“2 B R 0 2 B” is a satirical short story by Kurt Vonnegut, first published in 1962. Set in a dystopian future where population control is mandatory, the story explores themes of life, death, and societal expectations through Vonnegut’s characteristic dark humor. The title is a play on Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet, “To be or not to be,” reflecting the central conflict of voluntary euthanasia versus the desire to live and reproduce.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

In a future society where all diseases have been eradicated and old age conquered, the United States maintains a stable population of forty million people through strict population control measures: for every newborn, someone must voluntarily die. On a bright morning in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, Edward K. Wehling, Jr., a fifty-six-year-old man, anxiously waits for his wife to give birth to triplets. Despite being young in a society where the average age is 129, Wehling is deeply troubled.

The hospital waiting room is in disarray, undergoing redecoration as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die. Amidst the clutter, a two-hundred-year-old painter works on a mural titled “The Happy Garden of Life,” depicting an idyllic garden maintained by doctors and nurses in white and workers in purple uniforms who remove the old and sickly. The painter, disillusioned with his task, converses with an orderly who passes by singing a song that hints at the societal norm of voluntary death. The orderly praises the realism of the mural, to which the painter responds with sarcasm, revealing his disdain for the sanitized depiction of life.

Leora Duncan, a gas-chamber hostess for the Federal Bureau of Termination, enters the waiting room. Her purple uniform and the medallion of the Service Division signify her role in the population control system. She is there to pose for the painter, who offers her a choice of faceless bodies in the mural to attach her portrait. Duncan, though modest about her work, ultimately chooses a figure sawing a dead branch from an apple tree, a fitting representation of her role in euthanizing those who volunteer to die.

As Duncan poses, Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician, bursts into the room, exuding joy and vitality. Hitz, a towering figure with a Zeus-like appearance, congratulates Wehling on the birth of his triplets. However, the law requires that three people must volunteer to die for the triplets to live. Dr. Hitz’s booming voice and commanding presence contrast sharply with Wehling’s despair. Hitz lectures Wehling on the necessity of population control, comparing unchecked human reproduction to drupelets on a blackberry, emphasizing the chaos that would ensue without strict regulation.

Wehling, unable to find enough volunteers, is heartbroken. He wants all his children to live and does not want his grandfather to die to make room for them. Hitz’s optimistic portrayal of a future with controlled population and ample resources clashes with Wehling’s grief and helplessness. The tension between personal loss and societal benefit becomes palpable.

In a sudden act of desperation, Wehling pulls out a revolver and shoots Dr. Hitz, declaring that there is now room for one of his children. He then shoots Leora Duncan, creating space for another, and finally, he turns the gun on himself, ensuring that all three of his children can live. The painter, witnessing the tragedy, reflects on the paradox of life demanding to be born and to live as long as possible, despite the planet’s limitations.

As the painter sits atop his stepladder, he contemplates the grim reality of their world. The so-called “Happy Garden of Life” is a facade, masking the underlying desperation and tragedy. He drops his paintbrush, deciding he can no longer contribute to this false image of a perfect life. Considering suicide but lacking the courage to do it himself, the painter sees the telephone booth in the corner of the room. He dials the well-remembered number: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

The Federal Bureau of Termination answers with the warm voice of a hostess. The painter requests an appointment for his voluntary death, and the hostess assures him that his decision is appreciated by future generations. The painter, having seen enough of the sanitized, controlled world, chooses to end his life on his terms. His call to the Bureau, where he is thanked for his decision, underscores the dark irony of a society that values death as much as life, maintaining its stability through a delicate and tragic balance.

This dystopian vision captures the complexities of a world where life and death are commodified, raising profound questions about the value of existence and the ethics of population control. Through the painter’s eyes, the narrative unveils the sorrow and futility that underpin a seemingly perfect society, leaving readers to ponder the true cost of such utopian ideals.

Main Characters

  • Edward K. Wehling, Jr. – A man awaiting the birth of his triplets, deeply conflicted about the mandatory death required for their survival.
  • The Painter – A two-hundred-year-old artist disillusioned with his work and society’s approach to life and death.
  • Leora Duncan – A gas-chamber hostess who takes pride in her role in population control but is ultimately a victim of Wehling’s desperation.
  • Dr. Benjamin Hitz – The hospital’s Chief Obstetrician, a charismatic advocate for population control who is killed by Wehling.

Themes and Motifs

  • Population Control – The story explores the extreme measures taken to maintain a stable population and the moral implications of such control.
  • The Value of Life – Vonnegut questions the value placed on life and death in a society where both are strictly regulated.
  • Irony and Satire – The narrative is rich with irony, particularly in the contrast between the society’s supposed perfection and the underlying despair of its citizens.
  • Art and Representation – The painter’s mural symbolizes the sanitized, controlled image of society, while his personal views reflect the grim reality.

Writing Style and Tone

Kurt Vonnegut employs a satirical and darkly humorous tone to critique societal norms and the concept of population control. His writing is concise and poignant, often using irony to highlight the absurdity of the characters’ world. The dialogue is sharp and reveals much about the characters’ inner conflicts and societal roles.

Vonnegut’s narrative technique includes vivid descriptions and a careful balance of humor and gravity. His style is accessible yet thought-provoking, encouraging readers to reflect on the deeper implications of the story. The tone, while humorous, carries an underlying sense of melancholy and criticism of the dehumanizing aspects of societal control.

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Categories: Book Summary