The Mixed Blessings of Eliot Rosewater | Shapshay on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

The implied author, or perhaps Vonnegut himself, claims at the start of this novel that a “sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people” (1). While it is true that a sum of money is the thing with which many of the characters are greatly concerned, I think the leading theme is not money, but rather, atonement. And the leading character, Eliot Rosewater, carries a heavy burden for which he seeks to atone, in part through the use of this great sum of money. We learn that he mistakenly killed unarmed firefighters, including two old men and a 14-year-old boy, with a bayonet during a melee in a German town during WWII. His quest for atonement leads us into the central problematic of Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Perhaps one should atone by committing suicide? This is his first reaction, but he is seduced back to life by his fellow soldiers, and the romantic love of his life, Sylvia. He searches for a more life-affirming atonement and hits on another strategy: the practice of general, selfless love. And it is fitting that he practice this love on some of the most unloved in American society, in the place where his family made its considerable fortune, Rosewater County.

Familiar themes are braided into this novel from previous ones: the dangers of automation in making most people, especially the less intelligent, economically useless (Player Piano); and the existential question of the purpose of a human life in the grand scheme (Sirens of Titan). But I get the sense that Vonnegut is exploring a new theme somewhat tentatively, haltingly, even clumsily in this novel. It is the tension between, on the one hand, a Christian-commanded, general “love thy neighbor” mentality and, on the other hand, what I believe Vonnegut takes to be the hard reality of social Darwinism in a free-enterprise-favoring society like the U.S. Put into starker political-economic terms, it is the tension between a morally obligatory socialism and the reality of an efficiency-justified capitalism.

This theme is crystallized in the person of Diana Moon Glampers, one of the most regular callers on the Rosewater Foundation’s black telephone. The narrator describes her in clinical—to the point of cruel—terms as

a sixty-eight-year-old virgin who, by almost anybody’s standards, was too dumb to live. . . . No one had ever loved her. There was no reason why anyone should. She was ugly, stupid, and boring. (73)

Glampers, we learn, is typical of the people who seek out the foundation’s help. They are characterized as the weakest, dumbest people in society, whose sons were rejected from the armed forces for being “mentally, morally, and physically undesirable” (72).

In these descriptions, there is more than a whiff of social Darwinism. The bottom strata of society are held to be unfit—almost “too dumb to live”—by seemingly objective standards. Presumably, the genes of people like Glampers, who remain virgins into old age, will be selected out of the gene pool. This novel paints a harsh picture of the survival of the fittest, of winners and losers in the somewhat meritocratic free enterprise system. There are the industrious winners like the Rosewaters and Buntlines as well as their armies of clever lawyers; and there are the untalented, uncreative, ugly and stupid losers. Although the system is portrayed as not entirely meritocratic, due to inherited wealth, the novel does suggest that some people will wind up at the bottom due to lack of natural talent, skills and drive. That’s just the way it is.

However, the novel also suggests that “the way it is” is also immoral. Just because a person like Diana Moon Glampers is unloved and, really, unlovable, doesn’t mean she should go without the material means for a decent life. Justice requires socialism.

But in a country that is far from socialist, Eliot finds his own purpose and an opportunity for redemption in bringing love (and volunteer firefighting) to the losers of the increasingly automated, free enterprise system. He tells Sylvia: “I’m going to care about these people,” people who have “no use” (43). Yet, it seems that his love for them does not spring spontaneously from his breast. “I’m going to love these discarded Americans, even though they’re useless and unattractive,” he tells Sylvia. “That is going to be my work of art.” (44, emphasis added). So it seems that his atonement project is to love them qua human beings, but that he can only bring himself to care for and love these people as part of an artistic project.

Unfortunately, there is a serious built-in tension in this project between artistic detachment and actual love. Real love and understanding cannot be self-consciously “painted” onto the landscape; to be authentic, it seems, it needs to be genuinely felt rather than artistically deployed.

Eliot’s father, Senator Rosewater, accurately characterizes the fakeness of Eliot’s love: “In his heart . . . Eliot doesn’t love those awful people out there any more than I do. . . . If Eliot’s booze were shut off, his compassion for the maggots in the slime on the bottom of the human garbage pail would vanish” (58). Indeed, in between reassuring Diana Moon Glampers that her voice is lovely and that her life is not worthless, Eliot is taking swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort (77)!

Further, as Eliot is boarding the bus to Indianapolis, Glampers pursues him, pathetically dragging her princess telephone behind her. To her, Eliot is everything. He is her husband, only friend, government, benefactor, community, and priest. But in this context, face to face, without the booze and the phone, she is a stranger to him. He doesn’t even remember her voice or her name! (248).

The senator is ultimately right: Eliot’s Rosewater philanthropy (in the etymological sense of ‘love of humankind’) shows itself to be merely the semblance of love. He rounds out its appearance on the Rosewater canvas at the end of the novel by sharing the family fortune among his “heirs”—but it is and has always been an impersonal, shallow, in a word, fake love.

The senator also gives an accurate diagnosis of Eliot’s problematic understanding of “love.” Eliot’s love of thy neighbor is so impersonal, so general, it actually stretches the term beyond recognition:

It was a perfectly good word—until Eliot got hold of it. It’s spoiled for me now. Eliot did to the word love what the Russians did to the word democracy. If Eliot is going to love everybody, no matter what they are, no matter what they do, then those of us who love particular people for particular reasons had better find ourselves a new word. (86)

However, the novel suggests that (1) given the reality of American capitalism and its social Darwinism of extreme winners and losers based in part on innate talents and traits, and (2) the limited capacity for humans truly to love others beyond an intimate sphere, perhaps Eliot’s brand of artificial love is the best thing a wealthy person can do to improve things.

At the private mental hospital where Eliot convalesces at the end of the novel, there is an inscription on a fountain: “Pretend to be good always and even God will be fooled.” Eliot has at least pretended to be good, by spreading his time, energies and money throughout the most downtrodden of Rosewater County. He certainly lived among the people he was seeking to help directly, which stands in contrast to the traditional sort of foundation philanthropy that makes grants to non-profit organizations and agencies from a significant distance from ultimate recipients of that largesse. But I confess that at the end of this novel, I don’t have a clearer picture of a way forward. Given Vonnegut’s basic premises about the nature of American society, it’s not clear whether we should turn to socialist policies, effective philanthropy, humane art, or anything else to awaken a greater spirit of kindness in our society.