You are on page 1of 17

Linvill 1

Ryan Linvill

Mr. Miller

English 3-4 Seminar

1 March 2010

Sarcastic Cynicism:

An Author Study of Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “It is a very mixed blessing to be brought back from the dead.”

Although this can summarize a typical misanthrope’s point of view on the world in its current

state, it in no way is able to fully depict the psyche of one of America’s greatest authors. His

sometime cynical views do not reflect him as a whole, due to the fact that they leave out his

pacifistic and comedic messages and opinions, which are prevalent throughout his works. Some

of his famous works include Slaughterhouse-Five, an anti-war story following the life of Billy

Pilgrim, Breakfast of Champions, a social commentary on the insanity of American culture, and

Timequake, a part-fiction part-nonfiction story about the fictional author Kilgore Trout and

Vonnegut reminiscing about his own life. These novels show how the tragic events and horrors

of war that Kurt Vonnegut experienced along with his life lived in America shaped his writing

style into a unique and peculiar form of social and political commentary laced with black

comedy.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. grew up in the industrial state of Indiana, and was able to start his

intellectual pursuits and also start his writing career. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born November 11,

1922 to parents Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. and Edith Lieber in Indianapolis, Indiana (Encyclopedia of

World Biography). Vonnegut was the youngest of three children, his older siblings being

Bernard Vonnegut (1914-1997) and Alice Vonnegut (1917-1958) (Allen, p. 34). A family of

five living on one income naturally came with its economic constraints and struggles. Growing
Linvill 2

up in this lifestyle through his development would leave an impression on him and influence the

rest of his life. While in Indianapolis, Vonnegut graduated in 1940 from Shortridge High

School, and in his time there he was the editor of the school’s newspaper (Life at a Glance).

After graduating high school, he attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York from 1940-

1942, where he studied biochemistry and was a journalist for the Cornell Sun, the student

newspaper at the college (Allen, p. 35). With the early involvement in the writing of both his

high school’s and his university’s newspapers, Vonnegut was definitely interested in using

writing as his form of expressing himself as an artist. The fact that Vonnegut had these writing

outlets suggests that biochemistry was a subject that he was most likely not interested in, rather

one with which he felt he could make a living. After attending Cornell University, Vonnegut

was trained in the field of mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute in 1942 (Life at a

Glance). Around this time, he also trained as a mechanical engineer at the University of

Tennessee (At a Glance). The pathway of becoming a mechanical engineer after studying

biochemistry could suggest that at this time Vonnegut was unsure of what career path he wanted

to take. His interest in writing, although evident, had to take a backseat to his studies at this

time. Vonnegut was able, within the first 20 years of his life, to become well versed in many

areas including biochemistry, engineering, and writing, which he would take the most from.

Unfortunately, Kurt Vonnegut’s life eventually took a darker turn over the next few years

due to emotionally damaging events and the loss of family. In 1942, Vonnegut enlisted in the

U.S. Army as an Infantry Battalion Scout (Life at a Glance). While in the military, his mother

committed suicide on May 14, 1944, after which Vonnegut returned home briefly (Leeds and

Reed 22). Along with the loss of his mother, the cause of her death being suicide had its

negative psychological effects on Vonnegut. He also was not with his mother during her final

days, which would have left him with regret. Soon after this Vonnegut returned to war once
Linvill 3

again. While serving in Germany, Vonnegut was captured in December of 1944 during the

Battle of Bulge (Life at a Glance). After being captured by German troops, he was sent to

Dresden in 1945 to work in a factory that produced supplementary vitamins for pregnant women

(At a Glance). After fighting in World War II on the European front, Vonnegut was faced with

defeat relatively soon, which would have left him with discontent about the situation. Also, at

this point Vonnegut was forced to work and survive in a hostile environment controlled by the

German troops, leading to further discontent about war. While being held captive by the

Germans, Vonnegut survived the firebombing of Dresden while trapped in a meat locker beneath

a slaughterhouse (Morse 56). After the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut along with the other

survivors were employed to dig out the corpses, and were eventually rescued by the invading

Russians (Life at a Glance). These events brought Vonnegut face-to-face with the possibility of

death and the imminent fear of destruction as the hellfire reigned down upon Dresden. Along

with this, the digging out of the corpses showed Vonnegut the harsh reality and tragedy of death

directly, leaving him with a very real sense of the fragility of life. These horrific and

emotionally powerful events would give a more direct opinion on war and would influence the

rest of his life and works heavily.

