American author Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s short story “Welcome to the Monkey House” (1968) was first published in Playboy
magazine and later in an anthology of the same name. Set in a world where overpopulation is out of control, the government urges its citizens to commit suicide and runs “Ethical Suicide Parlors” where virgin hostesses guide patrons to their deaths. The government also represses sexual desire with drugs. The government is pursuing the notorious criminal Billy the Poet, who rejects the drugs and intends to deflower one of the hostesses. Exploring themes of sexuality, sexual coercion, forced egalitarianism, and the way governments might deal with overpopulation, “Welcome to the Monkey House” is one of Vonnegut’s most controversial and discussed short stories, and has been adapted twice—first as part of the 1972 TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu
, and in 1991 by Showtime as Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House
“Welcome to the Monkey House” opens with Sheriff Pete Crocker of Barnstable County arriving at the Hyannis Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor to warn the hostesses, Nancy McLuhan and Mary Kraft, that the criminal Billy the Poet is approaching the parlor. The police do not know what he looks like, but it is known that Billy is a “Nothinghead”—someone who rejects the “Ethical Birth Control” which deadens sexual desire by numbing people’s genitals. This reduces procreation to a minimum by eliminating the pleasure element. Mary and Nancy, like all hostesses at the suicide parlors, are virgins and highly trained in self-defense. They are not concerned that Billy the Poet might want to have sex with them and have no fear of him. A mailman arrives with a letter from Billy the Poet addressed to Nancy. It contains lyrics
to a dirty song, but she ignores it. Instead, she attends to the needs of one of her clients, nicknamed “Foxy Grandpa” because he has not been taking his anti-aging shots. She helps him pick a last meal before his death and listens to him tell the story of J. Edgar Nation, the man who invented ethical birth control to try to control the sexual behavior of monkeys at the Grand Rapids Zoo. He claims he was with Nation when they visited the monkey house.
Nancy receives a phone call with another dirty rhyme
by a man who says he is delivering it for a friend. He is arrested after finishing his rhyme, and Nancy assumes he is Billy. She is disappointed she will not get to fight him personally. While Crocker and Mary rush out to see the man they think is Billy, Nancy continues to talk to Foxy Grandpa. He explains more about the history of ethical birth control, and how it was created as a compromise between morals and population control.
Nancy has heard this story before and is bored. As she gets distracted, Foxy Grandpa pulls a gun. He pulls off a rubber mask to reveal he is Billy the Poet. He looks young and is much shorter than Nancy. With his gun, he forces her down into the sewers and tells her he plans to hold her until her ethical birth control pills wear off so they can have sex. She keeps an eye out for an opportunity to attack until they emerge from the sewers into the Kennedy museum. The president of the world, “Ma” Kennedy, is based in the Taj Mahal. Billy reveals that he has a gang of eight people, all ex-hostesses. They take her to the bedroom where they inject her with truth serum and quiz her about what it is like to be a virgin at sixty-three. She says it is pointless. When she wakes up, her ethical birth control has worn off. She is a Nothinghead. The women dress her in a white nightgown and take her to a yacht.
Billy the Poet is waiting with illegal champagne. She tells him he will have to restrain her if he wants to rape her, which he does. However, he does not hurt her physically during the rape. She is humiliated and hides her face, which upsets Billy. He tells her this is like the wedding night virgins would have experienced centuries ago, and that she will come to enjoy sex in the future. She starts to think he is right. He tells her the Nothinghead movement is growing, and now that she is awake, she will find a mate who is worthy of her. In their society, sexual pleasure has come to be associated with death, rather than love, with most only experiencing sexual beauty when they undergo hostess-assisted suicide. He leaves her with the poem his grandfather read his bride on their wedding day—“How do I love thee” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning—as well as a bottle of old-fashioned birth control pills that will prevent pregnancy but not dull sexual desire. The bottle of pills is labeled “Welcome to the Monkey House.”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is an American author whose career spanned more than fifty years. The author of fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction, he is best known today for his satirical bestseller Slaughterhouse-Five
. Considered one of the twentieth century’s defining social satirists, he is still widely influential today, having been inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame and honored with the Kurt Vonnegut Society and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.