Welcome to the Monkey House (short story)
|"Welcome to the Monkey House"|
|Author||Kurt Vonnegut Jr.|
|Published in||Welcome to the Monkey House|
|Publisher||Delacorte Press (AKA Dell Publishing)|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
"Welcome to the Monkey House" is a Kurt Vonnegut short story that is part of the collection Welcome to the Monkey House. It is alluded to in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as one of Kilgore Trout's stories.
In the not-so-distant future, a criminal mastermind named Billy the Poet is on the loose and on his way to Cape Cod. His goal is to deflower one of the hostesses at the Ethical Suicide Parlor in Hyannis. The world government runs the parlors and urges people to commit suicide to help keep the population of 17 billion stable. It also requires that the hostesses at these establishments be virgins on the basis that this makes the idea of suicide more appealing, especially to middle-aged and older men. The government also suppresses the population’s sexual desire with a drug that numbs them from the waist down (but does not render them infertile, as that is seen as unethical and in violation of the religious principles of many). This drug is called "ethical birth control," and was originally developed by a druggist who had been offended when, on a family outing to the zoo, his group were confronted by the sight of a male monkey masturbating. Billy is a member of a surreptitious group called the "Nothingheads," people who refuse to take the government-required drugs. Despite a sting by the authorities, Billy the Poet outwits them and kidnaps a six-foot blonde suicide parlor hostess, Nancy McLuhan. McLuhan vows to fight Billy to the very end, but the drugs wear off, and when Billy rapes her, her mind opens as well. Billy convinces her that sex and death aren't the answer; birth control pills are. In the end, Billy lets Nancy go, but she is forever changed and, apparently, a convert to Nothingheadism. Billy leaves her a note attached to a bottle of birth control pills that says simply, "Welcome to the Monkey House."
Nancy McLuhan is a hostess working at the Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor of Hyannis. She unites all the skills and virtues a suicide hostess has to fulfill: She is a virgin and convinced of the correctness of the laws of the government. She is an expert in judo and karate and holds advanced degrees in psychology and nursing. Furthermore, she is plump, rosy and six feet tall and wears the typical hostess’s uniform, which includes heavy makeup, purple stockings and black boots. She looks 22 years old although she is already 63. This is because of the anti-aging shots people get twice a year. Nancy has adopted the conventions the government has established for society, but there is still a side of her that recognizes that this way of living is not quite right. When Billy the Poet’s helpers make her drink a truth serum and ask her what it feels like to be a virgin at 63, she answers, "Pointless." Peter J. Reed suggests that "being an overgrown Barbie doll administering ethical suicide might well seem pointless. But the passage implies that her still being a virgin causes her to feel pointless, purpose evidently residing in her being a wife and mother.":99
Billy the Poet:
Billy the Poet is a so-called nothinghead who refuses to take the ethical birth control pills and tries to seduce Ethical Suicide Parlor hostesses. He does so for his own ideology. He agrees with the world government that overpopulation is a threat to the stability of the world, but he thinks that human instincts such as sexuality must not be suppressed. He therefore gives the hostesses birth control pills that prevent reproduction but do not interfere with sexuality. Billy is not a strong alpha-male hero. He is not physically attractive and does not seek power. He intends to bring an innocent pleasure back into the world and tries to express his tenderness by leaving Nancy a book of poetry containing Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," which was the poem his grandfather read to his grandmother on their wedding night. He does not see his actions as real violations toward the hostesses. He explains to Nancy that what she went through with him was pretty much the same thing a lot of brides experienced a hundred years ago on their wedding night. He claims that many hostesses have afterwards become sexual enthusiasts. He wants all the people in the world to have this opportunity. His mission is quite successful; when he brings Nancy to the Kennedy Compound, there is already a group of his supporters waiting for them: members of his nothinghead underground culture.
J. Edgar Nation:
The title of the story, which is also the inscription on the label of the birth control pills Billy offers, refers to the history of the government's numbing pills. The druggist J. Edgar Nation had taken his family to the zoo on Easter Sunday. When they passed by the monkey house, a monkey was playing with his genitals. Believing that this behavior destroyed the spirit of Easter, Nation decided to invent the numbing pills for animals. Later on, when people stayed young and attractive in the long term because of the invention of the anti-aging shots, the pills were also imposed on humans. J. Edgar Nation’s name is a mixture made up by Vonnegut that derives from J. Edgar Hoover and Carrie Nation. Hoover, who was the F.B.I. director at the time the story was written, "was vigorous in his moral judgments,":101 and Nation fought alcohol. Her message is also present in the story, as Nancy is convinced that alcohol, or more precisely gin, is the worst drug of all.