After the war, Vonnegut returned to America to regain his life and return to his studies

and career path, along with starting a family. Returning to school, Vonnegut studied

Anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1947(At a Glance). While studying

there in the graduate’s program, his master’s thesis was rejected by the University (Glance).

Having one’s master’s thesis rejected by the University is an enormous loss and setback, but for

Vonnegut this may not have hit home as hard. Not being able to get his master’s degree in

anthropology must have meant that he was not very interested in the subject, but instead studied

in it to eventually make a living in the field. Before his time at the University of Chicago,
Linvill 4

Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox on September 1st, 1945 (Vonnegut’s Life at a Glance). After

his time at the University, their son Mark was born in 1947, followed by their daughter Edith

who was born in 1949 (At a Glance). Both of these events naturally brought new joy into his

life, and put more goals and motives into it as well. These events are also in stark contrast to the

war events he previously witnessed. While in the war, he was shown the tragedy of death,

whereas now he was greeted with the miracle of life. In 1950, Vonnegut worked as a public

relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, NY (At a Glance). Within a year he quit his

job in the public relations department saying it was “a goddamn nightmare job”, and then moved

to Cape Cod to pursue writing (Allen 46). Vonnegut, evidently, was not one to put up with a job

that he did not enjoy. Quitting the job within a year demonstrates not only Vonnegut’s firm

dislike of the job but also his determination to dedicate his life to writing. At this point in his life

Vonnegut was able to effectively pursue a career as an author and raise a family.

Although Vonnegut’s writing career was able to start and take flight, he was also faced

with increasing hardships in his life at the time. Vonnegut’s first novel Player Piano was

published in 1952, and later re-published with the title of Utopia-14 in 1954, the same year of the

birth of his third daughter, Nanette (Life at a Glance). In 1956, Vonnegut was the first man to

open a Saab dealership in America (At a Glance). Although he was able to start his career in

novel writing, he still needed to have a normal day job in order to support his family of five.

Although not one of the achievements for which he is typically remembered for, Vonnegut also

had an impact on the automobile industry by introducing Saab to America, a company still

around today. On October 1st 1957, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. died (At a Glance). In 1958, Vonnegut’s

brother-in-law died from his train plunging into a river, and shortly thereafter, Vonnegut’s sister

found out the news and died of cancer, forcing Vonnegut and his wife to adopt their three

children (Morse 63). The loss of father, along with his sister and brother-in-law, gave him more
Linvill 5

experience with the death of close ones. This is also different from his war experience because

during the bombings of Dresden, he was dealing with the death of people unfamiliar to him, but

in this situation it was people he knew and cared about, leaving a different type of emotional

impact. Vonnegut now also had to support a family of eight, which would have put even more

financial strain on him. At this point in his life, he now had more pressures to deal with and

handle, which naturally took a toll on him physically and emotionally.

Although Kurt Vonnegut became a successful author with many works published, for

which he became recognized and celebrated for, he suffered the adverse effects of a hard life. In

1971, Vonnegut received his master’s degree from the University of Chicago for his novel Cat’s

Cradle in 1971 (At a Glance). In the same year, he relocated to New York City (Glance). After

20 years of being an author, Vonnegut was starting to get some larger scale credit for his works.

He was also able to have some closure with the rejected master’s thesis from the University of

Chicago. In 1972, his son and firstborn child suffered a schizophrenic breakdown (At a Glance).

