This article is about the 1962 short story. For the 2016 film adaptation directed by Marco Checa Garcia, see 2BR02B: To Be or Naught To Be.
"2 B R 0 2 B" is a science fictionshort story by Kurt Vonnegut, originally published in the digest magazine Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1962, and collected in Vonnegut's Bagombo Snuff Box (1999). The title is pronounced "2 B R naught 2 B", referencing the famous phrase "to be, or not to be" from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In this story, the title refers to the telephone number one dials to schedule an assisted suicide with the Federal Bureau of Termination. Vonnegut's 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater describes a story by this name, attributing it to his recurring character Kilgore Trout, although the plot summary given is closer in nature to the eponymous tale from his short-story collection Welcome to the Monkey House.
The setting is a society in which aging has been cured, individuals have indefinite lifespans, and population control is used to limit the population of the United States to forty million. This is maintained through a combination of infanticide and government-assisted suicide - in short, in order for someone to be born, someone must first volunteer to die. As a result, births are few and far between, and deaths occur primarily by accident.
The scene is a waiting room at the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, where Edward K. Wehling, Jr. is faced with the situation that his wife is about to give birth to triplets, but he has found only one person - his maternal grandfather - who will volunteer to die. A painter on a stepladder is redecorating the room with a mural depicting famous doctors and nurses - in particular, Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital's Chief Obstetrician. Leora Duncan, from the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, arrives to pose for the mural. The mural is a picture of a garden that's well taken care of. It is a metaphor for the United States at that time. Later, Dr. Hitz enters the scene, conversing with everyone but the painter of the mural.
It becomes apparent to all that Wehling is in a state of despair, wanting not to send his grandfather and two of his children to death. Dr. Hitz questions Wehling's belief in the system, and tries to make Wehling feel better by explaining how the surviving child will "live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet." Suddenly, Wehling draws a revolver and kills Dr. Hitz, Leora Duncan, and himself - "making room for all three children."
The painter, who is about two hundred years old, is left to reflect on the scene, and thinks about life, war, plague, and starvation. Descending the stepladder, he initially takes the revolver, intending to kill himself with it, but he can't do it. Instead he calls the Bureau of Termination to make an appointment. The last line is from the receptionist at the Bureau:
|“||"Thank you, sir," said the hostess. "Your city thanks you; your country thanks you; your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from all of the future generations."||”|
Vonnegut's story was the basis for the 2016 Canadian short film 2BR02B: To Be or Naught to Be directed by Marco Checa Garcia which premiered at the Sci-Fi-London festival in April 2016.
|Collected Short Fiction|
"2BR02B" begins by summarizing the state of the world: there are no prisons, slums, insane asylums, cripples, poverty, wars, or diseases. The population of the United States is set at forty million people. But since no one gets any older thanks to new drugs, an adult must volunteer to die if someone wishes to birth a new baby.
Edward K. Wehling, Jr. sits in the hospital waiting room alone as his wife gives birth to their first children: triplets. The only other person in the room is a 200 year-old painter who looks only thirty-five, working on a mural of a garden meant to represent the hospital's history.
Soon, the hospital orderly enters, and compliments the painter on the accuracy of the faces he is painting, specifically that of the handsome Dr. Benjamin Hitz. Many of them represent living members of either the hospital staff or the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Termination. The painter responds scornfully that the mural, titled The Happy Garden of Life, does not resemble actual life in the least. The orderly suggests that he can always call the telephone number 2BR02B - which will allow him to make an appointment to die in the municipal gas chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination - if he is tired of life. The painter responds that he will commit a messy suicide when he chooses to go, rather than leaving his death to the government.
Leora Duncan, a gas chamber hostess, enters in order to pose for the mural. She is dressed all in purple and has a mustache, like all gas chamber hostesses do. The painter has already painted many bodies; just the faces are blank. For Leora's face, he suggests a body pruning a branch from an apple tree, right next to the figure of Dr. Hitz. She is embarrassed and pleased because she admires Dr. Hitz so much. (He was responsible for setting up the first gas chamber in Chicago, and is admired by most people.)
Just then, Dr. Hitz enters the waiting room. He is a huge, handsome, joyful man. He and Leora praise the mural, each declaring what an honor it is to be featured in it with the other. Dr. Hitz then announces that the Wehling triplets have been born. She is stunned at the legal implications: in order for all three of the triplets to be allowed to survive, the Wehling parents must find three volunteers to die in their place. So far, the Wehlings have only been able to find one volunteer.
