Kurt Vonneguts Short Stories
Free Will as Fictional Belief
Throughout the course of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, the reader is taken through the life events of Billy Pilgrim, a character who amazingly lives through the Dresden firebombing and many other tragedies. Ironically, Billy finds comfort in the idea that free will is a fictional belief, and that nothing can be done about any of the surrounding misfortunes that occur throughout his lifetime, or throughout any lifetime. He vocalizes his thoughts and justifies them with a claim of alien abduction, and consequently is not taken seriously. While the text may imply that his extraterrestrial experiences did not occur, it still recognizes his ideology as valid and one of the main themes prevalent throughout the novel. Vonnegut utilizes Billy Pilgrim’s life experiences as well as other devices to convey the idea that free will is a mere illusion, and that there will perpetually be hardships through life that all beings will be forced to withstand.
There are several characteristics of Billy Pilgrim that illustrate him as a peculiar character. One of the most prominent ones is that subsequent to the firebombing of Dresden, the death of his wife, a plane crash in which he was miraculously the only surviving passenger, as well as other misfortunes, he states to have been abducted by aliens who have unique philosophies on time, and the nature of life in general. The Tralfamadorians the aliens who abduct him–have distinct views on time and space, whereas the past, the present, and the future, are eternally ongoing events that will never cease to end. Essentially, each and every moment is simultaneously occurring, and the Tralfamadorians possess the capability to see any point in time, which they describe as the fourth dimension. They state that they have seen all parts of time, such as the end of the world, but there is simply nothing they can do to alter the future; it just simply is. This belief is contrary to the common idea of free will on Earth, as a Tralfamadorian bluntly stated, “I’ve visited thirty-one planets…and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will”(86).
Billy’s experience with Tralfamadore is a turning point in the novel where the myth of free will is made an obvious theme. He is involuntarily drafted into World War II, where he later lives through the firebombing of Dresden, and finally after the war, he is the lone survivor of a plane crash all things he has no power to change. As a result, he develops a mental illness, although it is also implied that he may have had a predisposition for it in the first place (again, something he has no control over). To add on, a quote that appears twice once on a sign in Billy’s office, and last in the engraving of a locket of Billy’s fellow captor of the Tralfamadorians is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference (60, 209). This serves to stress the theme that certain fates are set in stone and cannot be altered through any means, and accepting this fact is the easiest way to cope with it. Billy Pilgrim does this, and sits back, allowing life to take its course with no interference or objections.
The passive writing style also emphasizes the narrator’s disbelief of free will. “So it goes” is a repetitive line that follows each description of death in the novel and illustrates the inevitability of the event. “And so on” is another line often used after a description of events. The repetition creates a distant, unfeeling tone, while moving on from the topic, displaying how life continues and there is nothing we can do to alter fate. Additionally, the narrator demonstrates that although he views war as cruel and tragic, it is unavoidable. In the introduction, he states that he is writing an anti-war book to a character, with his response being, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”. This statement analogizes wars with glaciers, and by doing so, implies that they are both things that are naturally occurring and unpreventable. The narrator agrees with this statement, but still feels the need to express his thoughts of the tragedy of war and the lack of free will that humans posses through his novel and in reality.
The revolutionary essence of Slaughterhouse-Five is a direct result of the different devices Vonnegut applies, such as humor, irony, and tragedy. All of these devices serve to cause society to collectively think about the nature of war, and the nature of life itself, changing our perceptions of what power we truly possess to reshape our fate.
The Only Planet with a Concept of Free Will
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been the subject of much attention and debate since its release. Its wide range of topics such as critique of the American government and discussion of existentialism have made it an extremely controversial piece of literature. One passage in particular has been the catalyst of altercation among critics and readers alike: Billy Pilgrim’s discussion with a Tralfamadorian about the idea of free will, which becomes a theme throughout the novel. I believe that Vonnegut intended to convey through Slaughterhouse-Five that “free will” is just that: an idea. Over the course of Billy Pilgrim’s story, he repeatedly finds himself in situations in which he has no free will. The “and so it goes” theory of the Tralfamadorians represents the idea that we cannot change anything. While brief, the most significant point is that the Tralfamadorians tell Billy Pilgrim that our planet is the only on that has even a concept of free will. Through his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut conveys that “free will does” not actually exist: it is simply an illusion.
Frequently in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut puts Billy Pilgrims in positions in which he has little to no free will. One of these situations, the most important and the most obvious, is the fact that Pilgrim knows that Paul Lazzaro is going to kill him, that this is how he will die, and he can do nothing to change it. Secondly, Billy Pilgrim has no control over when or where he travels in time. Often, at random points in the book, he is thrown from his full-grown manhood to another point in his life, never when he is expecting to. For example, in chapter four, Billy is innocently taking a shower when all of a sudden he involuntarily travel through time. “And Billy zoomed back in time to his infancy He was a baby who had just been bathed by his mother…And then [he] was a middle-aged optometrist again, playing hacker’s gold this time” (Vonnegut 85). In this passage, Billy has no choice whether he time travels, and does not intend to. As this happens repeatedly, his sporadic time travel becomes less of a surprise both to the reader and to Billy; it becomes something that is expected and accepted. This acceptation on Billy’s and the reader’s part displays that the lack of self-control becomes something that is natural. This symbolizes that free will doesn’t exist at all.
At several other points in the book, Billy Pilgrim represents the non-existence of free will in our society. When he is a little boy, Billy’s father forces him to learn to swim by using the sink-or-swim method, by throwing him into the deep end of the pool. Billy is terrific, but finds that he loves the bottom of the pool. He finds is beautiful and thinks he hears music. Then, much to his resentment, Billy is rescued from the bottom of the pool by his father. In this passage Billy not only does not possess free will because he has no choice about whether he is thrown into the pool, but he is also taken from the bottom contrary to his own wishes. When Billy is drafted into the war, this also against his free will. In one passage, as a soldier, Billy feels like a joke: he has no helmet or overcoat, his body is gangling and weak, and his shoes are cheap civilian’s shoes. “Billy had lost a heel, which made him bob up-and-down, up-and-down. The involuntary dancing, up-and-down” (Vonnegut 33). In this quote, Billy is marching through the streets of Germany, and the description of his “involuntary dancing” gives the reader an image of him as a puppet under the control of the military. This is another force that removes Billy Pilgrim’s free will.
In addition to all of Billy Pilgrim’s previously elaborated experiences, aspects of his struggle as an American soldier symbolize Billy’s lack of free will and the lack of control over life the human race has as a whole. For example, Billy is an ill-trained, improperly dressed soldier who doesn’t want to be one at all, yet he survives the Dresden tragedy while many who are much better soldiers than him die. On the other hand, if he trained, worked hard, wore the appropriate garb, and became a motivated and loyal soldier, Billy still may very well have died during Dresden. This point reveals the lack of control that yield human effort to be pointless and free will to be an illusion.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim’s repeated experiences of deduction of his free will show that it is only an illusion. Billy Pilgrim’s character believes that he has free will, but it becomes clear that he does not. Meanwhile, the Tralfamadorians of planet Tralfamadore attempt to teach Billy that free will does not exist, implying that he is not that only one without it – it’s the entire universe. The Tralfamadorians believe that we have no control over the path that has been chosen for us. They have no emotions related to death, because they feel that there is nothing they can do to change it. Since every moment exists infinitely in the fourth dimension, they are completely comfortable with death because they can visit their loved ones in moments passed. This where their saying, “and so it goes” comes from. Every times someone dies, the Tralfamadorian outlook on the subject is, “And so it goes.” Vonnegut uses this statement repeatedly throughout the story. It sends the message that because we have no choice but to die, death should be accepted. The “and so it goes” phrase that becomes a motto of the book highlights the fact that death is an everyday reality that proves that there is no such thing as free will. If everything we supposedly “choose” to do leads up to an inevitable, uncontrollable end to our life, then is it not true that in the long run, we ultimately have no will over what becomes of us? Through the Tralfamadorians’ outlook on death, “and so it goes,” Vonnegut uses the theme of death in Slaughterhouse-Five to send a message about the futility of free will.
The most obvious and most notable divulgence of free will’s nonexistence in the story takes while Billy Pilgrim is under custody of the Tralfamadorians. A Tralfamadorian explains to Billy the theories elaborated in the previous paragraph: he explains to Billy that we are all “bugs in amber” (Vonnegut 86). “Earthlings … [tell] how other events may be achieved or avoided … all time is time. It cannot be changed” (Vonnegut 87). In this quote, the Tralfamadorian is explaining that humans like to believe that we can avoid, instigate, or alter the course of events. He says that humans are wrong: we are unable to change our futures no matter how hard we work or what steps we take. As a conclusion to the conversation, the Tralfamadorian adds, “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (Vonnegut 86). In this dialogue, Vonnegut conveys the message of this conversation with finality. Free will is an idea made up by the human race. It does not actually exist.
Once the reader has read this passage, the question of the existence of free will becomes a noticeable theme throughout the story. Vonnegut included this extremely significant passage to reveal that theme. This scene’s importance determines its influence on the rest of the book. Once the theme of free will has been introduced, it is noticeably supported by Billy’s character’s lack of free will throughout his story, by the lack of control of the victims of the Dresden firebombing, and by theories of the Tralfamadorians such as the “and so it goes” outlook on death. Vonnegut did not include these details by mistake. All of these aspects make clear that a huge message of Slaughterhouse-Five is that the human generated idea of “free will” is simply an illusion.
