals his discovery to the Secretary of State and is immediately enlisted as the key part of Operation Brainstorm, a mock attack to test the military capabilities of his powers. After following through with Operation Brainstorm as directed, Barnhouse escapes and has been on the run ever since, using his power to destroy the world's armaments. The narrator reveals in a twist ending that he has been developing his own abilities in order to inherit his adviser's legacy.

"Deer in the Works" takes place at the Ilium Works, the second-largest industrial plant in America, to which writer David Potter is applying for a job. He is hired as a stenographer under Lou Flammer, the publicity supervisor. His wife, Nan, has just given birth to twin girls and he wants more job stability than his current job running a newspaper offers. Lou Flammers explains the company's employee rating sheet system to David before receiving news that there is a deer loose in the Works. Flammer sends David to meet a photographer to cover the deer story. But his directions are confusing, so David becomes completely lost amongst the huge Works campus. When he finally settles behind some bleachers to rest, he sees the deer, with broken antlers and a limp, pursued by a group of men. When the deer rushes along the fence toward David, he reaches out, opens the latch of the gate, and lets the deer escape back into the woods. Then he follows it himself.

The titular character of "EPICAC" is a supercomputer that was designed for the government to use for military purposes. EPICAC did not live up to the military's expectations, but since he was better than any other computer, the military still put him to use sixteen hours a day. The narrator works on EPICAC during the nightshift with his future wife, Pat Kilgallen, who keeps rejecting his bland marriage proposals. On a whim, he asks EPICAC for advice about Pat. To the narrator's surprise, the supercomputer begins spewing out paper ribbon covered in brilliant poetry. The narrator presents it to Pat as his own work, and she agrees to marry him a few days later. But EPICAC has fallen in love with Pat himself, unable to comprehend the barrier between human and machine. When the narrator explains to EPICAC that the supercomputer will never be able to receive love in return, EPICAC short-circuits himself. The narrator notices yards and yards of paper ribbon that EPICAC printed out during the night, after Pat and the narrator left together. In those messages, the computer bemoans his fate as a machine, which is "the only problem I cannot solve." He bids goodbye to the narrator, saying that he has left him a wedding present: 500 poems for Pat, to be gifted to her on each anniversary.

In "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," a drug called anti-gerasone has stopped the aging process, allowing people to live for as long as they want. As a result, the world is overpopulated and all the natural resources have been depleted. Lou Schwartz and his wife Em live with their entire extended family in a very cramped New York apartment, run by the dictatorial Gramps, who routinely writes Lou and his other family members out of his will when they disobey or disrespect him. Lou witnesses his great-grandnephew, Morty, trying to kill Gramps by diluting his anti-gerasone. When Lou tries to remedy the situation, Gramps mistakenly thinks it is Lou who is attempting to kill him. The next morning, Gramps is gone; he leaves a note explaining that he has decided to die and that he has rewritten his will, dividing all that he owns equally amongst the entire family. Immediately, a fight ensues, causing enough ruckus that the entire family is carted off to prison. Contrary to expectation, prison is spacious, offering each member of the Schwartz family a private cell. Meanwhile, Gramps is back in the Schwartz home watching the news, having tricked his family into leaving him the entire apartment to enjoy by himself. He learns from the announcer on the news says that a new invention called super-anti-gerasone can reverse aging in people like Gramps, who were already wrinkled and old when the original anti-gerasone was developed.

In "Thanasphere," rocket scientist Dr. Bernard Groszinger and General Dane of the Air Force are conducting a top-secret military experiment. Major Allen Rice has been sent into outer space in a rocket ship in order to report weather conditions over enemy territory and, if there is a war, to observe the accuracy of guided atomic missiles. Rice comes in over the radio, reporting that he hears many voices in outer space, apparently of dead people. At first, Dr. Groszinger is skeptical, but when Rice's reports prove accurate, he is convinced. General Dane demands the radio operator jam the frequency in order to protect the secret of their rocket ship for the sake of national security. One of the voices Rice hears is that of his deceased wife. When General Dane brings down the rocket ship, Rice lets it crash so that he can join his wife in the spiritual world in outer space.

In "Mnemonics," Alfred Moorhead has greatly improved his memory for names, facts, and numbers after attending his company's two-day Memory Clinic. The clinic's instructor taught him the technique of mnemonics, based on the idea that you remember things that interest you, and that pictures are easier to remember than facts. Appreciating Alfred's new ability, Ralph L. Thriller promotes him. Despite the progress he has made, though, Alfred still finds himself unable to make a romantic advance on his secretary, Ellen, with whom he has secretly been in love for two years. One day, Alfred creates an intricate picture in his mind involving female movie stars and various props in order to remember fifteen minutes of instructions Thriller has given him over the phone. As he reaches for the last imagined woman in his mind, he accidentally grabs Ellen in reality, and she reveals that she has loved him all along.

In "Any Reasonable Offer," the narrator, a real estate agent for wealthy clients, is approached by Colonel Bradley Peckham and his wife Pam. They put on classy airs, treating the narrator with disdain as he shows them the estate of Mr. Hurty. They ask for permission to wander around as if the property belongs to them, in order to "get the feel of the place." They take advantage of Mr. Hurty's hospitality for three days before refusing to buy the property. The Peckhams do the same thing to another of the narrator's clients, Mrs. Hellbruner, at whose estate they relax as if on vacation for four days before lying about having to leave. The narrator realizes he has been conned, and decides to try the con himself, vacationing for free at a fabulous estate in Newport, Rhode Island.

"The Package" refers to the new "machine for living" that has been built as a home for Earl Fenton and his wife, Maude, while they were on a cruise around the world. Charley Freeman, one of Earl's fraternity brothers in college, whom Earl has always resented for his inherited wealth, calls out of the blue and Earl invites him to stay the night. Soon after, their contractor, Lou Converse, arrives with a photographer and writer from Home Beautiful magazine. They want to do a story on the new home. As they tour around the home taking photos, Maude and Earl feel judged by Charley, and begin to resent him for his apparent smugness. They decide to make up a lie so he will leave. After Charley excuses himself, Lou Converse returns to the house for his hat, and tells the Fentons that Charley has been in China for the past thirty years, first working as a doctor in a hospital he had funded himself, and then serving time after the Chinese imprisoned him unjustly. Upon hearing this, Earl and Maude are overcome with guilt.

In "2BR02B," the population of the United States is set at forty million people. But no one gets any older, so a baby can only be born if an adult volunteers to commit suicide at a government-run gas chamber in its place. Edward K. Wehling, Jr. is in the hospital waiting room alone, as his wife gives birth to their first children: triplets. The only other person in the room is a two-hundred-year-old painter who looks only thirty-five, working on a mural of a garden meant to represent the hospital's history. Leora Duncan, a gas chamber hostess, enters the room in order to pose for the mural. Dr. Hitz, an admired doctor, enters to announce that the Wehling triplets have been born. So far, the Wehlings have only found one volunteer to die, so Edward will have to choose which of his triplets will be allowed to live. Instead, he shoots Dr. Hitz, Leora Duncan, and himself in order to make room for all three of his new children. The old painter climbs down from the stepladder and picks up the revolver, with the intent of shooting himself. Instead, he dials 2BR02B on the telephone in order to make an appointment for suicide at the Federal Bureau of Termination.