New Historical

Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Drone King”: A World in Conflict

Sarah Cool

“The Drone King” by Kurt Vonnegut is a hopeful yet sorrowful tale of someone trying to grasp at something just out of their reach. It is a story about Sheldon Quick, a man with his head in the clouds, and a momentarily rebellious hive of only male bees. Quick has an innovative solution to a communication problem but doesn’t think about how the problem has already been solved. He wants people to send messages using drones. Quick attempts to show the world his idea, but it backfires on him when his bees chase after a queen they find. Quick is distraught after watching his dream crushed before his eyes. Not only is “The Drone King” about our longing for the American dream, but also the many obstacles that have always been (and probably always will be) obstructing our path to it. Both Vonnegut and his protagonist, Sheldon Quick, were on that path.

One of the obstacles the author had to face was the Depression. At one point in the story, George, the waiter, asks Quick if there’s anything else he wants before George leaves. “‘Anything else I wants?’ said Quick. He rolled his eyes unhappily. ‘Wealth, George? Power? Instant success?’” (Vonnegut) This may have something to do with the fact that the author didn’t have much money to begin with. He may have felt like something was still missing in his own life, even after achieving his success. It could have also been a way of pointing out that humans can be greedy and selfish. Even when we have enough, we still want more.

Vonnegut himself didn’t necessarily want more, but it seems like he was happy to have it.  Quick mentions how “I felt as though I’d just finished two brandies and a good cigar. Here was peace” (Vonnegut). This says that wealth or material possessions also give a sense of peace to Quick. Having these things probably also gave Vonnegut peace (at least in knowing that he was financially stable). But while Vonnegut achieved his dream, his character failed.

Kurt Vonnegut did reach his goals, but he wasn’t always famous. He didn’t have a lot of money when he was younger. He worked at General Electric for a while, where he earned a “solid salary” of $90 a week. So that was when he started to write. In one of his interviews with Charlie Reilly, he pointed out that “…there was almost a short story industry”. He started writing for Colliers, a magazine, and soon received a check for $750 and then got another for $900 after sending in another story directly. He eventually quit General Electric when the money started “piling up” (Reilly 3). Vonnegut also talked about how the company threw parties for people who were fired, but since he just quit, they didn’t throw him one. Reilly then mentioned how he seemed to have thrown “…[his] own party in Player Piano” (Reilly 3). General Electric had some kind of place where their young male employees working their way up the ladder could go to party…Vonnegut said Player Piano stopped it. The partying at General Electric may have also had something to do with his character, Sheldon Quick, and Quick’s time at the Millennium Club.

Like many Americans, Sheldon Quick is a dreamer. He makes grandiose plans only to have them come crashing down in the end. Quick writes “What…hath God wrought?” on the notes tied to the bees because to him, it just seems like life isn’t fair (Vonnegut). It’s as if he already knows his idea will fail before the press conference is held. During the Depression, it probably felt a lot like that, especially if you were not wealthy to begin with. People jumped from high buildings following the crash because they were so terrified of what their lives had suddenly turned into. On the other hand, the Depression was caused by peoples’ actions, and Quick sort of caused his inevitable failure as well. Americans’ mistakes only led to more obstacles following the Depression.

Vonnegut also lived through WWII and the Vietnam War, two other harrowing events that may have inhibited his progress towards his dream. These events may or may not have influenced “The Drone King” in some ways. For example, the methods of communication described, such as telegrams, were used during WWII. The telegram may have had something to do with Quick’s innovative (albeit lackluster) idea for the “beegram”. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Quick had thought of the beegram before the telegram, as the narrator points out in one part of the story, or if the bees hadn’t flown after the queen instead of doing what Quick wanted them to do at the end. Although war may not have influenced this story directly, it did give the author ideas for some of his other writings.

In his article “Fates Worse than Death”, Vonnegut makes some points about war while spinning a kind of satire. He shares some deep thoughts on hydrogen bombs, poisonous Kool-Aid, and death: “If our government sees that we are facing fates worse than death, it will shower our enemies with hydrogen bombs, and then we will be showered in turn. There will be plenty of Kool-Aid for everyone…” (Vonnegut 1). It seems like he knew what obstacles the Americans were facing at the time and chose to add a little dark humor to the situation. This is a lot like the writing in “The Drone King”, which is also somewhat humorous in an odd way. Perhaps Vonnegut wanted to face some obstacles, like that of war, by laughing at them.

Another thing that may have been an obstacle to the American dream, especially at the time that this was written, was inequality. Quick discusses the rights and freedoms that he thinks the male bees deserve. He says that female bees kill the drones. He also mentions that “If you get yellow fever, you’ll have the female mosquito to thank. If a black widow spider does you in, my boy, again—cherchez la femme” (Vonnegut). Cherchez la femme means “look for the woman” in French. It’s saying you can blame the problems on the woman.

Quick also talks about how he thinks it’s a “woman’s world”. This may be relevant to the author’s own opinion about women being in charge. The author may have been trying to make a point about feminist ideals. He wasn’t trying to say that women were obstacles, but perhaps that some women think of men as steps on a ladder rather than equals. At the time that this was written, men more likely thought of women that way. Although it seems fairly progressive, maybe these remarks from Quick were a way of pushing for equality for both sexes? But the bees don’t have or need the rights and freedoms Quick thinks they do. Their process is part of the natural order of things.

Quick thinks he can defy the natural order of things. His vision of the American dream is lost and the narrator, along with the audience, watches a broken man secede from his ambitions. However, it is apparent that over time, Vonnegut gained his sense of the American dream and achieved great success. Having lived through the Great Depression, WWII, and Vietnam, he understood what it was like to experience some terrible events that are deeply ingrained in American history. Because of his work at General Electric, he also understood what it was like to be in the working class, and he was even able to change some elements of the actual corporation for the better. He used his knowledge to not only write some of the greatest stories of all time but also to subtly point out the human condition and the obstacles that stand in the way of very real dreams.


Works Cited

Morse, Donald E. “Kurt Vonnegut: The Representative Post-World War II American Writer.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) (2015): 195-210.

Reilly, Charlie, and Kurt Vonnegut. “Two Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut.” College Literature 7.1 (1980): 1-29.

Vonnegut, Kurt. “Fates worse than death.” The North American Review 267.4 (1982): 46-49.

Vonnegut, Kurt. “A Newly Discovered Kurt Vonnegut Story.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Jan. 2020,


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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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