The Role of Color Motifs and Imagery in Slaughterhouse Five
In a literary text, imagery enables the author to appeal to human senses through the use of vivid and descriptive language. Kurt Vonnegut incorporates this rhetorical device throughout the text of his novel Slaughterhouse Five, through the use of color motifs and olfactory imagery. Vonnegut uses imagery to convey the emotions and personal qualities of the protagonist of the novel, Billy. He is able to achieve this by connecting Billy’s character to several motifs that continuously appear throughout the plot of Slaughterhouse Five. Thus, the presence of color motifs and olfactory imagery in Slaughterhouse Five advances and strengthens the characterization of Billy Pilgrim throughout the course of the novel.
Early on in the novel, Billy writes a letter to the Ilium newspaper regarding his experience on planet Tralfamadore. He works on this letter in the cool environment of his basement, where “the temperature in the house was…fifty degrees” since “The oil burner had quit” (26). The cool environment also affects Billy’s body as “his bare feet were blue and ivory” (26). However, “The cockles of Billy’s heart, at any rate, were glowing coals. What made them so hot was Billy’s belief that he was going to comfort so many people with the truth of time” (26). Vonnegut is able to effectively delineate Billy’s delusional character. First, he describes the colors of Billy’s feet as blue and ivory. In Slaughterhouse Five, blue and ivory represent the thin line that divides worldly experiences from otherworldly experiences. To show, whenever Billy is about to “time travel” in the text, his feet turn blue-and-ivory, and he soon ends up in a completely different location and time. Essentially, the blue-and-ivory motif is an indicator of when Billy switches from reality to fantasy, and vice versa. Additionally, Vonnegut utilizes these colors to show that Billy is on a threshold that separates mutually exclusive states (worldly and otherworldly). Billy’s position reflects his state of disillusionment, as shown by his belief that he lives in two worlds: earth, and the four-dimensional planet of Tralfamadore, where inhabitants exist in all times simultaneously. The extent of Billy’s disillusionment is also shown by Vonnegut’s use of imagery and a metaphor: the comparison of his heart to glowing coals. Billy is so invested with his experiences in Tralfamadore that he has a burning passion to publish his escapades in the Ilium. Also, his heart is warmed as he believes that he can impact many people with the truth of time. In reality, Billy’s mental stability has declined significantly since his time in World War II, to the point where he cannot distinguish reality from fantasy. Lastly, the contrast between the cool environment of Billy’s basement and the fiery passion that exists in his heart suggests his disconnection from reality. The cool environment of his basement represents the mundane reality of Earth, whereas the fiery passion that exists in Billy’s heart signifies his delusional character – as he believes that he can change the world by disclosing the truth about time. Therefore, early on in Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut is able to characterize Billy as a delusional man who believes he coexists in two distinct worlds by utilizing color motifs and imagery.
Later on in Slaughterhouse Five, Billy is captured by the Germans and is transported in a train with other American soldiers. The train “[was] marked with a with a striped banner of orange and black, indicating that [it] was not fair game for airplanes – that it was carrying prisoners of war” (66). The orange-and-black motif also appears when Billy has trouble sleeping on his daughter’s wedding night. “The wedding had taken place that afternoon in a gaily striped tent in Billy’s backyard. The stripes were orange and black” (69). The repetition of the orange-and-black motif reflects the effect of the war on Billy. Even in his happiest times, like his daughter’s wedding, he is reminded of the horrors that he went through during the war. In a way, the orange-and-black motif represents Billy’s post-traumatic stress disorder, which starts to show during his time in the war. For example, Billy is ordered by a doctor to take a daily nap, however “Every so often, for no apparent reason, [he] would fine himself weeping…Only the doctor knew. It was an extremely quiet thing Billy did, and not very moist” (59). Billy’s sleeping troubles alienate the other prisoners and “Nearly everybody…had an atrocity story of something [Billy] had done to him in his sleep. Everybody told Billy Pilgrim to keep the hell away” (75). Billy’s PTSD also shows when a siren goes off; “He [expected] World War Three at any time. The siren was simply announcing high noon” (55). Vonnegut effectively uses the orange-and-black motif to illustrate Billy’s PTSD, as the colors trigger him to think about his time in the war. When Billy’s feet turn blue and ivory, he goes downstairs and sees a distorted movie about World War II, where “American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighters planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen” (71). The orange-and-black motif also represents Billy’s view on his marriage, as he associates the stripes on the tent where the wedding took place with the stripes on the train that carried the prisoners of war. Billy feels trapped in his marriage as he did not marry Valencia out of love, he married her for convenience, since her father owns the Ilium School of Optometry (where Billy later studies). Also, when Billy travels back to his wedding night, Vonnegut reveals that “He had already seen a lot of their marriage, thanks to time-travel, knew that it was going to be at least bearable all the way” (114). It is evident that Billy feels trapped, as he talks about how the marriage would at least be bearable. Also, when Valencia tells Billy “I never thought anybody would marry me” (114), all he can manage to say is “Um” (114), which suggests his realization of the predicament he has gotten himself into. The orange-and-black motif effectively illustrates Billy’s sentiments as he was once trapped in a train as a prisoner of war and now he is trapped in a marriage with Valencia, a person who he doesn’t genuinely love. To summarize, Vonnegut is able to utilize an orange-and-black motif to depict Billy’s mental fragility, and to illustrate Billy feeling trapped in his marriage with Valencia.
Throughout the plot of Slaughterhouse Five, the motif of “mustard gas and roses is continuously mentioned. Also, Vonnegut employs olfactory imagery as he uses the smell of mustard gas and roses to enhance the text in Slaughterhouse Five. At the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut comments “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses” (4). Vonnegut admits to having a problem with drunk calling, and likens the smell of his breath to the odors of mustard gas and roses. Interestingly enough, on Billy’s daughter’s wedding night, Billy gets a call from a drunk dialer and claims how he can almost pick up the mustard gas and roses scent on his breath. The drunk dialer is Vonnegut, and the mustard gas and roses motif allows him to connect his personal experiences and memories with Billy. In addition, the odor of mustard gas signifies the war’s influence on Vonnegut, as Billy’s experiences in the war parallel what Vonnegut went through. Therefore, the mustard gas and roses motif establishes a personal connection between Billy and Vonnegut. Moving on, the mustard and gases motif allows Vonnegut to advance the characterization of Billy. For example, Billy has trouble sleeping on his daughter’s wedding night and aimlessly wanders around his house. He walks into his daughter’s empty bedroom, and the phone on her windowsill rings. “Billy [answers]. There was a drunk on the other end. Billy could almost smell his breath – mustard gas and roses” (70). Towards the end of the novel, Billy is back in Dresden, digging for bodies. “There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas” (204). The oxymoronic combination of mustard gas and roses allows Vonnegut to illustrate how the war has changed Billy’s character. The fact that he uses the odor of mustard gas to describe the breath of the drunk caller reflects the lasting impact the war has had on Billy, as it seems as if he has not forgotten the horrors he experienced in Dresden. Billy also associates mustard gas with the smell of the corpse mines, which suggests that the odor of mustard gas has a morbid connotation to him. Billy seems to be reminded of the smell of mustard gas often, which reflects his negative experiences as a soldier. Therefore, Vonnegut’s usage of the mustard gas motif gives the audience an insight into how the war has taken over Billy’s serenity, and how he will never be able to forget what he experienced in Dresden. In addition, Vonnegut pairs mustard gas with roses, an unlikely combination, as mustard gas represents the war and his mental trauma, whereas roses are usually associated with love and beauty. The oxymoronic combination signifies how damaged he has become as a result of the war, which is reflected in his characterization of Billy. Also, Vonnegut invokes the odor of roses as sort of a coping mechanism, in order to escape the harsh reality of what he experienced in Dresden. This is used to demonstrate Billy’s mental frailty, as Vonnegut portrays him as someone who is trying his best to move on from his horrid experience in the war, but keeps relapsing due to his PTSD and delusional state of mind. In conclusion, the motif of mustard gas and roses highlights the war’s lasting impact on Billy and allows Vonnegut to create a personal connection with Billy.
The presence of color motifs and vivid descriptions in Slaughterhouse Five advances and strengthens the characterization of Billy Pilgrim throughout the course of the plot. Kurt Vonnegut accomplishes this by utilizing color motifs and olfactory imagery throughout the course of the text. He is able to portray Billy as a delusional man who believes that he coexists in two distinct worlds. Furthermore, Vonnegut is able to illustrate the war’s impact on Billy, by delving into his fragile state of mind. The use of imagery in literature has allowed authors to illustrate abstract thoughts and emotions, by appealing to human senses through the utilization of vivid and descriptive language.
Coping with Traumatic Experience
Trauma is a tricky thing. It hurts people deeply, and then tricks them into believing they have forgotten about it or have overcome it. It nests deep within a person’s soul, perched between fragile emotions and memories, contaminating its surroundings until its effects manifest in the person it has taken ahold of; these effects often have the ability to alter a person’s mind as means of creating an escape into a more stress-free reality. For Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the manifestation of his trauma lies in his belief that he was abducted by aliens Tralfamadorians, in particular?and has time traveled through all the events of his life. Vonnegut leaves it to the reader to decide whether Billy has really experienced all he says he did. However, careful analysis shows that Billy Pilgrim has created this story as a way to cope with the horrors as an American soldier during World War II and his early childhood traumas. Even so, he creates an unorthodox view of life within this fantasy, in which every moment is predestined and has already occurred. No matter how much Billy Pilgrim would certainly want to have been kidnapped by aliens and given a more “enlightened” outlook as an escape, he was simply not abducted. The real abduction occurred within his mind, when his trauma took the reins and produced a reality-defying escape.
