The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu”

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Below is a detailed summary and literary analysis of the first chapter of The Sirens of Titan for my students and for me … and for you. It is very long. As a side note, this post has been more popular than I ever expected, and I suspect people are Googling “summary of Sirens of Titan Chapter 1 that is better than Sparknotes,” because the search results are leading me to feel this way, and I’m flattered. Wayward students: please use my research as a supplement, but don’t rob yourself of the pleasure of reading the novel yourself. Also feel free to ask me questions in the comments, I’m always happy to help.

Chapter 1 of The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut is entitled “Between Timid and Timbuktu.”

Characters

Malachi Constant: “I guess somebody up there likes me.” Described in Ch. 1 as a playboy and depicted as an oaf (complete with clamoring up a fountain and being late for his appointment with someone “unstuck” in space-time) he is dressed as an “Edwardian dandy” and is “not even well-educated.” Malachi is described as a “well-made man” but also with a “Cro-Magnon brow-ridge.” He is thirty-one years old and worth three billion dollars, “most of it inherited.” He is intimidated by Winston Niles Rumfoord the moment they shake hands even through Rumfoord does not exist in any traditional sense of the word.

Beatrice Rumfoord aka Mrs. Winston Niles Rumfoord: She is thirty-four and has seventeen million dollars to her name. She is a “poetess” and the title of the chapter is a reference to her “reasonable well received” poetry collection of the same time. The collection – and arguably the novel – is a reference to time. The first (and only) time she met with her materialized husband he gave her news that was so unpleasant that she now refuses to see him. She is described as “marvelous” looking, but is described in the most unflattering terms, much like Constant, whom she detests. Her name is clearly a reference to Dante and The Divine Comedy, specifically Paradiso.

Winston Niles Rumfoord: While in his “private space ship” he and his mastiff (dog) Kazak intersected with a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum” and are now non-materialized, destined to forever appear on Earth every 59 days. He is described now as a “wave” and is – to use another Vonnegut term – “unstuck” in time, meaning that he can see the future as well as the past, and thus is bored. Rumfoord knows Constant from Titan (a moon of Saturn as Mrs. Rumfoord explains) and has requested his presence during the materialization that launches the novel. Rumfoord is genial and dignified to a degree that humbles Constant completely and Rumfoord is described only in glowing terms in the first chapter. He can read minds but, as he reminds Constant, he cannot “reproduce” (so Freudian), then again, as he explains, “Angels can’t either.”

Chrono: The son of Constant and Mrs. Rumfoord who is born on Mars (in the future) and whose “good-luck piece” is, as Mr. Rumfoord states, “unbelievably important.”

The Sirens of Titan: Though the reader may not notice it yet, the photograph of the three women that Mr. Rumfoord slips Constant (“one white, one gold, one brown”) that brings him to near-tears are the eponymous sirens that lure Constant to Titan. They are not “really” characters, but we couldn’t possibly know that yet.

Reverend Bobby Denton and the Love Crusaders: A right-wing religious reader whom the narrative clearly hates, they are obsessed with “sin,” the “tower of Babel” (to which space exploration is compared), and they harass Constant has he leaves the Rumfoord estate at the end of the chapter. The shockingly disgusting terms with which they are described let the reader know they the narrative is not “with” them, though the narrative itself is about redemption and an escape from Purgatory.

Last but not least: A few pages in we also get a little cameo appearance from Wanda June of “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” fame, one of Vonnegut’s entirely forgettable plays. This novel was published even before the first iteration of the play, according to rumor at least.

Symbols, Allusions, and (Likely) Themes:

Martians – They will “breed” Mrs. Rumfoord and Constant (according to Mr. Rumfoord), possibly a reference to The War of the Worlds when the artilleryman predicts this, but to different ends. A bit of a fake out in every sense of the word, though we (the readers) don’t know it yet.

Miss Canal Zone – (Again, so Freudian.) Constant’s lover who he shows off to Rumfoord, her name is ostensibly a nod to the canals on Mars and the inescapability of Constant’s fate.

Dead Animals – The “beware of dog” sign that reveals a skeleton mastiff, a probably reference to Kazak, and a “joke” of Mrs. Rumfoord’s. Also the “ruins” of bird’s nests that Constant stands in when he is on top of the fountain. Possibly Kazak himself, though he is not technically dead or alive. Note: birds become significant later on.

Purgatory – Beatrice is an obvious reference, but also the fact that Mr. Rumfoord and Kazak are neither dead nor alive and do not technically exist in time anymore, would suggest that they are not subject to things like aging or death.

