Delving Into Kurt Vonnegut’s Psyche

Karissa Haskin

It is said that writers are more sensitive to the woes of man. According to Jim Whitlark, a professor at Texas Tech University, in his article “Literature as Early Warning,” states that Kurt Vonnegut has been quoted to believe this very thing.  Whitlark states that the writings of authors are often warnings that come from the subconscious, and it is important for humankind to study literature in order to improve society (Whitlark).  Keeping that in mind, this essay will perform a Jungian Archetypal analysis on “The Drone King,” by Kurt Vonnegut to attempt to find what Vonnegut’s subconscious is saying about society.

Within this story, the character Mr. Quick seems to have many odd fears and psychological conflicts.  It makes the reader wonder what is going on in his head.  Why does Mr. Quick hate women?  What is he afraid of regarding the outside world?  And why bees?  The first answer that most readers would probably reach is the idea that Mr. Quick is a rich white male who is prejudiced against women.  At first glance, this story could represent the stereotypical man’s world.  But then why do the female characters, such as the bees, seem to take on stereotypical male characteristics of being heartless and only caring about work?  Do the females even represent women at all, or do they symbolize something else from Kurt Vonnegut’s subconscious?

In the video “Jung and the Behaviorists,” produced by The Great Courses, Dr. Steven Gimbel discusses Carl Jung and his theories.  He stated Jung was a student of Sigmund Freud.  He took Freud’s idea of the ego, subconscious, and Id and expanded on it.  He believed that humans have a collective subconscious, thus changing Freud’s theory of the human consciousness to the ego, personal subconscious, and collective subconscious.  He uses this theory to explain why there are so many similarities in cultural myths throughout time and across the world between cultures with little to no interaction.  He believed that this collective subconscious and universal world views manifest through different archetypes seen through mythology and lore throughout the world.  Jung seemed to believe that literature is one of the ways that we can see hints of the author’s subconscious, which would lead to a better understanding of that person’s psyche, and thus ultimately lead to a better understanding of the collective subconscious. (“Jung and the Behaviorists”)

According to Whitlark, Vonnegut believed that artists are more sensitive to cultural shifts and the collective feelings of the society around them.  This sensitive understanding of society, or the collective subconscious, often comes out subconsciously in literature (Whitlark).  This brings me to the question, what is Kurt Vonnegut’s psyche saying in “The Drone King”?

With Jungian Archetypical Theory regarding the self, persona, shadow, and anima/animus, we can start to analyze the text to find the underlying message from Vonnegut’s psyche.  By taking a look at “The Drone King” as either a dream or the manifestation of Vonnegut’s subconscious, we can assign different characters within the story to these different archetypes.  According to Whitlark, the conscious and subconscious often play against each other to create contradictions within a person.  He states, “each unconscious state is complementary and compensatory to its conscious state, but naturally, contains memories of earlier states, thereby contributing to that mental self-contradiction of which Vonnegut, Kafka, etc. complained. Each unconscious state has a complex, almost amorphous configuration, but in reaction against that seeming limitlessness, when consciousness perceives these depths, it usually does so in terms of images, limiting and defining them” (Whitlark).  In Jung’s theory of the collective subconscious, a person’s mind will take these complex contradictions and create simplified archetypes to try to make sense of these ideas.

According to Gimbel, the first archetype is the self.  It is a combination of both the conscious and the subconscious resulting in the symbol of the person’s true self (“Jung and the Behaviorists”).  The narrator of the story could be interpreted as this archetype.  He seems to be the most logical character and the story is seen from his perspective.  The next archetype according to Gimbel, is the persona.  This is the conformity archetype.  It is the part of the psyche that adapts to the environment around it and reaches for convenience.  It symbolizes the mask a person wears to appear a certain way and hide the unexcepted parts of the self (“Jung and the Behaviorists”).  This could be assigned to the waiter, and at times, Mr. Quick.  The waiter seems to be a character that accepts his role in life and resists change.  He shows distress in the fact that Mr. Quick is going to leave.  By this, I could argue that the waiter symbolizes the part of the psyche that resists change and fears what will happen if other parts of the psyche are revealed to others.  The character Mr. Quick seems to flow in and out of many different archetypes throughout the story, and at times he can also be seen as the persona.  He seems to put on an air of a person who wants to be seen as a gentleman, inventor, and even a historian.  These are the masks that the self puts on.

Then there is the shadow.  This archetype is often seen as the unknown dark side of a personality originating in the personal subconscious.  This archetype often projects itself onto others, and at times, even the world around it (“Jung and the Behaviorists”).  Though Jung often believed this manifested as a character of the same sex as the self, this might not be the case for this story.  The shadow archetype can be assigned to either the female bees or the outside world.  With the female bees, this works especially well if they are not viewed as females, but as an opposing force.  If interpreting the female bees to represent women, that would work better when analyzing this story from a Freudian perspective but doesn’t seem to fit within Jung’s archetypes. This is why it can be debated whether the female bees symbolize females in this story.

