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Kurt Vonnegut's Portrayal of Society

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A study of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Breakfast of Champions” which portrays a prepackaged and robotic American society.

“Outline Thesis: In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut portrays a prepackaged, robotic society, and an American culture plagued with despair, greed, and apathy.

I. Introduction

II. Social problems

A. Racism

B. Commercialism and materialism

C. Violence

D. Lack of culture

E. Greed

III. Destruction of America

A. Pollution

B. Destruction for wealth

IV. Conclusion

Vonnegut’s portrayal of society in Breakfast of Champions “The country Vonnegut takes us through has been plasticized, prepackaged, and brainwashed beyond redemption.

The poor are sinking into oblivion and the rich are choking on the fruits of their wealth.” This quote is a very adequate discription of the literary journey through the current scene of America. At one point or another, Vonnegut discusses nearly every social, political, or cultural problem afflicting America. Racism, violence, greed, and commercialism are a few among the many problems prevalent in this country (“Briefly” 146).

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Vonnegut’s novel is an exhibit of the flaws of a robotic, self-destructive society (Allen 107). In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut portrays a prefabricated, unfeeling society and an American culture plagued with despair, greed, and apathy. The issue of society’s flaws is a major concern of Breakfast of Champions. Such problems arise and are dealt with as failure to communicate, ecological destruction, a contempt for art, and the government’s inattention to important problems (Merrill 157).

The experiences and trials of Kilgore Trout, an unknown science fiction writer from New York, and Dwayne Hoover, a Pontiac dealer from Indiana, show the suffering and unintelligibility of daily living (Giannone 107).

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Dwayne Hoover suffers greatly despite his apparent wealth and prosperity, being burdened with the problems of himself and his family (Merrill 158). Hoover’s mother killed herself by drinking Drano (130), and his son is a homosexual (131).

Although Dwayne owns a Pontiac Dealership, a fast food restaurant, a Holiday Inn, and a large part of the most successful corporation in all of Midland City, he is mentally disturbed and suffering from psycological disillusion (84). Kilgore Trout, poor and humbled by a troublesome life, is a struggling science fiction writer with only one fan (17). His books, mostly metaphorically representing American society, are rarely published. The few published works of Trout’s appear in unsavory magazines and are changed and surrounded with pornographic pictures and suggestions (19). Read Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it 

Sometimes he is not even given credit for writing his material. He encounters several of the problems in today’s society on a trip to Midland City’s arts festival (48). Trout goes to the arts festival, not as a mentor of budding young writers, or a representation of the succuessful writing guild, but as a surveyor and an example of the writing community that has failed miserably in the search for popularity and reverence. One of the most severe and common social problems in America is racism. Vonnegut criticizes the glorification of European colonization of North America.

He describes how children are taught that 1492 is a sacred year in which this continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, people were already living here, 1492 is simply the year that foreigners began to cheat, rob, and kill them (10). The natives were perfectly happy with the way things were and so was the land. The natives did not spoil or pollute the beautiful land that had been given to them by their creator, and murder the lesser animals for sport, for the thrill of the hunt. They merely lived off the land being kind to all things. “The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything” (11).

Vonnegut’s basic description of early America is sadly true. The newcoming Europeans thought that they were a superior race of beings, and that they had the right to enslave others and force them to do their bidding or be punished. Even after slavery was eliminated, whites looked down on other races, referring to them as unfeeling, ignorant, labor machines (11).

According to Vonnegut, the United States is the core of a materialistic race of beings. Efficiency is rewarded more than honesty or integrity by a culture with a tendency to accept commercialized versions of reality. Wall Street and Hollywood have replaced family and self as the center of focus for many Americans (Brucker 1427,1429). “Money is the root of all evil” is no longer a widely accepted belief; the adage has been replaced with phrases such as “cash or charge,” and “forty-eight hour super sale.” Breakfast of Champions “shows how universal destruction fulfills the rapacity hiding within the American search for prosperity and pursuit of happiness” (Giannone 109).

The citizens of this country bicker and argue about trivial financial matters and lose all sense of brotherhood and hospitality. No one seems to care anymore that we should be grateful to our creator for all the wonderful things he has given to us: a magnificent, divine planet complete with peaceful creatures and elegant plants. The trucks that carry Trout across the barren and wasted countryside scream out the names of their companies such as “Pyramid” and “Ajax” (90).

Landscapes and roadsides are disfigured by signs and billboards (Allen 108). Anything and everything is advertised from encouragements to visit landmarks and tourist attractions to cheesy plugs for the upcoming arts festival in Midland City to famous people tempting passers-by to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes (114). Trout and Hoover are the children of materialism. Hoover embraces it while Trout is rejected by it. Another problem rampant in today’s American society is violence. Violence shows itself in many forms. Guns are the animate tools of violence. People use guns for one reason and one reason only: to put holes in other human beings. Policemen have guns, criminals have guns, and the people caught in-between usually have guns. People use guns to kill for many reasons. Some use them to rob from and cheat others, some use them to oppose criminals, some even use them out of hatred or contempt. Vonnegut describes a situation in which a young boy shoots and kills both of his parents because he does not want to show them the bad report card he has brought home (49,50). Violence is steadily becoming more common in society. The rate of murders in this country is frighteningly on the rise. More and more people have weapons and less and less people have a conscience to bug them about killing someone. People will now kill others that are widely known just to get attention and so that they can be at least partially famous as well. “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore” (16).

