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Kurt Vonnegut’s books are counted among the greatest novels ever written. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the interesting life Vonnegut lived, and you’ll be exposed to some of the big ideas in his most famous books.

An Introduction to Kurt Vonnegut

Besides being animated, what do The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy all have in common? Satire. These shows can make you laugh, but while the characters are cracking jokes, they’re also skewering politics, social issues, religion, current events, and everything in between.Know who else wrote super clever, funny satire? Kurt Vonnegut.

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You’d better believe that writers for shows like The Simpsons have read their share of Vonnegut. He’s even mentioned by name in one episode!Mark Twain was America’s great satirical writer of the 19th century, and the case can be made that Kurt Vonnegut held that title in the 20th century. In books like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions, novelist Kurt Vonnegut used his dark sense of humor to get his audience to laugh their way to some serious thoughts about the state of the world.

A Brief Biography

Kurt Vonnegut was born in 1922 and died in 2007. In between, he studied at Cornell University, enlisted in the army, fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and was taken prisoner by the German army. When the United States firebombed the city of Dresden, Germany, killing over 20,000 people, Vonnegut was there as a prisoner.

He survived because he was being held in an underground meat locker.After the war, Vonnegut began publishing darkly funny, satiric novels. His first book, Player Piano attacked corporate America in the 1950s. He followed with a string of novels that skyrocketed his career to one of the leading voices of American writing. When Modern Library published their list of the top 100 books of the 20th century, they included Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five at the number 18 slot. Time Magazine included the same book in their list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. That’s since the beginning of novels!Vonnegut’s books have been turned into movies and miniseries, and he’s had songs, buildings, albums, movies and more dedicated to him.

Plus, high school students all over America get to read a Vonnegut novel or two, if they’re lucky.

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five is in part a war novel, a science fiction novel about time travel, and somewhat of an autobiography. Like Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim, the book’s main character, is taken prisoner after the Battle of the Bulge and survives the firebombing of Dresden because he’s in an underground meat locker called ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’ Unlike Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim spends the book traveling in space and time to events before, during, and after the war, and he even goes to an alien zoo on another planet where he’s forced to live in a cage with adult film actress Montana Wildhack.

A book this crazy is one of the top 100 novels of all time? You’d better believe it!Slaughterhouse-Five is a great anti-war novel. The hero of the book is as different from Rambo as a person can get. ‘Billy was preposterous – six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots.

On his feet were cheap, low-cut civilian shoes which he had bought for his father’s funeral.’ He’s like Steve Rogers, before the super serum turned him into Captain America, only even more awkward.In this story, there is no super serum, and war is horrifying, brutal, and deadly.

The bad guys in the book are the ones who think fondly on war and killing. In fact, the main character is so much the opposite of a tough, conditioned soldier that readers of the book have to question the kind of society that would send a man like Billy Pilgrim to war in the first place.The book begins with an essay by Vonnegut in which he pokes some gentle fun at himself. In one passage, he recounts a conversation with a director who asked him what he was writing. When Vonnegut explained that he was writing an anti-war book, the director said, ‘Do you know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books? . . .

I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’ This quote shows how realistically Vonnegut viewed the world. No matter how many great anti-war novels he wrote, he didn’t expect them to change society.

Cat’s Cradle

Take a little trip in time back to the 1960s. It’s not all miniskirts, flower power, and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a dark cloud hanging over America in the form of the Cold War.

In the wake of the atomic bombing of Japan, the major players on the world stage now had to contend with the possible threat of mass annihilation. Enter our literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut. Rather than address nuclear Armageddon specifically, Vonnegut created another global threat brought about by science, ice-nine.Ice-nine is a chemical that will cause any liquid water to instantly crystallize and possibly result in a chain reaction that could end all life on earth.

This is Vonnegut’s version of the atomic bomb – a product of science that can cause catastrophic destruction. But Vonnegut doesn’t stop there! He also takes some shots at religion by introducing Bokononism, a religion based entirely around a set of lies that bring peace to the believers.You see, Vonnegut’s satire has multiple targets.

He’s showing how scientific progress doesn’t always lead to healthy results, and he’s showing how religion might help people, even if it’s based on stories that aren’t true. People often come down on one side or the other, either science or religion, but Vonnegut pokes holes in both of them. As he says in the book, ‘Science is magic that works.’

Breakfast of Champions

Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, let’s jump forward in time to the 1970s and another Vonnegut classic, Breakfast of Champions. The main characters in the novel are Dwayne Hoover, a deranged car salesman, and Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is often called Vonnegut’s alter ego.Hoover is rich but really mentally unstable, and he’s obsessed with the writing of Kilgore Trout.

Trout happens to come to town and when the two of them meet, he hands the manuscript of his latest, unpublished novel to Hoover. In the book, the main character finds out that he’s the only living creature in the universe; everyone else is a robot masquerading as a person. Hoover believes the book is a divine message, and he loses his last remaining shreds of sanity.Again, Vonnegut uses the book as a chance to get the reader to think about issues, like the nature of humanity and how ideas can be like diseases, and the problems caused when a small minority controls almost all of the wealth.While the book is dark, Vonnegut wrote it as he came out of a period of depression. He says he wrote it to clear out all the ideas that had been buzzing around in his head.

In that way, Breakfast of Champions is a good place to start with Vonnegut, because it gives the reader a taste of many of the ideas he develops further in his other works.

Lesson Summary

Kurt Vonnegut’s sharp satire took on science, religion, and many of the social issues of the 20th century. His books make readers laugh, but, above all, they make readers think. His writing is sarcastic, ironic, witty, insightful, and it exposes humanity for the beautiful and terrible creation it is.So it goes.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is over, you should be able to:

  • Describe satire
  • Summarize Kurt Vonnegut’s life
  • Recall and discuss some of Vonnegut’s most famous works

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