Carnivalesque Inversion in the Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut

by Emma Saggers (Author)
Monographs X, 206 Pages


In the politically fluid landscape of modern America, Kurt Vonnegut offers his readers a mirror of cultural self-reflection. Through his personal experiences, he encourages his readers to acknowledge their perceptions of society and ideology as illusionary, allowing them the freedom to recreate a better world. Vonnegut’s novels are as relevant today as they were in post-war America, a call for people to allow America to become a beacon of humanity, the role it was always meant to fulfill. This book focuses on Kurt Vonnegut’s novels Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five, exploring the themes of technology, religion, and war through the literary theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. It concentrates on Bakhtin’s carnivalesque inversion from Rabelais and His World and his theoretical perspectives on the text as a site of struggle from The Dialogic Imagination.

“Emma Saggers’ far-reaching application of Bakhtin’s theories of the Carnivalesque to the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut is an astute realisation of the possibilities of both. Using the theory as an illuminating lens while keeping the fiction front and centre, Vonnegut’s work is given the kind of sophisticated, incisive attention it deserves but does not always get. Now more than ever, we need the insights and deep humanity of Vonnegut, and Emma Saggers’ study is an ideal critical accompaniment to reading and rereading this much-loved but still under-appreciated American writer.”—Owen Robinson, Senior Lecturer, Department of Literature Film and Theatre Studies, University of Essex, United Kingdom

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 Technology: Player Piano
  • 2 Religion: Cat’s Cradle
  • 3 War: Slaughterhouse-Five
  • 4 Extrapolation
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Kurt Vonnegut, excerpts from A Man Without a Country. Copyright © 2010 by Kurt Vonnegut. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Seven Stories Press, sevenstories.com.

© Kurt Vonnegut, 2006, A Man Without a Country, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

From Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, 1984, Bloomington, Indiana USA. With Permission of The MIT Press.

From THE DIALOGIC IMAGINATION: FOUR ESSAYS by M.M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Copyright (c) 1981. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.

Excerpt(s) from PALM SUNDAY: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL COLLAGE by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1981 by Kurt Vonnegut. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

From PALM SUNDAY by Kurt Vonnegut. Copyright © 1981 by the Ramjac Corporation, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

←ix | x→

From Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut published by Vintage Classics. Copyright © The Ramjac Corporation 1981. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Limited.

Excerpt(s) from PLAYER PIANO by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1952, 1980 by Kurt Vonnegut. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpt(s) from PLAYER PIANO: A NOVEL by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1952, 1980 by Kurt Vonnegut. Used by permission of The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

From PLAYER PIANO by Kurt Vonnegut. Copyright © 1952, 1980 by Kurt Vonnegut, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Excerpt(s) from CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1963 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpt(s) from CAT’S CRADLE: A NOVEL by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1963 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

From CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut. Copyright © 1963 and copyright renewal © 1991 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Excerpt(s) from SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE: A NOVEL by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1968, 1969 and copyright renewed © 1996, 1997 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpt(s) from SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE: A NOVEL by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1968, 1969 and copyright renewed © 1996, 1997 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

From Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut published by Vintage Classics. Copyright © Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1969. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Limited.

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As our contemporary generation navigates a changing world, we face a host of renewed challenges as climate change, the pandemic, and continued conflict around the globe cause humanitarian adversity and hardships. The future for humanity can feel uncertain, but what we can be sure of is that there is an ever-growing need for humanity to adapt and change. As the need grows to modify and reshape our human social structures, so too does the gulf widen between people who cannot find common ground on how to successfully meet the challenges. With continued advances in technology, our generation can communicate with each other like no other, but that does not always seem to make it easier to find shared human collaboration. The future does not have to be all bleak and unaccommodating so long as we can overcome our differences and meet the problems as a united and collective human front. To understand and learn how past human generations dealt with their collective challenges, we can look to writers such as Kurt Vonnegut who engaged his personal experiences of global conflict and social change within his writing. He was a witness to history and that gave him a unique perspective of how human beings can behave at their most challenged and vulnerable, not always acting in their own best interests. His aim was to teach us the way to a better and kinder future, inclusive for all human ←1 | 2→individuals. Vonnegut was concerned about his contemporary America and how it could evolve as a nation in the future. He believed that America could be the guiding force for good and lead the world against the oncoming challenges he knew future humanity would face. Contemporary Modern America can look to Kurt Vonnegut for answers on how best to navigate their changing world, avoiding the mistakes of the past.

