ASAD: Billy the Poet’s Sexual Underground Revolution

In this episode: No, the title isn’t about some ridiculous cabaret act.  We’re taking a look at Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”, the title story of his short story collection.

“Welcome to the Monkey House” is one of those stories that you will laugh at because of Vonnegut’s sometimes witty / sometimes absurd humor, but underneath the lighthearted façade this story really touches a few nerves.  It’s set in a dystopian future where the government has taken control of basically everything, from eateries to television and recreation (think 1984).  However, instead of the threat of war, Vonnegut’s world is on governmental lockdown because of the fear of overpopulation.  The planet’s population is quoted at 17 billion in the story because of technologically extended life-spans and a global World State that rarely fights with itself (I’m kind of assuming the latter of those reasons from mentions of World Presidents and the fact that war isn’t mentioned at all in the story).  Because of this fear of overpopulation and the necessity of lowering the current population, the government has passed mandatory birth-control legislation, forcing everyone to take “ethical birth control” that numbs them from the waist down, and began encouraging people to report to their nearest Suicide Parlor, which are staffed by six foot tall women in goth makeup, purple spandex, and black leather boots who know judo and karate.  These are the women people are supposed to ask for the hypodermic needle.

The story centers on Nancy, one of these Parlor Hostesses, and her run-in with Billy the Poet, a notorious “nothinghead” (one who doesn’t take their ethical birth control pills) that has been abducting Hostesses and “deflowering” them.  But when Nancy meets up with Billy, there is a lot more to be considered than her work duties.

[Minor spoilers in the works]

Vonnegut has a particularly interesting writing style.  It’s almost glossy, but there’s detail there for sure.  It was odd to me that the second half of this story very blatantly has a rape.  There’s not a “rape scene” per se, but there’s no ambiguity about it.  However, the writing doesn’t change, and given the setup, it isn’t made to seem like such a horrible thing.  Now, before taking offense to the previous line, let me continue.  It isn’t made to seem bad, but if you really stop to think about it, you realize that neither Billy (the rule-breaker / anti-hero here), Nancy (the rule-follower), or the government (the rule-maker) has it right here.  At least, that’s how I feel about it.  Vonnegut’s whole m.o. seems to be to make people think.  His writing has a sarcasm that isn’t quite biting, maybe more like a gnawing sarcasm; it’s constantly just chewing away at the edges of your consciousness, trying to worm its way into your brain instead of forcing itself in.  Vonnegut’s writing was viral.

So, if nobody’s getting it right here, what should be done?  Well, I think we’re still working on that one.  This story (and most of them in this collection) addresses several issues that are still relevant.  Overpopulation isn’t a hot issue yet, but it’s climbing toward the top.  When you live on a planet with limited resources (and, ahem, space) it has to become an issue once certain animals start living longer, not to mention pile up their junk all over the place.  Ethical suicide is already a hot topic, though it seems to have quieted down since Dr. Jack Kevorkian was jailed.

Last but not least, a big portion of the debate in this story is between morals and science.  Vonnegut really hit the nail on the head near the beginning of the story:

                “The pills were 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.
                 Thus did science and morals go hand in hand.”

 In this vein, Billy the Poet represents the sort of moral alternative, introducing an updated version of the pill-a-day birth control to Nancy at the end of the story, while the government plays the role of inconsiderate science, refusing to rely on voluntary birth control and instead demanding compulsory numbings.

 As a final thought, I think it’s very clever how Vonnegut would choose to associate poetry and sex.  It’s easy to forget in today’s age that poetry used to be the number two woo-ing tool…right next to money.  In a socialist society where money has lost all its value, it seems like a viable alternative.  Of course, the censorship required in Vonnegut’s dystopian world-state would never allow this.  So, you get this sort of rebellious, sexual Robin Hood character in Billy the Poet who might not be quite a hero, but is still trying to do something good, if in a bad way.

That’s all for today.  Now I’m off to work until 10p.  Wish me luck.  I have no idea what the next story will be, but it WILL be up tomorrow.  I can guarantee…because I’ll be off work.  If you have any requests, send them today!




1 Comment »

  1. Lil' SPJ Said:

    After re-reading this story, I found a few points interesting that I don’t remember thinking about before. Billy the Poet uses his great-great-grandfather as an excuse for his actions. He mentions that “according to [great-great-grandfather’s] diary, his bride cried all that night, and threw up twice. But, with the passage of time, she became a sexual enthusiast.” Billy believes that with time all people (especially women?) will come to love sex. While reading this passage, I couldn’t help but wonder “Why did Billy’s great-great-grandmother cry while losing her virginity?” Were they so conditioned, during that time, to believe that sex was evil? In modern times, the media is flooded with sexual content. People as young as 15 (and younger, but it grosses me out to think of young kids having sex…) are anxiously awaiting the day they lose their virginity. Was there ever really a time when people had to slowly take a liking to sex?

    Just some more thoughts to stir discussion. 🙂

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