Player Piano Summary

Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano

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Player Piano Summary

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Player Piano (1952) is the first novel of American writer Kurt Vonnegut. Like so many of Vonnegut’s novels, it depicts the dystopia of automation in the near future, and the detriment this causes to quality of life. Significant themes are mechanization, class struggles, dystopian fiction, technology, and the uses of irony and sentimentality.

Player Piano begins shortly after the futuristic third world war. When so many Americans were fighting overseas, the nation’s workforce was greatly depleted. Ingenious automated systems were developed, which rid factories and other work forces of human labour completely. Now, ten years after the war, machines have replaced everyone’s jobs. The population of Illium, a fictional place that appears in many of Vonnegut’s novels, is divided into engineers and managers, versus “The Homestead,” which is everyone else.

Two plot lines develop, and converge only briefly. The more prominent is that of Dr. Paul Proteus. He is an intelligent, thirty-five-year-old factory worker at Illium Works. The lesser plot line follows an American tour of the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of a fictional, undeveloped third world nation. These give two perspectives, one from the inside, and one from without. Paul is everything a man within the system should be, while the Shah is a visitor and sees everything through a much different lense.

Paul begins as an uncritical cog in the system, but develops into one of its most outspoken critics. Paul’s father was the first “National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director.” Dr. George Proteus has near complete control over the nation’s economy, and was more powerful than the President. Paul inherited his father’s status, but has a vague dissatisfaction with the industrial system before him. He struggles with this unnameable distress. Ed Finnerty, an old friend, tells him that he quit his important engineering job in Washington, D.C. They get together at a bar in the Homestead. There, they meet Lasher, a minister who has an M.A. in anthropology, and is able to put into words the unfairness of the system that the other men struggle to voice.

Lasher tells them he is the leader of a rebel group, the “Ghost Shirt Society.” Finnerty joins the group instantly; Paul hesitates. But soon after, his superiors ask him to betray Finnerty and Lasher. Paul secretly purchases a run-down farm, where he plans to start a new life living off the land with his wife, Anita. Anita, however, is disgusted with Paul, and criticises his desire to leave society and radically change their lifestyle. It becomes clear to the reader that Paul and Anita’s relationship is one of emotional distance and fundamental disagreements. They had married young and quickly, when it had seemed that Anita was pregnant. It turned out soon after that Anita was barren. Anita is extremely resentful towards Paul, who is a reminder that the only reason she hates the Homesteaders as much as she does is because if she hadn’t married him, she would be one of them, too. Anita is able to temporarily convince Paul to stay at in his position at work. She argues for him to continue the competition between him and two other engineers, Dr. Shepherd and Dr. Garth. The three of them have been vying for a more prominent position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

However, rumours begin to spread of Paul’s disloyalty to the system, including some examples of suspicious activity while helping to host the “Meadows.” This is an annual competition for all high-class engineers. While these rumours spread, Paul decides he is going to join his friend Finnerty, and the rest of the rebels, even if he has to do it without Anita. He feels that it is necessary to stop the socio-economic system, which includes the replacement of human labourers with machines.

Paul quits his job and joins the Ghost Shirt Society, where he becomes the public figurehead of the organization. It is noted that this position is only nominal, of course. Because of his father’s success and fame, Paul’s name is famous among all the citizens, so they plan to use his name to their advantage. They will make him the false leader to gain publicity. Paul is soon arrested and put on trial, but is freed when the Ghost Shirt Society and the general population begins to riot. They destroy the automated factories, and the mob, once it begins, is hard to stop. The mob begins to destroy everything, including food production plants and the superfluous plants as well. Though it started off successfully, the military soon seizes control again, by surrounding the town. The citizenry, so used to the system and its comforts, begins to rebuild the machines on its own.

Paul, Finnerty, and Lasher surrender themselves to the military along with the rest of the Ghost Shirt Society, but not before acknowledging that at least they tried to stop the government’s system.