Vonnegut's Melancholy

By Hume, Kathryn | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Vonnegut's Melancholy


Hume, Kathryn, Philological Quarterly


Vonnegut has just published what he says will be his final novel. This is an appropriate time, therefore, to try to come to terms with the totality of his output. Characterizing the array of books he has produced over the last 45 years is no easy task. Although a few of his novels can loosely be called science fiction, one would not read him for the pleasures of that genre. Slaughterhouse-Five made him famous as an anti-war novelist, but war is not his only or even his chief concern. He is a humorist, but if you want a cheery laugh, you can do better elsewhere. His attitude toward most social structures is satiric. He is hostile to most kinds of institutional power, and he sympathizes with the poor--sixties characteristics still present in his most recent novel. He has certainly been successful--his own Absolut Vodka ad, high fees for public speaking--yet the popularity of his fiction comes neither from providing emotional candy of romance or adventure nor from pleasuring the professoriat.

What is the nature of Kurt Vonnegut's enterprise? For some novelists, the enterprise is patent. Trollope's is to present institutional politics, usually within the framework of a nominal love story. Faulkner portrays a cross-section of society in a small locale as the inhabitants live out the residual effects of the War between the States. Silko records native ways in the modern world, and gives body to old myths in hopes of aiding the demise of non-tribal cultures. Mailer and Pynchon target the interactions between people and power, while Updike examines the erosion of Protestant faith as it comes up against secularism and modern sexual mores.

When we turn to Vonnegut, we see that he comes across as a novelist of ideas (rather than of action or character),(1) and his enterprise is to tackle problems--usually social problems, but sometimes artistic and personal. In novels of ideas by such writers as Thomas Mann, Doris Lessing, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, John Barth, and Salman Rushdie, we find the initial problem or question teased out, analyzed, explored, and tested. In The Sentimental Agents, Lessing defamiliarizes political rhetoric. Rushdie's novels ring many variations on the dictator looming over the lowly individual, who tries to find some standpoint from which political action is possible. In novels after The Sotweed Factor, Barth tries to generate stories that might help free him from his excruciatingly self-conscious knowledge of the hero monomyth. Vonnegut overtly explores an idea in Breakfast of Champions when he considers the implications of treating humans as machines. Usually, though, Vonnegut does not work the idea through very elaborately. His presuppositions about people and about the nature of reality create impasses, preventing him from considering solutions that might seem logical to someone not sharing those presuppositions. This, I shall argue, is the unseen pattern that characterizes Vonnegut's fiction. Intellectual quest is derailed by presupposition; the forward motion dissipates into stasis, and what supplants it is melancholy emotion.(2)`

To identify and distinguish between what Vonnegut tries to achieve and what he actually achieves, one must analyze the recurrent elements that characterize the unusual reading experience that his fiction offers. I shall outline his presuppositions, the problems he tackles, and the dynamics that transform intellectual endeavor into emotions. Then we can examine the core elements in his vision, including the relationship he establishes with the reader. Along the way, I shall try to locate his fiction in relation to that of other contemporary writers. What he produces is so much sui generis that critics do not connect him to other figures of this period, yet without such comparisons (whether to Vonnegut's advantage or disadvantage), one cannot truly understand what he has been doing so long and so successfully for specific audiences.

Let us start with Vonnegut's presuppositions. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Vonnegut's Melancholy
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.