Heroes, Anti-heroes and Non-heroes
Characterization in Vonnegut’s Novels
The protagonist is the central character in a novel, around whom its plot concentrates. There are different types of protagonist, as described above. There is the heroic protagonist, whose activities throughout a story portray him or her as great, as of superior quality to most people. Good examples of heroic protagonists would be characters such as Hercules and King Arthur who possess noble qualities, are great leaders of men, and have powers of strength or intelligence beyond the means of ordinary men.
An anti-heroic protagonist is one who, despite not possessing the qualities of a traditional heroic character, engages our emotions and sympathies, or at least engages the reader through their actions. The reader associates with the character because of their motivation, their actions further the plot of the novel in such a way as to allow the reader to identify with them. Macbeth and Richard III both possess some admirable qualities, such as their leadership and abilities as fighters, though their desires are distinctly unadmirable. Moll Flanders is perhaps an anti-heroine, although she frequently flouts the law, she does engage the reader to follow her. The anti-hero may be lacking in heroic qualities, or may even be morally reprehensible but their position within the novel is established in part from possessing the point of view through whom the reader sees their world, but also from their strong motivation.
The protagonists in Vonnegut’s novels, however, possess neither set of qualities. His protagonists do not have heroic natures, or even motivation. Life happens to them, in spite of them. Outside forces determine how their lives progress, they themselves seem to sit back and allow it to happen. Opportunities are not fought or struggled for, they are discovered by accident. Success is determined by what Vonnegut terms “dumb luck”., and those successes are supported on foundations of egg-shells, which can crumble in an instant. This is true of most of his protagonists.
David H. Goldsmith writes in Fantasist of Fire and Ice that they are modern pilgrims engaged in an uncertain quest along an unmapped route. But this description describes them as pilgrims (suggesting an object or aim) on a quest (giving a destination) along a route (suggesting direction). This still suggests motivation and desire to succeed, a drive that has to be seen as absent.
Walter F. Starbuck has his life planned out for him by his benefactor, Alexander McCone, right down to a change of name, and the details of his conduct with a girl on a date. Starbuck mutely goes along with it all. He is offered a job in the White House because President Nixon feels sorry for him. He becomes a vice-president for RAMJAC because he is recognised by a bag lady. Starbuck has no motivation, he is just blithely fumbling through life, groping his way through the dark. He never learns his lesson, having been taught to succeed, his hapless successes crumble as quickly and surprisingly as they arrive.
His benefactor disowns him when he finds out he is the co-editor of a communist magazine. He is jailed (through no action of his own) after the Watergate affair. He is jailed again for concealing a will in order to keep the RAMJAC Corporation operating after the death of Mary Kathleen O’Looney, the bag lady who turns out to be the owner of RAMJAC. The company collapses after a police officer stumbles across her true identity two years after her death. The foundations of Starbuck’s successes are very fragile. Dumb luck gives, and takes away, and he makes no attempt to do anything about it.
Rabo Karabekian in Bluebeard is similarly subjected to dumb luck, and reacts with equal helplessness. His benefactor, Dan Gregory is forced to take him on as a favour to his mistress after he had pushed her down a flight of stairs. As an abstract painter, he finds success until all his paintings disintegrate through faulty paint. (Note that as an abstract painter, he is composing paintings in the same random way he tells his story). He then becomes tremendously wealthy after paintings given to him as surety for loans to fellow painters become extremely valuable.
Karabekian, Starbuck and Campbell all seem to be outsiders to society. They seem to function within society by allowing it to function with them as passive observers. They are naked humans, surviving solely on the basest of instincts. This kind of response to life echoes that of characters such as Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot . Life happens around them , not to them . They sit on their mound to watch life. At the end of the play , they resolve to leave. But the last stage direction is
They do not move (p88).
This haplessness sums up Vonnegut’s characters. When given the opportunity , they do not move. This can be seen in the way all three respond towards women.
Rabo Karabekian is perhaps the most perceptive when he talks of how he became involved with his second wife, Edith:
She was a magical tamer of almost any sort of animal, an overwhelmingly loving and uncritical nurturer of anything and everything that looked half- alive…I know what kind of animal she thought I was, because she came right out and said it to a female relative from Cincinnati at our wedding reception… ‘I want you to meet my tamed raccoon.'(Bluebeard, p.222)
Karabekian loves women not with passion, but with loyalty. He does not understand them, and in many cases, is afraid of them. Circe Bermen intrigues, but scares him, with her passion vitality and motivation. He stands back and lets her breeze into his world and turn it upside down. Notice the mythological reference in the name Circe. In the voyage of Ulysses, she turned his men into swine. The irony in the use of the name is that although Circe Berman also disrupts his life, she eventually brings so much more out of him.
Merilee Kemp, the mistress of Dan Gregory, sleeps with him after a huge argument with Gregory. He sees it as a sign of her undying love. She views it simply as part revenge, part a need for a little affection on her own terms. He cannot understand this, but offers little resistance when she tells him to go away. Women are incomprehensible, but always right. Obviously he is young and naive at that time, but this view stays with him for life.
Starbuck agrees with this point of view wholeheartedly:
…women were more spiritual, more sacred than men. I still believe that about women….I have loved only four women in my life – my mother, my late wife, a woman to whom I was once affianced, and one other. …all four seemed more virtuous, braver about life, and closer to the secret of the universe than I could ever be. (Jailbird, p.53)
Both Starbuck and Karabekian are sexually and emotionally naive, almost stunted. They possess virgin/whore complexes, where women are either elevated to a sacred status, or lusted with animal need. They are confused animals, responding with either devoted loyalty or desire.
