Few American novelists of the twentieth century looked as professorial as Kurt Vonnegut, at least in a rumpled-fixture-of-the-English-department way. But though he did rack up some teaching experience, not least at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he could hardly have been a conventional lecturer. This is evidenced by the 2004 clip above, in which he explains his ideas about the “shapes” taken by all stories — an idea he first formally presented as his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Though the thesis itself was rejected (a quarter-century later, the university accepted Cat’s Cradle in its stead), its ideas proved powerful enough to entertain Vonnegut’s audiences up until the end of his life.
On his chalkboard, Vonnegut draws a vertical and a horizontal axis: the former charts the protagonist’s fortune, good or ill, and the latter represents time (from B to E: “beginning, entropy”). He then plots the curve of an especially simple and reliable story form, “man in a hole,” which involves someone getting into trouble — downward turns the slope — then getting back out again.
But the protagonist should end up a bit higher on the scale of fortune than he began, because “the reader thinks, ‘Well, by God, I’m a human being too. I must have that much in reserve if I get into trouble.” Then come the stories of other shapes, including such popular favorites as “Cinderella” and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
“This rise and fall,” Vonnegut warns us, “is, in fact, artificial. It pretends that we know more about life than we really do.” When he attempts to describe the shape of Hamlet, he ends up coming across one reason the play is regarded as a work of genius: “we are so seldom told the truth,” but Shakespeare tells us the truth that “we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” Rather, “all we do is echo the feelings of people around us.” As Vonnegut’s readers know, a dimmer view of human nature than his would be hard to come by. But if he didn’t have faith the ability of stories to teach us good from bad, he did have faith in their ability to teach us that we aren’t about to figure it out for ourselves.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.