With a career that spanned over half a century, Kurt Vonnegut was a writer who observed some of the most important fundamental changes in human history. He was the product of the twentieth century, an era that saw a social, political, and religious change at an accelerated speed. He was immersed in a world struggling with ideological tensions and rapid scientific and technological advancements. The fundamental beliefs of religion and the hierarchy of social structures that had previously been accepted as the norm were now being challenged. The Suffragette Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War are some of those significant movements and events that Vonnegut’s life would bear witness to. Born in the roaring twenties, in 1922, he was born into a world coming to terms with The Great War, the war having only ended four years earlier in November 1918, a war so terrible and destructive to human life that it was often referred to as “the war to end all wars,” a phrase borrowed and adapted from the author H.G. Wells.1 Unfortunately, this was not destined to be true and just twenty-one years later, in September 1939, the Second World War would begin. Allied forces, including Britain, France, and Russia, fought a total war against the Axis, including Germany, Italy, and Japan. The United States was to join the war later, at the end of 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was in January 1943 that Vonnegut decided to drop out of Cornell University to enlist in the United States Army. He was to be an Army private in the fight against a Nazi-occupied Europe and to become a part of world history in the fight against fascism. He later commented that it was, “‘clearly a war that had to be fought and there are very few of those in history. It was worth fighting.’”2 What he encountered in that war would influence him and his writing for the rest of his life.

Vonnegut became a writer preoccupied with engaging the reader in the cultural, political, and social world around them. His writing has serious intentions ←2 | 3→to educate the reader on the importance of individual human beings. Vonnegut valued freedom of speech and the ability to speak the truth with sincerity. It was the sincerity of Vonnegut’s writing style that enabled him to critique the contemporary world that he witnessed in flux following the war, and at the beginning of his professional writing career, and it is this sincerity that empowered him to read the changes that he continued to bear witness to until his death in 2007. To Vonnegut, it was important to reflect the world as he saw it and from a humanist perspective, this meant that the reality of his interpretation was often painful. The only way for Vonnegut to write a sincere book was to be truthful in reflecting on what he saw wrong in the world: “Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller … But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth.”3 Vonnegut understood that “If you write an insincere book, the reader will see right through you.”4

Vonnegut’s aim was never to offer his readers a strict alternative to the defects he found in modern society, but rather to draw attention to the problems he found so the reader was made aware of them. His personal history was turbulent, and his experiences during the Second World War, particularly his survival of the Dresden firebombing as a prisoner of war in 1945, impacted his writing in considerable ways. Vonnegut felt marginalized with the label of a Science Fiction writer and this was a great exasperation to him: “I wondered in what way I’d offended that I would not get credit for being a serious writer.”5 There can be no denying that his fiction contains elements traditionally associated with the Science Fiction genre, a genre that throughout much of his life could be argued to have been stigmatized as a form of writing not to be taken seriously. If the reader considers some of his life experiences, such as his knowledge of science from beginning a biochemistry degree at Cornell University, his experiences of war, his brother’s scientific work to develop weather modification, as well as the premature deaths of close relatives, including one to a freak train accident, it can be no wonder to the reader that his fiction should contain fantastical elements of science and technology. He was on a quest to understand the absurd nature of human experience through the fantastic reality of everyday life. As Peter Reed discusses: “His fiction struggles to cope with a world of tragi-comic disparities, a universe that defies causality, whose absurdity lends the fantastic ←3 | 4→equal plausibility with the mundane.”6 Vonnegut was exposed to the worst and the most extraordinary events life has to offer, whilst living through the fastest acceleration of scientific and technological advancement in the history of humanity. Much of what he encountered in his earlier life sounds fantastical and feels like it should be in a work of fiction. To Vonnegut, fiction and the real world are intertwined, the elements of Science Fiction happen every day, we just need to look at the changes in technology we have witnessed in our own lifetimes. Science and technology are at the core of human existence, so why would we leave them out of serious fiction?

Much of scientific exploration and experimentation begins with the seemingly fantastical. Men landing on the moon seemed unattainable before 1969, and today we see rockets propelling astronauts to the International Space Station that have the capability to land back on earth to be used for the next mission, something that would have seemed unimaginable in the past. Vonnegut’s experiences with science and technology, particularly during the Second World War, convinced him that society does not always consider what is best for humanity’s future. He witnessed the devastating consequences science and technology can have on human life, and he lived with the psychological consequences. Science and technology have the power for good, to enhance human existence, or the capability to destroy it. Vonnegut’s experiences seemed to suggest that the latter was on the cusp of inevitability, the very thing he would spend his writing career petitioning people to understand and avert.

