“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.” (Chapter 1) While not necessarily the first line that would pop into one’s head when thinking about how this b0ok relates to American consumerism, it rings true for one main reason: the poor in America cannot be proud because, according to American’s obsession with consumerism and material possessions, they have not succeeded. There is no room for any other psychological framework to enter in when cultural consumerism has crowded out all else.
The social status of Americans is defined by their material possessions, says Vonnegut -as a result, the poor are considered in poor standing.
Excerpt 2: Conformity of thought and behavior of Americans (particularly where that conformity is thought to reflect patriotism) “A German measured Billy’s upper right arm with his thumb and forefinger, asked a companion what sort of an army would send a weakling like that to the front.
They looked at other American bodies now, pointed out a lot more that were nearly as bad as Billy’s.” (Chapter 4) This excerpt highlights the critique of conformity that is central to the book.
Although it was written nearly half a decade ago, the quote above shows the interconnectedness of masculinity, patriotism and conformity for Americans. Vonnegut challenges the masculine stereotypes (both physically and patriotically), placing Billy as an example of the exception to the supposed cultural rule. Americans do not have the best bodies, and this quote calls out the conformity of this way of thinking.
Excerpt 3: Superficiality of middle class American religious values and practice “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” (Chapter 2) Like the criticism of materialism forwarded by Vonnegut throughout the book, this quote highlights how superficial Americans can make their lives, particularly when based on religious values or beliefs. Instead of engaging in true life, religious Americans attempt to make sense of life through cheap reproductions (like the trinkets and souvenirs found in gift shops). This is perhaps the most searing criticism of the book, since it not only speaks to American materialism but to American religion – which is essentially a way of life for many Americans, particularly in the post-War era.
Excerpt 4: Anxiety and fear of Americans in the atomic age and Cold War era. “My father died many years ago now-of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.” (Chapter 10) Again, this is not the quote that one would usualy think of when it comes to Vonnegut’s commentary on the atomic age and Cold War era in the narrative. However, this quote from the last chapter of the book shows just how much anxiety and fear that Americans had of the atomic bomb.
Billy, the narrator who had been through so much, still would not touch the guns that his father had left him. This is arguably representative of the psychological journey that Billy had made during war, and how he did not want to engage in war at all if he could help it. His father died from natural causes, and he wanted to too. A gun may not be an atomic bomb, but if Vonnegut is making a commentary on the zeitgeist of America, the symbolism is unmistakable.