“Breakfast of Champions is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc.” and it is also the title of this book. This book is not associated with General Mills, nor is it an attempt to endorse or “disparage their fine products.”
Vonnegut’s use of a registered trademark as the title of this novel reflects the book’s overall theme of consumerism; however, it also reflects a postmodern understanding of the arbitrary nature of language. To General Mills, “Breakfast of Champions” is a bowl of cereal, but in Vonnegut’s book it is a gin martini. Thus, the meaning of words is not fixed or based on inherent definition; rather, meaning is based on agreement and convenience.
Vonnegut dedicates this book to Phoebe Hurty, a forty-year-old woman he met during the Great Depression when he was sixteen. She was wealthy, but she still worked at the Indianapolis Times where she wrote a “sane and funny advice-to-the-lovelorn column.” The Indianapolis Times was a “good paper” but is “now defunct. Defunct.” Phoebe also wrote advertisements, and when she gave Vonnegut a job writing ads too, he became friends with her sons.
The word “defunct” as a complete sentence is repeated a handful of times throughout the novel and is used to describe the death of businesses. Here, Vonnegut’s description of the Indianapolis Times as a “good paper” also underscores his argument of subjectivity. He thought the paper was good and evidently so did Phoebe, yet the fact that it has since gone out of business implies that most people were reading and buying a different paper. In other words, they thought a different newspaper was better.
Phoebe spoke “bawdily” to Vonnegut and her sons. She was “funny” and “liberating,” and she taught them to be “impolite in conversations” concerning sex, but also those about “American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.” Now, Vonnegut makes his “living by being impolite,” although he isn’t as good at it as Phoebe was. She had more “grace” because the Depression made her believe that America “would be happy and just and rational when prosperity came.” “Prosperity” used to mean “Paradise,” and Phoebe believed that her “impoliteness” would eventually “give shape to an American paradise.” No one believes in a “new American paradise” anymore.
Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s attempt at one of Phoebe’s “impolite conversations.” The book openly criticizes American history, famous heroes, the distribution of wealth, school, and much more. In this way, Vonnegut lays out a road map to this otherwise random, and often strange, book. Vonnegut’s conclusion that no one believes in an “American paradise” reflects his pessimistic message: American society is structured in such a way that many, like the poor and people of color, are unable to prosper.
This book expresses Vonnegut’s “suspicion” that “human beings are robots, are machines,” which stems from his own encounters seeing syphilitic men in his hometown Indianapolis and in traveling circuses when he was young. The men, driven insane by syphilis, were a “common spectacle.” They were “infested with carnivorous little corkscrews” which ate holes in their brains and interrupted their motor skills. The men “shuddered” and “idled” simply trying to walk. Vonnegut recalls watching a syphilitic man trying to cross the street. “He certainly looked like a machine to me when I was boy,” Vonnegut writes.
This is the beginning of Vonnegut’s people-as-machines narrative. Here, the people were controlled by disease, but in the book, people are controlled through other means, such as corporate advertising and systemic racism. The notion of people-as-machines creates an emotional distance that enables others to more easily accept injustice and tragedy. Here, the idea of sick men going publicly insane is awful. They clearly needed help, but other people simply stare or walk by—the men are even used as attractions in circuses. Vonnegut’s claim that they “certainly looked like a machine to me” allows for this emotional distance and perpetuates injustice.
Vonnegut also thinks of people as “huge, rubbery test tubes” with “chemical reactions seething inside.” When Vonnegut and Dwayne Hoover, one of the characters in this book, were young, they saw many people with huge goiters on their necks. “All they had to do in order to have ordinary lives, it turned out,” Vonnegut says, was eat a miniscule amount of iodine daily. Vonnegut’s mother “wrecked her brains with chemicals” in the form of sleeping pills, and whenever Vonnegut gets “depressed,” he takes “a little pill” to “cheer up again.” Vonnegut claims that it is a “big temptation” to create characters who are the way they are because of “faulty wiring” or “microscopic amounts of chemicals” that they either “ate or failed to eat on that particular day.”
Vonnegut’s description of people as “test tubes” with “chemical reactions seething inside” reflects his underlying argument that people aren’t machines but sentient beings who suffer because of the “programming” of American society. Often, it doesn’t take much to change this programming—a “microscopic chemical” or a “little pill”—and Vonnegut’s book is his own attempt to address the “faulty wiring” that has caused many of society’s ills. This passage also reflects how common issues of mental health are in American society, as both Vonnegut and his mother have been personally affected by mental illness.
This book is Vonnegut’s “fiftieth-birthday present” to himself. At fifty, Vonnegut is “programmed” to act “childishly,” and so this book is filled with silly drawings. He is trying to “clear [his] head of all the junk in there—the assholes, the flags, the underpants.” Vonnegut “throws out” characters from his other books as well. “I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows,” he says. He is attempting to make his brain “as empty” as the day he was “born onto this damaged planet,” which, Vonnegut claims, “is something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans, should do.” The things in Vonnegut’s head, which have been put there by “other people,” don’t “fit together nicely” and “are often useless and ugly.” They are disproportionate “with life as it really is.”
This passage advances Vonnegut’s theory that people are “programmed” by an unjust society. Society has attempted to program Vonnegut, as a white man, to believe that he deserves more than his black counterpart. This programming is categorically false and immoral, which is why Vonnegut claims dispensing with this harmful programming is something “most white Americans” should do. As Vonnegut’s characters often perpetuate this racist programming, he therefore “throws [them] out.” Vonnegut’s reference to his novels as “puppet shows” underscores the idea that people, and therefore his novels by extension, are controlled through this outside “programming.”
Going back in time to his birthday, November 11, 1922, this book is “a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which [Vonnegut] throws over [his] shoulder.” Vonnegut’s birthday, a “sacred day called Armistice Day,” is dedicated to the soldiers who fought in the First World War. Now, Armistice Day is known as Veterans’ Day. “Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not,” he says. So, Vonnegut “throws out” Veterans’ Day but keeps Armistice Day because he doesn’t “want to throw away any sacred things.” Vonnegut clarifies what he considers sacred. “Romeo and Juliet,” he says, and “all music.”
This passage again reflects subjectivity and the arbitrary nature of language and meaning. Armistice Day has morphed into something that, in Vonnegut’s opinion, is a poor substitute for what the holiday originally stood for—a day to honor Veterans and their sacrifices. In the novel, Veterans’ Day is simply another reason for businesses and corporations to launch new sales promotions. Vonnegut feels the need to define “sacred” because the definition changes depending on who is defining it. Furthermore, Vonnegut’s opinion that Romeo and Juliet and “all music” is sacred implies that, despite his heavy critique of art in the novel, he is still convinced of art’s worth and importance in society.