Incidentally, it must be said that women get a pretty raw deal in Vonnegut’s novels. All of his protagonists seem to share a view of women that, whilst not simply misogynistic, does display a narrow understanding. In the main they are not well-rounded characters, and seem simply to serve functions; wife, mother, lover etc., almost as if their destinies depend on a twist of fate. They are often martyrs suffering terrible fates, such as Marilee Kemp, who is abused by Dan Gregory, used as a meant of sexual initiation and satiation by Karabekian, and as propaganda by Mussolini. Women are portrayed as good sufferers, to be revered for their powers of endurance.
These men are only able to realise their failings in old age: Bluebeard, Mother Night and Jailbird are all pseudo-autobiographies, written at the end of dramatic but somewhat uninspiring lives Starbuck willingly admits as much:
The most embarrassing thing about this autobiography, surely is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked by life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me.(p.212)
This revelation comes much too late in life for him to do anything about it. It is a confession of waste. Campbell’s response to his failures is to commit suicide, to
hang Howard W. Campbell jr., for crimes against himself
(Mother Night p. 202)
He cannot face the prospect of freedom, having found himself trapped in one form or another for so long, so he frees himself from life. The only one of the three to offer any sort of positive response or evidence of motivation is Rabo Karabekian. He finally uses the skills taught him by Dan Gregory to produce an incredible painting. Sixty-four feet long, it is a painstakingly-detailed representation of the scene of his first morning of freedom after being released by his German captors at the end of World War Two. He, along with thousands upon thousands of other prisoners of war had simply been left there by their fleeing captors in a valley to fend for himself. The picture captured all the ravages of war in its huge dimensions, and he names it “Now it’s the Women’s Turn.”
This suggests Vonnegut developing a more enlightened view of women in his later work compared to Mother Night and Jailbird. He stands out from the other protagonists, as the retrospective view of his life is understood to some extent by him, and rather than sloping off to jail like Starbuck or committing suicide he is motivated to end on a positive note, to actually achieve something. It is an epiphany, a great achievement comparable to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a self-doubting but successful release of frustration, a long-laboured attempt to rationalise the destruction of their emotions by the horrors of war.
Karabekian hides this epiphany away, scared to reveal it, so unsure is he of his abilities. It is only because of the constant badgering of Circe Berman that he shows it to anyone. He posses the same lack of self-assurance present in Starbuck and Campbell. A sense of uselessness.
Campbell’s moments of epiphany achieve a different success. He recorded two years of erotic obsession with his wife Helga in a diary, which he named “Memoirs of a Monogamous Casanova.” Campbell is horrified that his most intimate secrets are read as a form of pornography in Russia:
I feel right now…like a pig that’s been taken apart, who’s had experts find a use for every part. By God – I think they even found a use for my squeal! The part of me that wanted to tell the truth got turned into an expert liar! The lover in me got turned into a pornographer! The artist in me got turned into ugliness such as the world has rarely seen before. (Mother Night, pp. 155-56)
All of his powers have been mutilated and turned against his morals. His abilities as a playwright are used for the purposes of propaganda and spying, fighting for both sides at once in the ugliest of wars. But when his most beautiful memories are distorted into pornography, this is in effect what gives him the desire to be free of life. In some ways, it is this revelation that lays him open as a character to the reader. He is able to play his part in the greatest massacre of the twentieth century, of the Jewish race, but is more disgusted at other people reading about his intimate sexual secrets. It is the revelation of his basest animal instincts that hurts him most. The success of his diary is his greatest failure, as it lays him open for the world to see.
Both Karabekian and Campbell accomplish a great personal epiphany. The former’s successful paintings collapsed, self-destructed, whilst “Now it’s the Women’s Turn” finally achieves what he has been trying to do all along. The latter’s epiphany is distorted and exposed to the world, shattering him.
What then is the purpose that these hapless characters serve? Their desire to achieve is minimal, they seem to lack motivation in anything but the satisfaction of base instincts. They see themselves as almost excluded from any form of society, only required as pawns in a much larger game, to be sacrificed at will. They are highly susceptible to the ravages of fate, and leave it to dominate and rule their lives.
As such these protagonists are thus perfect heroes for Vonnegut’s America. These mute, passive figures represent a country that has laid itself open to the power of its businesses and government. They are an example of the life that is led under such ruthless control. These protagonists are subject to the same helplessness and despair as those who lived through the Great Depressions, or those who suffered from World War Two. If America is to be praised for what it has become, then these protagonists must be seen as its heroes, as they are the ultimate product of contemporary American society.
Hero however, is not the right term for these protagonists. The term and its antithesis were discussed at the beginning of this chapter, and they meet neither term. They are so removed from, so disfunctional in society, it is almost as if they are characters on the verge of nothingness. They are non-heroes, completely at odds with their environment.
There are other protagonists in literature that could fit this classification of non-hero. Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, is so at odds with her environment, and is dictated to so much, that she hardly seems to speak at all in the first half of the novel. She too is dramatically marginalised, to voicelessness. Non-heroes sit meekly in the middle of Vonnegut’s America, and let life happen around them. They will try not to struggle, and they do not expect to succeed. They are the mutated products of their environment, Chaplinesque in their ineffectiveness, but unredeemed by his charm and humour.
- Chapter 1 – America through the eyes of Kurt Vonnegut
- Chapter 2 – Heroes, anti – heroes and non heroes
- Chapter 3 – Stories are Gadgets