Structure

Title

The title of the story “2BR02B” by Kurt Vonnegut, appears to be a random series of letters and numbers before its meaning is revealed in the text. We might note its similarity to the phrase “To Be or Not to Be”, which is a famous line from William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. This is proven true when we are told the orderly pronounces the 0 as “naught”.

“2BR02B” is revealed to be a telephone number belonging to the “municipal gas chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination”. The purpose of this institution is to provide assisted death to people who request it. Many of those calling this number die to make room for future generations. 

This leads us to interpret the title as ironic. While in Hamlet the phrase “To be or not to be” is philosophical (without people having to die), it gets a literal meaning in the short story. People have to decide whether they will die or continue living because they are unable to age and die of natural causes. The difference between the two meanings highlights the difference between the present-day world and the dystopian world of the story.

In his speech beginning with the line “To be or not to be”, Hamlet reflects on the value and meaning of life and whether life is worth living. This is mirrored in the short story: After witnessing the murder-suicide of Edward Wehling, the painter also reflects on the human condition. This suggests ...

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