Kurt Vonnegut

June 12, 2010
By Peter Berquist BRONZE, Shoreline, Washington
Peter Berquist BRONZE, Shoreline, Washington
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

With the release of his first short story in September of 1950, Kurt Vonnegut introduced the world to the world to a style of writing that was completely unique and would go on to make a sizable impact upon the landscape of modern literature. Vonnegut's early writing was unique and innovative, captivating audiences with a new-age blend of satire, dark humor, and science fiction. In his first best-selling novel, the Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut successfully ridicules the nuclear arms race the world was then (1963) in the midst of. He does so through the lens of a man name Jonah who rises to power within an isolated society on an island in the Pacific Ocean. The story features a substance called ice-nine which serves as a direct symbol for the nuclear weapons being developed during the time Vonnegut wrote the novel. Six years after the publishing of the Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut published the story of a time-traveling World War II soldier, Slaughterhouse Five. Considered by many literary experts to be Vonnegut's magnum opus, the novel features a more refined version of the satirical style featured in Cat's Cradle. While Vonnegut's style in writing Slaughterhouse Five was nowhere near as original as that of the Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut seems to have honed his craft and learned how to convey his opinions on the subject matter more effectively. The satire is much sharper in this novel, and the tone is far different from past novels. In subsequent Vonnegut works, a style most similar to that of Slaughterhouse five is used. This style characterized Vonnegut and kept his books increasingly popular, even in death.

Vonnegut's mastery of diction allowed him to craftily developed characters in a manner that made them, and the story they were a part of, seem real. As a narrator in Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut writes articulately, but not esoterically. He uses the vocabulary of an educated man, using polysyllabic words, but speaks in a manner that could be easily be understood by the common individual. As the various character's in the novel, Vonnegut cleverly shifts his level of diction to help construct the character on a deeper level. The more educated characters speak in a manner fitting of someone who has been educated in such a manner (insert quote) , while the characters of lesser intelligence and knowledge speak in a way fitting their intelligence (insert quote). Individuals who are nice speak kindly (insert quote), while the rougher, meaner characters use words with harsh, bitter connotations ("Hell no, you think money grows on trees?" -Kilgore Trout, page 212).

In Vonnegut's earlier work The Cat's Cradle, you see a narrator who uses words with much stronger connotation. Unlike the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator of Cat's Cradle, John, is immersed in the story he is telling. As a result of this, the Cat's Cradle narrator has strong opinions on the subject matter and uses strong language to express such opinions (insert quote). With the narrator being an aspiring writer, Vonnegut uses formal wording and a relatively sophisticated vocabulary. When voicing the other characters of The Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut uses techniques in diction similar to those seen in Slaughterhouse Five. Word choice varies drastically from character to character, and, with this variety, the story stays exciting and genuine. Differences in diction allow the reader to better understand the dynamic of the various relationships between characters, the capabilities of each character, and how each character reacts to what is occurring in the story. Vonnegut uses this change in diction from character to character in the novels succeeding The Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five as well, and this tactic in character development soon became a defining characteristic of his work.

Much of Kurt Vonnegut's work, and specifically The Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, feature subject material that is of a somewhat dark nature. Both books feature events and circumstances that are normally associated with solemn, desolate tones. Being the satirist he was, Vonnegut takes an unorthodox approach to such subjects my writing in a sarcastic, almost light-hearted, manner. In Slaughterhouse Five, such a tone is incredibly apparent. Most notably, every death in the story is met with the refrain, "and so it goes." Upon this refrain being written, the story begins to progress once more and does not dwell upon the emotional impact of the death at all (insert quote). Throughout the book, characters speak crudely and without care about topics such as death, further accentuating the overriding tone of the book (insert quote). Vonnegut's constant employing of this tone can be directly linked to the satirical nature of the book. By speaking about death in such a way, Vonnegut is mocking the pro-War Americans who, in his estimation, appear to have been desensitized to the deaths of all the soldiers in combat, and the consequent toll it takes on those impacted by such deaths.

In the Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut takes a similar route with regards to tone. Like Slaughterhouse Five, this book is also a satire of war and the events associated with it, specifically the arms race which many countries were engaged in at the time. John's, the narrator, tone is comparably, to the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five, light but slightly more bitter. Whereas Slaughterhouse Five features a narrator speaking lightly about dark themes, the Cat's Cradle has a narrator who, while describing the events in an almost jocular manner, also inserts a certain degree of animosity through the expression of his opinions (quote). In large part, the narrator, and Vonnegut indirectly, come off has being frustrated with society and exceptionally cynical. In many ways, Vonnegut's use of a tone can be seen as a means of creating a certain distance between the reader and the characters of the story.

By taking this satiric approach to his work, Vonnegut is able to write compelling social commentaries on these dark issues. The light-tone Vonnegut employs takes the emotions out of things that are, largely, emotional, like death, and, thus, allows the reader to draw a conclusion about the subject based on intellect, and not emotion. Furthermore, Vonnegut uses the elements of science fiction to further remove emotion from the story. By creating stories which take place in societies, far removed and unknown to us, Vonnegut creates a world which the reader cannot connect to. They have no empathy for the characters, as they cannot relate to them in the slightest way. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim's, the story's central character, tendency to travel through time creates a certain nebulousness around the character which makes it harder for the reader to connect with him. Such a removal of emotion and personal connection, however, directly contradicts Vonnegut's development of realistic characters through the use of diction (Discussed In Paragraph 2). As a result of such a contradiction, Vonnegut must over emphasize the satiric and science fiction elements of the story in order to insure that the reader evaluates the points he makes about humanity through an objective, emotionless, lens (Insert Quote?).

Despite excessive praise, the style of Kurt Vonnegut is clearly not perfect and is subject to fairly extensive criticism. In some instances, especially in Slaughterhouse Five, the syntax deteriorates and things integral to the plot are left unnecessarily vague (Insert Quote). While this could be an oversight by Vonnegut, Vonnegut's supporters argue that he realized how vague the descriptions were and made them vague intentionally, to create an effect of confusion. Another criticism of the style of Vonnegut has been that his book's themes are largely unoriginal from one another. After Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut's novels focus primarily on the nature of war, and specifically the brutality of war. However, such a focus seems apt given Vonnegut's life and the various events within it (Vonnegut was captured and held as a POW, during World War II. He witnessed the bombing of Dresden, and provides an account of it in Slaughterhouse Five that is, mostly, true.) Furthermore, Vonnegut has also written extensively about the corruption present in society, and has also written several pieces defending his humanist views on a broad level; not specifically with regards to war.

Throughout his writing career, Kurt Vonnegut was able to master a unique brand of writing that appealed to audiences of many demographics. Not only this, but he was able to write in a manner which allowed him to effectively and concisely comment on the world around him. His uncanny skill of varying character's diction and sardonic tone, resulted in pieces of writing which were both entertaining and informative; humorous and startling; and dark and warm. While he may have lacked the variety in style he once had, Vonnegut finished off his career having polished his unique type of writing to the point where he could express any message he wanted to convey.

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