The Vonnegut Zone - Galápagos


by Kurt Vonnegut

Commentary found through Gale Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography:

A visit to the Galápagos Islands was the inspiration for this Vonnegut novel. That he would make the journey, furthering not just his general scientific interests but in particular his interest in fauna and their evolution, seems appropriate. Many years before, when he had made a field trip west with a group of teachers and students from Shortridge High School, Vonnegut had been the "biologist" of the expedition, collecting and annotating samples. Three years in the making, Galápagos (1985) shows the labor in its polish and density. The axis around which the novel revolves is Charles Darwin and the evolutionary theory of natural selection. One of the reasons for the slow evolution of the novel itself was Vonnegut's great concern to have it be scientifically sound, which involved research and thought. He was consequently highly gratified to be told by the famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University that he had gotten it right.

Vonnegut has always had a warm spot for animals - in his high-school writing he took the pen name "Ferdy" from the children's book Ferdinand the Bull - and has frequently drawn on the deep impressions made by his visit to the Galápagos. Also, Darwin has always fascinated Vonnegut . He never has liked the notion of "survival of the fittest" (a precept upon which he casts doubt), in which every death is a triumph of progress, and he dislikes any doctrine that might be used even to imply that there is justification for the subjugation of the weak. Darwinian evolution as a rational and logical progression toward superiority, whether in the survival of species or as a social metaphor, is something he has consistently rejected on both moral and scientific grounds. He rejects it morally as a justification for oppression and scientifically as simply not supported by the more random and convoluted sequences the facts reveal.

The story has two parts, "The Thing Was" and "And the Thing Became." The thirty-eight chapters of the first part trace the baroque interplay of the random and the inevitable whereby a cast of ten comes to be the Noah's Ark of human survival. The fourteen chapters of the second part take these characters to Santa Rosalia, one of the Galápagos Islands. They evade the insidious virus that ends the rest of the human race, not with the usual apocalyptic bang but with the whimper of infertility. That the fifty-two chapters equal the weeks of the year fits much else in this book, which at every turn manifests evolution over periods of time.

A million years later humans have evolved to have fur, flippers, and streamlined heads like seals, a consequence of a typical mix of freak circumstance and gradual adaptation. They are much happier because without hands they cannot use tools or weapons. Additionally, they no longer have the large, overactive brains that invented lies, caused other trouble, and were generally as burdensome and lethal as any other evolutionary overadaptation.

The theme of evolution permeates the book, even governing the form. Vonnegut has described his books as mosaics in which each tile is a joke. This description certainly fits in this case, where chapter after chapter ends with the punch line of a joke. But each joke evolves from the last, and the larger joke of the whole situation - be it the first step of selecting the final ten survivors and getting them to the island or evolution one million years in the future - evolves out of a sea of coincidence and happenstance, as if everything conspires to thwart an inevitable destiny. The longer, first part of the novel, with its many names and complications, initially seems confusing because of this technique. But this confusion of characters and events proves effective, illustrating the nature of evolution: that it is not all triumph of the fittest or grand design, but that it sifts itself out of chance and coincidence. The evolutionary processes of life, Vonnegut insists, are contingent.

Another form of evolution in Galápagos comes in the narration. Vonnegut does not enter this novel to speak directly, as he does in many previous novels. Instead his narrator turns out to be the son of his fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout. This intertextual device makes it seem as if Vonnegut's novel has evolved out of his own earlier writing, as if characters from a fiction are making a fiction. This implies the contemporary perception of the artist as a product of his or her art rather than the traditional opposite view. Vonnegut uses other techniques associated with postmodernism: fragmentation through short chapters and subdivisions; shifts in setting, time, and character; random, noncausal events; Darwin's biography mixed with Trout's science fiction; and the use of the fictive worlds of Vonnegut's earlier novels.

Vonnegut frequently has used distancing devices such as looking at the earth through the eyes of an extraterrestrial or from another planet or assessing society from the perspective of another age or culture. These distances are used to great effect in Galápagos. Human social behavior is measured against timeless evolutionary adaptations. The narrator views everything from the perspective of the year A.D. 1001986. As a result Vonnegut achieves the kinds of distances and fresh perspectives that Swift created through remote locations and changing scales in Gulliver's Travels (1726). Vonnegut thus examines current issues, such as the imbalances of the world's economies or the dangers implicit in accelerating armament procurement, in striking new terms. One way in which Vonnegut conceives of his task as a writer is to view it as being like a scientist who asks, "What if?" The scientist conducts experiments to see what might happen given certain conditions. So can the writer, says Vonnegut, and he enjoys this because it is also a playful process. In Slapstick he asks, "What if gravity were not a constant force?" In Galápagos he asks, "What if everyone died except an isolated group? How would they evolve?" There is, as he has admitted, a certain sophomoric naiveté about such questions, but that is the source of their freshness and vigor. Galápagos shows that, in his sixties, Vonnegut still had that sense of lively irreverence. It fuels his humor and arms his attacks on often-specious platitudes and conventional wisdom.

Galápagos warns against the arrogance of humanity's self-assurance in its own intelligence and its dogmatic opinionatedness. This arrogance emerges in the self-righteousness with which people impose opinions, subjugate others, abuse animals, and devastate the planet. Even the assumption that humans will end the world with their own weapons is undercut when the species is brought to extinction by a humble virus. Out of the irreverence of the book, finally, emerges the kindly but rather weary avuncular voice, so frequent in Vonnegut's work, that speaks the moral warnings of the novel. Evolution allows him to take the long view and look at human endeavors with his characteristic mix of detached amusement and compassion, despite seeing cause for pessimism. After all, he takes as his epigraph Anne Frank's stubborn assertion, "In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart."

Written by: Peter J. Reed, University of Minnesota Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 152: American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, Updated Entry. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. The Gale Group, 1995. pp. 248-272.

Review found through NoveList:

Publishing Information:
Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence, copyright 1985. 295p.
Subject Headings:
Science fiction, American
Galapagos Islands

Web References:
A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut Features Vonnegut's bibliography and links to other web sites about the author
Kurt Vonnegut Corner Features Vonnegut's biography, photos, and discussions and analysis of Vonnegut's works
Hennepin County Public Library

Literary Criticism:

  • FERGUSON, OLIVER W. 1999. History and Story: Leon Trout's Double Narrative in Galapagos. Critique 40 (Spring): 230-238.


    Allen, William Rodney, ed. Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut. Jackson and London: UP of Mississippi, 1988.

    ------. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991.

    Berryman, Charles. "Vonnegut and Evolution: Galapagos." Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Robert Merrill. Boston: Hall, 1990. 188-99.

    Broer, Lawrence R. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Revised ed. Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabama P, 1994.

    Granville-Barker, Harley. "King Lear." Prefaces to Shakespeare. London: Batsford,1958.

    Tanner, Tony, "The Uncertain Messenger: A Reading of Slaughterhouse-Five." Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. 125-30.

    Vonnegut, Kurt, Galapagos. New York: Delacorte, 1985.

    ------. Palm Sunday. New York: Delacorte, 1981.

    ------. Player Piano. New York: Avon, 1971.

    ------. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Delacorte, 1969.

    Wymer, Thomas L. "The Swiftian Satire of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." Voices for the Future. Ed. Thomas D. Clareson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1976. 238-62.

  • "Joy and Acceptance: Galapagos and Bluebeard"

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