Kurt Vonnegut’s Attack on Society Romanticizing War in Slaughterhouse-five
For centuries war has been romanticized as a heroic battle between a purely good side and the evil side. Incredible heroes fight against evil and give peace back to the good. The good and innocent all live peacefully afterwards while the evil are punished and forced to take responsibility for the war that they inevitably have caused. This heroic and manly battle of pure evil against pure good is the exact picture that Kurt Vonnegut strives to destroy through his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut seeks to show the reality of war and how damaging the evil verses good image has been on society as it contends humans against each-other. “For Vonnegut the subject matter is not simply Nazi atrocity; it is many other things” (Lundquist 43) such as many people’s obsession with revenge, issues of racism, and most importantly the question of how to tell a true story that is unimaginable to the point of borderline fiction. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five he uses a blend of realism and utopian imagination along with dark humor to deromanticize war.
As a German-American who fought with the allies in World War II, Vonnegut is torn between both sides of war. He recognizes the evil of Nazism and that the war was a necessary feat but cannot stand behind the attack “designed by the Allies to kill as many German civilians as possible” (Allen 95) as well as annihilate the beautiful and historic city of Dresden which held little to no value to the German Military. (Freese 77) War brings out an inhumanity in people that is unfathomable to Vonnegut. He finds it reprehensible that this attack, which seems purposeless for anything but revenge, had been kept almost entirely secret by the government. Vonnegut decided that it was his duty to write about Dresden to expose the truth about the attack and its severity. Still, the pressing issue stands that “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24) which makes writing about one all the more difficult.
To tell his story Vonnegut uses three different characters with varying opinions and perspectives regarding the story of Billy Pilgrim. While Vonnegut makes Pilgrim similar to Vonnegut in his war experiences, he does not exactly represent Vonnegut’s life or perspective. Due to the similarities between him and his protagonist “Vonnegut creates a mask, a narrator who provides a certain distance between” (Schatt 99) Billy and his author. The narrator serves to tell Billy’s story entirely through his own voice which allows Vonnegut to interject a few small comments of his own into the story, proving his views to not be congruent with those of the narrator. By showing himself as an Army scout alongside Billy, Vonnegut “dispel[s] any thought that Billy Pilgrim was an autobiographical rendering of the actual author” (MacFarlane 151). Through using perspectives unlike his own to tell Billy’s story and talk about war, Vonnegut is able to make the reader focus on their own thoughts and opinions rather than his.
The story’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is in some ways the same as and in many other ways totally different from Vonnegut. While Vonnegut seems to have an attitude of wanting change in the world and striving to accomplish his goals, Pilgrim is an extremely passive character which makes him a very odd choice as a protagonist in a war story. The choice to convey Billy as passive and unenthusiastic about life makes him the exact opposite of the typical hero in war stories. This places Billy, as the protagonist, in the place of an anti-hero which gives the book a clear anti-war message (Marvin 124).
While Vonnegut believes in a man’s ability to change his fate, Pilgrim is convinced by his imaginary abduction by aliens called Tralfamadorians that a person’s life is already planned to follow a set course from birth until death. Tralfamadorians believe that life is full of set moments that cannot ever be changed but can be visited at any time at random. “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (29) and he believes that he can now time travel to any point in his life whenever he pleases. Pilgrim cannot accept everything about fate like the Tralfamadorians. Although they tell him to focus on the good moments in life and not the bad ones, Billy still cannot simply forget and accept that there is nothing he can do for others’ suffering (Schatt 100). Billy’s lack of control over his life is meant to appear ridiculous to the reader and emphasizes Vonnegut’s point that people can control the world around them even in regards to war.
One of the ways that Vonnegut denounces romanticized stories about war is through his comedic depictions of characters that bear similarities to the classic war heroes. The strongest example of this strategy is found in a young soldier named Ronald Weary whom Billy fights alongside in the war. Weary is the exact opposite of Pilgrim in nearly every way. He is an obese boy who “had every piece of equipment he had ever been issued” (50) by the military and more. While Billy spends time daydreaming about his future on Tralfamadore and his life outside of war, Weary spends every second pretending to be some great war hero as if he is preparing the story that he will tell his family when he gets home. Despite the fact that he is actually strongly disliked by the other three men in his small squad he “imagines himself to be one of the three close war comrades who call themselves the ‘Three Musketeers’ ” (Schatt 101).
