Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Miss Temptation was first published in the 1950s by Saturday Evening Post. It also appeared later in an anthology called Welcome to the Monkey House.
Miss Temptation by Vonnegut: Summary and Plot Analysis
Miss Temptation, if the name doesn’t give it away, revolves around a temptress, a young actress named Susanna, who lives in a small village one summer while performing in the nearby community theater. The beautiful woman is the object of villagers’ attention, most of whom are aware and look forward to her daily routine – which involves a barefoot sensual walk through the village.
She is polite to everyone but rarely ever talks to anyone but Bearse Hinkley, an elderly pharmacist, who supplies her with the city newspapers.
One day while buying her newspapers at the drugstore, she is confronted by Corporal Norman Fuller, who has recently returned home from a tour in Korea. It was the first time he had seen her, and the experience was too overwhelming to digest.
He criticizes her, calling her ‘a great American actress’, not realizing it was her actual occupation. Initially thinking this is a compliment, Susanna thanks him but soon realizes it was meant as a taunt.
Fuller storms out not long after, making his disgust at her and for the tendency of women like her to make people like him feel ordinary and lonely.
Shaken by this sudden, unexpected outburst, Susanna runs back home.
Later, the focus briefly shifts to Fuller’s life, where he is shown having dinner with his widow mother. Her mother tries to initiate a warm and light conversation with Fuller by talking about his friends and connections, but that makes Fuller sulk even more.
Most of his friends, if not all, had married or moved on since he left, leaving him completely and utterly alone. The conversation dies soon after him mentioning his interest in divinity school and the earlier episode of belittling Susanna.
Fuller and Hinkley have a conversation later that night. Fuller goes on to explain his earlier stance with Susanna again, pinning his outburst on the way he had been treated by beautiful women growing up, including the ones from high school that seemed to think they were extra special.
Hinkley sympathizes, having been on the receiving end of such treatment in his days of youth. He later reveals that Susanna had skipped her theater performance that night. Fuller is pleased to have had any impact on a woman like her.
The next day, as people wait for Susanna’s daily appearance and her walk, they are surprised to see a truck pulling up in front of the firehouse.
Susanna seemed to be moving away with her things.
When Norman begins her rant about Susanna again, Hinkley accuses him of being frightened of her. Fuller rejects the claim but reluctantly agrees when challenged to prove it by delivering Susanna’s papers that day.
Norman goes to Susanna’s and finds her dressed conservatively; her room which he expected to be fitting that of a seductress’ lair, was anything but.
She confronts him about the outburst, demanding an explanation, at which he reveals he had no intention of chasing her away. His treatment at the hands of beautiful women like her had been a harrowing experience, which got the better of him.
Susanna went on to explain how quick people had always been to judge her, given her beauty, ignoring the fact that she was a human being, too, with a beating heart.
They reconcile their differences eventually, and Fuller steps out for the village walk with Susanna on his arm.
Miss Temptation: Review, Quotes and My Thoughts
I went on reading the story with the preconceived notions in my head, assuming poignant sexuality as the only theme. While it was one of the more stark themes in the story, it offered way more than just that.
Fuller, who stands in for the lonely, not looked at twice kind of a guy, doesn’t criticize Susanna just because she is pretty; he does that also because he thinks that his bitter experience of being ignored gives him the reason.
At some level, it’s his deep insecurity not to be able to deserve the affection or even the attention of a beautiful young woman.
Look at the colorful phrases used by Vonnegut to describe the characters –
Susanna, the golden girl of a thousand tortured daydreams
Fuller the lonely, Fuller the homely, Fuller the bleak.
I know it was not meant to be comedic, but my first instinct was to laugh when Susanna thanked Fuller for calling him a wonderful American actress.
But I was soon overcome by guilt, feeling my heart warmed by her naivete.
There is a gamut of emotions flying around. Fuller’s pent-up resentment against the beautiful kind, his biases apparent:
You do everything you can to give lonely ordinary people like me indigestion and the heebie-jeebies, and you wouldn’t even hold hands with me to keep me from falling off a cliff.
Hinkley‘s life which was quite similar to Fuller’s in terms of the treatment meted out to him by the fair ladies, is now merely an exercise in reminiscence:
All my pleasures are looking at what used to be pleasures.
And then there is Susanna. Having suffered judgements of all kinds on account of her beauty.
All through high school, people like you would look at me as if they wished I’d drop dead. They’d never dance with me, they’d never talk to me, they’d never even smile back.
It is easy to focus on one side and completely forget the other! How mean is it to hold the biases dearer than a fellow being? How easy is it to judge and even easier to be a hypocrite?
Susanna would probably have been the last person I sympathized with, coming into her story.
But that would be before my walk with Miss Temptation.