Summary: 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. The government also suppresses the population’s sexual desire with drugs that numb them from the waist down. Despite a sting by the authorities, Billy the Poet outwits them and kidnaps six-foot blond hostess, Nancy McLuhan. McLuhan vows to fight Billy to the very end, but the drugs wear off, and when she is deflowered by Billy, 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 a changed woman.
This is one of the plaques on the desk of the World President in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s short story “Welcome to the Monkey House.” What else is there really to say? That one word encapsulates the future world Vonnegut creates in this witty, clever satire that often makes you snicker out loud.
A couple of his gems:
- On the pills that keep your body numb from the waist down to suppress sexual longing: “The pills were so effective that you could blindfold a man who had taken one, tell him to recite the Gettysburg Address, kick him in the balls while he was doing it, and he wouldn’t miss a syllable.”
- On the one drug that would counteract the anti-sex pills: “Nancy went over in her mind all the terrible drugs she’d learned about in school, persuaded herself that the women had taken the worst one of all. That drug was so powerful, Nancy’s teachers had told her, that even a person numb from the waist down would copulate repeatedly and enthusiastically after just one glass. That had to be the answer: The women, and probably the men, too, had been drinking gin.”
The beauty of Vonnegut is that he disguises biting social commentary as mild parody. He rarely takes big, tasty bites out of his targets, but prefers to take small nips at them until their ideas have more holes than a spaghetti colander. His main victims here are the religious right and big government, but he also takes the time to skewer the UN, blonds, the pharmaceutical industry, and assisted suicide.
Vonnegut’s strengths in his short fiction are also his weaknesses. He tends to exaggerate his victim’s politics to such ridiculous ends that it’s easy to dismiss his barbs. It backfires in stories like “Harrison Bergeron” when he creates a society based on equality of everything – from IQ to physical gifts. But no supporter of equal rights advocates for that type of society. Vonnegut simply distorts their real philosophy for his story – but ends up undermining his own points. It never reaches this level in “Welcome to the Monkey House,” although he does resort to an unnecessary, overly preachy lecture at the conclusion.
What you do get with “Welcome to the Monkey House” are Vonnegut’s witty, telling observations about the future: ocean water replaced by blue concrete, the extinction of birds and bugs, rampart overpopulation, government ownership of everything, and a passive society kept happy by TV. Keep in mind that Vonnegut wrote this piece in 1968.
The best part of “Welcome to the Monkey House” is Vonnegut’s wicked snipe at the religious right – which makes the story so relevant 38 years later. The population has exploded (New York City has 63 million people) and the government requires all adults to take anti-sex pills. Because of the influence of religious conservatives, the government believes it would be immoral to use birth control, so the government instead uses the pills to remove all pleasure and desire for sex. Even so, the population continues to increase so the government opens suicide boutiques staffed by beautiful women in revealing outfits to attract volunteers to kill themselves (sex for death, but not for pleasure).
The creator of the pills, J. Edgar Nation (that name alone had me snickering), decided to invent the pills when, after church services one Easter, he takes his wife and 11 kids to the Grand Rapids zoo. Mr. Nation tells us: “There is nothing like an Easter morning to make a man feel clean and reborn and at one with God’s intentions.” But inside the monkey house, his family is shocked to discover a masturbating monkey. So Mr. Nation develops his pill to “Make monkeys in the springtime fit things for a Christian family to see.”
Ahem. “Welcome to the Monkey House,” indeed.
Read our literary criticism of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
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