In reality, Weary is simply a child who tells other men stories, which he creates in his mind, in order to feel as though he is a hero. Vonnegut, Billy, and Weary “had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood” (18) Weary’s stories are his way of coping with a war that he, as a mere child, is unable to comprehend. The kinds of false stories that Weary creates represent the type of stories where veterans will “pretend [they] were men instead of babies” (18). These stories are exactly what Vonnegut promises his friend’s wife Mary O’Hare that he will never write. Weary’s character is Vonnegut’s way of showing what people do not see when they read or hear about men who are glorified as heroes.
Another example of satirical versions of stereotypical war characters are the English prisoners of war whom Pilgrim meets after his capture. These men are the perfect soldiers told about in stories, confident in their troops abilities and pleasing to the eyes of the Germans as “they made war look stylish and reasonable, and fun” (120). Vonnegut then essentially dismisses the romanticized outlook of the Englishmen and the Germans in regards to war by pointing out that “the British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap [the soldiers used] were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists and other enemies of the State” (122). This statement, followed by the narrator’s signature “so it goes” (122), acknowledges that there is no such thing as a war hero and that anybody saying there is does not know about actual war.
Vonnegut’s opinion about people’s abilities to change their fate shows most evidently through a contrast in Billy Pilgrim. Billy struggles with his own life and death as well as his belief that the lives and deaths of those around him are unchangeable. Almost immediately after being drafted into the military Billy has his first experience with death when his father dies in a hunting accident while Billy is at boot camp. Then during the war Billy attempts to get killed several times in battle because he “didn’t really like life at all.” (130) Although Billy does not believe in the ability to change his fate he still attempts to die or at least acts indifferent to dying.
Billy’s deteriorated mental state is evident in his obsession with the question of “why me?” (97) throughout the book. When he is abducted by the Tralfamadorians and he asks why they chose him, they simply say that there is no rhyme or reason for why anything happens. Every “moment simply is” (97) and there is no way to change it. This concept ties the Nazis to the Tralfamadorians later in the book when an American is beat by a German guard for muttering something under his breath. Afterwards the American asks “why me?” (116) and the Guard’s responds is very similar to that of the Tralfamadorians “‘Vy you? Vy Anybody?’”(116). By tying the Tralfamadorians to the Nazis Vonnegut shows that the alien lifestyle that may seem utopian to Billy is not as perfect as it seems.
Billy struggles with surviving many things that he does not want to or believes he should not have. He is awestruck when looking at the moonscape that Dresden is post-bombing and cannot understand why he is lucky enough to live when so many die. He faces this existential confusion again when he contemplates the plane crash that he walks away from as the only survivor.
Despite actually being alive, Vonnegut associates Billy with imagery and symbolism relating to death. Vonnegut describes corpses as having blue and ivory feet which he also uses to describe Billy on two different occasions. He has a weird fascination with death and even spends his wedding night planning his gravestone. Perhaps the best example of the idea of death that seems to follow Billy throughout his life is when it states that Billy’s happiest moment is when he is lying beneath the warm sun, napping on a coffin shaped wagon. Even Billy’s happiest moment ties to death and lying in a coffin. By relating Billy to death Vonnegut emphasizes how a person who possesses no free will and chooses to not control their own life is essentially dead. Ironically, the quote that is supposedly Billy’s “method for keeping going” (76) is a quote about having “wisdom always to tell the difference” (77) between the things that he can and cannot change in his life. This saying holds a dark irony to Billy’s life since “the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (77) which is untrue for any living human being, but not for Billy, who might as well be dead. By believing that fate is unchangeable and that he cannot control his life Billy is not actually living at all.