Billy’s need for an escape from plaguing traumas becomes evident when he begins to merge his war experiences with his difficult early childhood memories. He recalls a childhood memory at the Ilium Y.M.C.A., in which his father was “going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Billy was going to damn well swim” (Vonnegut 55). Billy says this felt like “an execution” and later merges this traumatic memory with one as a prisoner of war; he describes the showers they were forced to take in the camps and the “white-tiled wall” in them similar to the white-tiled walls of a Y.M.C.A. to connect the serious stress he was under in both occasions (Vonnegut 55, 107). On another occasion, Billy describes the fear he felt at twelve years old when visiting the Carlsbad Caverns on a family trip; he explains how he was “praying to God to get him out of there before the ceiling fell in” (Vonnegut 113). When the lights went out and they were in total darkness, Billy said he “didn’t even know whether he was alive or not”. This is meant to mirror the existential questions Billy would ask himself at such a lifeless place during war: “where had he come from, and where should he go now?” (Vonnegut 158). The physical total darkness of the caverns reflects the dark reality of war, in which prisoners lose hope and feel their life slipping through their fingers. Billy’s childhood traumas and war traumas amalgamate into an incessant pain that eats away at Billy. Ultimately, he finds his own way of coping an escape to the twisted, made-up reality of “Tralfamadore”.
To go from seeing violence, hunger, and desperation as prisoner of war to a normal life back in the U.S. was not something Billy Pilgrim could easily transition into. The horrors had been ingrained in his mind and an “escape” to Tralfamadore seemed much more tempting than to confront those demons. The similarities are evident, nonetheless, between the war and life on Tralfamadore. When Billy is captured by German soldiers, he is placed on a cold, packed train for days with other prisoners in which the Germans communicated with them through a ventilator. This mirrors Billy’s abduction by the Tralfamadorians, when he is “hauled into the airlock” of the saucer, in which there are “two peepholes inside the airlock with yellow eyes pressed to them” (Vonnegut 96). The impersonal feel of being watched through a small opening as he is locked away is present in both instances. On another occasion, the German soldiers “found him to be one of the most screamingly funny things they had seen in all of World War II” after seeing Billy in a tiny, ill-fitting overcoat (Vonnegut 115). Again, this mirrors the way the Tralfamadorians watched Billy and found the human need of explanations strange and almost comical. Billy is essentially normalizing the German soldiers’ behaviors by translating them into the Tralfamadorians’ behaviors and ways of life. It is easier to imagine a small alien with a different accepted reality treating him as an important specimen of study and enlightening him, than to face the truth of the heinous violence and humiliations against him that belittled and traumatized him at war. By creating this correlation, Billy takes difficult experiences at war and twists them into his own reality on Tralfamadore, as a way to comfort him from the true horrors of war.
Ultimately, what elevates Billy Pilgrim’s coping mechanism of Tralfamadore is the Tralfamadorian belief that every moment is predestined and has occurred in the past, present, and future. Vonnegut even reflects this belief in his nonlinear style to further indicate the connection between events that would normally occur at different times; this nonlinear style also acts as a metaphor for the way past traumas of war and childhood jump out at random times and disrupt Billy’s mental health. Billy’s traumas skip around and stop at the time an American soldier asks a German guard, “Why me?”, to which you the German guard responds “Vy you? Vy anybody?” (Vonnegut 116). This is meant to mirror the question Billy asks when he is first abducted?”why me?” to which the Tralfamadorians simply answer, “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because the moment simply is” (Vonnegut 97). Billy essentially takes a question associated with a traumatic event, translates it into his own reality on Tralfamadore, and provides a deeper, predestination inspired meaning for comfort. On another occasion, Billy recalls his time as a prisoner of war in which he and all the other captured Americans were forced to shower at the camp. He explains how “there were no faucets they could control” and how “they could only wait for whatever was coming” (Vonnegut 107). The invisible hand working the showers is meant to mirror the invisible hand essentially God that Billy is alluding to that controls every moment of existence. This reinforces Billy’s accepted idea of the absence of free will. This idea allows Billy to fully cope with his trauma by accepting everything that happened, as he truly trusts the Tralfamadorian belief that all the death and destruction he has witnessed were simply fated to occur.
The truth is, there’s no telling how someone will react and subsequently cope with traumatic events. In Billy’s case, he created Tralfamadore and found comfort in the escape and enlightenment it provided him with. The traumas of his childhood that were nested deep within him for years, coupled with the later traumas of war that would perch themselves next to them, had come out to wreak havoc within Billy. Tralfamadore was his peace-maker. Although Vonnegut kept the truthfulness of Tralfamadore open-ended, there is no doubt that Billy created it as a coping mechanism. There’s no denying the correlation between Billy’s traumas and the life he created within Tralfamadore. However, the most unprecedented outcome of his coping lies in the deep enlightenment he managed to create for himself. He essentially defied all accepted norms of society and its answers to existential questions, and constructed an outlook where he would accept all that occurred simply because it was fated to happen. Of course, the healthfulness of this outlook is questionable, but one thing is for certain: Billy was able to come to terms with trauma. One can only imagine the contentment many humans in the world would find if they could finally put aside their trauma and reach the peace they so ardently search for.
Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five: Portrayal of Tragically Chaotic War
The concept of war is both gruesomely tragic, and deeply absurd. Through their respective texts, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, authors Joseph Heller and George Roy Hill capture the very essence of war, and it’s tragic absurdity, though employing a range of stylistic techniques intended to engage, humour and shock the audience. Within Catch-22, Heller explores not only the inevitable doom of soldiers within WWII, but the absurdity with which their lives came to an end, and to a greater extent conveys his concerns about the practice of warfare in contemporary society. Heller achieves this through employing a range of techniques, including irony and satire, characterization, motifs, symbolism and paradox. In contrast, whilst Hill’s film Slaughterhouse-Five also explores the horrors and pointlessness of WWII, it also introduces the concept of alien intervention and time travel, which gives the film an unsettling and absurd quality. Through the use of film techniques such as characterization, diegetic sound, camera angles, mise en scene and editing, Hill too expresses his concerns regarding war within today’s society, and highlights the pointlessness of hostile societal groups. Through the employment of stylistic features including irony, by Heller, and diegetic sound by Hill, both authors are able to convey the absolute absurdity of war.
Irony is certainly introduced by Heller when the possessions of a deceased, unnamed soldier are found in Yossarian’s room, and Maj. Major Major comes to the conclusion that the person who had the right to remove his belongings […] was Yossarian himself, and Yossarian, it seemed […], had no right. This use of irony not only highlights the senselessness of the militaristic bureaucracy, and the absurd nature of war, but also the tragedy of so many soldiers pointlessly killed, going unrecognized. Contrastingly, Hill employs diegetic sound to convey his idea of tragic absurdity within war, most prominently in a scene depicting a band of English soldiers singing Hail, Hail the yanks are here amid the setting of a German prisoner of war camp. The jovial nature of this music in the presence of such a grim and tragic situation emphasizes the absurdity of the concept of war, and elicits both humor and empathy for the soldiers in the camp. Indeed, through the utilization of irony and diegetic sound respectively, both Heller and Hill are able to express their concerns regarding the tragically absurd nature of war.
The use of characteristic by both Heller and Hill is also another feature utilized to convey the idea that war is tragically absurd. Heller’s satirical characterization of anti-heroic protagonist John Yossarian, who exhibits intense paranoia and obsession with his mortality, [deciding] to live forever or die in the attempt…, is largely reflective of the viewpoint of veterans post war. Through the voice of Yossarian, Heller conveys the tragic mindset of disillusioned soldiers who have returned home, and express his idea that the act of war is both pointlessness and absurd. Hill’s cowardly protagonist Billy Pilgrim, however, greatly contrasts Heller’s Yossarian, as rather than be determined to live, he is passive and accepts the inevitability of death. Hill’s depiction of the absurdity of war is particularly evident through the characterization of Billy in a flashback to his childhood, when he is told by his father that this is it Billy, you either sink or swim, to which Billy does not respond. Through Pilgrim’s characterization, the viewer is introduced to the concept of nihilism, or the belief that existence is meaningless, which highlights the tragic absurdity of the events Billy endures in the war. Clearly, through the employment of characterization, both Heller and Hill explore both the mercilessness and absurdity found within the midst of war.
Furthermore, Heller and Hill employ the stylistic techniques of motif and camera shots to express their ideas concerning war, and it’s tragic and absurd nature. The ever increasing number of missions required by soldiers in order retire is one such motif that explores the concept of absurdity within war. As Yossarian explains, Colonel Cathcart requires men to stay at the base until he doesn’t have enough men [for] crews, and then raises the number of missions and [puts them] on combat status, despite the fact that the Air Force only requires them to complete forty missions. The tragically ironic idea that if the men disobey Cathcart’s orders, they will be court martialed, but if they attempt them they face certain death, is essentially a catch- 22, and highlights not only the absurd nature of the act of war, but the senselessness of bureaucracy. In contrast, Hill employs camera shots and angles to explore the tragic absurdity of war which affects so many lives. During the scene in which Pilgrim is being prepped for surgery, a high angle shot of Pilgrim on his bed is utilised by Hill to convey the vulnerability that Billy has been made susceptible to following the horrors of war. The bizarre quality of the shot also encapsulates the absurdity of the Second World War, and the profoundly detrimental and tragic impact it had on both the soldiers and civilians who endured it.
