Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a one of the most prominent satirical writers of our time. He writes about the follies of men and society. In his novels The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Cat’s Cradle we see the faults of mankind through its belief in false truths like religion and war. Vonnegut points out that many of the things we believe in are probably not true. He thinks that too many people simply accept ideas as being truths. He wants his readers to question society and their beliefs that are not backed up by logical reasoning. For example, religion is not founded on any scientific premises and Vonnegut thinks we should question why so many people believe in it. In The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. urges his readers to question popular beliefs and ideas that are accepted by society. Vonnegut tells us to think independently and search for the truths in the world.
The book The Sirens of Titan is about the main character Malachi Constant and his travels through the universe to deliver a replacement part to a stranded alien ship. Though Malachi did not know until the end, every person in the world, including him, was being controlled by the alien to slowly deliver the replacement part to his ship. Throughout the book, there are many passages about religion and how people are pacified by illusions in the world. Vonnegut writes, “The Church was ready for a miracle… The prophecy was that the weary Space Traveler would be naked, that the suit of clothes would fit him like a glove. That suit was of such design as to fit no one but the right man well” (The Sirens of Titan 214). This event in the book had been set up to happen as it was predicted. The Church knew that the Space Traveler would come naked and had the suit specially made for him. It was not really a miracle. This quote shows how religion can be founded on lies. Many people believe in religion even though it may not be true. Vonnegut is saying that we should think independently and figure out our own ideas. Reed says of The Sirens of Titan:
It asserts that while an indifferent universe may confirm no purpose in our existence, we can give meaning to life by the way we lead it. This entails giving up the search for a rationale in the incomprehensible workings of the universe, the hunt for some answer from above, and turning to ourselves to provide meaning… (496)
Reed also says that Vonnegut is saying we are the ones that need to search for purpose ourselves. We need to think independently. We cannot always turn to religion to give us the answers because religions are not necessarily truthful.
Vonnegut talks about illusions that society believes in. There is often no evidence to credit these beliefs, ideas, or events, but people still acknowledge them. Vonnegut writes:
The materializations had been happening for nine years, once every fifty-nine days. The most learned and trustworthy men in the world had begged heartbrokenly for the privilege of seeing a materialization. No matter how the men worded their requests, they were turned down cold. The refusal was always the same, handwritten by Mrs. Rumfoord’s social secretary. (The Sirens of Titan 116)
The materializations are something that everyone believes in though they have never actually seen one. Some people try to question their credibility, but they find no answers. Vonnegut is showing that when we try to question popular beliefs, we may not always find the answers. He wants us to keep striving to find the answers. Olderman says of Vonnegut, “…he finds we have exhausted our values and can go on living only through the acceptance of illusions” (505). This is saying that many people live on illusions, like the materialization. Vonnegut wants people to question illusions, like religion, and think for themselves. He thinks it is crazy that so many people live by things that may not be true. This is why he wants us to think independently and find the answers ourselves.
In The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut also talks about science. Science is something very highly valued by him. Science is actually backed by logical reasoning and it can be proved. Religion is something that is not backed by logical reasoning and it can not be proved. He writes, “Quit talking the language of science to each other! Nothing will be restrained from you which you have imagined to do, if you all keep on talking the language of science to each other, and I don’t want that!” (The Sirens of Titan 127). This quote shows how religions do not want people to learn about science. Science can discredit everything religion says are truths. Vonnegut thinks people should learn about science, so they can figure out what beliefs and ideas are true or not. Reed says that “Vonnegut places considerable emphasis on the fact that we know very little about a great deal” (498). This means that people do not really know that much about what is real. They do not know that much about science, which is a defining element of what is really a truth. People do not care to learn enough about science to determine what is real and what is not. There is a lot to be learned, but many people do not care because they are happy living on false facts.
Slaughterhouse-Five is about Billy Pilgrim and his hardships through World War II. The character Billy Pilgrim is actually based off of Kurt Vonnegut and his actual travels during the war. Vonnegut grew to despise war during his time in service. He was at the worst bombing of the war in Dresden. The book Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book. Vonnegut believes that war is one of the greatest follies of mankind. He thinks war is just a very horrible experience that we should strive to avoid, but people think that it is the solution to everything. People also do not realize how horrible it is and how many people actually die during war. He writes:
The advocates of nuclear disarmament seem to believe that, if they could achieve their aim, war would become tolerable and decent. They would do well to read this book and ponder the fate of Dresden, where 135,000 people died as the result of an air attack with conventional weapons. On the night of March 9th, 1945, an air attack on Tokyo by American heavy bombers, using incendiary and high explosive bombs, caused the death of 83,793 people. The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 71,379 people. So it goes. (Slaughterhouse-Five 188)
This shows how he thinks people want war to be an acceptable thing, but if people would just look at the numbers of the people dead, we would realize how horrible it is. Vonnegut wants us to question the idea of war and search for the truth of how inhumane it really is. McNelly writes of Slaughterhouse-Five:
In these journeys, Billy, who is both Vonnegut and a modern Everyman, seeks an answer to the inevitable questions about suffering. In addition, he ponders the incredible violence of war, its insanity and blind cruelty, and probes the proud flesh of an American society that – an even greater horror to Vonnegut – has managed to ignore the moral responsibility for Dresden as well as the ethical implications of the senseless attack. (452)
McNelly is also says how Vonnegut is showing that war is a horrific thing and that most Americans have not even heard about the bombing of Dresden. It is a fact that is hidden from us, so that we do not realize how many people could be killed in just one attack. Vonnegut thinks this is horrible and that we need to search for the truths about war.