Billy’s struggle against life leads to his imaginary episodes where he recalls being abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians. He imagines being kept in a dome shaped container in a Tralfamadorian zoo with a young porn star named Montana Wildhack. He imagines the two living together in a picturesque life and having a child all before the eyes of the Tralfamadorians. “Billy and Montana appear as a sort of new Adam and Eve, who live in the confines of a perfect world” (Allen 103) and learn about the idea of fate and its resistance to change from the God-like Tralfamadorians.
The idea of time traveling to other moments in his life especially to Tralfamadore is Billy’s way of coping with the stress and pain he feels when remembering the war. By juxtaposing seemingly normal moments from Billy’s life to the dark moments from war Vonnegut pictures for readers how war affects soldiers minds and all of their memories. Veterans have no choice but to find a way to cope with the new state of their minds. Science fiction stories like that of the Tralfamadorians are escapes for Billy and his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, who “were trying to reinvent themselves and their universe” (128). For Billy it is easier for him to escape to another planet in his mind where nothing requires any explanation than to try to understand why people do the evil things they do when their vision is clouded by war.
The novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut provides a clear message of ending the romanticized portrayals of war so often seen in film and writing. Vonnegut does not condemn war as a whole as much as he condemns the way that many people choose to both see it and talk about it. By using the shifts between the blunt realism of war and the idealism of stereotypical characters and a utopian world like Tralfamadore Vonnegut produces a book filled with a dark humor that does not push a particular viewpoint on readers, but instead makes them consider their own feelings and views based on only the facts.
Anti War Message in “Slaughterhouse-five” by Kurt Vonnegut and “Dr Strangelove” by Stanley Kubrick
Humankind cannot endure too much reality: Anti war texts and their conventions stand for diversified modes of perception that alter the emerging streams of interpretations extracted from the human endeavour and it’s universally flawed disorder. Both Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 anti-war novel, a fusion of meta-fiction and science fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical, comedy feature film, Dr Strangelove, examine the war and counterculture of their times, and expose the iniquity, mayhem, and virtues of the human condition, in all its raw sentiments. Through an exploration of Kubrick’s and Vonnegut’s perspectives appropriated across contexts, respective audiences bear a more profound understanding of the relationship between interpretations extrapolated in a text and its milieu, and are compelled to challenge and recognize the significance of the expressed didactic concerns and their imminent presence in the trials and tribulations of today.
War ruptured the position of mankind and ontological perceptions of being, brought to the fore the tensions of time and morality as relative or universal and revealed the resonance of sanity on the human endeavor and individual psyche. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr Strangelove profoundly explores these ontological notions through characterization and satirical techniques. The decision to render the scenes of conflict between the American troops at the air base fortress with an unstable, handheld camera exhibits the old, boisterous thrill that the military figures crave; yet as responders we are resurfaced away from this past pining by the shrilling cues of tragic savagery, while looming in the shadows stands the ironic sign, “peace is our profession,” only prompting us with a hesitant sort of laughter that drags us back to thought. Additionally, Strangelove himself is an excellent rendition of the radical brain power that madly dominated 1964. Kubrick’s use of Nazi allusion developes his character, as the idea of computers acting as a selection pressure on nuclear survivors aligns with the guards and concentration camps of Nazi Germany – notably, he reflects the angel of death. The employment of mis-en-scene and futuristic setting corresponds to Strangelove’s mechanical arm: it has a tendency to pass into a Nazi Salute, emphasizing the abolishment of humanness in government institutions also present in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5: “it was a moment of truth, too, because American civilians and ground troops didn’t know American bombers were engaged in saturation bombing,” where the government was previously devoted to as a respecter of all life. Yet in all its horror, this is merely an agent of madness and evasion for Strangelove: to adjust to the relative insanity of the human condition. So aroused by mass slaughter, he rises from his wheelchair shrieking “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk! Thus, escapism as a relief is inevitably accentuated as the reality of the human endeavor is degradingly heart wrenching, as is the way in which we condition ourselves to moral objectivity and certain mentality.