Motifs and critique
The crucial motif in the story is sexuality. The story was originally published in Playboy in January 1968, and some of the aspects discussed seem to be written right for this very readership. The sexual tension through the story is intense and a counterpoint to a society that wants to suppress human instincts such as sexuality. Written at the peak of the sexual revolution during the so-called Sexy Sixties, the story was highly topical at that time. It was also that year when Pope Paul VI published an encyclical detailing the new official Catholic position against birth control pills and artificial contraception. "Welcome to the Monkey House" is Vonnegut’s critical answer to these actions. He suggests that fake morals driven to the point of wanting to deny human nature cannot be tolerated.
In the case of "Welcome to the Monkey House," this fake moralism is imposed by a world government. Vonnegut often discussed the dangers of egalitarianism, but not to the extent that one single system forms and controls all the people in the world. Everything has been made equal; from the fact that all Suicide Parlors have purple roofs and the ever-adjacent Howard Johnson's diners orange ones, to the egalitarian television programs, people’s young looks and the fact that no one has sex. Equality endangers individuality; Vonnegut has "consistently decried the self-righteousness that imposes controls on the individual human rights of others.":99 His arguments are even more harshly presented in another short story of his, "Harrison Bergeron" (1965), in which Americans are controlled by a government that wants to equalize people physically and mentally by handicapping them.
Another problem Vonnegut discusses in "Welcome to the Monkey House" is the overpopulation of the world. In the story, 17 billion human beings live on planet earth. This leads to the fact that most of the people are unemployed. They sit at home watching television programs which are controlled by the government. These programs aim to enforce the government’s power by showing advertisements and shows which propagate the laws and rulers and also the principles of Ethical Suicide. Almost all the work is done by machines. Even in the restaurant (Howard Johnson’s) which is next to all Suicide Parlors, all the work is done by a machine. To make people feel more comfortable eating there, since some found the silence resulting from the lack of a human staff to be intimidating, a record produces regular restaurant noise. Furthermore, most species of animals and plants in the world are extinct, such as bees, birds and mosquitoes, because they had to step back from growing mankind. The measures the government develops to prevent further growth of population are drastic: The rulers encourage ethical suicide and prevent reproduction by numbing the lower part of people's bodies. Vonnegut mentions overpopulation not only in "Welcome to the Monkey House" but also in another story from the same collection, "The Big Trip Up Yonder/Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" (1954), in which he describes how in the Year 2158, six generations of a family live together in just one small apartment. Some of these ideas are also present in Vonnegut's story 2 B R 0 2 B. He wants to draw his readers’ attention to the threat of overpopulation in order to avoid the scenarios that are described in his stories.
Reading the story, it can be recognized the extent to which Vonnegut was influenced by his early work as a journalist. His sentences are rather short and easy to read, in order to reach and be understood by as many people as possible. The dystopian, science fictional setting underlines his social and political critique. Vonnegut gives a futuristic preview of what could become of the world if people will not change. Despite the rather drastic plot, Vonnegut still intends the story to be funny. There are a lot of humorous elements to be found: J. Edgar Nation and his being offended by a masturbating monkey; the "president of the world"; Ma Kennedy, who has a “THIMK” sign in her office; people who take birth control pills having blue urine; or the Kennedy Compound as a museum. The entertaining, ironic hints draw more attention to the fine details of the story. Vonnegut uses humor, at times very black humor, to communicate his serious message.
- First published in January 1968 in Playboy magazine.
- Published in August 1968 in the collection Welcome to the Monkey House by Delacorte Press.
- Re-released on September 8, 1998 in the re-publication of Welcome to the Monkey House by Dial Press.
- Showtime presented Kurt Vonnegut's Monkey House with an adaptation of this story in 1991.
- Reed, Peter J. (1997). The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, London: Greenwood Press.
- Pinternagel, Stefan T. (2005). Kurt Vonnegut jr. und die Science Fiction. Kilgore Trout, Trafaldamore and Bokononismus. Berlin: Shayol. p. 38.
- Allen, William Rodney (1991). Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. p. 3. ISBN 9781570038860.
- Klinkowitz, Jerome (1998): Vonnegut in fact. The public spokesman of personal fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press
- Leeds, Marc (1995): The Vonnegut Encyclopedia. An Authorized Compendium. Westport, London: Greenwood Press
- Leeds, Marc; Reed, Peter J. (1996): The Vonnegut Chronicles. Interviews and Essays. Westport, London: Greenwood Press
- Petterson, Bo (1994): The World according to Kurt Vonnegut. Moral Paradox and Narrative Form. Åbo: Åbo University Press