Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

"I Could Carve a Better Man out of a Banana" Masculinity, the Dominant Fiction, and Historical Trauma in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut
by Tuttle, Kerstin, M.A., University of South Dakota, 2018, 94; 10930795
Abstract (Summary)

This project analyzes historical trauma, the dominant fiction, and male subjectivity as theorized by Kaja Silverman in selected Kurt Vonnegut novels.

Chapter one examines Billy Pilgrim, the focal character of Slaughterhouse-Five , as well as Vonnegut-as-narrator by analyzing the way these two men exhibit Kaja Silverman’s notions of historical trauma, characterized by their failures to embody proper hegemonic masculinity as exhibited in popular culture and the dominant fiction. Despite Billy’s comically absurd failures as a soldier and a civilian man, he survives the war and lives a financially successful civilian life, though he’s seen by nearly all as a laughingstock of a man. Billy is a male subject whose very existence calls into question the penis/phallus equation: the symbolically and psychoanalytically significant linkage of the male sex organ with the signifier of sexual difference and, perhaps more importantly, power. His survival refuses to endorse the violent assumption that war turns boys into men, a belief in the regenerative properties of violence, a popular American mythology, especially during the WWII and Vietnam war eras.

In chapter two, I examine John, the protagonist of Cat’s Cradle. While John does not experience combat traumas as Billy and Vonnegut-as-narrator do, John experiences a loss of belief in society’s organizing principles and narratives, in turn causing him to doubt his own power as a male subject.

Chapter three details Howard W. Campbell, Jr., of Mother Night , a former Nazi propagandist awaiting trial for war crimes. Campbell’s character is Vonnegut’s attempt to work through Hanna Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, while also dealing with the loss of social and phallic power. As Campbell loses everything he once found joy in during his life as a Nazi, he also loses his belief in the commensurability of the penis and the phallus, unable to exist as the man he once was.

While my selections of Vonnegut’s texts all delve into World War II either explicitly or at the margins, I argue that Vonnegut is primarily concerned with the events of the 1960s, the decade in which Slaughterhouse-Five , Cat’s Cradle, and Mother Night were published. All of these characters’ experiences are analogous to several cultural anxieties of the American 1960s: the Eichmann trial, the Vietnam war, the spread of communism, the Cuban missile crisis, and changing notions of acceptable masculinity. As such, I hope to establish that the penis/phallus equation upon which our society’s reality is maintained is continually in danger of rupture, though through cultural binding, the equation and its organizing principles continue to shape male subjectivity and American culture as a whole.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Willman, Skip
Commitee: Dudley, John, Genna, Raimondo
School: University of South Dakota
Department: English
School Location: United States -- South Dakota
Source: MAI 58/01M(E), Masters Abstracts International
Subjects: Literature, American literature, Gender studies
Keywords: Gender, Historical trauma, Masculinity, Phallus, Vonnegut
Publication Number: 10930795
ISBN: 978-0-438-29427-1
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