Certainly, both Heller and Hill’s use of motif, and camera shots and angles respectively, allows each author to convey their concerns regarding the devastating and obscure impact of war.Heller and Hill also employ the techniques of symbolism and mise en scene to convey the idea that the absurd act of war only ends in tragedy. Heller introduces the presence of the soldier in white, a soldier covered completely in bandages, as a symbol for the anonymity of death within war, highlighted but the idea that all they they really saw of the soldier was a frayed black hole over the mouth. The concept that no one is aware of the identity of the soldier in white, and that later within the novel he is replaced by another soldier in white, is symbolic of the tragedy with which war not only dehumanizes victims, but allows human beings to become expendable in the name of a political agenda. In an alternate way, Hill employs the technique of mise en scene to convey his ideas surrounding the absurdity of war and life’s ultimate meaningless. In a long shot depicting Pilgrim captured following the Battle of the Bulge and transferred to a holding facility, dark, overcast lighting and smoke rising from distant fires is used to convey the absolute destruction of war. The dark, earthy greens and browns emphasize the hellish conditions of war, and the inclusion of harsh, metal vehicles and indistinguishable bodies of soldiers and civilians adds an element of dehumanization and the intended meaningless of their lives. This concept not only encompasses the tragedy of war, but highlights its absurd and meaningless nature.
Through the employment of symbolism and mise en scene within their respective texts, both Heller and Hill expertly convey their ideas regarding the harsh and tragic mercilessness of war, and the absurdity of such an act.The employment of stylistic features such as symbolism by Heller, and and camera angle and shots by Hill expertly conveys, within their respective texts, the tragic absurdity of war. Symbolism is employed by Heller to convey the inability for the military to recognize the corruption within itself, and the absurdity of this negligence. Chocolate covered cotton balls are a symbol that highlight the corruption that resides within the military, and its detrimental effect to soldiers, as although they hold no nutritional value, they are forced to be eaten by chef Milo Minderbinder in order to cut the budget. “They’ve got to swallow it,” Milo ordained with dictatorial grandeur highlights how the greed surrounding the act of war blinds those caught within it, and the tragically absurd mindset it corrupts them with. In contrast, Hill’s utilization of a close up low angle shot of Pilgrim splattered with another man’s blood during the harsh winter of Dresden in the Second World War expresses the cruel tragedy of war. The camera has been focused on the blood, slightly blurring Pilgrim’s face to symbolize the anonymity of soldiers in war, but also the pointlessness of killing strangers in a war setting, and risking one’s own life to do so.
Certainly, through stylistic techniques such as symbolism, and camera angles and shots, Heller and Hill in their respective texts, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, brilliantly convey their concerns regarding the act of war, and it’s tragic senselessness. Heller and Hill’s employment of both a wide range of paradoxes and mise en scene further conveys their idea that war is tragically absurd. Most prominently, the absurdity of war is emphasized through Heller’s employment of the paradoxical catch-22 that Dunbar loved skeet shooting because he hated every minute of it and time passed so slowly. This paradox conveys the tragedy of warfare through humor, as Dumbar wishes to prolong his life through boredom, but also highlights it’s illogicality, as the statement contradicts itself. Hill, in contrast, employs mise en scene in the setting on the planet of Tralfamadore, where Pilgrim resides at the end of his life, to directly juxtapose the image of war. The colorful lighting such as blues, pinks, yellows and whites in the sky suggests a place of comfort and refuge, introducing an almost nonsensical quality to the film given the previous scene’s harsh setting. The abstract architecture of the house, a dome constructed from steel and glass triangles, further emphasizes the absurd aspect of the film, as does the random arrangement of furniture within the house, highlighting the tragic effect war has had on Billy’s mind. Clearly, Heller’s use of paradox, as well as Hill’s use of mise en scene, skillfully encapsulates the concerns of the two authors regarding the tragic circumstance of war, and the absurdity surrounding it.
Furthermore, the employment of motif, by Heller, and narrative structure and editing, by Hill, convey the absolute devastation that war can cause. The motif of Catch-22, a paradoxical situation which is made inescapable by equally opposing conditions, is arguably the most effective technique employed by Heller to convey the absurd and tragically cruel nature of war, best exemplified in the statement that Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and when he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. This motif highlights the satirical anti-war message Heller intends to convey to his readers, the tragedy surrounding the character’s fate and the unquestionable absurdity of war. Contrastingly, Hill employs the stylistic feature narrative structure to convey his ideas surrounding the tragic absurdity of war. A main feature of the film is that Pilgrim has become ‘unstuck’ in time, and jumps between non-chronological and oddly parallel events in his life. One such example occurs in the scene where a German propaganda officer takes photos of him, with Hill employing the technique of cutting from this scene, to his wedding photo shoot, repetitively. These cuts are frequent and unexpected, emphasizing the overall absurd quality of the film, eliciting sympathy for Pilgrim’s tragic circumstance as he can never let go of the events of the war, something that all veterans must live with.
Through stylistic techniques such as motif in Catch-22, and editing and narrative structure in Slaughterhouse-Five, respective authors Heller and Hill certainly convey their message that war is undoubtedly tragic, and deeply absurd. Through their respective texts, Joseph Heller and George Roy Hill expertly project their concerns regarding the absolute absurdity of the act of war, and the tragic and absolute consequences it has on humanity, directly or indirectly. Through the use of conventional stylistic techniques such as irony and satire, characterization, motifs, symbolism and paradox within Heller’s Catch-22, and characterisation, diegetic sound, camera angles, mise en scene and editing employed by Hill in Slaughterhouse-Five, these authors explore the ways in which the act of war is both laughably pointless, causing nothing but absolute destruction in people’s lives, but also the tragedy surrounding the dehumanization of those involved, and the devastation it leaves in so many lives, even centuries later.
The Role of Foreshadowing of Events in Plot’s Construction
THIS IS A NOVEL SOMEWHAT IN THE TELEGRAPHIC SCHIZOPHRENIC MANNER OF TALES OF THE PLANET TRALFAMADORE
The foreshadowing of events in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ is as much a subtle indication of things to come as it is an expository technique whereby the major plot points of the story are blatantly spelled out as facts, leaving us to proceed through the novel and watch helplessly as each of those points is hit, in turn, as promised. In addition, however, foreshadowing is more than just a structural technique used by the narrator: it is also a defining aspect of Billy Pilgrim himself – it is a part of his character, as his knowledge of future events influences his behavior throughout the story – and, on a grander scale, foreshadowing is woven into the very fabric of the narrative, for this is a story in which past, present, and future intersect and all events that occur are known before they take place.
“I’ve finished my war book now,” announces the narrator – perhaps Vonnegut himself, though we cannot be sure – in the opening section of the novel, and already the end is in sight, for we know now that the story is told in flashback, and that the chronological sequence of events concludes with the writing of the very novel that we are reading. The narrator continues:
The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and had to be, because it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It ends like this:
And sure enough, we turn to the next page to see the novel proper beginning with the words: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and when we turn to the last page we see the novel ending with the chirping of a bird: “Poo-tee-weet?” Combined with the circular effect of the song of Yon Yonson, which ends as it begins and goes on forever into eternity, and with the narrator’s observation that “Somebody was playing with the clocks… The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass and then it would twitch again” – we see that this is most certainly a novel structured somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore.
But what exactly is that supposed to mean? On the very first page of the novel, before the story even begins, we are told of the planet Tralfamadore as if its nature should already be known to us, yet only when we are informed that it is “where the flying saucers come from” are we then able to infer that it is a place with a civilization that is of some consequence to the story – for we infer also that if the flying saucers are coming from Tralfamadore, they must also be going to another place, presumably Earth; but still, these inferences and impressions are as much as we can deduce from this abrupt introduction to Tralfamadore. Similarly, we see that the novel is subtitled “The Children’s Crusade” – why, we do not know. Neither of these things has any significance to the story the first time they are brought to our attention, but later, when they are explained – as the planet on which the ‘fourth-dimension’ aliens reside and as the title that the narrator promises his friend Mary he will use for his book, respectively – in retrospect, their significance becomes great. In addition to the method of foreshadowing already discussed, the novel’s foreshadowing now also takes a form more subtle than the spelling out of certain events, based upon assumption of knowledge already held rather than the exposition of knowledge not yet attained. In this instance, instead of candidly telling us what will happen in the novel, the narrator speaks of things that have already happened, thus foreshadowing their eventual occurrence later in the story. Vonnegut’s dual use of both major, precognitive foreshadowing and of minor, retrospective foreshadowing is not a common technique to use for foreshadowing in particular or for fiction in general – unless you happen to come from Tralfamadore.
“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore,” Billy Pilgrim writes in a letter, “was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past. …All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. [The Tralfamadorians] can see how permanent the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.” The style of the novel, therefore, reflects the perspectives of the Tralfamadorians, telling us about future events in one instance and then presuming that we have already been told about them in another; sometimes specifically stating what will take place in the future – a more ‘active’ foreshadowing technique – and sometimes assuming that events that will take place in the future have already happened and that we know about them, and proceeding from there to talk about them as if they were familiar to us – a more ‘passive’ foreshadowing technique. The effect of these two types of foreshadowing is a general feeling of ambivalence toward the future, largely empty of any kind of emotional connection to events that have yet to occur.
