Kurt Vonnengut's Use Of Imagery And Symbolism In Welcome To The Monkey House

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A Futuristic and dystopian society is a very common subject within the literature and media of today. One of the best pieces of work where this is shown is in Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of Short Stories “Welcome to The Monkey House”, especially in the two stories “Harrison Bergeron” and “Welcome to The Monkey House”. Vonnegut uses many literary elements such as symbolism and imagery within his stories to convey themes of distrust, oppression, and the values of freedom. Vonnegut portrays a very bleak and sad futuristic society in his stories.

Distrust is a theme that is heavily implemented throughout Vonnegut’s work, through the use of symbolism and imagery. Vonnegut shows distrust towards the government in his story “Harrison Bergeron”. The short story is about an overbearing totalitarian style government that has implemented laws that has created equality within the human race “The year is 2081 and everyone was finally equal. They were not only equal before god and the law. They were equal every which way”(Vonnegut 7). In the story everyone may be equal, but the government has issued extremely suppressive laws to enforce this equality. Vonnegut uses the symbolism of the totalitarian style of government in the story to provoke thoughts in the reader about distrust in the current government in the real world. Joseph Alvarez states “Vonnegut suggests an authoritarian government thrives off of ignorance and the suppression of intelligence and knowledge” (Alvarez 174). Within “Harrison Bergeron” the government has created an extremely unintelligible world in the name of “equality”. They were able to form this unintelligible nation through the means inhuman technology.

Vonnegut shows the distrust towards technology in his short stories through symbolism and imagery. In “Harrison Bergeron” the government creates extremely repressive and restrictive technology in the name of equality for the nation. One of the main characters of the story, George, is an intelligible man and thus is forced to wear a mental handicap, that scatters his thoughts, in an attempt to stop him from developing any kind of intelligible or meaningful thought. The handicap is described as “ Every twenty seconds or so, it would send some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantages of their brain”(Vonnegut 7). The creation of this technology leads to an unintelligible nation, as stated by Patrick Smith, “Normal in the story can be described as subnormal, incompetent and ignorant”(Smith 273). Vonnegut’s use of imagery to describe the inhuman technology, symbolizes a distrust in modern technology and suggests that as technology advances, it will lead to our demise. With the creation of this dehumanizing technology, there comes advancements in society itself.

In Vonnegut’s work, distrust is also shown towards society and social advancements, through symbolism and imagery. In Harrison Bergeron the forced equality created by the government, leads to misery throughout the world “You look so tired said hazel, why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows. She was referring to the forty seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was pad locked around Georges neck”(Vonnegut 9). The laws implemented to create equality within the nation create misery for the average people that must follow them, like George who is forced to wear a forty seven pound bag around his neck, yet because the government and society tell him he has to wear it, he obeys “I don’t mind it, he said. I dont notice it anymore, it’s just a part of me” (Vonnegut 9). Vonnegut’s descriptive imagery of the heinous machinery George must wear, provokes thoughts within the reader about the social advancements within our modern world, and if they should be placing their trust in the ever so quickly advancing society. Within Vonnegut’s short story “Welcome to The Monkey House” distrust towards social changes is also a prominent theme, shown in the birth control pills that desensitize the recipient to sex, or any sort of sexual drive, for the purpose to lower the population and to create a better society. “ He never had the slightest idea that the pills would be taken by humans, someday his dream was to introduce mortality into the monkey house at the Grand Rapid Zoo” (Vonnegut 35). The ironic nature that the pills were made for apes, and never intended to be used on humans, symbolizes that humans being forced to take these pills in the name of social advancement, is actually worsening us as a race and making us no better than our primitive ancestors. Vonnegut’s displays countless examples of distrust in his works through his imagery and symbolism.

