Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions
is an anti-novel: that is, it is a novel-length work of fictional prose, but it flouts many of the techniques common to the modern novel. For example, Vonnegut intrudes into the story in multiple places. The starkest intrusion comes in the beginning, when he lays out the plot. In this way, Breakfast of Champions
is much like a Renaissance play, which uses the chorus to reveal the plot in a stanza or two. Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
. The fate of the star-crossed lovers is revealed at the beginning of the play. Another convention Vonnegut turns upside down is the idea of justice. He indiscriminately punishes characters in his book, regardless of whether they are the antagonist or the protagonist.
The two main characters of Breakfast of Champions
are Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover. Kilgore is a pessimistic man, a writer, and window-frame installer. He has one son and three ex-wives. At the beginning of the story, he lives alone in New York. He is a prolific science fiction writer, and has written novels and hundreds of short stories. However, though he has been occasionally published, he rarely knows about it since he submits his work to random publications without following up. What little work has been published has appeared in pornographic magazines. That's why, when he receives an invitation to speak at the Midland City Arts Festival, he is surprised. He decides to go and speak about being an unknown, unsuccessful writer.
Dwayne Hoover, who has read one of Trout’s stories and was impressed, invites him to speak at the festival. Hoover is in the midst of experiencing a psychotic break. Heartbroken over his wife's recent suicide, and disappointed in his adult son, he seeks fulfillment through an affair with his secretary. Hoover is an affluent man; in addition to owning an automobile dealership, he claims ownership in many of the businesses in Midland City.
Kilgore Trout represents the failing of arts and culture in the face of capitalism, represented by Hoover's character.
After deciding to attend the festival, Trout resolves to hitchhike halfway across the continental United States to attend. Hoover has sent him a sizable sum of money for attending and speaking at the festival, but he intends to save it by traveling on the cheap. In lieu of reserving a hotel, he chooses to sleep in an adult film theater. When the theater closes for the night, he is kicked out onto the street, where he gets beaten up and robbed. Trout ends up spending the night at the police station before he continues on to Midland City. Not only does this part tell the reader a lot about Trout as a character, it also tells the reader what the author believes will come of capitalism.
Finally, Trout reaches Midland City. He runs into Hoover, who demands Trout give him a message. In response, Trout gives Hoover a copy of one of his novels, which he quickly reads. The premise of the novel is that the reader is the only person left on earth with free will, that everyone else has been programmed to suit the reader's entertainment. Because he is having a mental breakdown, Hoover believes the novel to be the truth. His response is to violently beat his lover, his son, and nine others before the police apprehend him.The Breakfast of Champions
explores a number of themes, including the responsibility of the artist, if any. This debate has continued to cycle through society in the decades since Vonnegut's book was published in the 1970s. Trout's book convinces Hoover that he is the only person left with free will. Does the book bear any responsibility for nudging Hoover into insanity? Is Trout responsible for Hoover’s assault on eleven people, including his own son? Vonnegut doesn't answer this question, but poses it as part of his discussion of the value and place of art in society. This brings up another theme of Breakfast of Champions
. Can art and culture coexist with capitalism? Or is the relationship between the two too fractious? The fact that both Hoover and Trout are punished in Vonnegut's book suggests that they cannot coexist. Hoover losing his mind suggests that capitalism must give way to art and culture.
In keeping with the discussion of the impact of capitalism, Breakfast of Champions
was originally packaged to look like a box of cereal, hinting at the humorous element often found within Vonnegut's works.