This is part of a planned series in which I, Emma the Intern, report Kurt Vonnegut’s opinion on a certain topic, drawing mostly on his published works. Please forgive me if I omit your favorite work in my discussion. I have not yet read every Vonnegut work, and, like us all, I am only human.
I won’t say Kurt Vonnegut didn’t believe in true love. But romance has never been a major part of his work. As he said in an interview, “Once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War II is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.”
That isn’t to say there weren’t any happy couples or marriages in Kurt’s books. Mary and Roy Hepburn in Galápagos were pretty adorable while they lasted. (There’s a flashback to how they met near the end of the book, and I don’t know how to explain love to you if that scene doesn’t do it.) But most of the marriages are less ideal. Billy Pilgrim, if he thought of his wife at all, thought she was okay. Eliot Rosewater may have loved his wife and she him, but his stint as an altruistic godfather type was too much for her to handle. Forget about Paul and Anita Proteus in Player Piano; they’re miserable, or they were for the first eighty-five pages. I don’t know what happens after page eighty-five. (Go find my reaction blog to Player Piano if you want to yell at me about that.)
From what I’ve seen reading through his work, Kurt had two basic opinions on marriage. One is that respect for one’s partner is more important than love. Love is too much to expect on a daily basis, Kurt said in his nonfiction collection Fates Worse Than Death, but respect is doable. He called the number of divorces based on a so-called lack of love “one of the many unnecessary American catastrophes going on right now.”
Kurt was also convinced that no good comes of pinning all your hopes on a single person. One of the biggest problems with marriage, he said, was that it didn’t work the same way it did long ago, when people didn’t stray too far from their hometowns. According to Kurt, it used to be that if you married someone, you gained a whole extra family: your spouse’s parents, siblings, cousins. But after close-knit extended families became objects of antiquity, people started expecting their spouses to do the job of a family all by themselves. That, Kurt speculates, is part of why his first marriage broke up: his wife, Jane, wanted a big, loving family to keep her from being lonely. After their kids left the house, Kurt couldn’t live up to that standard.
A bad photo of a good photo of Jane and Kurt early in their marriage. Come and see it in person. I promise the copy at the museum is much prettier.
Also, although Jane performed the various petty chores expected of a writer’s wife – copy-editing, typing manuscripts, etc. – with little nagging from Kurt, Kurt seems to have needed more prompting to keep up his share of the work. During Jane’s first pregnancy, she and Kurt drew up a contract listing chores Kurt should be doing around the house: hanging up his clothes, throwing his trash away, taking the laundry to the laundromat in a timely fashion, etc. One of my favorite sections is the one where Kurt promises Jane to clean the floors weekly:
Not only that, but I will do a good and thorough job, and by that she means that I will get under the bathtub, behind the toilet, under the sink, under the icebox, into the corners; and I will pick up and put in some other location whatever moveable objects happen to be on said floors at the time so as to get under them too, and not just around them. Furthermore, while I am undertaking these tasks I will refrain from indulging in such remarks as “Shit,” “Goddamn sonofabitch,” and similar vulgarities, as such language is nerve-wracking to have around the house when nothing more drastic is taking place than the facing of Necessity.
However, this contract was only valid for the duration of Jane’s pregnancy. Did that mean Kurt didn’t have to pick up after himself after his son was born? I hope not.
(If you want to read the entire contract, it’s in an all-around fantastic collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters, edited by Dan Wakefield. Follow this link to buy it: https://squareup.com/market/kvml/item/letters)
Although Kurt and his wife split up and both remarried, they remained friends until Jane died of cancer in 1986. Kurt pays a beautiful tribute to her in Timequake:
Jane could believe with all her heart anything that made being alive seem full of white magic. That was her strength. She was raised a Quaker, but stopped going to meetings of Friends after her four happy years at Swarthmore. She became an Episcopalian after marrying Adam, who remained a Jew. She died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.
Kurt’s second wife, Jill Krementz, took this photo of him for the cover of his essay collection Fates Worse Than Death.
Kurt’s younger daughter, Nanette, remembers him telling her that he had loved three women in his life. She was relieved to hear that one of them had been her mother, Jane. Another was his second wife, Jill Krementz, a photographer nearly twenty years younger than he. They adopted one daughter, Lily. After Jill had an extramarital affair in the early 90s, she and Kurt began the process of divorce but eventually decided against it for Lily’s sake. “Divorce has become as obsolescent as marriage,” Kurt wrote in a letter to his old friend Knox Burger.
I wasn’t entirely sure what “obsolescent” meant, so I looked it up. It means “becoming obsolete.” That means Kurt thought marriage had become becoming obsolete. That doesn’t make much sense, but according to Kurt, neither did societal ideas of perfect marriages. Kurt’s own thoughts on marriage may be unromantic, but I suppose they’re not unrealistic, either.