Vonnegut’s writing is fantastical; it considers the extraordinary with sincerity, as though the events described are the everyday mundane. It does not matter to Vonnegut that we do not encounter aliens daily, or that humanity, as far as we can tell, does not hop and skip through time on a regular basis. He is more concerned with the possibility that advancements in society, often considered progressive, are not always for the betterment of humanity, and that reality is not always the “truth” we might have been told. What he witnessed in our contemporary world did not tally comfortably with the human conscience. He believed in the good of humanity and that by working together humanity can achieve wonderful advancements for future generations. He, therefore, embraced science, and he embraced technology, but only if both are used in conjunction with the purposes of advancing humanity collectively. He did not see scientific ←4 | 5→advancement for the good of the corporate purse or the manipulation of the masses as a positive thing.

It is not the purpose of this text to question the validity of Science Fiction as a serious literary form, but the elements traditionally associated with Science Fiction in Vonnegut’s work must be addressed for his writing to be released for more rigorous consideration. Yes, Vonnegut incorporates elements of Science Fiction, but it is not his intention to write a Science Fiction novel that incorporates a world autonomous from our own. He uses the elements of science, technology, time travel, and alien encounters to sensationalize. If it is the realist novel’s aim to reproduce the everyday on the page and to give an honest account, it is Vonnegut’s aim to reproduce the absurdity of the everyday; his honest account requires the reader to question and acknowledge the preposterous elements of human life. In the introduction to A Companion to Science Fiction, David Seed discusses the issues surrounding science fiction writers and considers whether authors can conform to a generic term.7 He asserts that there appears to be a need for writers to have to be fitted into a specific genre, that it has become a convention that writers must be writing under a particular classification, they cannot simply write under the category of “Fiction” alone. Seed evokes the postmodern writer Brian McHale to support his arguments as McHale suggests that Science Fiction began to use elements of the postmodern and mainstream culture increasingly following the Second World War. He proposes that McHale starts from the foundation that fiction must belong to a category and never admits that a work can be a “multigeneric work that could move in and out of SF.”8 Seed contends that writers can embrace elements of science fiction without having to be considered authors of the genre; he argues that: “The best critical writing on SF approaches the fiction in relation to the images and narratives of related cultural practices.”9 It is not about the “Science Fiction” but about what the writing tells us about our own cultural practices. Seed continues that Science fiction is an exploration of a culture where we “cross-relate the familiar to the strangely new.”10 Vonnegut certainly fits this mold, as the main purpose of his writing is to convince the reader to question what is taking place around them in society.

On the other hand, Seed begins to list what he sees as important elements of the science fiction novel, “The concept of world-building is an intrinsic part ←5 | 6→of the construction.”11 Vonnegut can be considered to fulfill this element of the genre in part because he is building future worlds, or possible timelines, for what could happen in the future of our society and culture. In his novel Sirens of Titan (1959) Vonnegut clearly endeavors to world-build with his use of an inhabited planet Mars, but in Breakfast of Champions (1973), he is more preoccupied with the notions of reader awareness rather than world-building. The point of Vonnegut’s novels is that they all relate to the world that we exist in, not a world different and “other” from our own. They are possibilities for where our own Earth-bound existence might lead to with the advancement of science and technology. He is creating futures for us to consider and critique, futures that could be possible from the point our society is at now. Vonnegut invites us to consider our own modern world experience in relation to what could happen if we are not actively engaged, to challenge the limitations of our own self-obsession, and to put the future of the planet and humanity collectively before the rewards of now. He is not asking us to consider the cultural development of a fictional world but to consider the possibilities for our own world.

Working within the terms that Seed sets out, authors can be considered multi-generic, and it is under these terms that this text will consider Vonnegut as an author who incorporates and manipulates elements of the science fiction genre. Vonnegut is a writer who moves in and out of science fiction to add coherence to his contemporary critique. He is a writer that can remain genre-less and who is able to integrate the multi-voiced nature of what it is to be an individual in our contemporary world. Vonnegut commented on his science fiction categorization by critics, saying: “‘I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labelled “science fiction” ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station.’”12 Vonnegut felt antagonized by his label as a science fiction writer because he felt the genre was not given serious consideration, he was writing serious social commentary in his fiction that was being sidelined. He had never intended to become a genre writer but did not deny the elements of science fiction in his work; what he did deny was the generalizations that it brought.

