The story of “2BR02B” by Kurt Vonnegut begins in a hospital of sorts, not that hospitals are needed all too much anymore considering that humanity has essentially solved death and dying. Diseases have been indefinitely cured, and aging no longer poses a serious threat on us mortals. In this hospital are a few characters, each with some interesting personalities. First to be introduced is Wehling Jr., whose wife is about to giving birth to triplets. Also in the cast is an orderly and a painter, whose character traits somewhat clash with each other.
Wehling seems to be waiting on something, at first we are not sure what. When the orderly arrives, he watches the painter create a mural, one that is immortalizing a staff that is practically immortal already. The mural depicts Dr. Hitz at the center of a glorious garden, one that has been well kept. Around him are figures in purple attire, getting rid of any old and unnecessary plants in the area. The orderly is admires the mural and compliments the painter, but the painter is less than happy with it, as it does not truly represent what he sees life to be. The orderly tells the painter that if he is not happy with life, he may just make an appointment with the Federal Bureau of Termination and end his life to make room for others. The painter would rather take his own life, as life is too perfected and calculated for his taste.
Then arrives a service worker from the FBT, Leora Duncan. She is there to take a picture with Dr. Hitz and to help terminate a life. The painter tells her she is going to be immortalized in the mural, and asks her to pick a body. At first, she does not care but then chooses one that fits her job. Dr. Hitz now arrives to the scene, ready to take his picture. Leora is very excited to see him, but Wehling is not. Wehling, while excited to have triplets, must provide three volunteers to end their lives or else the children will not be allowed to live. Wehling only has one.
Hitz goes on a brief spiel about the importance of population control, and how limiting birth and encouraging death provide a balanced and sustainable future. He feels accomplished by his statements, yet that feeling is short-lived as Wehling pulls out a revolver and shoots Hitz. He also shoots Leora, and then himself, making way for the three babies. The painter, having seen all this, decides that it is his time to end his life and calls the FBT, scheduling an appointment for as soon as possible. The worker on the other end thanks him for his generosity and thanks him for future generations.
One of the most captivating things to me about this story has to be the questions that is poses. This world has been literally engineered to be perfect; disease has been cured, crime has been stopped, aging has been solved, and peace has been achieved. However, is such a perfect life one worth living? Throughout the piece, we’re shown how this world is perfect. The steps taken to achieve such a world, though to the average reader may seem somewhat drastic are treated like they are normal. The people in this world have become so accustomed to death and lack thereof that they don’t question the means to immortality. This leads to a few different reactions, most prominently from the painter and Wehling. Dr. Hitz, Leora Duncan, and the orderly are all fine with the way the world functions, as they are members of the system. However, when you look to the others, we can see more dissatisfaction and frustration with it. The painter, though having benefitted from the seeming immortality, is unhappy with the world. He does not believe it to be perfect and beautiful. He considers it more like a dropcloth, as mentioned in the story. Wehling also is unhappy, though his frustration is more for personal reasons. He is unhappy because the laws of this society require three people to die for his children to live. The risk of losing his children drives him to murder and suicide.
It is this juxtaposition that I believe we can use in our own writing. Vonnegut uses the painter and Wehling to show us what is wrong with a world where everything is perfect. While the 2BR02B system seems fair, we’re shown the outside implications of it through Wehling. Is it really fair to have life require death? Should someone have to die in order for someone to be born? Yes, someone has chosen to die, but what about the loved ones? What about those around them? They are not the only ones affected by the choice to die. As mentioned previously, those who work with the Bureau are perfectly fine with the system, but those affected by the system are not. The juxtaposition of this brings deep complexity to the story, one that, again, poses a question that may have at first seemed like an easy answer.
Another thing that I enjoyed about this story were the absolute disturbing statements that were treated as normalcy. While Vonnegut used normalcy a lot, these particular statements were so absurd and off-putting that it really drives home the idea that this system is wrong. The most noteworthy one in my opinion is the song that the orderly is quietly singing. The song is one of a disturbing love. The lyrics talk about someone being denied a kiss, and as a result contemplate suicide, as they would rather make way for another baby than live without their love. It is these tiny details of absurdity that I so often see in Vonnegut’s work that I absolutely love and try to implement in my own whenever it is fitting.
- Do you think the 2BR02B is a fair system of life and death?
- Is the painter a likable character? If not, what didn’t you like about him?
- How do you see the story of Hamlet in the lens of this story?