Killer Bees On the swarm

Donald Lewis

Kurt Vonnegut was a prolific American essayist, author, public speaker, and professor he was born in 1922 and lived to see the year 2007. Vonnegut is most known for his novels and short stories. Most of his works are heavily influenced by his time as a prisoner of war during World War II. Many academics would agree that Vonnegut is known for his dark humor and absurdism, as well as his fearlessness when it came to confronting controversial social topics. In the words of Christopher Sandford, a historical author, and biographer, describes Vonnegut’s personality and works:

But perhaps his greatest contribution to humanity, and the quality that runs as the throughline of his public career, was the way he relentlessly mocked the presumptions of the ruling elite… he was not the sort of man who believed that anyone should impose his or her own concept of the guardrails defining the limits of acceptable behavior on anyone else. (Sandford page 52)

Although he never outwardly claimed to be a feminist per se, many of his stories addressed gender inequality and other themes related to certain feminist issues. In this analysis, I will first discuss the author as well as the context of the time it was written before I tear into The Drone King. The Drone King, a short story published after his death Although America has typically been a patriarchy of sorts, Vonnegut uses The Drone King to illustrate the limitations of men and drones alike and highlights human society’s flaws in contrast with the very laws of nature.

In a speech he gave in September of 2000, he was explaining the social disparities between people during his youth and later in his life and how despite the social constructs of the patriarchy in American society. Despite the bias towards men, women played a crucial role in many career fields during the mid-1900s. Whilst discussing his educational experience he exclaims about the exceptional teachers of his youth, “Our teacher of ancient history, Minnie Lloyd, should have been wearing medals for all she did at the Battle of Thermopylae… My English teacher, Marguerite Young, went on to write the definitive biography of Indiana’s own Eugene Victor Debs.” (“Why You Can’t Stop Me”). Vonnegut clearly sees the vital role that women played during the great depression and during and after WWII. During this time society severely limited the careers women could pursue, but pursuing a career as a teacher is one way a brilliant women could shine and further their own education. To Vonnegut, this was proof that women have been unfairly held back by society for a long time.

An extremely hot topic in society, and in some of Vonnegut’s stories, is the ever-present inequality between genders. In his lifetime he developed a distaste for people in the affluent reaches of society, and always spoke quite highly of women in general, “Most of my best teachers were women and, holy smokes, were they ever bright. So why have women barred them from so many jobs they now hold with distinction? Because of what was then believed to be a law of nature, a natural law.” (“Why You Can’t Stop Me”). According to the pretext of this story, The Drone King was written in the 1950s, but again I reiterate it was published more than a decade after his death. In the 1950s and onwards women and others in America have been fighting an ongoing battle for equality in rights and opportunity between men and women. The Natural Law that is referred to was brought to prominence because of a 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. This theory states that every human is put into nature to observe what natural rules nature presents, and humans can use these ‘rules’ of nature to guide their lives (until they find God, but that is not relevant here). Vonnegut jests that under Natural Law our American founding fathers, “were able to write ‘all men are created equal,’ while meaning only white males – not women, God knows – all while owning slaves” (“Why You Can’t Stop Me”). During this period slavery and mistreatment of women were only ‘natural’ as males dominated society.

Despite all the diverse kinds of nature (plants, animals, etc.) that clearly demonstrate the intrinsic and implicit power of females in general. It is important to note, as far as bees are concerned, female bees are the only ones with the ability to sting. Comparing the male and female bee sizes, you would note that the males are bigger, and they cannot sting. So, if you are ever running away from a swarm of bees, the females are the most dangerous. The Drone King points out that there are a handful of species in which the female is the dominant one in that respective species’ society. Mr. Quick explains the reproductive process of bees to the narrator, quite obviously from the perspective of a man, “ ‘This wholesale extermination of the males takes place after the males have performed their most basic function’ he swung his arms around, portraying a swarm of drones chasing the queen, ‘One lucky devil gets her, the jewel beyond price. He dies instantly. And when the rest go home, they are murdered.” (The Drone King). Quick is so unwilling to see the fact that, in nature, once your purpose is served that may be all she wrote for you. Nature is just as cruel as it is beautiful. In the case of the bee, the praying mantis, the black widow, and the tarantula the reproductive process is one of the last things the male aids in before their deaths, by the hand of their counterparts. Long live the Queen (bee)! Quick refers to the queen as a jewel which may be true, but he is referring to the queen as only if she was an object. This reflects how many affluent men viewed and view women (people in general) more as items to be possessed rather than treating them as worthy respectable peers.

The Drone King is about a man named, Sheldon Quick billionaire (or former billionaire), and a last-ditch attempt at a business venture involving bees. A desperate idea based on a profound pity for the life of a drone (male bee). This story illustrates the fragility of the male ego and a man’s utter worthlessness without our female counterpart, at least in the bee world. This tale is narrated by a nameless and genderless human that Vonnegut uses to highlight the follies of men dedicated to being the manliest of men and those who endlessly pursue wealth. One might say this is a pretty sweet story about bees and an exclusive male-only club. When analyzing the components of The Drone King through a feminist lens with a focus on queer theory, it is noteworthy that Vonnegut never claimed to be much more than a writer and a very opinionated one when it came to gender inequality or just inequality in general.

