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Fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world : the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr Robson, Kenneth J.

Abstract

The six novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. demonstrate a continuing interest in the dilemmas confronting persons whose dreams of individual fulfillment are greatly at odds with the demands made of them as public persons. The protagonists experience the full opposition between the world they imagine and the world they inhabit. They are forced repeatedly to choose between their privately created and publicly imposed roles. They resemble one another in their reluctance to participate in a chaotic and destructive world and in their preference to retreat into fantasy worlds of their own creation. Although each of the fantasies differs from the others in many respects, each is an attempt to provide what Kilgore Trout, one of Vonnegut’s fictional characters, refers to as "fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world. The utopian fantasies include Paul Proteus' desire to retreat to a mythic frontier setting, long since replaced by a technological society; Malachi Constant' s dream of reunion with his wife and best friend in an ideal state beyond time; Howard Campbell's refuge in a world of art; Jonah's fascination with Bokononism; Eliot Rosewater' s plan to redeem mankind; and Billy Pilgrim's belief that it is possible for man to experience life in a way that renders pain and death meaningless. The novels offer an apocalyptic view of a world that is determined to destroy itself by any and every means available. If Vonnegut’s protagonists seem to offer absurdly ideal remedies for this situation, the reality that Vonnegut describes is no less absurd for being real. The real and imaginary worlds described by Vonnegut are poles apart. Both are extremities, one the result of an insane destructive impulse, the other of an insane creative impulse. Underlying all of Vonnegut's fictions is a real experience, the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies in World War II. It is this terrifyingly real experience that has moved Vonnegut to examine the ideal, or what might have been, in the context of the real, or what is. The paradox which lies at the center of Bokononism is the paradox in each of Vonnegut's novels: “the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it. A discussion of this paradox involves an examination of Vonnegut’s attitude with regard to his protagonists. Vonnegut invites this examination by raising questions about the difficulty of writing fiction in such times as ours, and one can see in the course of the novels a clarification of his position. The conflict between the world we imagine and the world we inhabit has serious implications for the writer. The novels are discussed in chronological sequence beginning with Player Piano, his first novel, and ending with his most recent, Slaughterhouse-Five. This appears the most practical method of tracing emerging themes and, particularly, of examining the evolution of the authorial point of view. Vonnegut offers no reassuring solutions to the problems he examines in his novels. At times his sardonic comments express his bitter disappointment in our collective failure. At other times he expresses the hope that mankind will change and seek a creative course rather than a destructive one. His novels teach us that to accept passively a reality that seeks to destroy life is to demonstrate a failure of the imagination, while to retreat into fantasies which are distant from reality is extremely dangerous. Vonnegut insists upon the continual vigilance of the critical imagination, and an awareness of our limitations as well as our possibilities.

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