Empty heroics, low comedy and pointless death: Structures of melancholy in the early novels of Kurt Vonnegut

Hinchcliffe, Richard (2000) Empty heroics, low comedy and pointless death: Structures of melancholy in the early novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis explores structures of melancholy in five of Kurt Vonnegut's early novels, Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. The thesis attempts to give new readings to each of the novels by drawing on critical approaches to melancholy and by viewing each text as being subject to contemporary cultural influences. In particular, the thesis maps how each of the novels comments on human progress through a combination of historical, scientific, cultural, social and political paradigms. In the chapters on The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night the protagonist is seen as suffering from a number of melancholic complaints that are closely related to schizophrenia, while the narratives as a whole exploit this splintering of the self to suggest a variety of allegorical readings. The chapters on Player Piano, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions discuss how the Puritan foundations of American culture play a major part in the construction of the self through the establishment of the Protestant work ethic. These chapters also attempt to expose how many of the ideological concepts that adhere to work, progress and capitalism have melancholic consequences for all involved.
Throughout the thesis the relationship between reality and representation,
language and authority is seen as being crucial to understanding the depth of Vonnegut's
early novels and the way in which each novel deconstructs established values and
subverts readers' expectations. Occasionally, the thesis discusses the novels'
poststructural concerns as appearing to precipitate melancholy within both readers and
characters. However, the thesis also explores how melancholy has been seen historically
to galvanise the soul and build up, from the depths of depression, a renewal of spirit.
Overall, the thesis shows how melancholy is a constituent part of Vonnegut's novels,
connecting his work to the tradition in American melancholic writing created by the
founders of the nation. This thesis traces the persistence of this melancholic note within
selected Vonnegut novels and its connections with other themes identified within his

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