Vonnegut talks about how we need to try to make a difference in our lives and the world. He writes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to tell the difference. Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (Slaughterhouse-Five 60). The reason why Billy could not change the past, the present, and the future is because of war. Reed says, “War provides the ultimate measure of man’s folly, his inhumanity, his inability to match means and ends, and his incapacity to maintain an ordered control over his destiny…” (498). War takes control over Billy. He is stuck in the military and must do what he is ordered to do. The war takes away his ability to question ideas and think individually. He is not able to change anything while he is in the war. Vonnegut shows how war is bad in that it is very violent, but he also shows how war in bad in that we cannot control our actions.
Vonnegut uses one quote many times throughout the novel. He says, “So it goes” (Slaughterhouse-Five 106). It is a very simple sentence with a powerful message. This quote is used every time someone dies in the book, and because it is said so many times, the reader realizes that there are a lot of people that die during the war. The quote also shows that nothing is challenged when someone dies. People do not realize that when someone dies it is a big deal. Vonnegut wants to point out how people can be ignorant and we should not fall in that category. We should just not accept deaths as numbers, but as actual people. Society does not always think this way. Kazin writes, “It is the idea of human vulnerability: we are still too innocent in the face of war to offer any political explanation or protest” (505). This quote shows how society just accepts war and its consequences, such as death, without protest. Vonnegut wants us to question war and to search for the real truths of war.
The book Cat’s Cradle is about the main character John searching for information to write a novel, called The Day the World Ended, of events leading up to the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. His search for information leads him to the day the world is actually destroyed. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut talks a lot about science and religion. He writes about how religion is based on lies and that science can disprove it. There is a fictional religion in the book, called Bokononism, which everyone follows. Bokononism is introduced through this passage:
‘I do not intend that this book be a tract on behalf of Bokononism. I should like to offer a Bokononist warning about it, however. The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: ‘All of the things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’ My Bokononist warning is this: Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.’ (Cat’s Cradle 5)
Vonnegut is criticizing all religions in this passage. He is saying they might as well start off their scriptures saying that everything they are about to read is a lie. He thinks we should question religions and search for meaning in life ourselves. Klinkowitz says of Vonnegut, “He consistently portrays the masses the ’little people’…as grotesque or despicable, or just stupid, unthinking sheep” (563). Vonnegut considers people who do not think independently to be “stupid, unthinking sheep.” They are people of society who simply do what everyone else is doing. Vonnegut wants people to search for the truths, such as the truth about religion.
Vonnegut does not consider religion to be true because none of it is based on scientific reasoning. He writes, “‘New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.’ Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl” (Cat’s Cradle 41). Vonnegut is showing how religions do not like how we are learning more and more every day. Bokononism is based off of lies, and the more we know, the less credible Bokononism would be. The same applies with our religions. Olderman says, “The universe he pictures is indifferent to man and man spends his time trying to twist that indifference into order and meaning” (505). Vonnegut wants us to take what we know and apply our knowledge to search for the truths, as Olderman says. Vonnegut does not think it is right to just accept whatever society accepts. We need to think independently.
Vonnegut believes that science is the one thing to clarify all questions. Science can discredit or credit all ideas and beliefs. He writes, “’The trouble with the worlds was,’ she continued hesitatingly, ‘that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was’” (Cat’s Cradle 24). This shows how Vonnegut thinks science is the answer to everything. Science would solve many problems if people would just take the time to learn about it. He wants us to question popular beliefs and ideas with science. Schulz writes:
Cat’s Cradle is a novel about the varieties of truth available to man: scientific, religious, political, social, economic, humanistic. Ultimately, in its presentation of the open-ended, unconfirmable dilemma of human knowledge and wisdom, the novel sardonically blurs veracity and faslehood, treating them as interchangeable for all practical human purposes. It refuses to confirm what is reality.” (348)
This shows how there are many different truths in the world, and many of them contradict each other. Vonnegut wants us to search for the real truths; he wants us to find the facts. Without the facts, we will be lost in a jumble of contradictory beliefs and ideas. He wants us to find the truths and set ourselves apart from the rest of the ignorant society.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a satirical author that writes about the follies of men. Specifically, he writes about how people accept whatever society accepts and how people should question popular ideas and beliefs, like religion and war. In The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. urges his readers to question popular beliefs and ideas that are accepted by society. Vonnegut tells us to think independently and search for the truths in the world.
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Olderman, Raymond M. Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties. Yale University Press, 1973.
Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.. Warner Paperback Library, 1972.
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Schulz, Max F. “The Unconfirmed Thesis: Kurt Vonnegut, Black Humor, and Contemporary Art.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 1971: 5-28.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing, 1963.
—. Slaughterhouse-5. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969.
—. The Sirens of Titan. New York: Dell Publishing, 1959.