“His name was Howard W. Campbell, Jr. He would later hang himself while awaiting trial as a war criminal” the future is written, and is inevitable, and so it goes. “Billy predicts his own death within an hour. He laughs about it, invited the crowd to laugh with him. ‘It is high time I was dead,’ he says. ‘Many years ago,’ he said, ‘a certain man promised to have me killed. …Tonight he will keep his promise’” and he does, and Billy goes down just as he said he would, and his death is expected, planned, premeditated, inevitable, and so it goes. We infer this not only from the words Billy uses, but from the change in tense on the narrator’s part: Billy says “It is high time I was dead,” but he said “Many years ago, a certain man promised to have me killed”; we move from the present into the past within the space of a single sentence. Other instances of foreshadowing rest on a similar level of subtlety: “Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day” and “Billy sat down in the waiting room. He wasn’t a widower yet” – not yet, but now we know that he will be, and, when the time comes that he is a widower, we expect it to happen, and the event is once again imbued with a sense of inevitability, and is therefore drained of the emotional power that spontaneity would otherwise bring. “So it goes,” notes the narrator anytime anyone or anything dies. Death is not a significant event but is instead a mere formality, and this thinking reflects not only the thoughts of the Tralfamadorians, but also those of the confused and bewildered and desensitized American soldiers who, like the narrator, were – are – will be caught by surprise in the bombing of Dresden. Except one.
“Billy, with his memories of the future, knew that the city would be smashed to smithereens and then burned in about thirty more days. He knew, too, that most of the people watching him would soon be dead. So it goes.” Yet as Billy marches through the streets of Dresden, he is part of a “light opera” – or more than that, “Billy Pilgrim was the star [of the light opera].” Earlier – or later – during his time in the Tralfamadorian zoo, Billy asks the Tralfamadorians why they don’t have war on their planet. “Today we [have peace],” a Tralfamadorian tells him. “On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them” – once again, emotional detachment from an inevitable future influences the behavior of this character and the narrator’s attitude towards him (or it) – “so we simply don’t look at [wars]. We ignore them. …That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”
What we have in Billy Pilgrim, then, is a character who is foreshadowing incarnate, who, with “memories of the future,” is able to look at a soon-to-be-decimated city with a smile on his face while acting like a “star” instead of taking the opportunity to warn the citizens of that city about the inevitability of their fate. The actions of this character are then related to us by a third-party observer who earlier described himself as “a pillar of salt,” alluding to the Biblical tale of Lot’s wife and therefore painting himself with the same brush as one who cannot help but look back and reflect on the past. This then equates to a structure in which we have, firstly, the observation that in addition to being a novelistic technique on the part of the narrator, foreshadowing is also a character trait that impresses itself upon the very essence of Billy Pilgrim, whose knowledge of what will take place is an influence on the things he does and does not choose to do; and secondly, a comparison between those individuals who look at the world the way the Tralfamadorians do, and those who do not: the narrator, a figure in the present, forever concentrates his thoughts on the past, and he is contrasted against Billy, a figure in the past, whose “memories of the future” allow him to concentrate his thoughts not on Dresden, even though he is there when it is about to be bombed, but on the good times, and the light opera is a good time, and this ability to choose which events to concentrate on allows him to smile and act like a star even though he knows what this city has coming to it. With events being foreshadowed in Billy Pilgrim’s actual personal chronological timeline in turn influencing the essence of his character, as well as events being foreshadowed in terms of the order of events in which the narrator introduces us to his character, Billy is able to escape from the misery of Dresden into happier times while on the other hand the narrator, even though he lives in happier times in the present with his old friends, still cannot, nor will ever be able to, escape the misery of Dresden, and the misery of the past.
The past, by necessity, defines the entire novel and gives it a framework around which it is structured, and moreover, it allows for foreshadowing in general: future events in a novel of this sort are meaningless without some past indication of the importance of their occurrence; otherwise, it would be nothing more than a straightforward account of ‘real life,’ and the story of a man who has “come unstuck in time” is anything but realistic. The very first chapter, for instance, outlines the novel as a whole, with a vague, ‘passive’ reference to “the slaughterhouse” – given the way the subject is treated with such familiarity, the narrator assumes we have made at least some acquaintance with the subject, and because we know we have not yet, we expect to be acquainted with it later on – and the specific, ‘active’ statement that “One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his,” which doesn’t pay off until the very end of the novel: “Edgar Derby was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot.” The first chapter also contains a throwaway line that forecasts the appearance of a significant character: “Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.” Consider also the way that characters, too, are introduced almost as arbitrary plot elements whose only apparent function is to flesh out the story with more background detail – the writer Kilgore Trout, for instance, and the actress Montana Wildhack – yet they metamorphose into major players as the story progresses. But aside from gimmick value or simple evidence of design, what purpose do such introductions and such throwaway lines buried in the prose contribute to the overall effect of the novel?
Consider now the way in which a Tralfamadorian novel is written and read: “Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message – describing a situation, a scene. …Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What [Tralfamadorians] love in [their] books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”
The plane crash in Vermont of which Billy is the only survivor is foreshadowed, referred to first simply as “the plane crash” and expanded upon later. Billy’s encounter with Montana Wildhack in the Tralfamadorian zoo is foreshadowed retrospectively when we realize that the words etched on Montana Wildhack’s necklace are the same as those that are printed and framed and hung on the wall of Billy Pilgrim’s optometry office many years later, even though the first time we encounter them chronologically is in that same office. Billy’s public speeches on the subject of Tralfamadore are all foreshadowed in his letters, even if not explicitly: we know they are coming, or that they have already occurred and that we are about to have the blanks filled in. Billy can see all of these events, which is why none of them surprise him and he always plays by the rules of time: “I didn’t think the time was ripe,” he tells his daughter when she asks him why he has never spoken about Tralfamadore to her. But the narrator – and we, ourselves – cannot see all of these events at one time, which is why this is a novel only somewhat in the style of the tales of Tralfamadore. Billy, however, plays along with the demands of time and fate, which is why he understands that the events he later encounters are not only inevitable, but are necessarily inevitable: things cannot happen any other way.
If Slaughterhouse Five is indeed “a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore” then, with its myriad of throwaway lines and seemingly-insignificant characters, each of which has a pay-off later in the book although not necessarily later in the chronological sequence of events that constitute the story, Slaughterhouse Five itself might also be read in the way of Tralfamadorian novels, to “produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep” by concentrating the potency of each “brief, urgent [scene]” and the rhythm that is established by the interweaving texture they produce – to the point where every significant event in the novel is, by its very nature, an instance of foreshadowing. By necessity they must all be, for they are seen through the eyes of a man for whom past, present, and future intersect, whose story is told by another man – “a pillar of salt” who spends his days forever reflecting on the moments that have led up to his present life: moments that, had he but seen them in the way Billy Pilgrim was able to, would have been revealed to him as the foreshadowings of fate and the antithesis of the Earthling-only conception of ‘free will’ that they are.
Rediscovering the Trauma of War in Slaughterhouse-Five
During times of war soldiers experience horrific atrocities that are mentally and physically crippling. Most cannot begin to comprehend these sinister and morbid images due to their lack of military experience. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the main character is Billy Pilgrim, who serves the United States in World War II. Billy is a chaplain’s assistant and does not actually engage in combat, allowing him to be an observer of the war rather than an active participant engaging in battle. His position as an enlisted but unarmed spectator of the war leads to the cataclysmic sights and memories that Billy recollects throughout the novel because he witnesses more than most soldiers do and therefore is more traumatized. Billy is captured in Germany and kept as a prisoner of war in a concentration camp, where he witnesses the total destruction of the town of Dresden. The catastrophes that Billy experiences traumatize him for the remainder of his life and lead to his psychological impairment and eventual death. However, Billy uses his imagination to reduce some of the pain, creating memories that help him cope with his trauma. After witnessing the destruction and devastation of war, many soldiers, including Billy, mask the trauma; eventually leading to their psychological and physical deterioration. Nevertheless, the trauma will always be present throughout the entirety of a soldier’s life.
Slaughterhouse-Five is somewhat of an autobiography of Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II, but, he writes the novel as narrative historical fiction. Vonnegut chooses this particular style and genre of writing because he is too traumatized by the war to write about his own life and therefore writes vicariously through the life of Billy. War is a faceless and violent way to resolve a problem and once war has begun, it is out of the control of the people and in the hands of the soldiers. However, these soldiers, representing and fighting for their country, do not have as much as control as they believe. “There are no characters in war, [Vonnegut] says, only pawns, victims. Lots of victims are children and, indeed, even the combatants seem like children swept up in events beyond their control” (Reed 4).
War is truly out of the control of anyone and death is strongly associated with war. Death is one of the most significant events leading to trauma, and in war, death is a daily occurrence, especially for Billy. “One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design” (Vonnegut 230). The bombing and total destruction of Dresden is an event so catastrophic that it is viewed as even more destructive than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and therefore everyone should be dead. However, Billy is the “flaw in the design” and feels guilty for surviving. Billy is traumatized by his survival because he has to live with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children died, but when the dust settles he is one of the few remaining. The trauma that Billy experiences during the war recurs when he is involved in a plane crash later in his life where he is the only survivor:
The people who first got to the crash scene were young Austrian ski instructors from the famous ski resort below. They spoke to each other in German as they went from body to body. They wore black wind masks with two holes for their eyes and a red topknot. They looked like golliwogs…Billy thought the golliwog had something to do with World War Two, and he whispered to him his address: ‘Schlachthof-fÃ¼nf’ (Vonnegut 199).
Schlachthof-fÃ¼nf is German for “slaughterhouse-five”, the name of the building that he lives and works in at the concentration camp, and if a guard ever approaches him he is to recite those words. The war traumatizes Billy so much that after being in the plane crash he does not know where or when he is and thinks the German speaking ski instructor is a German guard. Billy continuously re-experiences events in forms of distressing images, thoughts, perceptions, and dreams – his trauma is an aspect of his life that is beyond his control.