Angry Crowd – Another possible reference to The War of the Worlds and the London/carriage scenes, though that could be a coincidence, I do have Wells on the brain 24/7.

The Sirens of Titan – The “sirens” themselves function on several levels, they are literally the ones whose “song” “lures” Constant to being his journey, seemingly in order to lead him into disaster like their mythical namesakes. I feel like their description as white, brown, and gold is a reference to the brown-skinned, golden-eyed Martians of The Martian Chronicles. It’s entirely possible since Bradbury’s stories were being published when Vonnegut was writing this novel.

The Girl in White – The little girl in white on the all-white pony is a symbol is Beatrice’s hard-fought purity, it is also her hubris.

Time – The words between timid and Timbuktu, ostensibly. The saying “here to Timbuktu” also means, colloquially, from here to no where or endlessness, foreshadowing the events of the novel.

Moncrief – It’s unlikely but I would be very happy if the Rumfoord’s butler was named after Algernon Moncrieff of The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde. Probably not though.

Probable Tropes:

Lady and the Tramp – (or Beauty and the Beast) That Beatrice and Malachi will end up together is a set piece, the idea of the delicate lady and the boorish man falling in love, is a familiar trope. Possibly a play on “the reformed rake” trope from 18th c. literature that Richardson wrote against (see also Clarissa).

“Unstuck” in Time – A Vonnegut-specific trope wherein a character exists in multiple places in time and various times; no longer on a linear path this character (Rumfoord) is generally bored by the petty goings on of the linear time folk.

Noblesse Oblige – French for “nobility obliges.” Vonnegut is playing with this trope in this chapter and entire novel, from Merriam-Webster: “the idea that people who have high social rank or wealth should be helpful and generous to people of lower rank or to people who are poor.” In this case Rumfoord is both knowledge-rich and literally wealthy.

Like Holograms – The “materializations” of Rumfoord engage with a long history of holograms and hologram-like entities in science fiction.

Epigraph:

If you’re studying literature at any level then you must note the following: if a book contains epigraphs then those epigraphs are significant. For Chapter 1 the epigraph reads:

“I guess somebody up there likes me.” – Malachi Constant

This, which we can abbreviate to “luck,” is incredibly important for Malachi’s character, so important that this phrase essentially bookends the text. Additionally, it is this belief in luck as a link to heaven that determines the orbit of the major characters around one another.

Since there will be no better time to discuss it the book itself has an epigraph:

“Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.” – Ransom K. Fern

The quote is from Ransom K. Fern who has not formally been introduced to us, but he is a character in the novel and the manager of Malachi’s assets. The book itself can be seen as a struggle of characters to progress, and while it seems at many points as if the are going no where, at the end they’ve traveled incredibly far in many different senses of the word.

Plot:

Ho, hum, on to the plot.

The novel opens with the line: “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.” It’s so easy to forget that the novel was published in 1959 until we run into terms like “within himself,” which now would read “themselves” more likely than not, though he quickly adds that it is “men and women” who have access to this information. Vonnegut is not known for writing women’s stories and he doesn’t need to be, I’m not asking that of him, but it jars me out of the reading a touch because I am not a himself. Regardless, he continues in this style to describe a time before life made perfect sense and this is when our story takes place. He continues in a simple style, with many paragraphs that are single lines, creating a poetry-like feeling.

We then find out that the story is set in “the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression.” Arguably this would be now-ish if you’re willing to concede that circa 2007 was the start of the Second Great Depression. Vonnegut ignores technology which ends up being brilliant because there are no rotary phones or typewriters in the distant future distracting us from our suspension of disbelief (I’m looking at you The Martian Chronicles).

The narrative zooms in on crowd waiting for Winston Niles Rumfoord and Kazak (though we don’t have their names yet) to materialize inside the Rumfoord mansion. The crowd is surly because they want to know the future, the mysteries of life, and all that sort of thing. The reader learns that this has been happening every 59 days for nine years and that Mrs. Beatrice Rumfoord has never allowed anyone inside during this event, no matter how important they are, until today.

Walled up inside her mansion Beatrice Rumfoord makes a report after 24 hours have passed and it is invariably brief. There is a reference to an “Alice-in-Wonderland door in the west wall,” just to note an additional allusion for those interested. The reports are described as “peevish,” which is so perfect for Beatrice’s character. This is also where the reader learns that Rumfoord can see the past and future clearly, but someone is not interested in sharing that information with others.