In the same year he was elected the vice-president of the PEN American Center (Glance). These

increasing family problems naturally had negative effects on him mentally. However, his

exposure to mental problems showed him the types of psychological breakdown that can occur,

along with the impact it had on others, including him. In 1979, Vonnegut divorced his wife Jane

of 24 years and married Jill Kremetz in the same year (At a Glance). Five years later, Vonnegut

attempted suicide (Glance). Vonnegut’s increasing emotional problems, demonstrated by his

attempted suicide, could have been the cause for the divorce of his wife. The joy of marrying Jill

Kremetz was not enough to be able to keep him from feeling the effects of the hard emotional

life he had lead, and did not last. After being married to her for 12 years, Vonnegut divorced Jill

Kremetz in 1991 (Life at a Glance). On April 11, 2007, Vonnegut died at age 84 due to

irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall (At a Glance). Vonnegut died with no wife, but
Linvill 6

most likely with no regrets, feeling that this was for the better. By this point he had accumulated

numerous awards, honorary doctorates, and various titles. The life that Vonnegut lived that was

unfortunately riddled with many tragedies created him as a character himself, being remembered

as one of America’s greatest and most peculiar authors.

Kurt Vonnegut had a cynical view on America’s culture and politics, and had many

views that differed from the commonly accepted beliefs. Vonnegut was heavily influenced by

Powers Hapgood, a socialist leader who supported the working class (Allen 75). Vonnegut was

also influenced by Eugene V. Debs, another socialist labor leader at the time (Morse 89). The

idea of socialism was viewed very negatively, with capitalism viewed as the “correct” form of

social order in the eyes of America. The fact that he respected the idea of socialism indicates

that he must have viewed himself as separate from America, and was able to look at it with an

objective viewpoint. Vonnegut grew up during the Great Depression, a time period known for a

depressed national morale (Morse 48). Vonnegut’s personal financial troubles were the worst

when he was a teenager (Understanding Kurt Vonnegut 14). The fact that he grew up faced with

poverty meant that he was exposed to the antithesis of the American Dream. Instead of being

prosperous and successful, he was given the opposite. Vonnegut described himself as being a

skeptic (Klinkowitz 46). Vonnegut is quoted as saying that “there is a tragic flaw in our precious

Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: only nut cases want to be

president” (Morse 112). This demonstrates his confidence in the foundations of our government,

but not in the people that carry out the duties. He clearly was also extremely opinionated on

matters involving government. Vonnegut had very unpopular opinions in the eyes of traditional

America and views that were very particular to him.

Vonnegut’s views on religion were also very unpopular and controversial. Vonnegut’s

great-grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote a freethought book denying the existence of god
Linvill 7

(Understanding Kurt Vonnegut 90). Vonnegut described himself as being a freethinker

(Klinkowitz 46). Vonnegut, naturally, he would have been influenced by his great-grandfathers

very controversial book, which played a part in his development of beliefs, or lack thereof.

Vonnegut naturally was one to question, and his grandfather’s book helped foster this. Vonnegut

rejected the divinity of Jesus (Understanding 79). Vonnegut also did not believe in the

supernatural and was against the idea of believing in the intangible (Klinkowitz 43). Because of

the fact that he had no religious background, he was able to free himself of any religious bias in

voicing his beliefs. Also, without the superstitious religious views that come with religion, he

could then become a clearer thinker. On the topic of religious doctrine, Vonnegut is quoted as

saying that it is “so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash” (Allen 78). When describing

himself, Vonnegut has referred to himself as an atheist (Klinkowitz 48). Vonnegut was clearly

very opinionated about religion, and was not afraid to voice these opinions. Also, it was and still

is unpopular to be atheist, but Vonnegut knew that he had to voice his opinions nonetheless.

Vonnegut’s atheistic views added another level to the cynicism in his attitude toward the culture

of America and the belief in god.

