The Use of Illustration in Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions"

Ella Donesky


A - Band


Readers generally refer to Kurt Vonnegut, the author, not Kurt Vonnegut, the illustrator. However, Kurt Vonnegut conveys something very similar in both of his mediums. The images are very straightforward, and the writing style is plain, but the story is still engrossing. Historically, illustrations more commonly appeared in children’s books, books covers, or at chapter heads. Their use in adult literature, or what was considered to be more “intellectual” and “serious,” began to decline, as illustrations were not seen as so. This dilemma often arises when comparing the television and film adaptations of books, as well. Kurt Vonnegut’s use of illustrations in Breakfast of Champions changes the overall tone of the writing and enhances the reader’s experience, but also deepens their understanding of the story and the symbols and themes expressed.
Screenshot 2015-01-19 at 9.10.42 PM
Screenshot 2015-01-19 at 9.10.42 PM
In the first chapter, Kurt Vonnegut discusses the country in which Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout live, the United States of America. This prompts a further analysis into America as a country, it’s values, and symbols you may find on the dollar bill. Following the illustration of the US flag, he includes the illuminati pyramid found on the US dollar. If you were to flip through Breakfast of Champions, given that the images are the most prominent pieces on the page (they take up about half of the page), they would seem random. This is unlike many illustrations, where you don’t need to read the words to understand the story. Kurt Vonnegut’s drawings appear as being completely without context, therefore the images are very integrated into the story, which provides the context. This is very closely linked with the tone of the story. Even with the context, the drawings seem almost comically simple, though necessary, and add to the tone of the story.  Childlike drawings of a lamb, a flamingo, a pair of sunglasses, a coat embroidered with the words “Pluto Gang,” and a pair of roughly sketched speech bubbles with scrawled out cursive don’t present themselves as serious, because as technical drawings, they are colorless and undetailed, and the illustrations only depict one object, as opposed to entire scenes. Accompanying the drawing is a sort of introduction. Vonnegut usually writes, “This was it,” or “It looked like this,” or “Here’s what it said.” None of the images included are ones that could not be identified from the story he describes and in that way, Vonnegut pokes fun at us, using the images to convey a sort of irony, humorously suggesting that we cannot understand the depth.
Screenshot 2015-01-19 at 9.15.04 PM
Screenshot 2015-01-19 at 9.15.04 PM

The imagery in Breakfast of Champions doesn’t appear as drawings, exclusively. The first example is in the title of the book itself. “Breakfast of Champions” is a trademark slogan, not meant to reference General Mills, however, the expression is it’s own sort of trademark stamp, an image. Most Americans can recognize the trademark. Furthermore, on some book covers, and certainly in every copy, on the page following the publisher’s page, the slogan appears on a t-shirt. It’s a very familiar phrase, almost invisible. Perhaps Vonnegut’s use of it is meant to defamiliarize and lend it an ironic meaning. He recontextualizes it, and in this way, the title becomes a device, a symbol which provides a deeper understanding of the characters and the ironic tone. Hoover and Trout are regular people, they aren’t champions. The recontextualized imagery contrasts between the branding typical of American culture, and the lives that are actually lived.

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Screenshot 2015-01-19 at 9.05.47 PM

The first image of the book appears in the preface, not in the actual story. It is Vonnegut’s depiction of an asshole, the image above. Earlier in the preface, he dedicates the book to a woman, Phoebe Hurty. He writes, “She would talk bawdily to me and her sons...She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heros, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.” Upon reading this statement, it is very clear what Vonnegut’s intentions are through writing and drawing. It communicates the purpose of the images. The image of the asshole, specifically, alludes to his earlier sentiment of maturity and humor, in his friend, Phoebe. Furthermore, it is important to mention that the image wasn’t included in the story itself, but in the preface, where Vonnegut’s explains his purpose in writing the book. The images seem deliberately crude, in contrast to the aspirations of most illustrators, who want to their work to appear of higher skills and sophistication. This almost expands his job as the narrator, because he isn’t simply having access to the character’s thoughts, he is the author, a character in himself. In this way, the imagery is used not to enhance the plotline, but to deepen our understanding of the story, as the reader, because we are more connected to the author.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, an editor and critic (among other things), gave a commentary on Kurt Vonnegut’s use of drawings in Breakfast of Champions. This is what he said, “Even those dumb, lovable drawings began to pall after a time. I think I understand what he is getting at--that fictional art simply won't serve an more as he approaches middle age and a deeper insight to his own motives for writing...that the persona who is creating ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is trying to get a last desperate grip on the most simple rudiments of storytelling. But there is a certain coyness in this desperation, especially since it is surrounded by so much polish and inventiveness.” As mentioned earlier, Vonnegut’s style of writing by many is considered to be polished. However, it’s deceptively so. It doesn’t seem flowery or ornate, in most cases, it just reads plainly and straightforwardly. This is also represented in his illustrations. If at first glance, it appears as if his illustrations and stories are crude and simple, but both are actually polished. It’s so plainly written, you don’t notice it, and it’s the characters and the storytelling which become more clear.

Kurt Vonnegut’s use of simple and crude images in Breakfast of Champions, provides the reader with a new interpretation of the author’s purpose and the nature of the characters. Furthermore, it improves our understanding of the book, shifts the tone, and changes the traditional use of images in stories.

Egan, Robert, and Kurt Vonnegut. Breakfast of Champions. New York (45 W. 25th St., New York 10010): S. French, 1984. Print.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "Is Kurt Vonnegut Kidding Us?" The New York Times. N.p., 2 May 1973. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. <>.

Comments (3)

Matthew Lotkowski (Student 2017)
Matthew Lotkowski

I have heard of Kurt Vonnegut as a writer but not as an Illustrator like you stated in your first few sentences and found it interesting that this style of writing is actually alive in any way. I would like to use this style because it adds a sort of realism to writing.

Zoe Andersson (Student 2017)
Zoe Andersson

I have always wanted to read Breakfast of Champions but I was unaware that it featured Kurt Vonnegut's own artwork. I've gotta read it. When analyzing the quote, you don't just restate it. Your analyses are thorough and thought provoking, and the topic is actually super interesting.

Chiara Nemati (Student 2017)
Chiara Nemati

I didn't know that there were books that used drawings in the same manner as Vonnegut does. I thought it was really cool and interesting. I would like to see if I am able to use this same technique in my writing.