After Dwayne Hoover’s wife, Celia, who incidentally is “crazy as a bedbug,” commits suicide by drinking Drāno (a drain-cleaning chemical), Dwayne begins to struggle with his own mental health. The stress of his wife’s death, in addition to his homosexual son, Bunny’s, revelation that he is really a woman, causes Dwayne to completely take leave of his senses, and he spirals into insanity, lashing out violently at his son and other innocent citizens of Midland City. Dwayne has “bats in his bell tower,” Vonnegut explains. “He is off his rocker. He isn’t playing with a full deck of cards.” Dwayne’s insanity progresses slowly, and while he presents with plenty of warning signs, they go largely ignored in Midland City. Vonnegut suggests that Dwayne’s community is complicit in the violence resulting from his mental breakdown, and he portrays mental illness as a widespread epidemic affecting nearly everyone in town. Dwayne and his wife are not the only characters in Breakfast of Champions suffering with mental illness in one form or another, and suicide is a common occurrence. In this way, Vonnegut highlights the prevalence of mental illness in American society, and argues the importance of recognizing warning signs, which all too often are ignored or minimalized.
Breakfast of Champions is riddled with portrayals of mental illness, and they are far from gentle. In the beginning of the novel, Vonnegut mentions that men with syphilis were “common spectacles in downtown Indianapolis and in circus crowds” when he was a boy. Their brains “were infested with carnivorous little corkscrews which could be seen only with a microscope,” and these corkscrews caused them to behave very strangely.
Vernon Garr, one of the employees in Dwayne’s Pontiac dealership, has a wife, Mary, who suffers from schizophrenia. Mary frequently hallucinates and thinks that Vernon is “trying to turn her brains into plutonium.” Bunny, who lives the life of a depressed hermit in a “flophouse” on Midland’s City’s “Skid Row,” responds “so grotesquely” to his father’s psychotic break that there is “talk of putting [him] in the booby hatch, too.” Vonnegut’s repeated references to mental illness underscores the frequency with which mental disorders occur in American society. There are very few characters who are not in some way touched by mental illness, and the same can be said for mainstream society as well.
As Dwayne begins to go insane, no one in his life pays much attention, and many people don’t even seem to notice, highlighting the common impulse to avoid sensitive topics like mental health. For example, although Dwayne is typically a kind and generous employer and friend, his long-time employee, Harry LeSabre, barely says a word when Dwayne attacks him out of the blue for wearing drab clothing. Dwayne threatens to fire Harry because of his boring neckties, and while this behavior is out of character for Dwayne, Harry tells no one, expect his wife, Grace, and Francine, Dwayne’s secretary. As a symptom of his insanity, Dwayne also develops echolalia, a condition that causes him to repeat the last words of every sentence spoken to him. Dwayne goes all over town repeating people and no one says a word about it.
It is only after Dwayne’s insanity culminates in a violent outburst in which he beats Bunny’s face into the keys a baby grand piano, that people claim to be “furious with themselves for not noticing the danger signals in Dwayne’s behavior, for ignoring his obvious cries for help.” The local newspaper publishes a “deeply sympathetic editorial” entitled “A Cry For Help,” which implores people “to watch each other for danger signals.” Midland City is appropriately concerned, but it is too late. Vonnegut argues that instead of watching Dwayne unravel and later commenting on it, if others had simply offered Dwayne some help, his breakdown may have been avoided.
Vonnegut furthers draws attention to mental illness when he writes of his personal struggles with mental health problems. Vonnegut claims that while Bunny’s mother drinks Drāno, his own mother had committed suicide years earlier by an overdose of sleeping pills, “which wasn’t nearly as horrible,” he says. Though Vonnegut’s novel is fictional, this is a true detail from the author’s life. Thus mental illness and suicide aren’t simply tropes in Vonnegut’s novel; they are rooted in his own life experiences.
Near the end of the novel, Vonnegut begins talking to himself and says, “this is a very bad book you’re writing.” Vonnegut replies, “I know.” He then tells himself: “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did.” He answers, “I know.” Vonnegut is quite literally having a conversation with himself, which suggests that he isn’t well, but it also implies that he needs to talk about his mental health. In the absence of an actual person, he talks to himself. Sitting in a bar with the characters of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut repeats the word “schizophrenia” to himself over and over again. The word has “fascinated” Vonnegut for years. He claims that he “did not and does not know for certain that he has this disease,” but he certainly makes himself “hideously uncomfortable” by not believing “what his neighbors believe.” Vonnegut’s willingness to disclose his own struggles with mental illness lends increased weight to his argument that mental illness is common and pernicious in American society.
In a way, Vonnegut himself reaches out for help, and he implies that his own illness goes far beyond occasional suicidal ideations. Vonnegut talks about little white pills that a doctor tells him to “take in moderation, two a day, in order not to feel blue,” which implies he needs daily medication to treat his own mental illness and function normally in society. Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s attempt to destigmatize mental illness by acknowledging the realty and prevalence of mental disorders.
Mental Health ThemeTracker
Mental Health 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.
It shook up Trout to realize that even he could bring evil into the world—in the form of bad ideas. And, after Dwayne was carted off to a lunatic asylum in a canvas camisole, Trout became a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases.
But nobody would listen to him. He was a dirty old man in the wilderness, crying out among the trees and underbrush, “Ideas or the lack of them can cause disease!”
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.
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.
There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia.
The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes.
I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.
Dwayne was hoping that some of the distinguished visitors to the Arts Festival, who were all staying at the Inn, would come into the cocktail lounge. He wanted to talk to them, if he could, to discover whether they had truths about life which he had never heard before. Here is what he hoped new truths might do for him: enable him to laugh at his troubles, to go on living, and to keep out of the North Wing of the Midland County General Hospital, which was for lunatics.