The tragic and horrific event of the firebombing of Dresden, Germany along with the

events surrounding it had a lasting impact on Vonnegut. During his time in the war, Vonnegut

was involved in the Battle of Bulge, and was captured by German troops (Morse 34). In the

course of the war, this battle was considered to be a desperate attempt by Hitler to change the

course of the war in the western front (Klinkowitz 105). In this situation Vonnegut was involved

in a very important war for the Germans. Being captured in this battle, which was so important

for the Germans, meant that he had a very personal experience with the war, and the horrors that

came with it. In Dresden, Germany hellfire reigned down on the industrial city in the form of

over 3900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices being dropped from over 1300 heavy bombers
Linvill 8

(Klinkowitz 106). After the bombing, there was an estimated death toll of 24,000-40,000 from

the bombing (Morse 36). These events are an example of the darkest side of war, and the

massive amount of death that can result. Vonnegut was there to experience these bombings and

always remembered them. When looked back upon, the bombings of Dresden are considered to

be a war crime (Allen 84). Vonnegut is himself quoted as saying that “there’s nothing intelligent

to say about a massacre” (Allen 77). These experiences ranked among Vonnegut’s most

traumatic personal experiences, and this quote displays this. The fact that he witnessed the events

of war first hand rather than from a news report or a secondary source meant that he would have

more informed opinions. These dark events are what undoubtedly influenced him to have a

pacifistic view on life, and have a stronger opinion of war.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, the tone often takes on the characteristic of sarcasm, but also

explores emotionally heavy tones. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the tone is often satirical

(Slaughterhouse-Five). However, the tone also takes on a more somber and darker tone in the

sections about the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden (Slaughterhouse). The sarcastic and

satirical tone demonstrates Vonnegut’s view on America as though he is looking down upon it,

and presenting the cultures in a comedic fashion. The contrast between these two tones shows his

view on the Dresden bombings as being horrific, with not much to say about them. In the novel

Breakfast of Champions, the tone similarly has a largely satirical and comedic tone (Breakfast of

Champions). When not in this specific tone, it takes on the characteristics of a sense of

superiority as the “Creator of the Universe” (Breakfast). This presents the fact that Vonnegut

looks down upon America as being ridiculous in nature, which can relate to his differing

opinions. With this he is also able to illustrate his opinion on the people of America as being

“machines” that have a duty they must fulfill. In the novel Timequake, a much more lighthearted

tone is taken on, “get a load of this” and “hold on to your hats” (Timequake). However, his tone
Linvill 9

naturally still has aspects of cynicism and satire (Timequake). The lighthearted aspects of the

tone in this novel show how Vonnegut feels about the memories he reminisces about in the

novel, and that he is overall pleased with many aspects of his life. Vonnegut, however, still keeps

his sarcastic and cynical tone, but with it taking a diminished role, as key aspects to his voice as

a writer. Over the course of these three books, Vonnegut’s tone became increasingly ridiculous

and satirical, yet ended on a lighter note with Timequake, but yet it still retained the black

comedic aspect and views of America.

The diction in Vonnegut’s novels, although quite bleak most of the time, is carefully

chosen to illustrate the proper mood in each particular section and scene. In talking about Billy

Pilgrim’s final days, he describes Billy as “bleakly ready for death” (Slaughterhouse 41). In this

novel Vonnegut uses the term “catacombs” to describe the meat locker in where military troop

was trapped in during the bombing of Dresden, which has a negative connotation (274). In

talking about death, the choice of the word “bleakly” to describe Billy Pilgrims state of mind

shows a lack of a heaven, which reflects Vonnegut’s lack of superstitious beliefs of the afterlife

and its religious aspects. Also, the use of the term “catacombs” reflects Vonnegut’s attitude

toward his experiences in Dresden, using the negative connotation to demonstrate this. In talking

about the National Anthem of the United States, Vonnegut refers to it as “pure balderdash”

(Breakfast 7). Later in the novel, Vonnegut refers to humans as such: “this was a challenge to the

humanoids” (59). The use of the term “balderdash” to describe the National Anthem makes it

seem very whimsical and ridiculous, reflecting Vonnegut’s views on America and the state of its

government, making him seem separate. Another factor making him seem separate is his use of

the term “humanoids” to refer to humans in general, as though he himself is of another species.

