The United States of America is a country born into the idea that all men are created equal. Its laws and philosophy build around this idea, and yet, its citizens feel as though some sort of mistake had been made. Perhaps they are in the wrong county, because the country that is so obsessed with proclaiming its equality for all is by no means just. It is clear that for certain people, life is easier than for others. These people are the ablebodied white men whose quality of life greatly outshines the lives of people of color and those with mental illnesses.
In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut identifies the irony in America’s unjust treatment of its citizens while emphasizing the neglect of those with mental illness in a consumeristic culture. Despite America’s profession of equal opportunity for all, the country has never truly delivered justice. Vonnegut criticizes the customs of American culture, such as the forbidden act of dipping the flag at anyone, or the national motto E Pluribus Unum. He claims that the custom is merely superstitious and that the motto is completely meaningless.
Vonnegut draws attention to the flaws of America in that there is not liberty and justice for all: The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have conforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate. Vonnegut 9) In addition to attacking the nation’s superstitious rules, Vonnegut draws attention to the flawed lesson that the schools teach: humans discovered the New World in 1492. In reality, people were already living in America, and the people who “discovered it were liars and murderers. Calling them “sea pirates,” he draws attention to the obvious racial motivation by stating, “[They] were white. The people who were already on the continent when the sea pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything” (Vonnegut 11).
Vonnegut claims that since the natives were of different color than the conquistadores, the Native American people were persecuted based on prejudice. Slavery being fueled by color also added to the claim that America has never been equal for people of color. Additionally, after Trout was robbed and assaulted on his way to the Arts Festival, the police questioned about the identity of his attackers. Trout replies innocently, “For all I know, they may not even have been Earthlings. For all I know, that car may have been occupied by an intelligent gas from Pluto. ” (Vonnegut 76).
This is the first time in the novel that the race of a person was not made explicitly clear. By intentionally not mentioning the color of the bandits, Vonnegut suggests that everyone is just as likely to commit crimes, not just those of a specific racial background. People mistreat black people specifically because they believe African-Americans are more prone to violence and crime. Trout unintentionally sparks the argument against this prejudice within the novel’s universe, but starts it nonetheless. A major plot point in the novel that is danced around until the end is the idea of free will.
Trout writes a novel that claims that the reader is the only living being on the planet with free will; everyone else is a mindless robot that is programmed to act normal. This idea is dangerous, as it finally sets Dwayne Hoover over the edge, and he attacks the people around him, believing his actions to have no consequence. This is expanded upon as Peter J. Reed claims, “this fantasy projects to an extreme a prevalent social attitude documented frequently in the treatment of slaves, blacks, women, and prisoners, and less conspicuously but nevertheless insistently in the treatment of many other people” (“Writers” 778).
In the past, the treatment of these groups of people has been less than ideal, and Reed claims that it is due to the neglect of the realization of consequences of actions. Clearly, for a country so devoted to the equality and justice of all its citizens, the United States is nowhere near equal. Within the story, there is a consistent reference to mental illness and suicide. This theme is inspired from Vonnegut’s own personal struggles with these issues, and the problems that his characters face are directly parallel with experiences in Vonnegut’s life.
Vonnegut had been struggling with mental illness for most of his life, which was brought about by his partition in World War II and “all the pressures of literary success” (Berryman 163). Schatt relays Vonnegut’s interpretation of suicide: “I used to think of it as a perfectly reasonable way to avoid delivering a lecture, to a avoid a deadline, to not pay a bill, to not go to a cocktail party” (108). Obviously, Vonnegut’s depression had reached the point where he no longer valued his life, and saw suicide as a viable alternative to participating in undesirable tasks.
Although Vonnegut once thought this way, Schatt also includes that Breakfast of Champions is not Vonnegut’s threat to commit suicide, but rather a promise that he is beyond the idea (108). In addition to the crippling bouts of depression affecting Vonnegut personally, mental illness had run in his family. Reed claims that “Vonnegut’s enlistment came as a final blow to his mother, who had already become increasingly prone to depression. He sought a special leave to return home for Mother’s Day the following year, but the night before he arrived she died of an overdose of sleeping pills” (“Writers” 775).
This was not an accidental overdose, as Vonnegut’s mother had become more prone to suicidal tendencies. Vonnegut uses his mother’s suicide in his novel and creates a parallel situation in which the wife of Dwayne Hoover commits suicide by eating Drano (Vonnegut 66). Obviously, his mother’s suicide had been a major event in Vonnegut’s life, and his choosing to include it in his novel demonstrates his intention to create a man who had been affected by mental illness in the same way as he had.
Hoover attempts suicide himself within the story by putting a gun in his mouth (Vonnegut 50) but ultimately decides against it, electing to shoot his bathroom wall tiles instead. Vonnegut includes this event to demonstrate how depression has taken over Hoover’s life, and he cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Clearly, Vonnegut includes details of depression and suicide as a parallel to his own life and struggle with these issues. A core theme of this novel is American society’s obsession with consumerism and its impact on the environment.
Vonnegut is aware of the destruction of the world and how American culture is causing it; his novel is rich with satire criticizing the country’s values. The original cover of the book is designed to resemble a cereal box, and this is obviously a reference to how Vonnegut sees marketing and how it captures an audience. Vonnegut believes that humans are destroying the planet, and one author points out that the narrator, Kilgore Trout, observes the people around him as if looking at people from a different galaxy.
He sees the people around him manufacturing poisons and other actions to destroy the earth (“Black” 43). Trout’s satirical novels and stories also criticize American values and how they destroy the environment. One of his novels, Plague on Wheels (Vonnegut 26), describes a planet where the dominant organism is a race of humanoid cars. The cars polluted the planet to the point that all other life on the planet had gone extinct. After realizing their fate, they beg extraterrestrial visitors to carry their eggs to their own planet, but the aliens refuse, as the extra weight would be too much.
They leave the dying planet assuring the cars that they will be “gone, but not forgotten. ” This idea of a dying planet is Trout’s view of how the Earth currently is, and he believes humans worship automobiles as they worship gods. With human’s continued use of cars, the planet will eventually become polluted to the point of extinction, and Vonnegut includes this to warn the American people of the consequences of their actions. Alongside people’s destruction of the environment, Vonnegut claims that American culture values materialism above all else.
Vonnegut claims that America has no true culture, and as one author puts it, “[he] appears to believe that Americans have substituted material goods and the commercial myths behind these for a meaningful culture” (Schatt 102). Vonnegut’s thought is that American culture is actually just the commercials and advertisements that are pushed at the American people every day. Without real culture, America is not a true country of people with common intellectual achievement, but rather a collection of ideas in marketing and advertising. The values of society are also explored in Vonnegut’s novel.
While Trout is on his way to the Arts Festival, Vonnegut describes a child who “clasped an eighteen-ounce bottle of Pepsi Cola to her breast” (120). Drawing parallels to how a child would hold a teddy bear or blanket, Vonnegut is obviously making a statement on the values of new society. The fact that a child would hold a soda to her breast adds to Vonnegut’s point that American society has evolved into a more materialistic culture. Based off Vonnegut’s portrayal of American society, it is clear that consumerism has taken its roots in the lives of everyday people.
Through his novel, Vonnegut draws attention to the unfair treatment of American citizens and exposes the country’s materialistic culture as harmful to the environment. Much of his opinions on mental illness are expanded upon, and research reveals that his characters’ dilemmas are based on Vonnegut’s own personal experiences. With the growing epidemic of mental illness in the world, this novel could be a beacon of hope for those struggling with suicide or depression. It also raises the question of whether mental illness is a new problem, or it has just recently become a less taboo topic of discussion.