Again we see a devotion to the existential philosophy surrounding ethics and virtue in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, as the text manifests mania and loss of reason as a product of insanity and the rationalization of war. Aligning with Dr Strangelove, Vonnegut’s text also reveals the jocular elements of an absurd realm to incite a change in values. Through clear antiwar sentiment and mock serious humor, Vonnegut comments on the bombing of Dresden, while indirectly addressing the bombing of Hiroshima, and the burdens of the Great Depression. However, through metafiction, post modern fiction and characterization, he simultaneously disconnects from Dr Strangelove by using time to reveal new viewpoints as diverse subjectivity on morality – the same way that the theory of relativity broke out and came to the fore.
Revealing as an unreliable narrator through the rupturing effect, “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book,” Vonnegut’s stylistic choice through outlandish authorial interjections allow him to dictate the responder back to the very first sentence, “All this happened, more or less.” blurring the boundary between absurd, lighthearted fiction and tragic reality. Oscillating between his factual presence and the fictional Billy Pilgrim: Vonnegut’s consoling tone displays differences in moral judgments, “Most Tralfamadorians had no way of knowing Billy’s body and face were not beautiful. They supposed that he was a splendid specimen. This had a pleasant effect on Billy, who began to enjoy his body for the first time.” This grants Billy with a sense of dignity: no standpoint on his appearance is uniquely privileged, hence denying universality and reflecting moral relativity in the human condition. Through cumulative listing, “no beginning, no middle, no end, no moral,” a link can be drawn between Vonnegut’s post modern approach that requires us to ‘read in a new way’ and Tralfamadorian literature. Billy ultimately ascends into a science fiction world that denies free will, to obtain acceptance and moral rationality for his life. Slaughterhouse-Five remarkably testifies to war as a collective folly, and an audacious sense of vanity born from the human psyche, only yielding a reaction that speaks nothing, and everything, “Poo-Tee-weet?” in alignment with Kubrick’s “Hi There!” inscribed on the nuclear bombs. Thus, the balance between Vonnegut’s true war memoir and his fictional mediation to storify an atrocity presents the audience with a range of new, intense insights and dualities that reflect the workings of a diverse mode of perception.
The crisis of warfare and the worship of a horrific technology embracing annihilation at the hands of deranged institutions led to the emergence, glorification and the rationalization of mass killing. Kubrick captures the resonating attitudes of a “missile gap” and “mutually assured destruction,” as his use of caricature places the deranged political figures on pedestals of minimal detail. The true horrors of a 1960’s ideology are evaded to the words “mineshaft gap” coupled with Kubrick’s employment of cinematography in three settings – the air force base, the war room, and the B-52 which achieve the political development of which modern war has crafted: the bureaucratization of terror. The layered generalization that is sublimely employed by Kubrick in the war room, embodies powerful figures becoming disconnected from our nature and civilization – revealing a new mode of perceiving governments in the modern limelight, that radically altered traditional concepts of war. It becomes apparent that the strategic impulses of the military commanders are not what the audience should be pondering upon, but rather the need for a revaluation of the military industrial complex and its key bodies. Madness shaped the absurdity of Jack D. Ripper’s “monstrous commie plot” and from deranged internal compulsion, he delivers a unilateral decision to act on a nuclear master plan. Kubrick’s gripping intervals and the collective cloudy haze presented in the film contradict the therapeutic tones of the phone call by the American president to the Soviet premier, in apology for the fact that one of his generals “went a little funny in the head,” reflecting the heightened fear born from the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, invoking the establishment of a “hotline” from the White House to Kremlin. Thus, Kubrick remarkably heightens the necessity to reevaluate and challenge the harmful reverberations that coexist with multilateral institutions and advancing technology.