The females are portrayed as everything negative in the world.  They are described as ruthless beings that only seem to care about production.  In this case, the production of their honey, though it is hard to miss the parallels to the word money.  Anyone else that doesn’t have qualifying skills is worthless and is killed.  This interpretation reveals the possible fear that Vonnegut has of being worthless.  The outside world can also be interpreted as the shadow.  It could symbolize either stepping into what Vonnegut sees as the dangers of the unknown or the fear of removing the persona.  It can also symbolize death.  If society only deems humans successful when they have money, then the loss of money would be his metaphorical death from society.  Like the drones, once he has completed his basic duties in life and can no longer live up to expectations, he will be killed.

Lastly, there is the anima/animus.  Gimbel states that this archetype usually appears as the opposite sex from the self and portrays the opposite stereotypical characteristics of that sex.  In this case, the self is a male, which would mean this archetype would be the anima.  It would be the eros and exhibit femininity, passivity, and have nurturing characteristics (“Jung and the Behaviorists”).  Though the female bees are the only characters of the opposite sex, they do not exhibit these characteristics.  This leads back to Mr. Quick himself.  At times, he seems to take on the archetype of the anima.  He is caring while he coos and nurtures his drones.  He shows sympathy for their plight and tries to help them.

Mr. Quick is an interesting character in this story.  He seems to flow and shift between the persona and anima archetypes.  He seems to personify the psychological conflicts going on both inside Vonnegut’s head and in society. This psychological conflict seems to be the feeling that society places on a person to put on a mask to play the part of a productive human being and live up to the societal requirements of making money to be successful, and if not, the person becomes worthless.  This conflicts with the true self and finding his self-worth.  Through Mr. Quick, the root of the psychological issue is revealed.  The inner turmoil between who he feels he should be, what he fears he is, and who he actually is.  He fears being nothing more than “a drain on the community” (Vonnegut).

If the shadow is what is perceived as the negative or unacceptable aspects of the psyche and that is represented by the heartless female bees who only care about the production of honey (money), then does Vonnegut fear that the societal direction of money is dangerous because it will create people who are ruthless and monsters who kill off anyone, they deem unworthy or who gets in their way of obtaining more money?  But then why would the drones be more satisfied in life when fulfilling their prescribed roles and dying versus working for Mr. Quick and living a longer life?  What does this say about the human psyche?  Is this a message from the collective consciousness about what makes humans happy?  Mr. Quick seems to describe the drones when working for him, as being in the front lines of an army.  He states, “We’re going to teach them to carry interoffice memos, to carry orders from foxhole to foxhole on the front lines” (Vonnegut).

This seems to suggest that just fulfilling a meaningless task to live a longer life does not make someone happy.  If the female bees represent the personal subconscious that is buried and hidden within the person, but the drones are only happy after interacting with it, then maybe it holds the key to human happiness.  When the narrator, or self, sees the last mangled drone coming back from the beehive right before he dies, he is described as having a “buzz of a soul fulfilled” (Vonnegut).  Maybe it is shedding light on the importance of finding your self-worth and meaning in life, no matter how society sees it.  Joseph J. Ward with the University of Florida in the article “Oh, the Humanity! Kurt Vonnegut and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy’s Existential Rejoinder to the Irrationality of the Human Conditions” states, “to experience the human condition is to endure its extensive irrationality. Our response to that ever-expanding irrationality determines the quality of our experience” (Ward 105).  Maybe what the psyche perceives as negative aspects of the self, is in actuality, just what society is saying and completely irrational.

It is said that writers are more sensitive to the woes of man, and through their literature, people can interpret these issues and psychological conflicts in society before the general public will see them within themselves. Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Drone King” can enlighten the reader to these psychological conflicts whether Kurt Vonnegut wrote it consciously or subconsciously.  This story can pull back the layers to the collective subconscious and teach us how humans can reach happiness in life and find their self-worth.


Works Cited

“Jung and the Behaviorists.” Redefining Reality, episode 17, 2015,

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

Ward, Joseph J. ““Oh, the Humanity!”: Kurt Vonnegut and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy’s Existential Rejoinder to the Irrationality of the Human Condition.” The Humanistic Psychologist 39.2 (2011): 105. 10.1080/08873267.2011.540151.

Whitlark, Jim. “Literature as Early Warning.” Dynamical Psychology: An International, Interdisciplinary Journal of Complex Mental Processes, Jan. 2009, pp. 1–16.




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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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