When Dr. Hitz comments that Wehling does not seem very happy, Wehling bemoans his situation. He must decide which of his three triplets will be allowed to live before bringing his own grandfather, who has volunteered to die as an exchange, to a gas chamber (and then returning to the hospital with a receipt). Dr. Hitz scolds him for his misery, explaining that if population control were not enforced, the world would be overrun because of overpopulation. He is sympathetic that Wehling will have to bring his own grandfather to be killed, but feels that the sacrifice is warranted since whichever child Wehling chooses to survive will be able to thrive on a planet that has space for everyone.
Suddenly, Wehling draws a revolver and shoots Dr. Hitz and Leora Duncan, killing them both. Finally, he shoots himself, making room for all three of his children and his grandfather to continue living.
From the top of his stepladder, the painter witness the entire scene. He considers the planet's situation, and knows that he will never be able to paint again. He climbs down from the stepladder and picks up the revolver, with the intent of shooting himself.
Instead, he goes to the telephone and dials 2BR02B. A hostess at the Federal Bureau of Termination answers the phone, and the painter asks for an appointment as soon as possible. She says she can fit him in that afternoon, and he gives her his name. The hostess tells him that his city, his country, his planet, and most of all future generations, thank him.
"2BR02B," the phone number one must dial to reach an assisted suicide parlor, is a rephrasing of Hamlet's iconic question. In order to understand it as such, the "0" must be pronounced "naught." In Vonnegut's 1956 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, "2BR02B" is the title of a novel by Vonnegut's recurring character, the prolific but under-appreciated science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Based on Vonnegut's friend and contemporary Theodore Sturgeon, Trout has also been interpreted as Vonnegut's own alter-ego. However, the plot summary given in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater more closely resembles that of "Welcome to the Monkey House" than that of this short story.
Like "Welcome to the Monkey House" and "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," this story presents a dystopian future where the main problem is world overpopulation. In this case, the population of the United States is kept at a strict forty million, dependent on volunteers calling the municipal gas chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination. Government control is a recurring theme in Vonnegut's short fiction; here, the government controls the population by mandating that each new life come at the price of a suicide. Dr. Hitz is a vocal proponent of population control, representing the voice of government reason as he scolds Wehling for being miserable about having to choose between his newborn children. Dr. Hitz describes the situation before population control as unsustainable, with no food or water to support the ever-growing population.
As is often the case in Vonnegut's stories, government control is presented as antagonist to individuality. It is the government which runs the Federal Bureau of Termination gas chambers where the suicides take place. In requiring that each new life come at the cost of any other one, the government assumes that lives are interchangeable. It does not matter which person volunteers to die, as long as there is a volunteer for each birth. Wehling is expected to choose which of his triplets will live, as if each of their lives is exactly the same as the others. Dr. Hitz's reprimand suggests a detached, almost bureaucratic understanding of life. He seems entirely unable to understand the impossible choice that Wehling faces, because he sees no individuality, only numbers.
Sadly, death - especially initiated outside the government controls - remains the only means of self-expression left in the world. Thus, Wehling's suicide is a final expression of his right to control his own fate. By refusing to let his grandfather die, he is implicitly refusing to take part in his society's demands. And yet he plays the world's game at the same time that he negates it, by killing Dr. Hitz and Leora. The murder is both practical, in that it makes room on the planet for two of his triplets, and subversive, in that it forces them to partake in the population control they have been implementing at such an extreme cost to other people. Clearly, they have valued their own lives above those of the newborn Wehlings, or they would volunteer to die in the children's places. In murdering them, Edward K. Wehling, Jr. forces them to buy into their own bogus logic that each life is interchangeable with any other.
One expression of individuality that has been suppressed and controlled in "2BR02B" is art. The painter is unhappy because he is forced to paint a mural that does not represent life as he understands it. The Happy Garden of Life depicts an impossibly formal, well-tended garden that is a metaphor for the world. Every body is interchangeable in the painting; in fact, they have already been painted. He merely fills in the blank circles above them with faces, which again evokes the theme of a lack of individuality. Through population control, people's lives are pruned like branches by gas chamber hostesses like Leora Duncan. But the order comes at the cost of individuality. As the painter tells the hospital orderly, "The world could do with a good deal more mess, if you ask me" (316). The other form of art represented here is the song the hospital orderly sings as he enters. It is an ode to the gas chambers and population control disguised as a love song, declaring that if the object of the singer's affection does not return his love, he will "get off this old planet, let some sweet baby have my place" (315). Even popular songs are controlled to send the government's message.