Throughout Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut makes countless references to industrialization and repeatedly associates people with machinery. He reasons that some “machines” are made by their Creator—whoever that may be—to be women, some are made to be poor, some are made black, “and so on,” and their lives are a direct result of whatever they are engineered to be. The idea of people as machines creates a certain emotional distance between people, which in turn allows for terrible things to occur, such as war and exploitation. “Why should I care what happens to machines?” Dwayne Hoover asks at one point, giving voice to the callousness of society at large. The “machines” in Breakfast of Champions are generally unable to fight their programming, but there remains a small part of each of them that can’t be controlled—in other words, even though people seem programed to be this or that, they still have free will and have the capacity to change themselves and the world. Through his various depictions of humans as machines, Vonnegut argues that humankind needs to be reprogrammed to be more sensitive and empathetic—and Breakfast of Champions serves as a hard reset.
Dwayne Hoover, a mentally ill car salesman, is a prime example of the people-as-machines narrative in action. When faced with tragedy, Dwayne reverts to the idea that the people around him are mere machines, programmed to do one thing or another, which allows him to sidestep deep emotional pain. For Dwayne—and, it’s implied, for many others—the people-as-machines narrative is a way to avoid grappling with difficult emotions. When Dwayne explains why his wife, Celia, committed suicide by drinking Drāno (a drain-cleaning chemical), he yells, “I’ll tell you why: She was that kind of machine!” If Dwayne thinks of his wife as a machine who is programmed to kill herself, then he can avoid the painful implications of her death—that she was a terribly unhappy woman who struggled deeply with her mental health.
Dwayne’s birth mother receives similar treatment. When the novel first introduces Dwayne Hoover and reveals that he is adopted, Vonnegut describes Dwayne’s birth mother as “a defective child-bearing machine. She destroyed herself automatically while giving birth to Dwayne.” Here, Vonnegut seems to be explaining the way Dwayne thinks of his mother’s tragic death: she did not die due to blood loss or negligent care; instead she was a robot that simply malfunctioned. While this perhaps makes it easier for Dwayne to bear, it’s clearly not a healthy means of grappling with emotional pain—even as an adult, he still “[blows] up” in anger when anyone brings up adoption, which suggests that the people-as-machines narrative keeps people from wrestling with the painful emotions that desperately need to be faced.
Vonnegut further employs the analogy of people as machines to explain America’s history with slavery and war. By examining the people-as-machines narrative through a historical and political lens, Vonnegut shows how thinking of people as machines rather than flesh-and-blood human beings makes atrocities easier to stomach and justify, but it also perpetuates those atrocities. Vonnegut writes that early Americans “used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their decedents continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.” In other words, the history of slavery is easier for white Americans to accept if slaves are considered functional machines rather than real people. Further, white Americans still cling to this mindset as a means to avoid facing how “embarrassing” it is that they so deeply dehumanized black people.
The people-as-machines mindset justifies atrocities and sustains them. Vonnegut even explains World War II in terms of machines, writing that it was “staged by robots so that Dwayne Hoover could give a free-willed reaction to such a holocaust.” Dwayne, who is mentally ill, reads one of Kilgore’s novels in which the reader is the only “non-robot” with free will in the universe, and he mistakes it for reality. Kilgore’s novel—and Dwayne’s newly adopted worldview—thus suggests that WWII soldiers and affected civilians aren’t real human beings, which, like Vonnegut’s reference to slavery, makes the countless atrocities and war crimes committed easier to accept.
Although Vonnegut paints a bleak picture of humankind through its reliance on the humans-as-machines narrative, he offers a glimmer of hope for overturning it. He argues that awareness of the simple but apparently much-ignored fact that people have free will—meaning that they are not actually machines—can help humankind gain empathy for one another and forge a productive path forward. At first, Vonnegut himself seems to cleave to the humans-as-machines mindset, as he describes himself inventing his characters just as an engineer designs a machine. As he introduces Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut writes, “I do know who invented Kilgore Trout. I did. I made him snaggle-toothed. I gave him hair, but I turned it white. I wouldn’t let him comb it or go to a barber. I made him grow it long and tangled.” Despite being “the Creator,” however, Vonnegut admits that his control over his characters is limited. Since the characters are “such big animals,” Vonnegut says, “there is inertia to overcome. It isn’t as though I’m connected to them by steel wires. It is more as though I am connected to them by stale rubberbands.” Vonnegut’s characters take on a life of their own—almost like a form of free will—which affects Vonnegut’s ability to “control” them.
Even though he’s writing about fictional characters, this speaks to the broader idea that human beings are not mere machines and have thoughts and feelings of their own, which are worth respecting. In examining the way his characters grow into “people” in their own right, Vonnegut implicitly makes a call to action, encouraging readers to break the pattern of thinking of people as machines and instead remember that their peers are living, breathing human beings with their own ideas and desires.
People and Machines ThemeTracker
People and Machines 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.
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.
And he went on staring at me, even though I wanted to stop him now. Here was the thing about my control over the characters I created: I could only guide their movements approximately, since they were such big animals. There was inertia to overcome. It wasn’t as though I was connected to them by steel wires. It was more as though I was connected to them by stale rubberbands.
“I now give you my word of honor,” he went on, “that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal—the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”
“I am approaching my fiftieth birthday, Mr. Trout,” I said. “I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoy freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.”
“You are the only one I am telling. For the others, tonight will be a night like any other night. Arise, Mr. Trout, you are free, you are free.”