He could also possibly be acting as though he has transcended the common man and thus refers

to them as a species different than his own. In Timequake Vonnegut refers to a homeless man as
Linvill 10

“a bum on a cot”, which has a negative and demeaning connotation (Timequake 56). Vonnegut

also refers to the constant thinking up of short stories as a “habit”, which in this case has a

negative connotation (17). The fact that Vonnegut refers to someone in a compromised economic

state with a negative connotation can be somewhat ironic given the fact that he grew up in a

compromised economic state himself, even though never quite got to that point. This could also

be interpreted as his dislike of living under tough economical conditions to the point that he

shows no compassion towards it. It is also interesting that Vonnegut, an avid writer, would refer

to the act of thinking up stories as a habit, a word here that has a negative connotation. One

would think that he would think of it as being creative, but the fact that this is not the case could

suggest that he did not want to be muddled down by tangential ideas, but rather have focused,

well thought out storylines. As time went on in his writing career, Vonnegut became more and

more loose with his diction and had more whimsical word choices, which carried less levity.

The detail in Vonnegut’s writing comes in the form of the use of archetype symbols to

help express the depth of the stories and brief and scattered imagery. In the section of

Slaughterhouse-Five in which the American troops are traveling through Germany, Vonnegut

describes Billy Pilgrim’s beard by saying that “some of the bristles were white” (41). In the

scene depicting the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden, Vonnegut describes the consistency

of the Earth as such: “the materials were loose, so there were constant little avalanches” (272).

When Vonnegut describes Billy Pilgrim’s beard as having some white bristles, this is the use of

the archetype symbol of white, meaning purity. The fact that only some of Pilgrim’s beard

bristles were white meant that he had only so much purity in him due to the war. This can reflect

Vonnegut’s view on the war and his personal philosophy of pacifism by showing that the war

leaves the troops with very little purity left. The use of the image of “constant little avalanches”

to describe the collapsing of the materials in the earth helps illustrate the profundity of the
Linvill 11

moment. This is accomplished by giving such strong meaning to even such a small event in the

scene that may not otherwise be of much importance. In talking about the different types of

humans, Vonnegut explains the derogatory term used to describe African Americans by saying

that “a Nigger was a human being who was black” (Breakfast 41). In parts of the novel where a

new concept or object is introduced, Vonnegut will regularly show a doodled picture of it rather

than describe it in-depth or describe it at all (Breakfast). By using very abrupt language to

describe the various terms in this book means that Vonnegut was not afraid to present his story in

this abrasive manner. One might be cautious at doing this, but Vonnegut clearly was not cautious

in his writing. Also, the fact that Vonnegut uses a picture to show an object or concept is

interesting because it is if he is presenting it to an audience who is completely unfamiliar to the

planet Earth. Vonnegut’s purpose in this could have been to show America and its culture from

the view of a complete outsider, and how one unfamiliar would view it. In Timequake, Vonnegut

uses the simile of “...like something the cat drug in” (Timequake 25). In the context of describing

firemen, Vonnegut says that they could be “scum of the Earth as some may be in their daily

lives, [but] they can all be saints in emergencies” (7). The simile effectively illustrates the feeling

of the two sisters as being tired and worn-out with the use of a common expression. The

description of the firemen provides an interesting juxtaposition between the “scum of the earth”

and “saints”, effectively showing contrast in the potential aspects of firemen. With the dramatic

contrast, Vonnegut also displays some of his cynical views by showing a sense of distrust

towards the firemen. It seems as though over the course of his writing, his imagery changed in

style from juxtaposition and symbolism to the use of much simpler forms of detail, which in turn

gave his works a more lighthearted feel.