Vonnegut uses the fantastical, or sensational, in his novels and short stories to encourage the reader to establish their own reading of society. His main technique ←6 | 7→for this realization is the use of the satirical, defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as: “a way of criticizing people or ideas in a humorous way, especially in order to make a political point.”13 Vonnegut manipulates his subject in such a way as to render it comical and to emphasize the absurdity of the traditionally accepted notions in our social constructions. Vonnegut relies on the reader participating in his fiction, in their ability to read into what at first can seem obvious, or comical: “It’s important to retreat from the hoopla on television, and what television says matters and what we’re all supposed to talk about. And of course literature is the only art that requires our audience to be performers.”14 Vonnegut requires his readers to step back from the manipulations of media and the acceptance of everything at face value, that is, he requires readers to think for themselves and to consider possibilities.

Stylistically, Vonnegut offers a treasure trove for the reader: He manipulates conventions and creates subversions in his novels that the reader is expected to keep up with. He gives the reader responsibility; he treats them as individuals capable of considering the possibilities and therefore qualified to draw their own conclusions. For Vonnegut, the reader’s ability is important, they must be able to understand the fundamental stylistic devices that he incorporates into his prose: “You have to be able to read and you have to be able to read awfully well. You have to read so well that you get irony! I’ll say one thing meaning another, and you’ll get it.”15 Vonnegut assumes a depth of knowledge in the reader, socially, politically, and historically, which allows the satirical expression to be understood by the reader so they “get the joke.” The reader must understand the “ironic” elements in Vonnegut’s narratives and comprehend that the situations presented often happen differently from the expected or accepted. Vonnegut empowers his readers to a meditative state where they possess the ability to question their cultural complicity. Vonnegut sees himself as a literary catalyst, always aiming to present the world as he sees it, trying to release the reader from the perception of a normal, accepted reality to an awareness of alternative meaning. It is through Vonnegut’s use of satirical expression, and the use of irony, where the actual meaning can differ from the literal meaning, that the “subversive” becomes the most important way of assessing and analyzing his work. The satirical therefore becomes the main technique Vonnegut uses to subvert any sense ←7 | 8→of social normality in his novels, and his consistent use of fantastical elements gives his prose an absurd edge. In The American Absurd Robert Hipkiss defines the nature of absurdity as “the human condition as one in which man is caught between the extremes of birth and death, phenomena which he cannot possibly hope to understand ….”16 It is Hipkiss’ “impossibility of human freedom”17 that Vonnegut aims to counteract, to remove the veil that he sees engulfing people’s understanding of what is happening to them in a modern media exploited world.

This text will analyze three novels by Kurt Vonnegut from the theoretical perspective of Mikhail Bakhtin: Player Piano (1952), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). It will concentrate on Bakhtin’s theories on carnivalesque inversion from Rabelais and his World (1968) and will further consider his theoretical perspectives on the text as a site of struggle from The Dialogic Imagination (1981), and the practical application of his theories with the novel as polyphonic from Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963). Postmodernism will be addressed, but as with the genre classification of “Science Fiction” previously discussed, this work does not aim to consider at length Kurt Vonnegut as a postmodern writer. The term postmodern cannot be ignored when discussing Vonnegut’s development of techniques of subversion, as the term relates to the post-world war period Vonnegut was writing in, and it is a term that defines writing that strives to make sense of a disjointed world. It is a period of writing that marks the fluid transition of ideas from the fixed state to the fluctuating, a time when the security of the world was changing, and roles were reversing. This element of change and social oscillation is also characteristic of the subversive elements in Bakhtin’s carnivalesque inversion and is fundamental to Vonnegut’s use of subversion in his narratives.


X, 206
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (December)
Vonnegut Bakhtin carnival carnivalesque dialogic dialogism heteroglossia technology religion war society illusion perception America Carnivalesque Inversion in the Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut Emma Saggers
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. X, 206 pp.

Biographical notes

Emma Saggers (Author)

Emma Saggers has a PhD from the University of Essex, United Kingdom and a Masters Degree from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. She has taught English language and literature from high school through to university level. Originally from England, she now lives in Maryland with her family.


Title: Carnivalesque Inversion in the Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut