The Existential Exploration of Kurt Vonnegut

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“Suicide is at the heart of the book. It’s also the punctuation mark at the end of many artistic careers. I pick up that punctuation mark and play with it in the book, come to understand it better, put it back on the shelf again but leave it in view.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, Playboy Magazine, 1973.

No character in Breakfast of Champions commits suicide in the entirety of the novel, but that does not mitigate its importance. Instead, the placement of death on the periphery of the story enables Kurt Vonnegut to reflect on his mother’s suicide by rehashing the phases of his and his father’s recovery through an existential lens enacted by his characters. Vonnegut creates Dwayne Hoover as a way to represent his younger self and forms Kilgore Trout to symbolize his father. Additionally, Trout works as Vonnegut’s own alter ego. Furthermore, Vonnegut inserts himself into the story to work alongside Hoover and Trout to emphasize the role awareness has on existentialism in terms of an individual’s actions, specifically in relation to death. Through the creation of two reality-mirroring characters and by placing himself into Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut examines the relationship between awareness and the three conditions of existentialism outlined by Jean-Paul Sartre within the terms of suicide and grief.

The first phase of grief explored by Kurt Vonnegut manifests itself in Dwayne Hoover, the owner, and operator of Dwayne Hoover’s Exit Eleven Pontiac Dealership. Vonnegut introduces Hoover in unison with Trout, but as their stories separate the mania encasing Hoover following his wife’s suicide engrosses him as a character. (Celia Hoover commits suicide before the story begins.) The life circumstances surrounding Vonnegut and Hoover are drastically different. However, Vonnegut repeatedly applies details from his own life to Hoover to build an analogous relationship between the two. While developing Hoover’s isolated reality in the wake of Celia’s death, Vonnegut carefully details Hoover’s labrador retriever named Sparky. Vonnegut gives Sparky a detailed back story about his broken tail, lumpy body, and tattered ears only for Vonnegut to passingly note that Sparky is a replica of his brother’s dog two hundred pages later. Unlike Sparky, Lottie Davis, the fictionalized black servant who comes into contact with Dwayne Hoover the most, is defined as ‘black’ (Vonnegut 17).

Additionally, Vonnegut is careful with his choice of words when describing how Edith and Celia Hoover committed suicide. Vonnegut specifically states that Celia ate Drāno, and Edith ate sleeping pills. Despite Drāno nor sleeping pills can be eaten, Vonnegut chooses to describe the action with the same verbiage to build parallels between the two deaths (Vonnegut 186). The early focus placed on Hoover as well as the establishment of childhood motifs like Sparky solidifies the correlation between Hoover and a young Vonnegut. Hoover’s actions in Breakfast of Champions create a space for Vonnegut to interpret how his younger self was affected by his mother’s suicide within existential terms.

The relationship Hoover shared with Celia and the mother-son bond held between Edith and Vonnegut were essence defining relationships. Hoover and Vonnegut derived fundamental aspects of who they were in relation to their wives and mothers, and following their suicides; they were condemned to be free. However, Vonnegut applies the lack of acceptance and understanding he experienced on to Hoover triggering an existential collapse in his character. Hoover’s, and by extension Vonnegut’s, condemnation to be free created a blank slate within the confines of anguish, despair, and forlornness. The death of Celia grants Hoover free will, but it is limited by his inability to understand and accept the reality of Celia’s death causing him to become a human sponge in search of a new essence. Vonnegut establishes awareness as the convergence of acceptance and understanding, and through Hoover, who lacks both qualities, Vonnegut argues that without the pretense of awareness, existentialism can become malicious. The evolution of Hoover’s character into the homicidal-adjacent-maniac highlights the anxiety of choice and by failing to make his own decisions Hoover’s free will becomes corrupted by “bad ideas” inserted into his head by Kilgore Trout. Hoover’s misunderstanding of the world around him and his easily redefinable essence is an exaggerated reflection created by Vonnegut in an attempt to understand himself through the anguish created as a result of Edith’s suicide. Through Hoover, and in contrast to other central characters, Vonnegut begins to establish the central role awareness has to existentialism.

Like Dwayne Hoover, Kilgore Trout is a reflection of reality into literary form. Trout is a distinct figure in Vonnegut novels as the recurring alter-ego to Vonnegut and because he is aware of his place as a character in a book:

“Trout was aware of me, too, what little he could see of me. I made him more uneasy than Dwayne did. The thing was: Trout was the only character I ever created who had enough imagination to suspect that he might be the creation of another being. He had spoken of this possibility several times to his parakeet… ‘Honest to God, Bill, the way things are going all I can think of is that I’m a character in a book by somebody who wants to write about somebody who suffers all the time’” (Vonnegut 246).

