Next Door by Kurt Vonnegut
In Next Door by Kurt Vonnegut we have the theme of conflict, image, guilt, innocence and coming of age. Taken from his Welcome to the Monkey House collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Vonnegut may be exploring the theme of conflict. Paul’s parents are in disagreement as to whether to leave Paul at home while they go to the movies. Paul’s father thinks that he will be okay at home alone while Paul’s mother thinks differently before being persuaded by her husband. It is also noticeable that Mr Harger and the blond woman are also fighting. Something that becomes clear to the reader while Paul is playing with his microscope. It may also be important that both the Leonards and Mr Harger are talking in low voices when they argue as it is possible that they do not wish to highlight their conflict to others (their neighbours). By allowing their neighbours to hear each other fighting both the Leonards and Mr Harger would be publicly airing their disagreements and disharmony. Something they are careful not to do. They are attempting to display an image of happiness and harmony rather than one of conflict. Something that becomes clearer to the reader when Mr Harger tells the blond woman to turn up the radio when they are fighting. The reader aware that Mr Harger is attempting to drown out the sound of his fighting with the blond woman.
It is also interesting that while Mr Harger is fighting that Paul’s lens for his microscope begin to crack. Symbolically it is possible that Vonnegut is suggesting that should an individual be put under the microscope they too will crack. When their life is really exposed for what it is. Which in the case of the story is both sets of adults fighting while a child ironically plays with a microscope. It may also be important that Paul feels guilty that he might be responsible for Mr Harger’s death. So innocent is Paul that he believes that by calling All Night Sam he has contributed to Mr Harger’s death. When the reality is he was not to know that the woman in the Harger’s apartment was not Mrs Harger nor was he to know that she had a gun. This is important as it exposes Paul’s innocence when it comes to what is happening in the Harger’s apartment. In reality he does not really know what is happening apart from two adults shouting at each other.
It may also be significant that Paul through fear runs to his bedroom and isolates himself from others after the shooting. Rather than using the phone to report the shooting Paul lies in his bed unaware of what to do when the reality is an adult may have went and seen for themselves if Mr Harger was okay. An adult would have put the pieces of the incident together and not have been as concerned as Paul has been. While Paul believes that Mrs Harger has murdered her husband an adult would have seen that the incident was no more than a lovers tiff between Mr Harger and the blond woman. With the true possibility being that Mr Harger is cheating on his wife. Which in many ways would explain Mrs Harger’s absence from the apartment. The reader too is lulled into thinking that Mr Harger has been shot by his wife which may be the point that Vonnegut is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that in reality a person may never really understand the motives or actions of another person (the blond woman) when they are reliant on hearing only one argument and that argument is drowned out by sounds from the radio.
The end of the story is also interesting as Paul appears to be coming of age. No longer is he afraid having been reassured by Mr Harger that everything is alright. He also does not tell the policeman of the shooting rather he lets Mr Harger take control of the situation and remains silent. Even when his mother and father returns Paul does not mention the shooting to his parents. Which shows a sign of maturity. Though some critics may suggest that Paul has been bribed by the blond woman. However it may be important to remember that Paul doesn’t necessarily know exactly what the blond woman has given to him. Everything she gave him was wrapped up in a ball and remained in Paul’s pocket. At no stage did Paul check how much money the woman gave him. The fact that Paul may be coming of age is also noticeable by the fact that his father slightly scolds his mother for calling Paul a little boy telling her that ‘He’s not a little boy—he’s a big boy.’ Though Paul has come of age he also has some explaining to do about the ball of money in his pocket. However Vonnegut never affords the reader the opportunity as to discover how Paul will explain how he got the money. It being left to each individual reader to decide as to what tale Paul will invent to explain away the money. What is clear though at the end of the story is that Vonnegut has allowed the reader, through Paul’s eyes, an insight into the dynamics of an individual’s relationship and how despite what we may hear or see. We may not always know the truth about other people’s relationships.