Vonnegut’s use and manipulation of point of view is far from conventional, and the point

of view that he uses sometimes switches within the same novel. When Slaughterhouse-Five
Linvill 12

begins, it is an introduction by Vonnegut about himself, and is told in first person, along with the

end of the story in which Vonnegut describes the aftermath of the bombing in Dresden from his

perspective (Slaughterhouse). In the majority of the story, the point of view is third person

omniscient, with a very brief passage in which Vonnegut places himself in the story, in which he

says, in reference to a soldier that had “excreted everything but his brains”, “That was me. That

was I. That was the author of this book” (Slaughterhouse 160). By placing himself in the story,

Vonnegut shows how he wanted to display his opinions on the war and where he was coming

from in the writing of the story. The purpose and intentions of writing Slaughterhouse-Five, an

anti-war novel, is also what he was able to show by writing in first person during the introduction

and the ending. The use of third person in contrast to first person allows for Vonnegut to show

all that takes place over the course of Billy Pilgrim’s, so it is not limited by a first person view.

The extremely brief passage in which Vonnegut places himself in the story serves a different

purpose by giving it a sense of comedic relief. In Breakfast of Champions, roughly half of the

story is in third person omniscient from an all-powerful creator’s standpoint (Breakfast).

However, there are several parts in which it goes into first person, and in these sections

Vonnegut actually interacts with the characters that he “created” (Breakfast). This allows for a

more comical and factual view of the situation the characters are in, and creates almost a fantasy

world in which Kurt Vonnegut can create characters and interact with them. Vonnegut’s ability

to place himself in the story and interact with the characters allows for manipulation of the

plotline and a fabrication of an outrageous ending that otherwise would not be possible. In

contrast, Timequake stays in first person throughout the entire novel (Timequake). In this story,

Vonnegut narrates the entire book, without ever going into third person (Timequake). The result

of staying in first person is that the novel then has the feel of an autobiography, which it almost

is. The only exception to the autobiography is that there are key parts to the story that are
Linvill 13

fictional, specifically the segments about the fictional science fiction author Kilgore Trout.

Vonnegut’s use of point of view gradually changed as he continued to use more and more first

person in his writing, to the point where it became completely first person.

The organization in Vonnegut’s works are different in each novel and are sometimes

irregular and unconventional, however, they each serve an appropriate purpose in each given

novel. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the timeline follows a very conventional path, but is spliced and

rearranged to show the events out of order (Slaughterhouse). When the timeline is rearranged

like this, it shows how Billy Pilgrim, the main character, views time and travels through it

Slaughterhouse). By rearranging and carefully placing the events of Billy Pilgrim’s life,

Vonnegut is able to juxtapose specific events in Billy’s life, thus showing how they relate to each

other. Naturally, Vonnegut juxtaposes the events of war with Billy Pilgrim’s life, and is able to

show various differences and similarities. Vonnegut, however, is still able to show the bombing

of Dresden as the climax of the story. Even though this event takes place in Billy Pilgrim’s

youth, Vonnegut is able to place it later in the story with the manipulation of the timeline. In

Breakfast of Champions, the timeline follows a much more conventional line that is organized

chronologically (Breakfast). As the story plays out, there are two major climax points which are

the confrontation of all the main characters in the bar in Midland city and when Vonnegut

reveals to Kilgore Trout that he is his creator (Breakfast). Unlike Slaughterhouse-Five, multiple

characters are being followed, thus the conventionally structured plotline is much more useful in

this context, and favors the eventual climax. The use of multiple climaxes allows for a

continually exciting plotline all the way to the end of the story, which keeps the reader engaged

completely to the end. The fact that Vonnegut uses the idea of himself being God and revealing

his omnipotence to his characters could be an example of Vonnegut’s views on religion. By

making the organization dependent on himself being the “Creator of the Universe” in the story,
Linvill 14

he makes fun of the idea of God. The second major climax in the story in which he reveals

himself to Kilgore Trout as his creator could be taken as Vonnegut’s attack on the religious idea

that God should not reveal himself, or else it would not be a true test of faith. By actually

revealing himself to Kilgore Trout, who was otherwise ignorant of his existence, it is as though

he is saying that an omnipotent being will not be believable until it becomes tangible. In

Timequake, the timeline also follows a conventional chronological structure (Timequake). A

unique aspect about it is that it is characterized by frequent tangential anecdotes, which enhance

the storyline throughout the entire novel (Timequake). The tangential anecdotes, although key to

the structure of the story, inhibit the story from having a very distinct conflict and plotline.