The trauma from war exists in the lives of soldiers even after combat, and veterans, including Billy, often mask their trauma rather than trying to cope. Billy uses time travel to mask his pain, spontaneously jumping from one moment in his life to another. “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant stage of fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (Vonnegut 29). Billy’s time travel is a way of masking his trauma; if he is not enjoying something, then he time travels to another, hopefully, but not always, joyful moment in his life. Billy uses different methods of masking his trauma, one technique is imagining that something as awful as death is not as bad as it is or may seem. “By exercising one’s selective memory, by becoming an ostrich, one may indeed live in a world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts” (Vanderwerken 2).
Billy is selective in choosing what he wants to remember, eliminating painful memories by masking them with more desirable and pleasing memories. A popular mask of Billy’s pain is his imagination’s invention of Tralfamadore. Billy devises the idea that he and actress Montana Wildhack are abducted by aliens, Tralfamadorians, and put in a zoo where they are observed. Billy uses Tralfamadore to mask his trauma; if painful memories enter his mind, then he instantly time-travels to Tralfamadore. Tralfamadore is a hallucination of Billy’s hiding from the pain that he endures during the war. The masking of his trauma evokes itself in subtle ways; for instance, Billy is quite successful in his life after the war. He is president of the Lions Club, works as a prosperous optometrist, lives in a comfortable upper middle class home, and has even fathered two children. While Billy seems to be leading a productive postwar life, there is much beneath the surface that is not revealed. Beneath the luxury of his success lies a man too war-torn to understand what is happening to him. In fact, Billy, short for William, indicates that he is more an immature boy than a man, and the war has not made him a better person, but has driven him into a corner of trauma.
The experiences of war leave veterans, including Billy, traumatized; and even though their trauma will never completely go away, there are methods of coping to relieve some of the pain. The war has put Billy in a state of constant panic and suffering, never knowing when the horrific memories of war will reappear. “The price for his (Billy’s) survival is a memory haunted by fear and death. He moves from one disaster to another unable to either banish or accept the experience of Dresden” (Berryman 3). The trauma Billy has endured will never go away regardless of the many masks he uses to ease his pain. However, there are methods of coping with the trauma to reduce some of the fear and pain. The most significant coping technique that Billy uses is his invention of Tralfamadore, a place where he is able to heal his emotional wounds. “…Billy Pilgrim, finds only in the delusion of Tralfamadore, with its denial of time and offering of sex, a way to cope with his survival of Dresden and the many deaths before and after” (LeClair 1). Montana Wildhack, with her sexual innuendo and provocation, is Billy’s primary tool for coping with his pain, because he talks to her about his painful memories, which helps him cope with his traumatizing experiences.
Furthermore, the Tralfamadorians believe time is a continuum of moments existing simultaneously rather than a chronological sequence. Their perception of time explains Vonnegut’s format of the novel; every scene is divided by three dots to give the audience an idea of the importance of time. The Tralfamadorians also believe that when a person dies they are not actually dead; they are simply in poor condition at that certain moment, and they are perfectly lively in another moment. This idea of death as meaningless allows Billy to view all of the deaths, including the hundreds of thousands in Dresden, as merely insignificant, discarding all pain and trauma he previously had. Billy’s new outlook on death leads him to say, “So it goes” whenever he mentions death. “Tralfamadorian philosophy, which opposes trying to make sense out of occurrences, helps Billy deal with the horrible events and their consequences by reinterpreting their meaning” (Vees-Gulani 5). Tralfamadore takes Billy away from the trials and tribulations of the harsh world he lives in by perceiving horrible events, such as death, optimistically. Tralfamadore also offers him new outlooks on life while easing his emotional pain. Vonnegut vicariously helps Billy cope with his trauma while actually coping with Vonnegut’s own trauma. “Faced boldly, narrated and thereby worked through, the trauma of Dresden is exorcised of its dark spell on Vonnegut’s imagination” (Giannone 12). Vonnegut has an immense amount of pent up emotion and relieves himself of much of it by helping Billy relieve some of his pain as well. Tralfamadore is the primary technique Billy uses to cope with, and even forget his trauma from the war.
The trauma that Billy, along with many other soldiers, endures during the war is a pain that can never be relinquished, and masking the trauma is the worst possible way to deal with the pain. Nevertheless, there are many ways of coping with the trauma; however, some of them are not always beneficial, such as Billy’s methods of creating the memory that he is abducted by Tralfamadorians. “Tralfamadore is a fantasy, a desperate attempt to rationalize chaos, but one must sympathize with Billy’s need to create Tralfamadore” (Merrill and Scholl 6). Billy needs to create Tralfamadore to mask the trauma, but as he invites other accommodations to his fantasy planet, such as Montana Wildhack, the masking of his trauma turns into the coping of his pain. There is no past, present or future tense in Slaughterhouse-Five and therefore it is impossible to decipher the time in Billy’s life that he is speaking from. This reflects on the war trauma that haunts Billy until his death because it does not matter where you are in your life; trauma, pain and anguish will always exist.
- Berryman, Charles. “After the Fall: Kurt Vonnegut.” Studies in Modern Fiction vol. 26. Gale Literary Database. 3 December 2004. <http://www.galenet.galegroup.com…> 1-5.
- Giannone, Richard. “Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels.” Literary Resource Center. 1977. Gale Literary Database. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 3 December 2004. <http://www.galenet.galegroup.com…> 1-18.
- LeClair, Thomas. “Death and Black Humor.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction vol. 17. 1975. Student Resource Center. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 6 December 2004. <http://www.galenet.galegroup.com…> 1-2.
- Merrill, Robert and Scholl, Peter A. “Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: The Requirements of Chaos.” Studies in American Fiction vol. 6. 1978. Gale Literary Database. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 3 December 2004. <http://www.galenet.galegroup.com…> 1-13.
- Reed, Peter J. “Authenticity and Relevance: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints. 1993.
- Student Resource Center. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 6 December 2004. <http://www.galenet.galegroup.com…> 1-5.
- Vanderwerken, David L. “Pilgrim’s Dilemma: Slaughterhouse-Five.” Research Studies. September 1974. Student Resource Center. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 6 December 2004. <http://www.galenet.galegroup.com…> 1-5.
- Vees-Gulani, Susanne. “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction. Winter 2004, vol. 44. Gale Literary Database. 1-11.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Delta, 1969.
Poetics of Postmodernism in Kurt Vonnegut
Postmodernism is dominant philosophical approach that questions and rejects the fundamental totality of human thought and homogeneous way of perceiving the outer reality of the world. , which is the main focus of present study with reference and application to Kurt Vonnegut’s The Slaughterhouse Five.
Like literature itself, postmodernism is difficult to be defined. Clearly, then, the time has come to theorize the term [postmodernism], if not to define it, before it fades from awkward neologism to derelict cliché without ever attaining to the dignity of a cultural concept. Ihab Hassan (The Poetics of postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon, p, 3). But for the sake of better understanding of the term/theory ‘postmodernism’, it should be defined in terms of time span, characteristics and with comparison to its predecessor ‘modernism.
Oxford dictionary defines postmodernism as “A late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories (oxforddictionaries.com/definition/postmodernism). While in Merriam Webster it is defined as “of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature).
On the other hand Encyclopedia Britannica defines it in these words that “Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power”.
“Few words are more used and abused in discussions of contemporary culture than the word ‘postmodernism.’ As a result, any attempt to define the word will necessarily and simultaneously have both positive and negative dimensions. It will aim to say what postmodernism is but at the same time it will have to say what it is not. Perhaps this is an appropriate condition, for postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political” (The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon, p, 1).
Postmodernism is product of extreme skepticism and rejection of all those values which characterize order, harmony, stability and fragmentation. It is rejection of modernism and continuation of modernism as well. This makes it ambiguous. The importance of postmodernism lies in its seeking our attention “to the changes, the major transformations, taking place in contemporary society and culture” (Sarup, 1993).
Postmodernism isn’t a word that’s easily defined, and its origins aren’t easily traced. It is used to discuss architecture, art, technology, and literature among other fields; either stemming from modernism or opposed to it. In the start of this discussion, it is notified that postmodernism can be better understood in terms of certain characteristics. Characteristically, postmodernism is better understood and defined. Postmodernists are the people who are not comfortable with the modernist’s inability to make inroads in achieving peace and progress in society. Therefore, they challenge the traditional way of thinking and practice of this thinking. Postmodernism is rejection as well continuation of modernism. As a renowned critic David Harvey says that “there is more continuity than difference in the movement from modernism to postmodernism” (Hawthorn, 1992)
“There are no impartial truths. They have been defined by people and groups who use them to obtain power. One individual’s perception of reality doesn’t always match another individual’s perception of reality. For instance, even though you may view an individual of the opposite sex as in a relationship based on their apparently conventional practices that suggest that they’re taken, they may not see themselves as in a relationship”( www.scribd.com/document/229309515/10-Key-Characteristics-of-Postmodernism). This means time is relative. There is no fixity in this regard. Postmodernism contends that facts and factuality is innocent dream which is not possible in the world which is constantly changing and it is defined by the advent of multiculturalism and globalization. There is no objectivity in the world of postmodernism. Subjectivity is a new hallmark of this world. Morality started to lose its credibility in modernism, it breathed its last in postmodernism. With the advent of so many theories like feminism, deconstruction, new historicism, archetypal and gender theories etc, postmodernism emerged as the representative of equality, freedom of expression and metafictional narratives. The old traditions and metanarratives of modernism were outdated in rapidly changing social world, technologically advanced social life. In 1967 John Barth wrote “The Literature of Exhaustion” which is rejection of modern literature. In general terms postmodernism of self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining theory. Meta-fiction is its main concern in a narration of postmodern fiction.
