As Vonnegut “throws out” social injustices in Breakfast of Champions, he talks specifically “about the distribution of wealth” in American society and even speaks of his own poverty during the Great Depression. At one point in the novel, Vonnegut’s protagonist, Kilgore Trout, meets the Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, in a grocery store, but he doesn’t know who he is. Vonnegut claims that due to “peculiar laws on that part of the planet,” the Governor is “allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well.” It has always been this way—the Governor “had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.” Breakfast of Champions revolves around capitalism and consumerism, and Vonnegut blames both for the state of the planet’s economic and social inequality. He draws attention to this grim reality through Kilgore’s stories as well as his own. With his sarcastic portrayal of capitalism and consumerism in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut underscores America’s own economic inequality and advocates for a more just distribution of wealth.
Breakfast of Champions is rife with caricatures of capitalism. The characters are either “fabulously well-to-do” or have nothing, and the rich care little about the poor. With something like twenty different businesses under his belt, Dwayne Hoover is perhaps the novel’s clearest caricature of the greed and excess that underpin capitalism, as he appears to be fueled by the possibility of ever-more profits. In addition to a Pontic dealership, several vacant lots, and a portion of the new Holiday Inn, Dwayne owns “three Burger Chefs, too, and five coin-operated car washes, and pieces of the Sugar Creek Drive-In Theatre, Radio Station WMCY, the Three Maples Par-Three Golf Course, and seventeen hundred shares of common stock in Barrytron, Limited, a local electronics firm.” Notably, Dwayne’s personal greed is reflected by the company he owns so much stock in: Barrytron, Limited, which has a long history in Midland City. Before it was Barrytron, the company was known as The Robo-Magic Corporation of America and manufactured the very first automatic washing machine during the Great Depression. No one could afford one of course, but the company still advertised on the city’s only billboard, further reflecting the company’s greed; it will take money from anyone, even those who have little. Dwayne isn’t happy with just one business, and the Robo-Magic company has no problem selling a product to people who can’t afford it. In this way, Vonnegut emphasizes the moral shortcomings of American capitalism.
While Vonnegut argues the damaging effects of capitalism and consumerism in general, he isolates the private ownership of land in particular as the cause of many of society’s inequalities and injustices. Kilgore writes a story called “This Means You,” in which the entirety of the Hawaiian Islands is owned by only forty people. The property owners “decide to exercise their property rights to the full,” and they place “no trespassing signs” everywhere. Since “the law of gravity requires that they stick somewhere on the surface” of the earth, the government gives each Hawaiian citizen a helium balloon to float in, so they can “go on inhabiting the islands without always sticking to things other people owned.” Since all the island is privately owned, there is literally nowhere for the citizens to exist and live. Kilgore’s story serves as a cautionary tale—the excessive desires of a greedy few leave an entire island of people homeless.
In addition to exploring the private ownership of land, Vonnegut also focuses on natural resources, such as coal and oil. When Kilgore meets an old man in West Virginia who has seen his entire state torn apart by coal companies, he laments the laws that make such a thing possible. Companies have the right to own minerals under the ground, and what is on top is usually “another man’s farm or woods or house.” Whenever a company wants to get to what they own, they have “a right to wreck what’s on top to get at it. The rights of the people on top of the ground don’t amount to nothing compared to the rights of the man who owns what’s underneath.” In other words, the law favors the wealthy, who are made that way through greed and capitalism, often at the expense of others.
Vonnegut’s portrayal of the private ownership of land and resources is at times outlandish, but it nevertheless draws important parallels to current economical injustices and inequalities in American society. Vonnegut argues that corporate greed has indeed resulted in the stripping of a vast amounts of irreplaceable countryside, has compounded the world’s environmental crisis, and adds considerably to poverty and the nation’s unequal distribution of wealth. Vonnegut’s novel does not end on a positive note as far as the distribution of wealth is concerned, and he doesn’t imply that the problem will end any time soon. Instead, he brings plenty of awareness to the problem, in the hope that it will improve in the future. Vonnegut argues a more ethical approach to capitalism and consumerism, one that is not fueled by greed and injustice. Ironically, the only way to correct the evils of capitalism is through consumerism, or rather the lack of it. When Americans stop doing business with and buying products from unethical companies, they will begin to strip them of their capitalist power and, effectively, begin the redistribution of wealth.
Capitalism and Consumerism ThemeTracker
Capitalism and Consumerism Quotes in Breakfast of Champions
I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there—the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes—there is a picture in this book of underpants. I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows.
I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.
I suspect that this is something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans, should do. The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.
The motto of Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s nation was this, which meant in a language nobody spoke anymore, Out of Many, One: “E pluribus unum.”
The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
A lot of the people on the wrecked planet were Communists. They had a theory that what was left of the planet should be shared more or less equally among all the people, who hadn’t asked to come to a wrecked planet in the first place. Meanwhile, more babies were arriving all the time—kicking and screaming, yelling for milk.
In some places people would actually try to eat mud or suck on gravel while babies were being born just a few feet away.
And so on.
Dwayne stayed in his vacant lot for a while. He played the radio. All the Midland City stations were asleep for the night, but Dwayne picked up a country music station in West Virginia, which offered him ten different kinds of flowering shrubs and five fruit trees for six dollars, C.O.D.
“Sounds good to me,” said Dwayne. He meant it. Almost all the messages which were sent and received in his country, even the telepathic ones, had to do with buying or selling some damn thing. They were like lullabies to Dwayne.
[The truck driver] had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.
Then Trout made a good point, too. “Well,” he said, “I used to be a conservationist. I used to weep and wail about people shooting bald eagles with automatic shotguns from helicopters and all that, but I gave it up. There’s a river in Cleveland which is so polluted that it catches fire about once a year. That used to make me sick, but I laugh about it now. When some tanker accidently dumps its load in the ocean, and kills millions of birds and billions of fish, I say, ‘More power to Standard Oil,’ or whoever it was that dumped it.” Trout raised his arms in celebration. “‘Up your ass with Mobil gas,’” he said.
The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it. Its mountains, which had once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.
The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.
It didn’t matter much what Dwayne said. It hadn’t mattered much for years. It didn’t matter much what most people in Midland City said out loud, except when they were talking about money or structures or travel or machinery—or other measurable things. Every person had a clearly defined part to play—as a black person, a female high school drop-out, a Pontiac dealer, a gynecologist, a gas-conversion burner installer. If a person stopped living up to expectations, because of bad chemicals or one thing or another, everybody went on imagining that the person was living up to expectations anyway.
Listen: Bunny’s mother and my mother were different sorts of human beings, but they were both beautiful in exotic ways, and they both boiled over with chaotic talk about love and peace and wars and evil and desperation, of better days coming by and by, of worse days coming by and by. And both our mothers committed suicide. Bunny’s mother ate Drāno. My mother ate sleeping pills, which wasn’t nearly as horrible.