Summary of Kurt Vonnegut's "Hocus Pocus"

by David Ferris
Kurt Vonnegut published

Kurt Vonnegut published "Hocus Pocus" in 1990.

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American author Kurt Vonnegut achieved critical success and widespread popularity with his quirky characters, off-beat humor and clever satire. His most well-known works include "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Cat's Cradle." "Hocus Pocus," published in 1990, is a first-person sci-fi treatment of such issues as war, religion, socialism and existence.


The book revolves around Eugene Debs Hartke, the narrator and protagonist, a Vietnam War veteran and committed atheist. The novel is written as a collection of Hartke's fragmentary musings subsequently compiled by his "editor," a man by the name of Kurt Vonnegut. Hartke's scattered writings are linked by the common motif of education, in which he spends his life "unlearning" the truths he once held to be absolute.


Following his Army career, Hartke lands a teaching job at a small college in upstate New York. However, a right-wing TV personality makes Hartke a target for Hartke's "un-American" pessimism, and the pressure leads to his dismissal by the college board. He then finds work at a private prison (a prescient detail on Vonnegut's part), where, in a touch of absurdism typical of the author, inmates are isolated racially per a Supreme Court decision stating it would be cruel to force different races to live together in jail. The setting is part of Vonnegut's general critical backdrop of an imagined future U.S. where everything is privately run and fully segrated. The prisoners break out of jail and the authorities go in pursuit of Hartke.

Critique of Christianity

One of "Hocus Pocus'" targets is Christianity. Vonnegut uses his character to criticize religion practiced irrationally. Vonnegut uses his characteristic mocking wit to take Christianity down a peg or two and gives it the inauspicious titular label of "hocus pocus." A "New York Times" reviewcompared this aspect of the book to Salman Rushdie's critique of Islam in "The Satanic Verses."

Other Elements

"Hocus Pocus" is rich in metaphor. It compares the U.S. to a plantation. White owners are selling everything off to Japanese buyers, who become a kind of occupation army Vonnegut that implicitly compares to America's involvement in Vietnam. Sci-fi flourishes include the futuristic revival of tuberculosis and super-germs that can travel from planet to planet. Vonnegut also brings back Kilgore Trout, a familiar character from a previous novel.

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