Other characteristics of postmodernism are fragmentation in society, search for truth, fragmentation of culture and structure, consumerism, parody, self-rejection.
Poetics is the theory of literary forms and literary discourse. It may refer specifically to the theory of poetry, although some speakers use the term so broadly as to denote the concept of “theory” itself. Poetics focuses not on the meaning of a text, but rather its understanding of how a text’s different elements come together and produce certain effects on the reader.
Poetics of postmodernism means understanding postmodernism with certain characteristics. The focus of this study is on poetics of postmodernism in The Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is an American writer. The writer who is famous for his satirical novels who frequently used postmodern techniques as well as elements of fantasy and science fiction to highlight the horrors and ironies of 20th-century civilization and post war generation
Many critics have praised Vonnegut’s contributions in postmodern novel. Bill Gholson describes his art in following words, Kurt Vonnegut is a self-professed agnostic firmly grounded in the tradition of his German freethinking relatives. As such, his morality comes without metaphysical props. Instead, his moral thinking and writing reflect a rhetorical orientation–one for which the self is never disembodied from the community, the history, and the discourses of which it is a part. For Vonnegut, understanding the narrative self is an inescapable feature of identity and morality, both central concerns of his work.
(At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut edited by Kevin Alexander Boon, p,135).
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut about the World War II experiences and journeys through time of Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier and chaplain’s assistant, to postwar and early years. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work. Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five is considered by many critics to be Vonnegut’s greatest work and masterpiece.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a story of Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of the novel. He is a former American soldier in WW2 and went to prison as war broke in, in Dresden, Germany. Billy bears a lot of difficulties in his duty in Dresden which was devastated by the bombing during the Second World War. He was arrested many times by the Germans troops. A number of times he escaped from the prison but was again recaptured. Finally, his luck made him favour and he was evacuated by the American army and he was set to New York, America. After arriving in his homeland, he marries and has the chance to meet different people, one of them is the novelist Kilgore Trout. At the end of the novel, we see that Billy and his wife escape from a plane crash. So he is taken to hospital. During his stay at the hospital he falls asleep and time shifts to Dresden. The story of Billy is told in retrospect through ten different episodes. The narrative technique of the novel is typical as we see in a postmodern fiction. This is because incidents are told through author’s omniscient narrator who tells Billy’s story, and Billy’s own account of story during his stay at Dresden.
The narrative category in which Slaughterhouse-Five is put conforms the tradition of postmodernism. Postmodern fiction highlights a number of human experiences after the Second World War. The most brilliant evidence of human experience in the novel is the metafictional essence of the novel which makes it “a postmodern novel relying on metafiction, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five is a writer’s preface about how he came to write his novel” (Chellamuthu, 2005, p.2). the relative reality of postmodernism is described in the whole novel and throughout we see that , “the factual method, whenever it becomes diagrammatical in this book, sketches long stretches of time in the life of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim” (Hoffman, 2005, p.549). At number of times and in so many different textual representations, Slaughterhouse-Five shows very important and live examples of different human hardships, the desire for freedom and constructive yearning for peace in an apparently agitated world of chaos and fragmentation. In the most outlandish claim, postmodernity comes as harbinger of the absence of truth and reality which is reflected by the broad textual structures as “projects of political transformation” (Kellner, 1989, p.84). The knowable, but at the same time the conscious, repudiation of reality in postmodern texts is related to the radically grounded and novice way of representation of the world from an ordinary humane perspective and thinking. Hence we see that the Second World War, left its cruel causality imprint on society of the Continent, but also spanning all over the world.
The horrible consequences of the war encouraged many thinkers and philosophers to yield the history of the post war world in avant-gardist terminology that is the characteristics of postmodernity. As a result, human expression in art, especially literature, took a different and radical stance. Before the arrival of postmodernity, literature was regularly glorified in a combined way and had certain labels, e.g. modern literature which was characterized by a stable and expressive poetics of meta-naaratives. However, postmodern literature has been termed by critics as giving an impactful name to the “new era”. Resultantly, Vonnegut is providing us an “anti-traditional narrative point of view involving the author hints in the text” (Atchison, 2008, p.27).
Yet, it is argued that postmodern literature was a philosophical revival and continuation of modern literature in the second half of 20th century. So a historical body of postmodern literature has been trying to making a “narrative that purport[s] to recount universal history (parentheses mine)” (Vanhoozer, 2003, p. 11). Consequently the poetics of postmodernity is a reactive and contradictory narrative convention to the previous stable “narrative” conventions, seeking to give its distinctive and characteristically affirmative literary features. Hence Slaughterhouse-Five has a “crucial concern with the novel’s narrative point of view” (Pholer, 1997, p.103). Generally, the novel has been studied intensively in the fields of science fiction and metatifction. However it can also be analyzed in terms of narrative perspective. Three narrative concepts can be incorporated into the study this novel, namely, Patricia Waugh’s self-reflexivity, Mikhail Bakhtin’s dilogism and Gérard Genette’s focalization. The study of such narrative concepts are depended on a postmodern celebration of the essential attributions of the text. That is, postmodern fictional textuality stops the inherent and basic component the text of a novel. In short, postmodern fiction shows the construction of a text by its narratology and formal devices, such as narrator, setting and characters, to provide a certain appropriate depiction of outer realities as well as inner realities.
As a novel ‘The Slaughterhouse Five” is fundamentally showing a remarkable tendency of postmodernist relative notion of reality. Consequently it shows one aspect of postmodernism, that is literary experimentation. We see that Vonnegut is clearly experimenting with the narrator, setting and characters of the novel to give a comprehensive fictional critique of the literary exhaustion which taking over in modern literary modes of art. Experimentation came as a remedial replenishment for such exhaustion and tiresome art of storytelling through authorial metafictional addition into the text. Unique metafictional style is apparent in the novel but at the same time the novel also depicts the American individual’s suffering after the Second World War. For this purpose, the self-justifying and self-contradictory style in the novel accentuates author’s critical voice. Such voice is stemmed from the main narrative point of view in the text.
The main strategy which was favoured by postmodernists is literary experimentation. Vonnegut is true to the spirit of postmodernism in this regard, uses fixed and lucid experimental techniques which make him a writer of the zeitgeist. In Slaughterhouse Five, he utilizes literary experimentation on the inherent techniques of the novel. This experimentation is proved by the change how the novel reflects with the narrative point of view, setting and characters. These basic narrative techniques are slavishly imitated in modern literature. However, when they come in the hands of Vonnegut, they are manipulated in postmodern fictional text. This type of manipulation proliferates within a postmodern relative vision of time and essence of reality. Vonnegut exploits metafictional devices to introduce his readers with his critical notion with the help of narrator in the course of the plot as a fictional interplay between the author’s abstract vision and everyday reality. By doing so, he provides us a basis for understanding the American individual’s suffering and meaninglessness of human existence after the Second World War.
The poetics of postmodernism is evidently reflected in the novel of Vonnegut. All the powerful themes and motifs of postmodernity are present in The Slaughterhouse Five.
The Twisted Love within Cat’s Cradle
Love. A simple yet ever so complicated emotion. How can an emotion that supposedly brings about such happiness and joy also bring about some of the worst characteristics of today’s world and lead to such catastrophe? The loaded concept of love and the problems that seem to arise from it or to be more specific, the search for it are all explored in Cat’s Cradle. Kurt Vonnegut uses various characters within the text to demonstrate the different types of love by their unique quests to attain it and the resolution of that desired quest. Newt, seen as an outcast, represents the portion of the population looking for companionship from the outside in. On the other hand, John seemingly has no aspiration to find companionship, but more of a need after getting caught up in a lust for a girl as it so often happens nowadays. Lastly, Felix is the poster boy for those who neglect family and friends, only caring about what is directly in front of him. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates how the twisted path to find one of life’s greatest treasures, love, can lead to utter destruction or humiliation as it brings out the underlying problems of society. This is shown first hand through Newt’s wish to connect with Zinka who turns out to be a complete impostor. Love, or more accurately described as infatuation can describe the lust John gains for Mona simply by seeing a single picture of the woman and Felix’s love for knowledge eventually lead to literal destruction.
The desire to connect with others has been sought after for all of humanity. When one is looked at as an outcast, that creates a rough, lonely path to companionship and can cause one to do questionable things. Newt symbolizes everything that comes to mind when the term outcast is spoken of and is how Vonnegut demonstrates the dangers of love when one is so vulnerable. He is looked at as a weak, meaningless person to some degree and that may have been a result of his short stature. When someone is constantly being batted down and receiving hateful verbal abuse, it begins to change the soul of the person. This is all comes back to how vulnerable every person is at their core, and when love is mixed into the equation, it is bound to end in disaster. As Newt writes John the letter, he acknowledges the fact that he could see how others perceive he simply lives life pitying himself. However, he quickly changes course and states he found love. “Actually, I am a very lucky person and I know it. I am about to marry a wonderful little girl. There is love enough in this world for everybody, if people will just look. I am proof of that” (18). The only problem with this was Newt didn’t even have to look. By what seemed to be extreme coincidence a girl came to him and without a doubt took advantage of Newt in order to gain information on his father’s work. Zinka, the supposed 23-year-old girl, was actually a 42-year-old spy. The only explanation was she sensed the vulnerability of Newt as he longed for love, and exposed him in cold blooded form. Newt was so hopeful that he finally found love, he let his guard down without hesitation and that hurt him in the long run as he was blindsided by the end game. Relationship Development, by Rebecca B. Rubin indicates how one could possibly prevent a similar circumstance from occurring. “Research also examined five main strategies for reducing uncertainty: interrogation, self-disclosure, detecting deception, environmental structuring, and deviation testing” (Rubin). With the life that Newt lived, he had no chance of being able to gain true certainty. He was lost in the game of love all due to his vulnerability. Newt says it best as he realizes what has happened and reflects on the shattered heart of his. “In this world, you get what you pay for” (128).
