Rave on, Eliot Rosewater | Harriss on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Cooper Harriss


I take satisfaction in observing the ways that Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater rehearses with some precision a number of specific themes I’ve discussed in the first four installments of this project. The title’s benediction (“God bless you!”), which we see recur among the townspeople even to the point of betrayal, registers secularism’s religious unconscious, mirroring in part our discussion of Player Piano. The Rosewater Fund’s life-saving benevolence and Eliot Rosewater’s own god-like dispensation to ungrateful townspeople (never mind its partial setting in Rhode Island) invoke the Providence of The Sirens of Titan. Historical ironies twist fate and make ambiguous the ethics of wealth and inheritance—as well as questions of human pretense—in ways that both matter deeply and register as pathetically small—much like Mother Night’s banal irony. Finally we note, among other things, a recurring turn to the postapocalyptic landscape evident in Cat’s Cradle through Eliot’s own end-time visions at novel’s end.

Now, to introduce this discussion of Rosewater, I jump ahead to this quotation from Eliot Rosewater in Vonnegut’s next novel, and the subject of next month’s culminating installment, Slaughterhouse-Five: “Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough anymore,’ said Rosewater” (127).

Stumbling across this line offered some clarity concerning a feeling that possessed me while reading Rosewater—a sense that I had encountered the character of Eliot Rosewater before, or someone very much like him who moved through his own space and time with a similar guileless purpose (or so it seems), one that runs counter to the culture that produced him and that he inhabits. Specifically, Eliot Rosewater reminds me of Alyosha Karamazov—the naïf in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1881) who exists as almost too good for this world, whose very obliviousness to the baser schemes of human existence causes others to deem him hopelessly out of touch with reality. Both characters, Alyosha by implication and Eliot by literal commitment, highlight the proximity between virtue and folly—especially the precariously thin line between a sense of holiness and insanity. What implications does Alyosha Karamazov’s example as a Holy Fool raise for how we might understand Eliot Rosewater and Vonnegut’s larger aims for God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater? By extension, what might a deeper appreciation of this convention offer our preparations for Slaughterhouse-Five?

I want to be careful not to suggest a one-to-one correspondence here, at least not necessarily so. Eliot and Alyosha do not double one another, and, in fact, the label of the Holy Fool appears to be more frequently attached by critics to Vonnegut’s fictional novelist Kilgore Trout (another character who emerges in Rosewater and sticks around for a while in the Vonnegut universe). Nevertheless a forum such as this one offers the opportunity to strike quickly against more conventional wisdom and standardized readings, a chance to ask if other approaches might bear fruit. In the spirit of such an opportunity, I want to argue that, like Alyosha (his common species of character), Eliot Rosewater represents the Holy Fool, a character whose apparent innocence serves more fully to indict the brokenness of the world and the machinations that human beings perpetuate, a character incapable of conforming to social convention and who thus stands set apart—holy—as part and parcel of his foolishness. I am now distant enough from a deep reading of The Brothers Karamazov to write exhaustively about specific parallels between Eliot and Alyosha, yet Vonnegut seems to have gestures between them firmly in place. Rosewater, like the novice Alyosha, lives and aspires to a cloistered, chaste existence, one characterized by kindness (goddamnit, babies!) proffered in a mode of defiant joy against the harsher, more cynical wisdom of the “real” world. (As Vonnegut wrote concerning a fellow POW at Dresden during World War II, “He didn’t want to pretend he understood [life] anymore.”) Both novels end on a note of hope with their respective naïfs riffing on propositions of joy following a time of sadness—Rosewater’s adoption of all the fatherless children in town who have claimed (or been said to claim) him as a father, and Alyosha’s pancakes with the surviving friends of a dead child following the funeral. It’s an uneasy restoration in both cases—one that perhaps requires a different perspective to come into better focus.

As I’ve emphasized here time and again, the point is never to paint Vonnegut as a deliberately “religious” writer (whatever that may mean) or to impose some program of belief on him but, rather, to reflect on the ways that his work derives deeply from Christian theological and literary traditions he has absorbed and, more thoroughly to the point, the ways he advances these traditions as a secular writer in a secular age. Understanding him in this way opens up other avenues of engagement with an author almost exactly Vonnegut’s vintage (they were born less than three years apart, though the other died young) whose resemblances to Vonnegut seem to have gone shockingly unremarked: Flannery O’Connor, whom Vonnegut called both “The greatest American short story writer of my generation” and “the greatest writer who ever lived.” Perhaps a sense of Vonnegut’s participation—even if unwitting—in the evolution of this Christian theological and literary tradition, amplified by the example of one who did so with unordinary deliberation, can illuminate these powerful points of convergence.

What O’Connor emphasizes, in Christian terms, is the scandal of the Gospel. Christianity emerged in defiance of imperial power, yet has itself become imperially powerful—culture, not counterculture. In part, this is why we may easily claim Vonnegut to have picked up religious traditions as a matter of culture. In many ways they have become indistinguishable. O’Connor excels in emphasizing the freakish, grotesque state of grace often as abject violation of social propriety, emphasizing in the process how religious—specifically, for her, Christian—dimensions highlight the vacuity of culture, of what it deems ethical, even what passes for “Christian” behavior. Right Christian action for O’Connor is ugly, even violent and monstrous (one author has called her “the Catholic Sophocles”), vividly emphasizing the power of this transgression. Still, it’s not an easy liberation, hewing to clearly recognizable moral standards. The just and righteous are not always what they seem. Agents of God’s grace in O’Connor’s fiction include the murderer, the racist, and infinite varieties of misfit. Grace offends because it subverts human presumption.

O’Connor clarifies this point because I don’t read Eliot Rosewater’s Holy Foolishness as easy, a simple defiance of capitalism, of unseemly (and ill-gotten) inherited wealth. (Nor do I mean to suggest that Alyosha Karamazov dwells in such simplicity, of course). In one sense, yes—Eliot’s innocence (calculated though it may be), responding to or even atoning for his wartime sins in the firehouse, renders him unsuitable for the world, mis-fit for it, out of joint. But it doesn’t end as simple restitution or abdication. The system remains in place because the system itself bears ironically subversive power. In this way I’m more intrigued by the machinations at the end that defy clean, cheap resolution: the cooperation of lawyers and medical professionals (lions and lambs?—but which is which?), Kilgore Trout as the God in the Machine (pulling strings, wielding influence, heretofore an invisible Prospero), and the wager Eliot makes: that to give away his fortune, he must save it.