As Vonnegut expresses, the abscence of culture is one of the major indications that America is on the brink of anhilation (Giannone 110). The degredation of American culture causes problems and conflicts between Kilgore Trout, Dwayne Hoover, Vonnegut himself, and society as a whole. After the arts festival, a cocktail waitress and an impressionist artist get into an argument about whether the what the artist has created qualifies as art. The simple orange stripe across a dark background is to the artist, Rabo Karabekian, a representation of the inner soul, the sacred awareness in every living thing. He believes that it is this that makes a difference and that all else is insignificant. The waitress sees the painting as a basic line, a worthless drawing of a simple mind, something any five- year-old could recreate (221). According to Vonnegut, the greed of the average United States citizen is tremendous.

Capitalism is based on the idea that people who have a lot of personal property are not forced to share their good fortune with other people who have less. Every person in America is supposed to grab whatever he or she can, however he or she can, and tightly hold onto it, disregarding the needs and wants of other people or causes (13,14). The most meaningful part of American life is one’s posessions, or it would seem so after a breif look into the daily life of a character in one of Vonnegut’s novels. The same conclusion would probably be reached by looking into the home life or professional life of any average capitalist. Lust for money is overrunning society and taking over what is an effective and popular economic system. “Breakfast of Champions is set in an America stripped of physical and spiritual beauty” (Brucker 1427). The ecological and aesthetic destruction of the country is another seeming obsession of Americans. The countryside has been laid waste and utterly destroyed under the guise of expansion and progress (Giannone 109).

Americans continue to pollute and destroy the resources of this planet, failing to heed the warnings of environmentalists and others who care about nature and the earth we live on. The characters in the novel travel through a landscape that has been polluted, strip- mined, and disfigured by various advertisements, instructions, and notices (Allen 107). All of America has been infested with billboards and metal instructors yelling at us to buy this and do that and go here. Trout’s travels take him through lands of great ecological destruction and pollution. His trip through New Jersey is dominated by views of poisoned marshes and meadows seen through the soot covered window of an eighteen-wheeler (107).

As Trout enters Philadelphia, he describes the welcoming sign as being posted on the rim of a bomb crater. Smog fills the rancid air, stumps of once tall and beautiful trees lay scattered about, and flashing lights and wailing sirens surround factories and refineries. Supposedly the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia seems more akin to a Pennsylvanian landfill (103). As Trout travels through West Virginia, he is aghast at the complete and total ecological destruction. The entire state had been stripped of its beauty and resources, all with government approval, and was left “rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity” (119).

In Midland City, Barrytron Ltd., the most successful corporation in the city, is building an anti-personnel missile for use on large numbers of opposing soldiers. The missile is supposed to be cheaper, lighter, and more reliable because it uses small plastic projectiles instead of steel projectiles. When the bomb explodes, theoretically, the plastic balls will be scattered all around entering anything in their path, including people. The city’s water supply is being contaminated by the wastes of the manufacturing process of the plastic pellets. The plastic dissolves in the water and then either forms impenetrable bubbles on the surface or coats any thing in the water with an airtight layer of laminate. This is killing a great amount of the area wildlife and damaging property of anyone living near a stream or pond (87,88).

The eventual effect of this large-scale pollution and destruction of the planet will be total depletion of mineral resources and the end of all things that are beautiful and good (Horwitz 1311). Kilgore Trout believes that humanity deserves to die because they have behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet that was once so beautiful and sweet (18).

The apathy that people feel toward the depletion of the earth’s resources and the pollution of nature is abominable. Americans seem not to care that in just a few years the country will be as desolate as the moon due to the urbanizing and bulldozing that has been brought on by a thirst for wealth that rivals in intensity the mideval search for the Holy Grail. Americans are indifferent about what happens to their country as long as they come out ahead financially. Earth’s natural resources are being systematically destroyed by industrial greed (Giannone 109). While this is going on everyone sits at home on their couch, watching television in their homely suburban cottage, daydreaming of a new car or perhaps the soon-to-arrive mini-mall that will make everyone’s life easier and solve the problems of the world. The scenes of ecological and human destruction shown through the experiences and journeys of Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover provide a bleak outlook on the philosophical landscape of America (“Crunch” 106).

Vonnegut’s novel addresses concern over the pollution of the country, cutural despair, the social conflicts of America, and the overall ruining of the entire planet (Schatt 101). The grim vision Vonnegut depicts in Breakfast of Champions is one of a country steadily moving towards complete self-anhilation (Broer 107).

Works Cited

Allen, William R. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991.

“Briefly Noted: Fiction.” New Yorker 12 May 1973: 146.

Broer, Lawrence R. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1989.

Brucker, Carl. “Breakfast of Champions.” Beacham’s Popular Fiction in America. Ed. Walton Beacham. 4 vols. Washington, D.C.: Beacham, 1986. 4: 1423-32.

Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1977.

Horwitz, Carey. “An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut.” Library Journal 98 (1973): 1311.

Merrill, Robert. “Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: The Conversion of Heliogabalus.” Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Robert Merrill. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990. 153- 62.

“Naked Crunch.” The Economist 28 July 1973: 106-07. Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Dell, 1973.”

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Kurt Vonnegut's Portrayal of Society. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/kurt-vonneguts-portrayal-of-society-new-essay

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