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Oppression is another heavily used theme throughout Vonnegut’s work, and he conveys the theme of oppression through his use of symbolism and imagery. In “Welcome to The Monkey House” everybody is forced to take government mandated birth control pills which are described as “ethical because they didn’t interfere with a person’s ability to reproduce, which would have been unnatural and immoral. All the pills did was take every bit of pleasure out of sex” (Vonnegut 31). It is ironic that the characters do not believe the pills are immoral since they only interfere with the pleasure of sex and not the reproduction itself, while in reality the oppressive nature of the government forcing people to become desisitied to a natural instinct is extremely immoral. This only amplified the oppression created by the government, not allowing the people to experience their naturally conceived feelings. The government has brainwashed the people of the world into their oppressive view, to the point where they want to enforce it themselves, as stated by Susan Farrell “ Victims of oppressive law want to enforce it rather than take their chances without it”(Farrell 397). The government implements extremely harsh oppressive laws towards those who choose break from the oppression and follow their natural human intuition “A nothinghead was a person who refused to take his ethical birth control pills three times a day, the penalty for that was $10,000 and ten years in jail” (Vonnegut 30). The imagery Vonnegut uses to describe the dystopian world, and the birth control pills and their effects, does an effective job of rendering a theme of oppression and a fear for it. Vonnegut describes oppression in his short story “Harrison Bergeron” too.

Within in “Harrison Bergeron” Kurt Vonnegut displays a theme oppression through his use of symbolism and imagery. In the Story of “Harrison Bergeron” the government leads an extremely oppressive rule in the name of making everyone equal. This is a false sense of equality because there may be full equality between everyone, but at the cost of natural human and civil rights, Tim Akers and Jerry Moore state “ Vonnegut suggests that civil rights should never be sacrificed even for the alleged good” (Akers and Moore 167). Vonnegut’s shows symbolism through the reflective nature of government in the story, and our real world government, forcing the reader to reflect on the real world oppression. Vonnegut also suggests that intense oppression can eventually lead to a revolt, though the character of Harrison Bergeron. Harrison is described as “The rest of Harrisons appearance was halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever been born with heavier handicaps” (Vonnegut 10). Harrison exposser the intense oppression, leads him to despise the government and become a tyrant of his own. Vonnegut uses the symbolism of Harrison’s rebellion as a comparison to the real world, and a warning for what could happen, if oppression continues to intensify in the real world. Vonnegut’s use of literary devices help show themes of oppression within his stories. As freedom is taken away from most people, and freedom is a very absent right within his works.

Vonnegut very heavily shows the values of freedom within his stories, especially through his use of symbolism and imagery. In “Harrison Bergeron” freedom is nonexistent, the forced equality steals the virtues of freedom from every person that is enslaved under it, as stated by Joseph Alvarez “ Vonnegut suggests that freedom can easily be taken away” (Alvarez 176). In the story when George is arguing to Hazel about why they must follow the government’s orders he says “The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society” (Vonnegut 9). It is an extremely ironic quote because the characters have been completely brainwashed to just follow the government’s orders and allow their freedom to be taken away as shown through George. Vonnegut uses the symbolism of the Bergeron household and the lack of freedom within it and the entire nation to compare it to our current world and to stress the fact that we can never allow our freedom to be lost. Vonnegut’s use of symbolism shows the reader how important the values of freedom are.

The values of freedom are also shows throughout “Welcome to The Monkey House” through Vonnegut’s use of symbolism and imagery. In “Welcome to The Monkey House” the freedom of human intuition is stolen from the world, the government has forced everyone to take birth control pills that deplore the sexual drive, and the pleasure of sex. Although there are a few people who refuse to allow the government to take away their freedom, and they refuse to take the pills called nothingheads. In the story they are described by the characters who have all willing given up their freedom for the greater cause of overpopulation as “bombed out of their skulls with the esx madness that came from taking nothing”(Vonnegut 33) but later in the story the are revealed to care about the same virtues of overpopulation, yet they use a method that does not strip them of their freedom, just normal birth control pills. Vonnegut uses the nothingheads as symbolism the fight for freedom, and the importance to never give away your freedom, under any circumstances. Vonnegut’s use of symbolism helps convey the theme of freedom within his works.

Kurt Vonnegut deals with many intense topics and themes within the short stories of “Welcome to the Monkey House”. Vonnegut’s use of symbolism and imagery help him portray themes of distrust, oppression and values of freedom, and if it was not for his great use of the literary elements, the stories would not have as meaningful and thought provoking themes. These themes are shown within an abstract world Vonnegut has created, with a dystopian, sad and bleak future that leads the reader to terror wondering if the real world could ever become that.  

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