Introduction between aspects of the real world and

            Introduction

Kurt
Vonnegut Jr. is one of the most famous writers of postmodernism. His writing is
hailed as easily approachable but profound – simple structures dealing with
serious questions about the society while blurring the lines between aspects of
the real world and science fiction. (Farrell 3) Slaughterhouse-Five is, perhaps, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s most famous
work as well as one of the most famous postmodernist works, and it deals with
the remnants in the society of what was one of the most harrowing events of the
20th century. It is partially also meant to be autobiographical, as
the writer intends to portray the Bombing of Dresden as he saw when he was a
prisoner of war, too. This essay aims to examine in which ways Kurt Vonnegut
Jr. reflects on World War II and what kind of sentiments are represented in the
book.

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            Billy
Pilgrim

The
focal point of Slaughterhouse-Five is
Billy Pilgrim whose life the reader gets to see in fragments as Billy travels
through time, a consequence of being abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore.
Tralfamadorians teach Billy about their beliefs, which heavily rely on
predetermination and examining all events as a singular point in time,
happening “all at one time”. (Vonnegut 53) This, in turn, shapes a bigger
portion of Billy’s insights and plenty of them take time throughout the novel
to fully develop into a picture that explains Billy’s background.

Nihilism
and fatalism dominate in Billy’s point of view as he is portrayed as a relatively
helpless person who does not seem to live his life, but his life rather seems
to just kind of happen around him, which includes becoming “unstuck in time”
seemingly at random. Vonnegut does seem to offer a possible explanation for the
elements of time travelling, and Billy’s existentialist way of coping: “…they
were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a
big help.” (59) This is said as Billy and Eliot Rosewater are being treated at
a mental health veteran’s hospital and Rosewater introduces Billy to the works
of a science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, who seems to be a continuous
influence on the episodes Billy experiences while travelling through time.

Contemporary
psychiatrists suggest Billy’s case of travelling through time can be
interpreted as PTSD episodes, which are influenced in part by the Kilgore Trout
novels he has read but does not fully remember. (Mustazza 294) This can also
account for Billy’s resigned attitude towards life, a coping mechanism where he
is only able to sustain if he takes everything that happens as something that
must have happened. “So it goes” is by far the most used phrase in the novel, noted
each time death is mentioned, regardless if it is war related, if it was a
group of people, a person or even horses. It happens as if to confirm the
thought that death is just what happens and there is not much one can do about
it. It is taken out of a Tralfamadorian philosophy Billy says he has learnt – “dead
person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person
is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody
is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people,
which is ‘So it goes.'” (Vonnegut 24)

Vonnegut
also provides a snippet of Billy’s conversation with a Tralfamadorian about
war, as the planet seems awfully peaceful to Billy – as it turns out he has
been mistaken, and it is only peaceful at the moment. Tralfamadorians teach him
another thing about dealing with war: “”That’s one thing Earthlings might learn
to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on
the good ones.”” (67)

A
striking scene in the book is when Billy Pilgrim watches a war film backwards,
watching airplanes putting buildings back together, shipping the bombs back to
factories, “…separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it
was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to
specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground,
to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.” (Vonnegut
46)

It
seems then, that through Billy, Vonnegut is trying to rationalise a battle with
the aftermaths of war. He seems to be exploring what lengths a person might go
to, emotionally and mentally, to be able to face both with the past and with
life afterwards. Billy has developed a sort of a detachment from the outside
world, despite finishing school, being successful at his job, marrying and
having children. However, once he is “unstuck in time” he is not much more than
an observer of his life who becoming more and more transfixed with Tralfamadorian
views, to the point where he wants to make other people aware of them, perhaps
because they have helped him tackle life after he wound up in the veteran’s
mental hospital after the war.

 

            Other
Characters’ Perspectives

The
first character that gives a blunt view on the war in the novel is Mary O’Hare,
the wife of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s fellow veteran who has also lived through the
Bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut visits his friend and talks about writing a book
on Dresden, which seems to unsettle his friend’s wife. “…then I understood. It
was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s
babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and
movies.” He echoes her sentiment and promises to her: “I’ll call it ‘The
Children’s Crusade.'”, and true to his promise, that is the subtitle of the
book. (Vonnegut 18)

Through
the character of Billy Pilgrim’s wife, Valencia, as she asks Billy about the
war as they watch a glamorous yacht go past them on their wedding night,
Vonnegut tries to in a very general manner comment on the other side of the female
perspective on war somewhat begrudgingly, but sticking to his conviction that
the image of war as a noble cause should be destroyed. He writes: “When the
beautiful people were past, Valencia questioned her funny-looking husband about
war. It was a simple-minded thing for a female Earthling to do, to associate
sex and glamor with war.” (68)

Vonnegut
also supplies views on the war in the war scenes where he through, for example,
Roland Weary, tries to portray a man who has a heavily glamorised and
romanticised vision of the war in his mind, not unlike those Mary O’Hare fears,
only to have his strength and determination torn apart by the devastating
consequences of the war.

