10 April 2000
The "Others:" Female Characters
"What peculiarly signalizes the situation of woman is that She--a free and autonomous being like all other human creatures--nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the 'Other'"
--Simone de Beauvoir, Introduction to
The Second Sex, Knopf, XXXV.
Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions was written, as he says in the opening pages, "to clear my head of all the junk in there. . . . The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly" (5). Though Vonnegut wrote this book over twenty years after Simone de Beauvoir made her assessment of women's place in the world, his searing social critique shows that the position of women has not changed much, that they are still the "Others" in relation to men. A flawed society contributes to the situation, but Vonnegut shows that misplaced priorities, foolish behavior, and shallow ways of thinking lead to bad ends for women. In the descriptions of Patty Keene, Francine Pefko, Mary Alice Miller, and Beatrice Keedsler, it becomes evident that Vonnegut intends to show not only female submission to males, but also to show how the weaknesses in the present ways of thinking result in negative events .
In describing the character of Patty Keene, Vonnegut is also commenting on the general state of women, and the fact that very few seem to think for themselves. He says that Patty is "stupid on purpose, which was the case with most women in Midland City. The women all had big minds because they were big animals, but they did not use them much for this reason: unusual ideas could make enemies, and the women, if they were going to achieve any sort of comfort and safety, needed all the friends they could get" (136). Vonnegut then criticizes women for becoming "agreeing machines instead of thinking machines," since many form their opinions by merely finding out "what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too" (136).
Patty is a young waitress, at one of Dwayne Hoover's Burger Chef franchises, who must work to pay the substantial hospital bills her father left behind. When she sees Dwayne, she naively thinks that "he could do for her what the Fairy Godmother could do for Cinderella, if he wanted to" (137). She realizes that he holds money and power, and this makes him a "magical person" in her eyes (137). As she thinks about how he could help her solve her problems, Patty notices that Dwayne is acting strangely and seems depressed. This causes her to feel sorry for him, and turns her thoughts to how she can help Dwayne. Vonnegut writes, "Patty Keene was persuaded that she could make him happy with her young body, with her bravery and cheerfulness" (143). However, Patty's sympathy is clouded with materialistic thoughts of "all of the new and used cars Dwayne owned" (143). She is willing to prostitute herself, since Dwayne could "give her a fine house and new automobiles and nice clothes and a life of leisure, and he could pay all the medical bills . . . as easily as she had given him his hamburger and his French fries and his Coke" (137).
Francine Pefko, Dwayne Hoover's secretary and mistress, is the best example of a woman completely submissive to the will of man. She is a very efficient employee; at work she is described as "pure machinery. . . A machine made out of meat--a typing machine, a filing machine" (188). On a particularly busy afternoon, Dwayne asks her to go to a motel with him, and Francine thinks it is "her duty to go . . . especially since Dwayne seemed so depressed and jangled" (148). Her loyalty to Dwayne is unquestionable; she even has a Sacred Miracle Cave bumper sticker on her car, for Dwayne is part owner of that attraction. Vonnegut writes: "She was always doing loyal things like that, always rooting for her man" (150). Francine believes that "God made women so men could relax and be treated like little babies from time to time, and she is content with providing just that for her employer and lover (150). Dwayne explodes irrationally when there is a misunderstanding in their conversation, and this mortifies Francine. She ineffectually repeats "You're my man. You're my man," hoping to prove her utter devotion to him (160). Vonnegut interjects that "this meant she was willing to agree about anything with Dwayne, or do anything for him, no matter how difficult or disgusting, to think up nice things to do for him that he didn't even notice, to die for him, if necessary, and so on" (160). Francine's dogged loyalty is rewarded with a broken jaw and three broken ribs when Dwayne completely breaks down. As he drags her outside, Dwayne cruelly screams that Francine is the "Best 'fucking' machine in the state. . . . Wind her up, and she'll fuck you and say she loves you, and she won't shut up until you give her a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise,'" referring to their earlier argument (272).
Even the most accomplished and respected female characters in Midland City are viewed critically. Mary Alice Miller, at fifteen, is the "Women's Two Hundred Meter Breast Stroke Champion of the World," and is consequently a local celebrity (217). There is no question that she is talented, but we learn that her father "taught Mary Alice to swim when she was eight months old, and that he had made her swim at least four hours a day, every day, since she was three" (218). Vonnegut describes the negative effect that all this swimming has on her, since "her eyes were permanently inflamed. They looked like maraschino cherries" (255). When the visiting painter, Rabo Karabekian, hears how her father has driven her, he questions, "'What kind of man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?'" (218). When he criticizes the "one thing about their city which they had supposed was ridicule proof," this causes the townspeople to turn against Mary Alice Miller and her accomplishments. The local jeweler, Abe Cohen, "said this about Mary Alice, despising her sexlessness and her innocence and empty mind: 'Pure tuna fish!'" (255). One man's comments unfairly transform her from a source of Midland City pride into an object of scorn and ridicule. Mary Alice is first a victim of her father's overpowering will, and second of the fickle collective public opinion.
Beatrice Keedsler, a writer participating in the Festival of the Arts, is also depicted as somewhat trivial. She is a Gothic novelist, which is a genre characterized by frivolous romance stories with castles, ghosts, and archetypal heroines and villains. Vonnegut's narrator has no respect for her, and says that she "had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end" (209). Though she is not criticized specifically as a female, she does not use her artistic talent to elevate people's consciousness; rather she perpetuates misconceptions that people have about the way things are.
Though Kurt Vonnegut, and therefore Kilgore Trout, may not totally agree with Simone de Beauvoir that humans are "free and autonomous" creatures, he uses the female characters in Breakfast of Champions to portray some of the negative attributes of women in middle-class American society, circa 1973. In portraying materialistic Patty Keene, submissive Francine Pefko, dominated Mary Alice Miller, and frivolous Beatrice Keedsler, Vonnegut suggests that the women are not totally responsible for their weak behavior and ideas; rather that they are the products of an imperfect society in which females must submit to males. However, whatever the cause of the flawed ways fo thinking, the results are usually negative, especially for the women involved.
Copyright © 2000 by Heather Dail. All rights reserved.