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Two Birds with One Stone

In: English and Literature

Submitted By elysedelaney
Words 1355
Pages 6
Elyse DeLaney
Professor Kate Kelly
Religious Studies
October 28, 2012

Two Birds with One Stone: An Essay of War and Compassion in Three Vonnegut Novels

It is only the dead who have seen the end of war.
-Plato

Vonnegut prides himself on writing novels with science fiction elements and three of his novels, Player Piano (PP), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (GB), and Hocus Pocus (HP) are prime examples of war and compassion. Vonnegut’s critique of war reveals that he considers compassion to be the most sacred aspect of human life. In Player Piano, the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus (PP 23) is forced to choose between the successes of his company or become the leader of a rebellion against the machine society. People are slowly, but surely, being replaced by machines and artificial “workers,” such as automated tellers at banks and self-checkouts at groceries. Vonnegut uses this movement of mechanization in the 1950’s and responds to the dehumanization in this novel. Machines and computers have eliminated the need for industrial laborers after the Second Industrial Revolution and society is then split into two unequal classes: manager and engineers of the machines and the rest of the population that live without happiness or dignity. The two unequal classes is just one example of war in Player Piano. The two populations live in segregation, with the north side of the river saved for the upper class and the south side of the river, or Homestead, are where everyone else resides (PP 1). Although the people of Homestead are taken care of by the factories and machines running the town of Illium, the people feel discontented with their lives. The people of Homestead feel discontented with their lives since they are forced to do simple jobs assigned by the machines that give them no feeling of accomplishment of fulfillment. This discontent and dissatisfaction are what cause a revolution. Capitalism is another example of war in this novel because every character, whether they be a main character or a citizen of Homestead, fight between themselves in society to reach to the top. Because the two populations are split between noticeable characteristics, rich and poor, the south side citizens will do whatever it takes to be a part of the north side. For example, Vonnegut writes “without regard for the changes in human life patterns that may result, new machines, new forms of organization, new ways of increasing efficiency, are constantly being introduced” (PP 301-302). Vonnegut uses this paragraph as a way to introduce a new idea that if able, machines and new organization will be the downfall of society, thus forcing war upon Homestead. “Replacement is not necessarily bad, but to do it without regard for the wishes of men is lawlessness” (PP 300). Compassion is a key element in Player Piano when Paul recognizes the inhumane standards of society. For example, he is kidnapped by the rebels “to symbolize their struggle” (PP 234) and is thrown into a situation where he is forced to obey the revolutionaries. At this point in the novel, Paul decides to become a rebel leader for he is concerned for the human race and what will become of society if the machines completely take over Illium. Paul simply wants what is best for the human race and uses his compassion to take in the decisions imposed on him by his peers. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater tells us that we do not need to accept the world as it is, that we can find our own, individual answers to everything and, if not change the world, then at least help it. The main character, Eliot Rosewater, the president of the Rosewater Foundation, succeeds in this. Eliot suffers not from insanity, but rather from his big heart and the love he has for all people. Vonnegut satirized the rich by exaggerating prominent features to describe Senator Rosewater as a snob who seems to only care about his family name and public image. This characteristic brings out with war within the family between the senator and Eliot. Senator Rosewater has no pity for the poor people in his heart, “I have spent my life demanding that people blame themselves for their misfortunes” (GB 62). The most obvious flaw of Eliot’s father is how he is so worried of how others perceive him. When Eliot decides to open the Rosewater Foundation to give his money to charity and people in need, his father allows him to do, as he wants. However, when the Rosewater lawyer, Norman Mushari, begins trying to prove that Eliot is insane and give the money to Fred Rosewater, a distant relative in Rhode Island, Senator Rosewater attempts to prove him wrong. When Senator Rosewater travels to Rosewater, Indiana where Eliot is living he is very worried what he sees. Eliot has become an alcoholic and given away most, if not all, of the Rosewater money. Senator Rosewater only cares about Eliot when the family name is endangered, thus being the biggest aspect of war between father and son in GB. Another terrible trait of the Senator’s personality is his cruelty towards his son. He disapproves of “that drunk gypsy I call son…Every time I’m forced to look at him I think to myself, ‘What a staging area for a typhoid epidemic!’ Don’t try to spare my feelings, [Sylvia]. My son doesn’t deserve a decent woman. He deserves what he’s got, the sniveling camaraderie of whores, malingerers, pimps, and thieves” (GB 53). There is a line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater that Vonnegut uses to describe compassion towards infants and towards the human race. “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (GB 129). At this point in the novel, Eliot is speaking at his neighbor’s twin’s baptism. He introduces the babies into the world, being very gentle and quiet when speaking. “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (GB 129). This is an odd speech to share with infants who cannot comprehend the meaning of it, but it is playful, sweet, and compassionate. By narrowing down all his advice for the future down to a few simple words, Eliot emphasizes what is most important in life: the way that you treat others. The main themes of Hocus Pocus include class, race, war, crime, suicide, and globalization. Eugene Debs Hartke is a Vietnam War veteran, thus introducing the conflict of war in Vonnegut’s third novel. Eugene discusses his hate for his personal war, saying that it was a waste of time and he had no idea why there was a war in the first place. Compassion is brought up when Eugene talks about his realization in his life: he has killed the same number of people that he has slept with. Yes, the fact that he has killed people to begin with shows no compassion, but when he realizes that he committed such an act, he is sorry for what he has done. It is an act of life and death; for every person he would kill, he would sleep with a woman. He is completing the circle of life. Each of these three Vonnegut novels has displayed characteristics of war and compassion towards events and characters within each plotline. Vonnegut breaks the realm of science fiction by incorporating these two extremely opposite elements together to create one powerful plot within the three individual novels. Player Piano, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Hocus Pocus, although have elements of war between man and machine, father and son, and a war within one self, they have triumphed with compassion for others.

Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or, Pearls before Swine. New York: Delacorte, 1965. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Hocus Pocus. New York: Putnam's, 1990. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Player Piano. New York: Delacorte, 1952. Print.

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