Kurt Vonnegut


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Galapagos Summary

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In his novel Galápagos, American author Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of a group of mismatched humans who are shipwrecked on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos Islands. The book is narrated from the perspective of Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s frequently used character, science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout, from one million years in the future. Leon was beheaded while working as a shipbuilder. Now, his ghost haunts a cruise ship that carries tourists to the Galápagos Islands.

As the ship is preparing to set sail, the world economy suffers a massive breakdown due to the heavy burden of unchecked global debt. This triggers the beginning of World War III. Even these catastrophes are not the determining factor in the extinction of the human race. Rather, a corkscrew-like microorganism that has the ability to destroy ovaries, preventing people from procreating is the cause.

Things start to take a turn for the worst in the port of Guayaquil where the ship is docked, as chaos is incited due to the rapid decline of humanity. Ten people manage to escape the conflict on the cruise ship, headed for the Galápagos Islands. They make it to Santa Rosalia. They are now the only people on earth who have the ability to reproduce, although there is only one male present, the ship’s captain. The rest of the group is women, including an Indianapolis schoolteacher who eventually becomes the mother of the new human race. She impregnates six Indian girls using the captain’s sperm. The male line survives in the baby of a Japanese woman. He is born furry as the result of a genetic mutation caused when his grandparents were caught in the atom bombing of Hiroshima.

Over the next million years, this genetic mutation causes the humans to eventually evolve into a furry species resembling sea lions. They are still able to walk upright, but now have a snout as well as teeth that have developed in order to help them catch fish. Their skulls have morphed into a more streamlined shape to help them as they move through the water, and they now have flipper-like hands with small, rudimentary fingers.

The book is heavily influenced by Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory. Narrated by the spirit of Leon, he watches as the evolution occurs. Leon is a Vietnam War veteran who was heavily affected by his experiences in combat. In order to escape the horrors of war, Leon went AWOL and settled in Sweden where he became a shipbuilder. Leon dies one day during the construction of a ship called the Bahia de Darwin. The trip was originally billed as a celebrity cruise, boasting of being “the Nature Cruise of the Century.” The ship remained in limbo for a while due to the extreme economic downturn.

Kilgore Trout makes several appearances throughout the novel, urging his son to enter the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife. Leon continues to decline until finally, his father states that he and the blue tunnel will not return for another million years. Leon remains trapped in limbo on the ship, left to observe the slow evolution through which the humans adapt to become aquatic animals.

Trout maintains that the real villain of the story is the human brain; it is at the root of what causes all human suffering and hardship. Trout believes that the human brain is actually oversized and acts as a detriment when required to actually survive in nature. It would seem that Trout is onto something as the humans evolve to have more streamlined heads that allow them to cut through the water but also require them to have smaller brains.

Although the author maintains his typical humorous airs throughout Galápagos, Vonnegut also delivers some grim warnings through the narrative of the book. He urges the reader to contemplate the status of the world’s economic situation, rife with inequalities that result in massive starvation and in debts that threaten the monetary system.
There are warnings about the possibilities of accidental war, of conflict over deeply ingrained human opinions and of new viruses made dangerous by environmental damage to immune systems. Behind all these ideas, though, looms the overriding danger of what humans are themselves, here presented as the danger posed by their oversized brains.

Galápagos ultimately affirms human decency, perhaps most notably in its portrayal of women. While many of the men are impaired or incompetent, the women, particularly the central mother figure, Mary Hepburn, cope, survive, and nurture. Even the ghostly narrator rejects his father’s cynicism and his own tormented past to become reconciled. The epigraph, borrowed from Anne Frank, is appropriate: “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”