How often in today’s world is true, everlasting love mistaken for infatuation? This shallow “form” of love is dreadful in our society today as it has the potential to be the origin of craziness and tinker with the already too easily conformable human mind. It truly dabbles with the concept of love at first sight and if that is a true phenomenon. John experiences this first hand when he spots a picture of Mona, or so he believes. From the instant he first laid eyes on her, the seemingly level headed John begins to think irrationally as his soul focus is grasping Mona’s attention. Under no circumstances would he have accepted the offer to become the dictator of San Lorenzo if it hadn’t been due to his clouded judgment caused by infatuation. It lowered John’s decision making and reasoning right in front of the reader’s eyes and was apparent that the deception of love mixed with his love for Mona’s looks demonstrates the effects of this fault: “The Fata Morgana, the mirage of what it would be like to be loved by Mona Aamons Monzano, had become a tremendous force in my meaningless life. I imagined that she could make me far happier than any woman had so far succeeded in doing” (85). The logic John used in his thought process is obviously flawed and exemplified by how he uses words like “imagined.” This is cause for concern as it is apparent his hope to gain Mona’s love is ruining his inhibitions. Occurrences like this are present all over in today’s world and especially in our media. Even political figures like Bill Clinton have been slain by the sword of infatuation as it caused him to commit many wrongdoings in front of a national audience. “Clinton is encumbered by history as the post-civil-rights president who bears the trauma of a degraded America” (Melissa Deem). By going against all moral codes, Clinton was caught up in the infatuation/love mess and ended up causing a mess for all of America. John does this on a much smaller scale, but in the long runs it leads to the death of Mona and the destruction of San Lorenzo. It goes to show how a simple mix up of the true definition of love can end in such heartache. Lust Balance, by Cas Wouters, shows readers how easy this mix up truly is and how it goes back to finding the fine line of what true love actually is. “The concept of the lust balance refers to the social organization and accompanying social codes (ideals and practices) regarding the relationship between the longing for sexual gratification and the longing for enduring relational intimacy” (Wouters). The apparent problem in today’s world is that so many are having difficulty differentiating the two hence the cause of all the problems as John best demonstrates.
The love of knowledge has the power to trump all other forms of love. This presents many dangers as it introduces the concept of loving non-material objects over people. This particular path is a dark, troublesome one as it leads to neglect among other fatal traits. Felix Hoenikker is the poster boy for all things neglect and is so evident through his interactions with his family. Felix seemed to be in his own little world, with no regard for human interaction and was simply concerned with whatever scientific task was directly in front of him. The duties off a father, a husband, or even a person of society completely slip his mind as Felix went about his job diligently in order to find new discovery. What was even more troubling was his obsession for knowledge that lead him to create products with the potential for mass destruction and he had not a single care or worry for this. His own children, suffered right in front of his eyes and there was not even an acknowledgment of the fact. Their own father loved not his own children, but chose his love of knowledge over them. The thought is enough to send chills down one’s spine. “ ‘He won’t come,’ Frank said, and he laughed at her. Frank was right. Father stuck his head out a window, and he looked at Angela and me rolling on the ground, bawling, and Frank standing over us, laughing. The old man pulled his head indoors again, and never even asked later what all the fuss had been about. People weren’t his specialty” (17). Felix Hoenikker is a man living with no obligations and complete disregard for others. It goes back to show each individual has the choice to chose love of something meaningful and true, such as family, or the love of knowledge that is not fulfilling. “Knowledge, love, hatred, and indifference are the differential polarities which structure the emotional systems within a family” (Love, hatred). The consensus can be made that with every obsession comes extreme dangers and Felix took no accountability for his actions which lead to the demise of those around him.
How often is the phrase “All is fair in love and war” thrown around in everyday conversation? It begs the question of what love truly is. It may be a want, a need, a desire, or maybe it’s something that can’t even be explained. The problem is that the quest to find love leads to so many more problems than there were to begin with. It metaphorically peels back layer by layer the soul of each individual giving a glimpse into the dilemmas that come from love. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt explores this thought process by using a variety of characters to dive into the concept. A kind-hearted boy in Newt gets torched at the stake simply because he is unaware of the evils of the world. Then there is John who demonstrates not all love is innocent. It can change the playing field just by the thought of falling in love based on the appearance of one. Finally, Felix shows the reader how non-material love can lead to destruction due to his neglectfulness and chosen naivety. Love is something that is suppose to be a fairytale, yet when viewed under a microscope, has the potential to be the start of one of the scariest horror stories known to this world.
Works Cited Deem, Melissa. “The Scandalous Fall of Feminism and the “First Black President”.” A Companion to Cultural Studies. Miller, Toby (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. 31 October 2015 “love, hatred, knowledge, indifference.” The Dictionary of Family Therapy. Miermont, Jacques (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 1995. Blackwell Reference Online. 31 October 2015 Rubin, Rebecca B. “Relationship Development.” The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Donsbach, Wolfgang (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2008.Blackwell Reference Online. 31 October 2015 Wouters, Cas. “Lust Balance.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 31 October 2015
Individuals Status in the Society
Although both “D.P.” and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut are situated in starkly different time periods, these short stories touch upon the same idea of the individual’s status within society. “D.P.” takes place in an orphanage runs by Catholic nuns in the German village of Karlswald on the Rhine, while “Harrison Bergeron” takes place in a futuristic society; here, individuals are stripped of free will in a dystopian society similar to that depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. In both cases, the protagonist is seen as restricted; Joe is unable to leave the orphanage and seek his father, and George Bergeron is unable to fully cultivate his mind. Despite such disparities, Vonnegut consistently touches upon themes of society and human nature, and the intermingling of an individual and his respective authority.
From the onset of “D.P.”, the restriction of freedom of the “Eighty-one small sparks of human life” is made evident, as the children are “kept in an orphanage”, and “Marched […] through the woods, into the village and back, for their ration of fresh air” (Vonnegut 161). The manifestations of order that the children are confined in, and the manner in which Joe is shielded from the topic of his father when the nun constantly digresses to the topic of the sparrow, demonstrate the hindrance of knowledge that bars the children from understanding the world around them. During a time in which the children should experience parental love, nurturing, is replaced by an abnormal lifestyle as they are sheltered from the real world. The title, which may stand for “displaced persons” (Vonnegut 167), also shows the effect of war on the development of the young. In a sense, Vonnegut satirizes war and the effect it has on innocent children in society, who are also exposed to a form of racial profiling, when the village carpenter and others in the village speculate “the nationalities of the passing children’s parents” (Vonnegut 161), and feeding Joe information about a “Brown Bomber”, “American soldier”, and “more water than you have ever seen” (Vonnegut 163). When Joe attempts to pursue knowledge and search for his father, he is sent back by the troops. Interestingly enough, the troops treated Joe much kindly than did the orphanage, giving him chocolate, and commenting, “By golly, I don’t believe the boy’s ever seen chocolate before […] Talk about displaced persons […] this here’s the most displaced little old person I ever saw. Upside down and inside out and ever’ which way” (Vonnegut 167). In the end, Joe is filled with false hope for the return of his “father.”
In “Harrison Bergeron,” George Bergeron is a puppet in society in which socialism seems to be the goal – a twisted form of socialism, where extreme attained equality ironically results in a restriction of rights and thus an inherent inequality. In this dystopian world set in 2081, the United States Handicapper General is the Big Brother of this society, where each individual is placed under the constant scrutiny of the “H-G men,” and where intelligence and beauty are scraped down to a bare minimum in order to ensure “equality”. In this sense, Vonnegut blatantly satirizes enforced equality and a socialistic society. Although in a theoretical sense, achieving full equality is a positive notion, Vonnegut presents the shortcomings. George and Hazel are subdued to a meaningless life; “Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else […] George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear […] to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains” (Vonnegut 7). Rather than protest, George completely obeys the restrictions placed on him, while oblivious to the arrest of his son. Individuals in this society who are too beautiful, too strong, and too intelligent, are given “handicaps” to render them average, which ironically is not “equality”, as they are not given the freedom to exert their natural-born abilities. Harrison Bergeron encapsulates a character who stands out as an anomaly to society, much like Winston, who realizes the manipulation of the government. The hindrance of the grace and beauty of the ballerinas with the lighthearted tone of the story seemingly gives a touch of twisted humor; at the end, all is well and normal life is resumed. The robotic nature of life and the lack of variety gives off a sad sympathy in the reader. It is interesting to note the symbolism of Harrison’s appearance on television; although it is very obvious that something is wrong, his parents do not notice, symbolizing the utmost power of the dystopian government.
In both narratives, the father-son relationship is the most interesting, although these relationships are different in both scenarios. Vonnegut’s treatment evokes a feeling a sadness and pity, as both stories show how a corrupted society (or just society in general) tears apart families and the lives of individuals. The oblivion and false optimism shown in George and Joe is heartbreakingly sad, as they are blissfully unaware of what they are truly missing in life. Joe yearns for a fatherly figure, and is unable to escape the orphanage, while George is unable to escape the society that he completely succumbs to and believes to be perfect and deserving. Ultimately, the negative impact that society and warfare have on an individual is exemplified in both protagonists.