, Research Paper
Sarcasm and Black Humor
Kurt Vonnegut uses sarcasm to portray the humor, foolishness, and futility of real life issues, people events, and expectations. In his books, he writes like a satire, but in reality, that s not what it really is. He has many opinions and questions of mans search for the meaning of life. Objects, events, and people, of real life, are represented in his books and are put into Vonnegut’s context. Characters in his books are put through a lot of adversity and find out they do not have the ability to control or change fate. War and religion are often questioned in Vonnegut s books. All of these things, become victims of Vonnegut s sarcasm and satire.
A unique writing style in most of his books, he writes like a satire to attack a satire and its ideal world with definite answers (Kennard 1). A significant part to Vonnegut s books is the satiric and humorous qualities used to emphasize the serious points of his books. In the books, which are considered science fiction, contain wild black humor, which is uncommon amongst these types of books (Overview 1). His humor targets the futility of warfare, the negative effects of technology, and the potential of man s evil to cause havoc. He laughs and is pessimistic towards government and religion (Introduction 1). Vonnegut is anti-technology, anti-machine, and anti-science and he shows this throughout his books (Overview 1).
There is a concern of genuine human questions throughout his books. These questions often are about war, peace, technology, and human happiness. These questions recur throughout his books and are answered ridiculously (1). He likes to emphasize the comic absurdity of man looking for meaning and order in his life when the character exists in a meaningless and disorderly universe (Introduction 1). Vonnegut directs his satire to his characters. He also directs most of this satire to himself as much as he does to society (Overview 1).
Questions are often asked about the meaning of life in his books to be sarcastic. For example, he asked people, When was it that their art gave them the most satisfaction. When was it framed and exhibited? When it was published or sold? When it was praised by loved ones or an important critic? (Vonnegut Homepage 1). This represents his questioning man when their lives become important. Only a sarcastic man would ask a question like this and be able to hide its real meaning from those who are futile. Another one of Vonnegut s questions that attack man s need for absolutes is, If god created the world, then who created god? (Kennard 2). This is a good example of a satiric question, which is addressed in many of his books. Vonnegut provides funny and unrealistic answers to his question (Overview 7).
Vonnegut likes to target his readers too. He tries to confuse the reader by using the form of a fable against the objectives of a fable. He builds a reader up to their expectations and morals, and lets them down by providing a disillusioned moral or a different I tricked you type answer (Kennard 2). Vonnegut brings the reader into thinking that he has the answer to the problem, and then rips it to shreds with irony (1). He undercuts the reader s expectations for humane, rounded characters. An example of this is in the Foster Portfolio. Mr. Foster, a hard working person likes his mother, inherited a large sum of money and invests it. He never tells his wife or family of the money, so he keeps working his three jobs. It turns out that Foster has secretly become like his father, who was an idle musician.
His third job is playing music like his father who he never wanted to become (Vonnegut Welcome 55-69). Another example of this is in More Stately Mansions. This is about how a lady is obsessed on the way house should look. She continually has suggestions for her neighbors. One would think that her house would be great. That s false, she has no money nor does her husband, but she has her house planned out perfectly, from catalogues and magazines, for when they come across money. One day she becomes sick and goes to the hospital for a month and her husband receives money. He spends the money on the house and makes it just like she wanted it. She comes home and is delighted. A new home magazine comes in that day and Vonnegut makes it seem like the woman will always be improving her house. This is wrong because she never reads the magazine and its content. This tricks the reader (135-137).
You ll find that Vonnegut shows his characters trying to conquer their environment, but then he ll show that the character s actions have little or no impact on his environment (Overview 31). Man must come to realize that harsh realities of meaningless cruelty and death will follow him to the end of the world. Wherever man goes, and whatever he does, failure is eminent because man is failure (2). This is a negative and a sarcastic approach towards his characters, He [rejects] all ethical absolutes. Vonnegut stress the futility of man s search for meaning in a world where everything is a nightmare of meaninglessness with end, where we are all the victims of a series of accidents, trapped in the amber of this moment because this moment simply is (Kennard 1). In all of Vonnegut s books, man finds he cannot change fate. In Where I Live, an encyclopedia salesman goes to a town called Barnstable, and finds this town is like its own country and he cannot change it. This represents man trying to change destiny (Vonnegut Welcome 1-6). Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five discovers he cannot change things past, present, or future. His actions show no purposeful comprehension (Vonnegut 150-184). Vonnegut continually mocks man s search for importance throughout his books.