The
most strikingly different insight Vonnegut provides in the story is from Bertram
Copeland Rumfoord, with whom Billy shared a hospital room after his aeroplane
accident. Rumfoord is a historian who is trying to do research on Dresden who
although he does acknowledge the devastation in Dresden, also says, as he and
Billy share the following exchange:

            “”It had to be done,” Rumfoord told
Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

            “I know,” said Billy.

            “That’s war.”

            “I know. I’m not complaining.”

            “It must have been hell on the ground.”

            “It was,” said Billy Pilgrim.

            “Pity the men who had to do it.””

            (Vonnegut 104)

Vonnegut
is echoing what many historians and people alike did and do use to lessen the destruction
that happens in war when it is against the enemy. It is to justify it as a necessary
side effect of war.  Even more so,
Rumfoord specifically also pays mind to the people carrying out the air raids
as well, while only giving the people on the ground a passing thought.

            Kurt
Vonnegut’s Insights

Through
the technique of metafiction, Vonnegut is able to be present and to voice his
thoughts throughout the book – mostly in the beginning where he dedicates the
first chapter to his own story about trying to write the novel and in the end
where he gives further brief reflections on the aftermath of the bombing.

Vonnegut
says this is the story he has always been writing, always wanted to tell. Throughout
the entire novel, Vonnegut cannot escape the dreadful thought that the Bombing
of Dresden is not something that is known or talked about, given the multitude
of the event. A later revision of the numbers Vonnegut talks about in the book,
however, puts the death toll of the Dresden bombings anywhere from about 18,000
to 25,000, significantly less than the estimates at the time of Vonnegut’s
writing of the book. (Beevor 810) In the very beginning, Vonnegut does write the
comparison of “how much worse it had been than Hiroshima”, which according to
new studies; it shows that in terms of numbers and the consequences – it was
not. (16) Still, this factual fault, not much on part of the author, as on part
of the available historical studies at the time, does not hinder the message of
the book.

The
eeriest presence Vonnegut has is when he interjects into the war retellings. “That
was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.” (71) and “That was I.
That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.” (80)
thrown into the midst of telling a story of a dysentery outbreak among the American
troops as they had their first real taste of food or how they felt being in the
boxcar and getting out after being transported to a camp, stick out to the
reader. They tell the reader that this is not fiction, that these stories are
real. Vonnegut pipes in with a firm voice, remind the reader of the purpose of
the book.

Vonnegut’s
prime goal is to show that war is mere devastation. It holds no merit, it hits
humanity all the same regardless of sides. He discusses learning during his
Anthropology studies about how people are in essence all alike.  “Shortly before my father died, he said to me,
“You know—you never wrote a story with a villain in it.”” (15)

Some
of Kurt Vonnegut’s thoughts are also very heavily pacifist. Of raising sons on
the topic of war, he says: “I have told my sons that they are not under any
circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of
enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them
not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express
contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.” (20) At the end of
the book, as well, in relation to the use of firearms, a similar sentiment is
expressed: “My father died many years ago now—of natural causes. So it goes. He
was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.” (109)

Vonnegut
uses the moment where he himself speaks in the first person to argue his case,
despite of the nihilism that prevails in Billy’s character, or the sentiments expressed
by Rumfoord for example. Vonnegut uses the imagery of war to show that is it
devastating and destructive, but he uses his own voice speak openly and clearly
against war.

 

            Conclusion

Kurt Vonnegut in
Slaughterhouse-Five expresses a number of different ideas on the war. He faces
the readers with an antihero character to represent the consequences of war,
the various symbolism he uses to portray war. Vonnegut also faces the readers
with the other side, there are characters that romanticise war, that argue some
things in war have to be done and it should not be given much deeper thought.
He openly speaks of wartime atrocities and what men in the Second World War
were faced with both on the battlefields but in prison camps as well. He then
uses his own voice to state his case firmly.

Slaughterhouse-Five
can be interpreted differently – it can be interpreted as a nihilist
postmodernism work that advocates that humanity has reached a low point and
there is nothing more people can do but surrender and accept it. However, Vonnegut
does not really stop there, he merely uses that as an element in the entire
book. The book does not feel complete if it does not also include Vonnegut’s
own assertions.

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