Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is a contemporary American author whose works have been described by Richard Giannone as "comic masks covering the tragic farce that is our contemporary life" (Draper, 3784). Vonnegut's life has had a number of significant influences on his works. Influences from his personal philosophy, his life and experiences, and his family are evident elements in his works. Among his "comic masks" are three novels: Cat's Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Throughout these novels, elements such as attitude, detail, narrative technique, setting, and theme can be viewed with more understanding when related to certain aspects of his life. These correlations are best examined in terms of each influence.

One of the most significant influences from Vonnegut's life on his personal philosophy has been his participation in World War II. During the war, Vonnegut served in the American army in Europe and was captured by German soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he witnessed the Allied bombing of the city of Dresden, in which more than 135,000 people died due to the resulting fires (Draper, 3785). This experience had a profound impact on Vonnegut. From it, he developed his existential personal philosophy and his ideas about the evils of technology. He states, "I am the enemy of all technological progress that threatens mankind" (Nuwer, 39). The influence of Dresden shows up in each of the novels.

In Cat's Cradle, one element of his experience at Dresden that Vonnegut portrays is his fear of technology. Initially, the intention of the story is for the narrator to write about what the scientists who invented the atomic bomb were doing the day it was dropped on Hiroshima. To this effect, one of the scientists in the story said, "Science has now known sin," to which another replied, "What is sin?" (Vonnegut, Cradle, 21). The focus on technology quickly changes to a material called ice-nine, which has the ability to freeze water at room temperature. This technological breakthrough, by a scientist who worked on developing the atomic bomb, has the ability to destroy the world by freezing all its water. Even though the people with ice-nine are very careful all through the plot, they lose control of it in the end and the world becomes frozen. With ice-nine, Vonnegut thematically demonstrates how relatively simple technology can lay waste to the world, as the Allies did to Dresden (Draper, 3785).

Cat's Cradle is an excellent example of Vonnegut's existentialism, "a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in. . . [an] indifferent universe, [and] regards human existence as unexplainable" (Bookshelf '94). Before the novel even starts, just below the dedication, he declares, "Nothing in this book is true. 'Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy'" (Vonnegut, Cradle). Vonnegut carries this concept all through the story, that the universe is meaningless and each person must exist for oneself. He even goes to the extent of inventing a religion, Bokononism, with which humans attempt to make some sense of everything, while realizing that everything is nonsensical.

Vonnegut's existential philosophy also takes the form of a religion in The Sirens of Titan. The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is established, on the principle that "puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God" (Vonnegut, Sirens, 180). Toward the end of the story, two existential ideas are developed: first that human life is incomprehensible (in this case controlled by aliens from another planet for a trivial purpose), and second that people must make a meaning for life on their own. When one character states, "The worst thing that could possibly happen. . . would be to not be used for anything by anybody," Vonnegut is suggesting that a good meaning for life might simply be to be useful (Vonnegut, Sirens, 310). The theme and plot of meaninglessness and uselessness mirror Vonnegut's experiences in the aftermath of Dresden (Amer. Lit. Bio., 301, 303-304).

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater also exhibits elements of Vonnegut's take on technology and existentialism in plot and theme. The protagonist, millionaire Eliot Rosewater, gives up the life of riches and comfort to live in an impoverished town full of very ordinary, simple people. He discovers that these people