60 pages 2 hours read

Player Piano

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1952

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Originally published in 1952, Player Piano is Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel. Set in a dystopian future where humanity has given control of almost all of its decisions and jobs to machines, Player Piano details the struggles and ironies of humanity’s attempt at a reclamation of human purposefulness.

Doctor Paul Proteus serves as the head of the Ilium plant—one of many such plants across the United States that have popped up after the Third World War. Everything about the labor of these plants is automated, except for the people that help design and fix the machines. Social classesare separated greatly, and wealth inequality is high. There is the engineer-class, who thrive in this new world, and everyone else, who is relegated to either the army or the Reeks and Reclamation Corps.

Paul, though bred by his famous manager father to be a powerful leader in the industry, has his reservations about the actual good of this new industrial revolution. Ed Finnerty, his old friend, only adds to this further. Finnerty, a disheveled freethinker, ignites a flame in Paul to live by his own hands, machine-less. Paul’s wife, Anita, protests this new change in Paul, encouraging him to stay on the path that will land him a promotion to a plant in Pittsburgh.

Paul continues down the path that leads away from this promotion by hanging out in Homestead, the area for the lower-class citizens. He finds himself enjoying the real lives he finds there. He even buys an old dilapidated farmhouse for him and Anita to live in. Anita balks at the idea, and refuses. Paul tells Anita that he plans to quit his job, and he wants her support. Anita refuses, telling him that she loves another man.

Meanwhile, another, smaller storyline takes place. The Shah of Bratpuhr is lead around by Doctor Halyard, an ambassador, and a translator. The Shah is fascinated by the United States, and particularly by the lack of spirituality amongst its citizens. He keeps calling citizens slaves in his own native language and can’t understand why they are considered anything else. As much as Halyard tries to convince him of the efficiency of the U.S.’s lifestyle and society, the Shah remains impressed but skeptical of life there.

These storylines merge when Paul is asked infiltrate the Ghost Shirt Society, a revolutionary organization run by Lasher, a preacher, and Finnerty. Paul is fired, though he planned to quit anyway, and finds himself with the Society. The Society plans to destroy the machines and restore a sense of dignity in humanity. Eventually, Paul goes on trial to defend his actions with the Society, and a revolution breaks out. Halyard and the Shah find themselves in the middle of the revolution. The Ghost Shirts are successful at taking Ilium, but elsewhere in the country, not everyone is successful. They also notice that people can’t help but try and fix the machines because that’s what many of them are good at. The leaders, including Paul, turn themselves in.

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