The year 1968 saw the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Welcome to the Monkey House” and a world well within the clutches of the Cold War. Vonnegut’s malthusian construction found a public preoccupied with the prospect of nuclear annihilation — a far cry from an Earth struggling under the pressure of 17 billion human beings. Keeping with the dystopian genre, Vonnegut’s World Government cages the nature of man by appropriating scientific advancements. Yet, Vonnegut chooses to pair this motif with the overabundance of morality compared to a more classic, Frankenstein-esque vision of unchecked progress. Billy the Poet, the story’s outlaw, appears to gallivant through a world navigating a complex morality for a common good. The society fails to reach a consensus on how to truly marry pragmatism and ethics, therefore stalling innovation and passion, in its drive to ensure the survival of humanity. Vonnegut alludes to his own world and constructs his piece through an absurdist lens, by juxtaposing diction and a satirical tone, to spur his readers to examine the role moral relativism plays in their own national identity.
Vonnegut intertwines the aspects of an irreligious communist system with Christian morality and presents this world to a reader who inextricably links the actions of their leaders with the righteousness of their religion. Under a legacy of Kennedys and J. Edgars, the story’s World Government incorporates communist ideology and the suppression of sexual passion into the fabric of American culture. After a Christian scientist’s encounter with copulating monkeys on Easter drives him to create a drug which numbs sexual pleasure, the World Government requires humans ingest the pills to prevent repopulation as well as a societal collapse from the use of “sex for nothing but pleasure” (Vonnegut 34). Like today, the contemporary evangelical Christian movement in the United States scorned sexual liberation while concurrently espousing their patriotic, almost jingoistic, pride in the American democratic system. Vonnegut’s central character, Nancy, works at a Suicide Parlor which epitomizes the standardization and nationalization of property. The parlor’s ubiquitous purple roof and six-foot hostesses represent a placelessness transcending mere capitalism. State-run media endlessly placates laborers, replaced by automation, with propaganda promoting the values of freedom — a freedom many of Vonnegut’s readers personally sacrificed to secure. Yet, every citizen is merely free to “mope around their home” (Vonnegut 34) waiting for the day when some sexualized-virgin coaxes them into suicide. The society, as described by Vonnegut, represents a foil to the land of free and the home of the brave and alludes both to the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Vonnegut’s readers would happily take up arms to liberate the people of this society, but war and violence produce unintended and immoral consequences.
Evolving from an existential school of thought, Vonnegut turned to absurdism to capture the essence of his time. To a contemporary audience, Billy’s rape of Nancy, even unwritten, remains vulgar and visceral. Can the introduction to natural, sexual pleasure condone an act which leaves Nancy with “silent tears of humiliation” (Vonnegut 47)? Vonnegut downplays the act by describing the occurrence as having “clinical precision” (Vonnegut 47) and resulting in Nancy’s “deflowering” (Vonnegut 47), both euphemistic terms. Adding to the cognitive dissonance, Billy regrets the violence of the act and convinces Nancy he acted out of love. The pleasures of capitalism and democracy may, in fact, not defend a government’s killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians around the world. Like Vonnegut, governments employ euphemist terms (e.g. collateral damage) when describing their actions to coat them in acceptable, dehumanized terms. Without Vonnegut’s absurdist lens, a reader would not find themselves questioning the morality of Nancy’s rape. On one hand rape is abominable in terms of Christian morality, much like the death of civilians in war, but on the other hand, Billy frees Nancy from the oppression of a communist state. Months after the story’s publication, the United States began a bombing campaign against the Viet Cong in Cambodia, destabilizing the country to the brink of genocide. Vonnegut prompts his readers to draw these parallels and question if the actions of United States in the fight against communism were inherently for a moral cause of freedom or stemmed from a sense of national superiority.
Vonnegut effectively establishes his absurdist atmosphere by creating a satirical tone through the integration of conflicting visual imagery. Billy performs the act of rape in a former Kennedy boat “sunk up to its water line in blue cement,” (Vonnegut 45). The only place resembling the pleasurable past creates a comedic visual image — a comment on the artificial construction and aggrandizement of national history. Vonnegut uses this imagery to satirize the elevation of the state to a position of moral absolutism, where any action taken by the state reinforces the common good. A visual contrast between an Easter family and copulating monkeys foreshadows an attempt to not only “bring morality into the monkey house,” (Vonnegut 36) but also to a human nature composed of the same sexual inclinations. Through visual confrontation, Vonnegut shapes a satirical tone centered around the misperceptions his readers and characters create for themselves. These functional falsehoods act to place society on the moral high-ground and allow the spread of ideologies through any means necessary. Comparable to the United States denying the shortfall of democracy (e.g. segregation), this motif permeates Vonnegut’s works. The familiar, even honeymoon-like, imagery presented as the backdrop for Nancy’s rape continues to remind the reader Billy believed the rape of Nancy was not only necessary but selfless. Vonnegut aims his satirical tone squarely at those within the United States who would say the same of sending young men to their deaths.