Vonnegut has many beliefs that religion is based on nothing and this is represented by the character Rumfourd. Rumfourd is using people to build his church, but fate is actually using him making him meaningless. In Sirens of the Titan, he attacks posted health bulletins about someone s health that reveal nothing , except for man showing off his achievements to feel superior and man s belief in image without substance (Kennard 3). He is against violence and makes it look bad in his books. Mother Night is concerned with the way man uses each other and destroys each other for purpose and personal gain. He is showing concept that man can only have absolute truth by blocking thoughts about obvious facts making absolute truth an impossibility. This is shown in Mother Night (Kennard 4). Vonnegut s beliefs are represented in his books. He mocks religion and government to uncover its frailties. These are victims of Vonnegut s sarcasm.
In Vonnegut s first novel, Player Piano, he shows the dire effects on human individuality in a fully mechanized society which technology can make (Tanner 1). In Player Piano, he seems to be against mechanization, which is a satire moral, but by the end of the book, he has dug up that ground. If one would look closely to the solution Vonnegut provides, they would find the answer is too simplistic (Kennard 2). Vonnegut is against technology and shows this through sarcasm. He is against this, but provides no answer to resolve this belief.
Many of Vonnegut’s characters represent people of real life. The characters become victims of his sarcasm and tragedies. Some of the characters go through what he went through. These characters are put into his context making them vulnerable to just about anything. Kilgore Trout, who has many problems, is a recurring character in his works, who turns out to be Vonnegut s father in reality. The main character in Slaughter House-Five, Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut s way of dealing with Dresdon. Billy s imaginary world is Tralfamadre, while Vonnegut s is Slaughter House-Five (Kennard 6). Billy Pilgrim is a young infantry scout who is captured in the Battle of the Bulged and is held in the basement of a slaughterhouse. When Dresdon is being bombed, he goes into an underground meat locker. When they emerge above ground, they are forced to dig up corpses. This is actually the story of Vonnegut s experience in World War Two (Overview 3).
The Hoenikker family, which has poor communication, is similar to the Vonnegut’s family. An elder son who is a scientist, a tall middle daughter, and the youngest son who joins the Delta Upsilon. The narrator is a writer trying to write a book called the Day the World Ended about Hiroshima. This could be his way of dealing with Dresdon (Overview 3). He makes Billy Pilgrim and the Hoenikker family go through tragedy much like Vonnegut s new family. He shows them like they were reality and they become victims of Vonnegut s sarcasm because that s how he deals with reality.
Character often represents opinions. In Player Piano, Finnerty and Lasher represent Vonnegut s opinions on mechanization (Kennord 2). Vonnegut doesn t agree when a person makes another person an object or possession. He illustrates this in Sirens of the Titan with the human character, Malachi Constant, forcibly becomes mechanized unk (1). In Mother Night, the Nazi s treatment of the Jews is represented by an American who is held and tried in Israel for broadcasting anti-scientific speeches for the Nazi s in World War Two. His characters often represent the negativity of certain people and he makes their wrongs become apparent.
Vonnegut s books often represent something of reality. Breakfast of Champions, Blue Monday, Slapstick, and Lonesome No More represent the feelings of despair and loneliness that has resulted from the United States abandoning its traditional culture. Jailbird represents Watergate and the Nixon administration. Galapagos predicts the result of pollution. Hocus-Pocus and What s the Hurry Son? Deal with Vietnam and its time period. All these books are put in Vonnegut sarcastic opinion (Introduction 3). He editorializes as the bad things of real life to put in his view (Roed 3). An example of this is in Jailbird. In the planet Vicuna (Vicuna is an animal of the endangered), the people learn to use time, extracted from the environment, as a fuel and they overindulge themselves and time runs out as the planet denigrates underneath them. This represents our fuel crisis and our destruction that we cause to earth (Reed 2).