However, these anecdotes allow for Vonnegut to make the story more personal for the audience

reading it. Vonnegut’s style followed no particular regular change over the course of his career,

but each of these novels had its own distinct characteristics to the organization that made it a

unique stand-alone piece.

Vonnegut had a style in his syntax that was unique to him and was characterized by short,

staccato sentences and brief and to-the-point descriptions. In the sentence structure of

Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut consistently keeps a short sentence structure throughout the

novel, and due to this elements such as parallel structure are almost completely non-existent

(Slaughterhouse). When Vonnegut is talking about himself in the introduction, longer sentences

appear more often, but still are not as predominant as the short sentences (1-28). Because of the

shorter sentences structure, Vonnegut ends up spending more time telling about the story rather

than describing the setting and characters, which provides for a more engaging and faster-paced

feel. Another result of this is very succinct phrasing, which in turn causes very direct paragraphs

that have little embellishment other than the occasional figurative language. In the preface to

Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut uses a longer sentence structure, but with overall shorter
Linvill 15

paragraphs (Breakfast 1-6). In the actual story, the short, staccato sentence structure remains

prevalent throughout with varying paragraph size (Breakfast). Much like Slaughterhouse-Five,

Vonnegut tells more about the story and plot rather than describing the setting and characters for

longer than what is needed. There is also little embellishment in the story and more substance in

the plot and character development. One possible reason why Vonnegut would have chosen to

take this approach to his sentence structure is because he wanted to make sure his plotline was

not weighed down by unnecessary descriptions. In the novel Timequake, the sentence structure

is much more irregular and sentences tend to vary in length (Timequake). When Vonnegut is

reminiscing about his past in this story, which takes up the majority of the novel, the sentence

structure tends to be longer (Timequake). One possible reason for this is that Vonnegut was much

more willing to elaborate on his own life than on the characters in the story. At the time of

writing this novel he was nearing towards the end of his life, thus he could have become more

relaxed in writing the parts about the past events of his life. Throughout his writing career,

Vonnegut maintained a very distinct sentence style characterized by short and brief sentences,

with occasional deviants in certain sections of his novels.

Vonnegut once said, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion.

I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” This quote embodies

Vonnegut’s style of writing, which can best be described as black comedy. The fact that

Vonnegut chooses to laugh about the many events in his life, even those that are tragic, shows

that he was not one to take himself to seriously. His works show this by being laced with humor,

but are still able to get the desired message across. The tragic events that he experienced such as

the firebombing in Dresden and the death of his family members created the familiarity with

death that Vonnegut had, thus creating a less serious tone in his novels. His messages of

pacifism and other commentaries are ones that transcend generations, ones that anyone can
Linvill 16

identify with. For his time period, Vonnegut was one that pushed the envelope with philosophies

of socialism and atheism; philosophies that to this day still remain relatively unpopular.

However, it was Vonnegut’s determination and skill as a writer to deliver his messages that will

leave him immortalized as one of America’s greatest authors.


Linvill 17

Works Cited

Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia, S.C: University of South

Carolina, 1991. Print.

The Complete Kurt Vonnegut Web Page. Web. 15 Jan. 2010. <http://www.kurt-

vonnegut.com/timeline.shtml>.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Vonnegut Effect. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2004. Print.

"Kurt Vonnegut Biography - life, children, story, death, wife, mother, son, book, information,

born, college, house, time, scandal, sister." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Web. 14

Jan. 2010. <http://www.notablebiographies.com/Tu-We/Vonnegut-Kurt.html>.

Kurt., Vonnegut,. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Dial Trade Paperback, 1999. Print.

Kurt., Vonnegut,. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dial Trade Paperback, 1999. Print.

Kurt., Vonnegut,. Timequake. New York: Berkley, 1998. Print.

Leeds, Marc, and Peter J. Reed, eds. Kurt Vonnegut: Images and Representations. Westport:

Greenwood, 2000. Print.

Morse, Donald E. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut Imagining Being an American. Westport, Conn:

Praeger, 2003. Print.