In conjunction with visual imagery, Vonnegut’s juxtaposing diction creates the satirical tone used to convey his disillusionment with war. Nancy opened a poem from Billy “splendid with anger and disgust,” (Vonnegut 34) (a verb at odds with its adjectives) assigning Nancy a righteousness she will later lose when admitting the pointlessness of resistance. Vonnegut continues to examine moral relativism through the evolution of his character’s perspectives. Billy compares his night with Nancy, and eight others holding her down, to a “wedding night” (Vonnegut 50). Nancy, with her new perspective, discovers pleasurable sex and limited reproduction can coexist; her “ideal Grace” (Vonnegut 50) transforms into a new sense of divinity. Her new morality places “innocent pleasure” (Vonnegut 49) before the idea of “bombed out sex madness” (Vonnegut 33). By elevating Nancy to godlike status in description and name (i.e. Juno), Vonnegut further provides readers an avenue to vindicate the means of her transformation — a disconcerting thought. After his time fighting in Europe, Vonnegut returned a pacifist and expresses his distaste for the moral justification of war by analogizing it with rape through stark, contrasted diction. Vonnegut argues a sense of moral superiority, not an inherent common good, is the real mechanism being used to rationalize violence, a fact supporters cannot ignore.
Contemporary allusions form the backbone of Vonnegut’s satirical tone because they allow readers to personify Billy’s world in their own lives. Readers today cannot imagine a time when “Champagne was as illegal as heroin” (Vonnegut 46), but Vonnegut’s audience heard stories of prohibition from primary sources. Prohibition, disguised as a tactic of national security, resulted from a moral crusade. This example calls to mind parallels within the story and society: Nation’s moral objection to sex and America’s moral objection to communism as well as Billy’s objection to the termination of free will. Nation’s namesake, J. Edgar Hoover, utilized the powers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to launch a campaign against pornography intertwining national identity and morality. Here, Vonnegut satirizes the justification of government actions based on moral grounds. Morally correct according to who, Vonnegut asks? Only a handful of issues claiming to strengthen the common good can obtain a true consensus. Vonnegut’s inclusion of communist motifs, which Billy fights against using rape, allude to the United States’ involvement in the Cold War. Based on national identity, American culture divinized freedom and demanded the United States spread this gift, conversely, communism believed its perfect system must also be shared. Each attacked the other based on a sense of moral superiority. In the story, Billy claims moral authority by providing freedom and returning Nancy to her natural state, while the World Government claims to be saving humanity from over population and a disastrous world of debauchery. By giving readers a personal connection to Nancy, Vonnegut provides readers with a context to examine the often large and far removed actions of their governments. Yet, neither could claim moral absolutism; Vonnegut pushes his readers to defend their own support of violence through the eyes and perspective of the other.
Ultimately, Vonnegut leaves readers unsettled both from the absurdity of his world but also from its revelations on the morality of their national loyalty — an unquestionable tenant of American life for a generation fresh with the memory of McCarthyism. Vonnegut leaves his readers to justify the infliction of violence on a population on the edge of liberation and freedom. By contrasting visual imagery, diction, and allusion, Vonnegut builds the satirical tone necessary to create and accompany his absurdist lens and effectively produce real world parallels. For a reader to believe the United States had morality on their side in the fight against communism, a reader must also support Billy’s rape of Nancy, an unthinkable task. Do the ends justify the means? A reader must answer this question to, as Vonnegut desires, shine a critical light on the intersection of national loyalty and moral belief. If a people do not allow their government to defend its actions based a sense of morality (ultimately relative), a government would likely lose popular support for its violent campaigns overseas. Vonnegut demonstrates his belief that such a world would be a vast improvement upon his own. Conversely, Billy dislikes the violence of rape but finds it a necessary evil in his fight for freedom. Either way, Vonnegut’s absurdism forces his readers to face the immoral actions taken to spread their national tenants, tenants which do not necessarily represent the common good.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Welcome to the Monkey House”. Welcome to the Monkey House. N.p.: Bt Bound, 2006. 30-50 Print.