Vonnegut's Changing Women
What follows is an argument to the effect that, in the novels written before 1973, Vonnegut's female characters generally are presented negatively, either as pro-authority anti-individualists or as helpless or male-manipulated victims who never "grow" in either a personal or literary sense. In addition I maintain that, in at least two of Vonnegut's later novels, certain female characters exercise individuality in their own existences and effect positively the awareness and attitudes of male characters.
From the beginning of Player Piano (1952) through Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut describes the characters of his various worlds in terms of their victimization at the hands of a dehumanizing, or perhaps a better term might be "deindividualizing," technologically fixated, industrial/militaristic society. Time and time again in these novels the role of the individual is subsumed in the miasma that passes for "social responsibility." Like the real world in which every human being exists, Vonnegut's literary worlds feature nameless and faceless authorities (when such authorities are offered at all) who seem to be the masters in local, regional, global, and sometimes interstellar chess games. Often, as is the case in Vonnegut's 1951 "All the King's Men," these "manipulators" move their all-too-sentient pieces in what at times, for the victims, must seem to be diabolical--and what certainly are tragic--maneuvers.
In The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Slaughterhouse Five the "accidental" nature or intergalactic point of view of the authority that seems to be "in charge of things" serves to distance humans from personal responsibility for the results of such maneuvering--as such results are described in the novels. In Sirens, for example, the inappropriate and often asinine behaviors of Malachi Constant are shown to be products of the direct influence of the Tralfamadorians who for millennia have manipulated human societies simply to communicate with a mechanized messenger shipwrecked on Saturn's largest moon. The same excuse can be made for the ultimate human manipulator in the novel, Winston Niles Rumfoord, as it can for the actions and attitudes of Bee, Rumfoord's wife and the mother of Constant's son, Chrono. That the communications sent to Salo on Titan consist of such inane and, given the non-human nature of the receiver, unimportant content as, "Be patient. We haven't forgotten about you," and, "You will be on your way before you know it" (271), only makes more pathetic the fact that Tralfamadore has influenced directly the rise and fall of countless human civilizations in order to deliver such messages. In the light of the historicity of Tralfamadorian manipulations of earthling civilizations, the sufferings of the characters in Sirens in effect are trivialized. But this "trivializing" of human misery is a consistent mark of Vonnegut's satirical message. In Slaughterhouse the Tralfamadorians offer a different type of absolution for human responsibility, but their explanation still is that wars and murders and other "inhumanities"--indeed, even the ultimate destruction of the entire universe--occur because they do happen, always have happened, and will continue to happen since the moments are "structured" that way; nonetheless, such sophistry serves to release individuals from personal responsibility for either their actions or the results of those actions.
In Player Piano Vonnegut presents the reader with an industrialized anti-Utopia that is too much the product of human beings. Though neither an extra-terrestrial nor exactly a nameless and faceless "manipulator," the National Industrial Planning Board (NIPB) serves well the function of a deindividualized (and deindividualizing) controller--planning, limiting, and directing the existences of those who make up its subservient population. This novel presents essentially two types of individuals who stand apart from the...
Cited: Vonnegut, Kurt. Bluebeard. New York: Dell, 1987
______________. Cat 's Cradle. New York: Dell, 1963.
______________. Jailbird. New York: Dell, 1979.
______________. Mother Night. New York: Dell, 1961.
______________. Player Piano. New York: Dell, 1952.
______________. The Sirens of Titan. New York: Dell, 1959.
______________. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell, 1966.
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