A participant in World War Two was Vonnegut. He uses his experience a subject in many of his books. He makes the cruel bombing of Dresdon meaningless to show the purposeless cruelty of man (Kennard 5). He takes World War Two s glory and victory away with sad and sarcastic stories. In Welcome to the Monkey House, there are three good short stories that support this. In D.P., an orphaned Negro boy in a German orphanage finds he does not fit in. One day he saw a man just like him in the woods. He sneaks out of the orphanage and goes to meet the man. The man is an American general and doesn t like the boy calling him dad. He asked the boy to go back, but he wouldn t. They gave him chocolates, a knife, and other stuff, but still the boy would not go. Finally the boy went back after the general said he would come back for him one day to take him to his people (Vonnegut Welcomme 153-155). Vonnegut tries to show the negative effects of war in his books. He never gives glory to war, in fact he tries to take it away. He shows war in a very real way. He doesn t try to promote it like most authors, making him different.
In Vonnegut s books, he targets things and objects by representing them with other objects. He targets soap operas that are satisfying, he targets the business part of college football that has no relation with academics, and he targets the promotion and widespread use of mechanization (Kennard 2). He attacks everyday objects, with sarcasm, that no one would think are harmful or hypocritical. An example of this is in Welcome to the Monkey House. New Dictionary is about his disagreement with the fact that slang is considered bad and improper when the majority of people use slang. He talks about how scholars consider dirty words and words about sex primitive. Scholars say if you look up these words, you re an immature child. Yet, the scholar put these words in their for that purpose. Vonnegut asks why these words are in there, if they don t agree with it (Vonnegut 111-112).
Objects represent certain eras and the people within those areas. Such as in Jailbird, the restaurant and hotel represent the depression (Reed 1). These two are under separate control. The hotel has become derelect and represents (the poor people who are being denied for aid) by the restaurant. The restaurant has become glitterly and is barely effect. The restrauant represents the wealthy people who are capable of helping, but still keep their excess wealth (3).
Evil is represented in Cat s Cradle with a chemical called ice-nine. This chemical is passed from generation to the next within the Hoenikker family. This is much like evil being passed down from generation to the next. This evil can spread easily and will expand uncontrollably, much like the ice nine which spread through the water and froze the oceans and eventually the earth. Evil and cruelty are represented by two objects which destroy. Ice nine, which freezes over earth and killed the majority of people on earth, and the restaurant which never helped the hotel which was in end (Vonnegut Cat s 150-180).
Vonnegut uses simple, childhood toys to shows the basis of religion. A cat s cradle is meaningless, has no structure, and is confusing. Religion and philosophy are represented by this because this is what he feels man builds their existence on (Kennard 1). The X s in the cradle become an illusionary metaphor for the objectives of science, philosophy, and religion. These become the butts of Vonnegut s dark satire (Parker 404). The meaning of a cat s cradle makes no sense and this is another reason why Vonnegut uses it. There is no cat and the cradle is very confusing and he relates this to the church. He believes there is no god in religion and the church. He believes there is no god in religion and the church is just filled with stupid rules and confusion (Tanner 3). This toy represents the sarcastic, negativity of religion according to him. He uses this cradle in a silly way in Cat s Cradle. Surely one would not want to base reality on this and yet, some people do (103). The tyranny of the Christian faith destroys human lives, according to Vonnegut, which is also represented by the absolutes in Mother Night. These absolutes of man do the same as religion and is furthered in Mother Night with the character Stalin. Stalin loves a play that s main subject is the holy grail, yet he is still destroying and killing many people for mechanization. This would give Stalin personal gain at the costs of many others.
Vonnegut is trying to correct the way we look at the world, much like Billy was prescribing glasses for those with bad vision (Kennard 4). He shows us reality in a different way than most other people, he shows it truthfully. He has a unique sarcastic way of showing reality with objects, characters, and events. He shows his opinions on religion, science, and government with sarcasm. Vonnegut s characters go through what he has gone through. He tries to show man that we can be each other s saviors instead of each other slavemasters (6). He does this by showing the negatives of his opposing side in his books, with sarcasm and humor.