Welcome to the Monkey House (short story) Kurt Vonnegut

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I originally read this story during my first year of university as part of a North American Literature module. The story stuck with me, partly because it was the only interesting read in the entire module, and partly because it is so darned controversial in many respects. The story tackles issues of sexual abuse, criminality, global population issues, prostitution, euthanasia, contraception and conservative religion. Not only that but this controversy is all wrapped up into a few short pages.

The story is set in a dystopian future where the global population has reached 17 billion, partly due to an anti-aging serum that the population is injected with twice a year. For this reason the government has set up a double-edged strategy to tackle this problem: government-endorsed euthanasia clinics that encourage members of the population to painlessly give up their lives and contraceptive injections that numb the population from the waist down to discourage sex (contraceptive pills would be unethical, where as destroying the pleasure of sex is fiiiiine)

Our main character is a woman called Nancy, a 63 year old who looks 22 and is 6ft tall, blonde, curvy, with black belt martial arts skills and two degrees who works in one of the suicide clinics. Nancy is a typical euthanasia clinic worker: they are required to be intelligent, beautiful, scantily clad and most importantly a virgin – to show that they comply with the government standards and regulations. Nancy’s job is to provide a good and tantalizing experience for those who have agreed to give up their lives – often old people who have not been taking the anti-aging serum and so are wrinkly and old.

Around this point we discover two things. The first is that the numbing injections were thought up by the Christian Right, initially in response to viewing monkeys having sex at the zoo, as they thought it uncouth and immoral. They feel that preventing procreation is against God’s will, but dissuading people from having sex is both a good thing and an effective preventative of reproduction.

We also find out that there is a criminal called Billy the Poet on the loose, who is a ‘nothing head’ – someone who refuses to take the numbing injections. We are informed that Billy’s offences include abducting and raping euthanasia parlour hostesses and he is rumoured to be attempting to abduct one of the hostesses at Nancy’s parlour.

Despite the police’s best attempts to prevent Billy from doing so, he manages to abduct Nancy and takes her to an underground facility where he waits for the effects of the numbing injection to wear off and then rapes her. The rape is described as being almost clinical, with Billy taking no particular enjoyment from the act and simply wishing to get it done. Nancy’s captors and the ones that allow this to take place include other parlour hostesses who were also raped by Billy. Nancy is then left to herself on a bed, where she is treated kindly and Billy finally comes to talk to her to explain why he raped her. We discover that Billy is an activist fighting against the Government’s regulation of sex and who believes that the numbing injections are not the right way to control the population considering the fact that birth control pills are available but are not used for religious reasons. He therefore forcibly de-virginizes women while they are not numbed to try and encourage them to learn to love sex and cease having the numbing injections. Billy admits that what he did was cruel, but necessary in his opinion and that he hopes Nancy will find someone whom she can now enjoy sex with. Furthermore Billy compares his rape of her to that of virgin brides on wedding night and states that many of those brides went on to have voracious sexual appetites. Billy then gives Nancy some birth control pills and allows her to leave, encouraging her to go out and enjoy sex.

The story is highly controversial not least because of its questioning rape as a criminal act. Do we at the end of the book view Billy as a violent rapist, or someone who is compassionately, if forcibly, trying to free women from their sexual cages – as the other hostesses feel he did for them. The story also questions the purpose of sex, and if it needs to be both recreational and procreational in order to fulfil its purpose. We are faced with two sides of the same coin: the government who aims to control birth rates by making sex non-recreational and Billy, who aims to control birth rates by making it non-procreational. Other controversies include the euthanasia parlours and their purpose as sexualised death-brothels, where the workers dress like prostitutes while also being virgins, the issues of euthanasia and wanting to stay young forever as well as questioning how involved church and state should be in the affairs of the general public. I could quite happily write a dissertation on this story – it is completely packed with awesome contention. The added bonus that it is short also means that boredom is avoided and every sentence has purpose and it cram packed full of important stuff. Well worth a quick read and less-quick analysis!

Review by Liz 🙂

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