Despite Trout traditionally representing Vonnegut within his novels, Vonnegut shifts Trout's role to that of Vonnegut Sr. in Breakfast of Champions. In a similar fashion to Hoover, Vonnegut prescribes real attributes to Trout to form the parallel with Vonnegut Sr. As Trout crossed Sugar Creek on his way to the Midland City Holiday Inn, Vonnegut notes, “Trout now crossed Sugar Creek on my father’s legs and feet” (Vonnegut 230). In the final scene Trout calls out to Vonnegut as Vonnegut disappeared into the void between reality and his writing: “Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father’s voice: ‘Make me young, make me young, make me young!’” (Vonnegut 302).

With Hoover, Vonnegut established the lack of control existentialism created when an individual who has been condemned to be free is not accepting or understanding of the three Sartrean conditions. Through Trout, Vonnegut allows him to understand his existential reality but still withholds acceptance. By doing so, Vonnegut attempts to retrospectively interpret the actions of his father after Edith’s death. While information about the life of Vonnegut Sr. is less than scant The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: An Authorized Compendium by Marc Leeds notes that following the great depression Vonnegut Sr. became reclusive and was described by Vonnegut as a “dreamy artist” which evolved even more into near self-isolation following the death of Edith. Once again, Vonnegut uses the entirety of Breakfast of Champion to align Trout and Vonnegut Sr., who are undeservingly destitute people that understand the life they have but do not fully accept their purpose in the wake of tragedy. When Trout and Vonnegut Sr. converge in the final moments of Breakfast of Champions and the two call out as one to Vonnegut—who has established his total control of both of their existence—to make them young, it is clear that they lack acceptance. (Vonnegut Sr. died in 1956, so in this interpretation, he only exists within the confines of Vonnegut’s imagination.) In their hopeless desperation, they display their understanding of how the passage of time and the events that have taken place placed them into positions of despair. While the two have been able to live and find peace through understanding, they do not accept it and beg to return to the time before their tragedy.

Edith’s death and Trout’s awareness of the evil that he can cause thrust them both through the three conditions of existentialism. Both understood they were desolate and isolated themselves. Both felt despair caused by the loss of connection with the outside world, and both experienced anguish through regret of how their actions caused tragedy. Like Hoover, they were condemned to be free but were able to survive their freedom by understanding their situations. However, they could not supersede their predicaments because they failed to accept their reality. Without acceptance, Vonnegut Sr./Trout were unable to utilize their free will to revolutionize their essence or make choices to propel them forward. The stagnant character development of Trout also alludes to how the absence of acceptance condemns an individual to existential complacency.

By the time Kurt Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions he had lost both of his parents, experienced mass murder in WWII, and observed the gradual “disintegration” of his family and his marriage (Allen). These tragedies reshaped Vonnegut’s perception of the world. The mantra of Slaughterhouse-Five “so it goes” within the context of death illuminates Vonnegut’s views on society: devoid of reason. Death promotes a reasonless reality and creates an existential environment for Vonnegut just as it did for Hoover, Trout, and Vonnegut Sr. Once again, Vonnegut was condemned to be free, his decisions were placed under the conditions of anguish, despair, and forlornness but the serenity Vonnegut achieves through his awareness of existentialism is demonstrated as he enters the ‘void’.

As Vonnegut enters the void in the final scene, he sees his mother: “My mother stayed far, far away, because she had left me a legacy of suicide” (Vonnegut 302). Vonnegut is in absolute control of the void he enters and demonstrates his awareness and by extent, his control over his freedom. Within the void, Vonnegut inserts his mother showing that he accepts the role she played in his life, but he does not approach her, nor does he have her approach him because he understands the relationship between his lack of control, his free will, and his mother’s suicide. The tension between Vonnegut and his mother is broken by a mother-of-pearl hand mirror that floats across his eyes. In the mirror’s reflection, Vonnegut sees a tear fall from his eye. Vonnegut does not write that he is crying; instead, he draws his right eye with one tear clinging to the corner of his. On the opposing page is the profile of his father crying as well. Unlike every other character, Vonnegut does not shirk the responsibility of emotion. He is existentially aware of the power of emotions in relation to free will. Not only is Vonnegut mentally free, but he is also emotionally aware. Under the conditions of Sartre, Vonnegut states that because he accepts and understands the anguish, despair, and forlornness, he is therefore aware and in control of his existential freedom.

Through Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut develops his form of existentialism within the framework of grief and suicide. Through the introspective relationship created between himself and his characters, Kurt Vonnegut proposes the pivotal role awareness plays in productively utilizing existential free will. By comparing and contrasting the actions of the three central figures in Vonnegut demonstrates the opposing facets of anguish, despair, and forlornness as both prisons and tools. Ultimately, the twisted concoction of reflections, plots, and tangents provides an ideal platform for Vonnegut to understand his suicidal tendencies as it pertains to free will and existentialism.