Research Paper: Kurt Vonnegut: The Forward March of Time

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Kurt Vonnegut: The Forward March of Time and Individual Anxiety

This paper will examine the following works of Kurt Vonnegut: "Tomorrow and Tomorrow," "Harrison Bergeron" and "Who am I this time?" through a historical school of criticism. This is one of the most meaningful schools of criticism to examine Vonnegut's work through because this author had such decisive views and fears about the future and about modernity and technology. Furthermore, so much of Vonnegut's work appears to explore the idea of what happens when people get what they seemingly want only to find out these simplistic desires aren't practical or realistic. Examining this work through a historical lens allows one to more readily view Vonnegut as a product of his time and that perhaps he was reacting to the modernity and convenience of his era, seeing it as something which was attractive only in theory, but not in reality.

The short story "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" by Vonnegut bears its title from one of Shakespeare's most famous soliloquies in one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, Macbeth. This selection is most fitting as the short story is a strong commentary on society's preoccupation with aging and preserving one's youth and the soliloquy is a commentary on the pettiness of human existence and the preoccupation with trifles:

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day-to-day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death" (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

This famed soliloquy offers the sense that human beings spend so much of their existence preoccupied with things which absolutely don't matter. Vonnegut picks up where this speech leaves off, wondering what would society look like if one of their trivial wishes were granted: they didn't have to age anymore. As one scholar observes, this story begins at "…the year is 2158 and the world is far from thriving and advancing. The world is extremely overcrowded; most natural resources have been depleted, people must eat seaweed and sawdust, and many families, including the Schwartz family are forced to shove three or four generations in a small one bedroom apartment" (Strom). The worship of vanity and youth and the fear of ageing have eliminated of privacy: family members live on top of each other in crammed spaces. As Vonnegut describes, the Schwartz family lives in a small apartment with six mattresses and four sleeping bags scattered throughout the small space, with eleven inter-generational couples living there. Some scholars conclude that Vonnegut is attempting to suggest that in the future living conditions and standards will plummet when juxtaposed to what is viewed as normal or acceptable, but this is not accurate. Vonnegut is making commentary on vanity and the misery which will no doubt entail from attempting to avoid the inevitable. "Dying is the most natural occurrence for any living thing. The anti-gerasone drug disrupts this act of pure nature and the cycling of generations, and it is no surprise that the result is chaos and overpopulation. Even today we can see (mostly in the media), perhaps, early versions of an anti-gerasone drug" (Strom). One must not forget that in 1953 when this short story was written, television was a new invention which had just taken the world by storm. With the growing popularity of the television, there was the collective preoccupation with television stars, fashion, beauty and appearance. With the popularity of television also came television advertising, which had commercials for anti-ageing and beauty products. Thus, one can conclude that there was a marked change in society, a greater preoccupation with youth and warding off the ageing process, something that Vonnegut sees as no doubt futile and destructive.

Vonnegut makes television central player in this story and a sense of satire, no doubt reflecting society's mild or moderate obsession with the new technology that television provided in the 1950s. "The Schwartz family, rather than living their own lives fully, are mesmerized about a long running soap opera about a family named the McGarveys" (Farrell, 396).

Vonnegut also explores how a fixation on youth and anti-ageing can also be viewed as something which is not as innocuous as we might think, but which is strongly connected to the darker side of human nature. For example, "While the younger Schwartzes hope for gramps to die soon and leave one of the 11 couples sharing the apartment his private bedroom, Gramps is too wily for them. He not only recognizes his relatives base desires, but he also manipulates them for his own benefit, constantly dangling the promise of his impending death so that his family members will treat him as king" (Farrell, 396). And this is indeed Vonnegut's commentary on the darker side of human nature, demonstrating how if the conditions are correct, one can become desensitized even to death. This is revelatory of the historical period in which the short story was written. During this time, the world had recently become acquainted to the hydrogen bomb, and the mass destruction that it was capable of waging on the human race, the power and the tragedy it was capable of. Given the scope of this bomb, one could argue that human beings had become desensitized to all the destruction it had caused overseas, and perhaps had become desensitized to death even.

"Harrison Bergeron" is a short story which also shares this same anxiety about the future, the future of society, along with a mild condemnation about television. From a historical viewpoint, one can no doubt see that Vonnegut reacts to this "new invention" in his stories with a certain degree of irregularity, demonstrating the dangers of a fixation on television and trying to present a picture of the soullessness of television. In this short story, Vonnegut appears to be expressing a certain degree of anxiety of television's impact on the individual and how they can create disposable emotions, essentially cahing our own humanity. For example, the end of Harrison Bergeron describes how Diana Moon Glampers enters a studio and shoots the emperor and empress with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun; at that point the television stops working (Vonnegut).

"Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George. But George had gone out into the kitchen for a can of beer. George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. 'You been crying' he said to Hazel.

'Yup,' she said.

'What about?' he said.

'I forget,' she said. 'Something real sad on television.'

'What was it?' he said.

'it's all kind of mixed up in my mind,' said Hazel.

'Forget sad things,' said George" (Vonnegut).

One can argue that this final line "forget sad things" is Vonnegut's commentary on the impact of television on the individual. In the 1950s, one must not forget that television was presenting home viewers with the news and the average viewer had to learn how to reconcile processing truly disturbing news stories while being able to turn off the television and resume their lives. In a sense, the 1950s marked a time of desensitizing that we take for granted now: we simply expect this ability among all human beings. However, during Vonnegut's time, this was no doubt a very disturbing way for human beings to adapt and no doubt very disturbing to witness.

One must also not forget that Kurt Vonnegut is also presenting a very strong cautionary tale about the dangers of government control, something which is no doubt a reaction to the developments of his time, a time when World War Two was not too long ago. This story is in many ways a cautionary tale about the dangers of a lack of human freedom. "Vonnegut best demonstrates already-developed themes of freedom, civil rights, the American dream, and media influence as well as opposition between strength and weakness and knowledge and ignorance through exaggerating them into a futuristic dystopia that creates a call to action for modern-day Americans, especially because in the forty-eight years after its publication many of the themes have become more noticeable in modern society" (Wyatt). What Wyatt describes is absolutely true: Harrison Bergeron demonstrates a lack of freedom which ultimately denies our own humanity. One can't help but wonder if the satire that Vonnegut presents here demonstrates how America is slowly moving towards a dystopia with an inherent lack of control and human freedom, apparent in such things like the Patriot Act post-9/11.

The short story "Who am I this time?" is perhaps one of the least disturbing of Vonnegut's short stories, though many of his familiar themes subsist. For instance, Vonnegut portrays people in an increasingly industrialized and mechanized contromperary America as being very robot-like (Farrell, 418). For instance, the way that Helene Shaw is described to the reader makes her seem as though she's taken on some of the attributes of the machines that she works with. "She seemed kind of numb, almost a machine herself, an automatic phone company… [END OF PREVIEW]

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https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/kurt-vonnegut-forward-march-time/9599487.