In The Drone King, Vonnegut does not divulge much information about the narrator of the story other than their profession. One could not surmise the narrator’s gender, but upon entering the Millennium Club the narrator explains what they see,  “The foyer was guarded by an elegant old man behind a rosewood desk. I gave him my card. ‘Mr. Quick? Mr. Sheldon Quick?’ I said. ‘He asked me to come over.’” (The Drone King). The doorman is defined as elegant not just old, which would imply a sort of superior stature held by this character, or ‘elegant’ is alluding to the monument that is the male ego. So fragile but elegant, nonetheless. The doorman then stops the narrator with a surprising inquiry, “He caught my sleeve. ‘Sir…’ ‘Yes?’ I said. ‘You aren’t wearing a boutonniere, are you?’ ‘No,’ I said guiltily. ‘Should I be?’ ‘If you were,’ he said, ‘I’d have to ask you to check it. No women or flowers allowed past the front desk.’” (The Drone King). Here the doorman questions the narrator’s gender, it is unclear why exactly given what we know about the narrator. The narrator is guilty for one reason or another but carries on regardless of the doorman’s reaction. The ‘no women or flowers past the front desk’ is just a sign of the times, at least relative to the setting of the story. It implies that women do not have a place here or need to be involved in any of our business without our knowledge of it. Even a sort of fear of inferiority to women in the face of the way of the world, considering that all men are born from a woman. Vonnegut begins to illustrate the ideal man, albeit a fragile, and proud, house of cards that can be the male ego.

At the beginning of The Drone King, there is mention of a clock that was stopped the day Calvin Coolidge died by Mr. Quick. Firstly, Coolidge was the 30th president of the united states, and according to the White House’s records, “the political genius of President Coolidge… was his talent for effectively doing nothing.” According to these records, President Coolidge was a pro at maintaining a public image while effectively doing nothing governmentally speaking. He was still hailed for his “distinguished character and heroic achievement” (“Calvin Coolidge”). Coolidge led the country in a time of prosperity after WWI and his laissez-faire attitude when it came to governance allowed many corporations to grow, monetarily speaking. This would lead to a generation of people inheriting millions, like Sheldon Quick. Mr. Quick idealizes Coolidge as a role model or a man to aspire towards. He even hoped to end his time at the Millennium Club on a similar note as Coolidge ended his presidency. Mr. Quick does seem to enjoy all the benefits of luxury, with his cigars and scotch, hidden away in his male-only beehive. Ignorant to the fact that he has more similarities with the male been than anything else, he just bumbles around with no purpose.

As we know Vonnegut has never been fond of these sorts of men, men like Quick and Coolidge. Who live in their own little house of cards far away from the winds of truth. The Drone King illustrates the flaws of what society once considered an ideal man through the narrator’s attempt to, gently, shut down this egotistical man’s foolish plan. Whilst discussing the concept of messenger bees, the narrator deftly suggests that this business venture would not compete with carrier pigeons or other forms of communication Quick expressed a small agreement with this truth. Nonetheless:

He raised his chin bravely. “very well,” he said. “I have gone this far – I will go the rest of the way. I will put my findings before the greatest jury of all, the American public, and let them decide: Have I got the seeds of something useful to humanity, or have I not?” (The Drone King).

This is a prime example of how Vonnegut is portraying men to be stubborn and pigheaded fools that cannot leave well enough alone, because their male ego just wants it all. Despite the reasonable proposal against doing thing this, our favorite guy, Mr. Sheldon Quick proceeds forward will the unveiling of all male-hive of messenger drones. In all its pomp and circumstance this groundbreaking event certainly was astonishing. Especially when all the drones returned to their original hive to be welcomed back by a killer swarm of bees. The only thing that broke that day was Quick’s ego and his heart. It goes to show, that you cannot go against the grain of nature or as Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.” (Sandford).

The crux of the matter is, Kurt Vonnegut’s The Drone King is a thought-provoking short story that illustrates the limitations of men in contrast to the ways of nature. Despite being published posthumously, the story is a testament to Vonnegut’s views on gender inequality and social issues. Through the lens of feminist theory and queer theory, we see how Vonnegut recognized the role of women in society and how they have been held back by societal constructs. The story also highlights the fragility of the male ego and the importance of recognizing the worth of each gender. As Vonnegut once said, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Ultimately, The Drone King is suggesting we recognize everyone’s inherent value and strive for a society that values equality and kindness.

Works Cited

“Calvin Coolidge.” Whitehouse.gov, 16 Jan. 2021, www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/calvin-coolidge/.

Farnam Street. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter to the School Board that Burned His Books.” Farnam Street, Farnam Street, 29 Mar. 2017, https://fs.blog/kurt-vonneguts-letter-book-burning/#:~:text=McCarthy%3A,that%20my%20work%20is%20evil.

Sandford, Christopher. “Kurt Vonnegut Would Still Be Amused.” America, vol. 227, no. 4, Nov. 2022, pp. 52–55. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=15964672 1&site=ehostlive&scope=site.

Vonnegut, Kurt (2022, December 13). The Drone King. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/kurt-vonnegut-the-drone-king/537870/

Vonnegut, Kurt. “Fates worse than death.” The North American Review 267.4 (1982): 46-49. www.jstor.org/stable/25124347.

Vonnegut, Kurt. “Why You Can’t Stop Me From Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson.” Nation, vol. 298, no. 15, Apr. 2014, pp. 22–25. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db =a9h&AN=95116096&site=ehost-live&scope=site.




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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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