It is at this point that Malachi Constant shows up and enters the estate through the Alice door (this is apt because he is about to go “down a rabbit hole”) and encounters the dog skeleton mentioned above. The reader gets a little more information about Beatrice and Malachi, including her book of poetry, and a little more about how Rumfoord came to be dematerialized. Vonnegut then has an excerpt from a children’s encyclopedia explaining the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, which I find utterly delightful. He has several of these types of interludes, including a nursery rhyme about Universal Will to Become, and they are invariably delightful. I feel like the “science” of science fiction is what alienates (pun intended) so many readers, and Vonnegut subverts this so beautifully by giving his readers explanations of the most complex facets of his novel (scientifically complex, that is) as though they were children. It’s cute, it’s accessible, it’s helpful, and it’s just a bit cheeky.

The circumstances of the invitation that was extended to Malachi are described, which is when we learn how much Beatrice really seems to hate him, though we don’t know why just yet. Constant walks through the garden toward the house, but when he gets to a fork in the road he decides to climb the fountain in the center instead. This personality trait seems rude in this context, but will be his saving grace. The fountain itself is important and will show up again and again in the story. This is also where we see the “ruins of bird’s nests” that will be important as the story progresses (I don’t want to give too much away, spoliers and all that).

The reader gets more information about Malachi, including the meaning of his name, “faithful messenger,” which is symbolically important. The reader is signaled to the materialization by the “baying” of Kazak and Malachi runs the remaining distance to the house. Rumfoord had just materialized and the two have a brief conversation about luck (again, symbolically very important). There is a long description of all the reasons that Malachi is intimidated before Rumfoord tells him that he can read minds and states: “You’re not a bad sort … particularly when you forget who you are.” Foreshadowing.

Rumfoord and Malachi walk together and pass a painting of a little girl dressed in all white on a “pure white pony” (note the word “pure”) and which we learn is Beatrice Rumfoord as a child. “Wouldn’t it be too bad if she fell in a mud puddle?” Rumfoord asks. Foreshadowing.

Rumfoord and Malachi end up in a room that is described as being like a chimney and is called Skip’s Museum (Rumfoord’s childhood nickname); I imagine it like the underwater collection of land junk that Ariel had in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” for some reason. This is where Rumfoord begins to blatantly lie about the future, though the reader doesn’t realize it for a while, and lie specifically about Malachi’s future relationship with Beatrice. The hard facts are the same, but all the details are lies. This won’t matter at all though and the reader will have to backtrack a bit to find out why Rumfoord does care about lying outright. What does seem to be true is that Rumfoord telling Beatrice about this part of the future is the reason that she no longer sees or speaks to him.

There is then some exposition on the nobility and Malachi is established as slovenly while Rumfoord is established as dignified; this is a red herring. Rumfoord continues to give details about Malachi’s future before Bobby Denton and the Love Crusaders are given some attention – they never appear in the story again, but I believe this interlude is supposed to give the reader something to juxtapose the novel’s other religion against.

The reader is brought back to Rumfoord and Malachi when Malachi asks what the “message” is that he will deliver, but Rumfoord lies and says that there is none. Malachi then says that he’s not going, which is when Rumfoord slips him the photo of the Sirens, another red herring. Rumfoord dematerializes shortly thereafter and Beatrice appears and has a brief exchange with Malachi before he leaves as well. In his limousine Malachi is mobbed by a crowd of Love Crusaders who are described in the most grotesque possible terms before the chapter closes.

The largest issue in this opening chapter is letting go of it after you’ve read it; Malachi and Rumfoord are described so beautifully and so vividly that it is difficult to let go of these early descriptions even when new evidence appears.

I hope you found this summary helpful! Please feel free to ask any questions, post corrections, all that good stuff, in the comments. Many thanks!

5 thoughts on “The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu”

  1. This is my 9th grade summer reading book and I’m having a hard time understanding the book even after reading the first chapter! Any tips/advice? Thankss!!

    • That’s great! A pretty challenging book, you must be in an advanced class (my Juniors/Seniors could barely get it). One important thing to keep in mind is that the story isn’t going to feel linear because of all of the tumult the characters will go through. Winston Niles Rumfoord basically gets to play God, but because he’s still human he just uses it to be a vindictive jerk. So Vonnegut is asking, “What if God was human?” or “What if a human was given nearly-Godlike powers?” and the answer is that he is long-term petty, as you will see in the book. This theme is repeated later on Venus. Also the word between “timid” and “Timbuktu” is time and time is a huge theme in the book. I hope that helps, let me know if you have any other questions!

  2. Pingback: Happy 10 Year Blogiversary! | Ms. Brigitte's Mild Ride

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