Additionally, Vonnegut also confronts the irrational institutions that dictate mass slaughter, yet contrarily in a subjective manner that protects the responder’s psyche from unbearable matter. By embracing the origin of traditional narrative conventions: Vonnegut invents an innovation that plays on time, plot and story through a heart wrenching setting. Changes in Vonnegut’s milieu were reflected in his diversified alteration of Kubrick’s work, as exposed in the looming, ever culminating context that compelled both composer’s compositions. In 1969, in the midst of the dismal Vietnam War, Vonnegut’s work acted as a cautionary and critical omen. Slaughterhouse-Five made a forceful statement about the campaign in Vietnam, drastically intensifying and developing Kubrick’s fear of a nuclear holocaust, as the Vietnam war honored incendiary machinery that was, again, being employed against vulnerable civilians in the name of irresolute cause. Through this, Vonnegut channeled a new mode of perception that changed our perspective as an audience on the human condition as a cause of warfare. Within Vonnegut’s disengaged tone and use of anadiplosis through, “So it goes,” we are kept aware that the text is a product of a troubled mind. Through an anecdotal tone, Vonnegut remarkably alludes to the boundless destruction that he lived through but was so drastically undermined; “…he told me about the concentration camps, and about how the Germans had made soap and candles out of the fat of dead Jews and so on. All I could say was, “I know, I know. I know.” Despite Vonnegut’s fragmentation, he profoundly adapts Kubrick’s tone to present an authentic response to one of the most remarkable arguments against war and disorder in all it’s integrity.
Both Slaughterhouse-Five and Dr Strangelove offer visions of serious, yet comical counterparts to express the condemning voice of a generation exasperated with corrupt nations of tongue tied mimics in a war ridden milieu. While Dr Strangelove presents a dehumanized world where the military code of amorality strips away natural empathy, Vonnegut has a shaped a similar image of a fragmented death of individualism in the midst of mass suffering. My own view is that it is undemanding to avoid tragedy, yet there is eminent resonance in confronting it. Indeed, war is traumatizing and serves no purpose but to break humanity into casts of mind, yet it is obligatory for us to address such affliction.
Despite differing starkly in form, time of composition and the overriding tone with which their messages are conveyed, both Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, depict genuine fears for the future. By examining the cautionary warnings that these texts exhibit, and bringing the contextual qualities of both texts to the fore, a fundamental link can be drawn between the didactic concerns communicated, a new mode of perception that radically diversified traditional concepts of time and morality and a reevaluation of ultimately flawed multilateral institutions: for civilization and humanity.
A Problem of Losing Touch with Reality in Slaughterhouse Five Novel
The difference between living and being alive are two very different states of consciousness. The novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut displays the differences between these two states excellently when telling the story of a World War II veteran, Billy Pilgrim, who drifts through important personal and worldwide events in turmoil, slowly letting go of his grip on life. Vonnegut displays this by having his character witness several disheartening situations and scramble to survive. The price he asks of Billy is to give up pieces of himself for his physical survival. As the pieces chip away, Billy Pilgrim’s mind strays further and further away from reality into a made up alien world in Tralfamador.
The impact of war on Billy causes the main character to give up his first piece: hope. An individual’s hope is a very personal part of oneself. Hope contributes to one’s confidence in their ability to get better in the face of failure. When Billy is drafted into the war he takes on the job as an assistant but soon finds the hardships of war not to his liking. This can be seen when Billy is on the run with his friend Weary and some scouts in the German countryside:
Billy stopped, shook his head. ‘You go on,’ he said.
‘You guys go on without me. I’m all right.’
Weary kicked and shoved Billy for a quarter of a mile…
‘Here he is, boys,’ said Weary. ‘He don’t want to live, but he’s gonna live anyway’ (Vonnegut 48).
Although Weary seems to allude to the notion that Billy “don’t want to live”, the truth is, Billy has lost hope. Billy has lost hope in himself as a human being as well as the situation. Billy isn’t interested in being helped and this is implied when he says, “I’m O.K.” in big capital letters. By using big letters, Vonnegut indicates Billy isn’t alright, Billy does not have the strength or the stamina to keep on going and he just wants to give up. But Weary doesn’t let Billy fall on the wayside, and manages to force Billy to walk towards survival.
Soon after, Billy takes his first trip to the fictional land of Tralfamador where he is kidnapped and meets the inhabitants, Tralfamadorians. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy unique things such as the idea of “death” and that a person isn’t dead, they exist in all the other moments in their life when they are alive. While this occurs, Billy is actually trapped on a train carrying German prisoners of war to a camp. This is the first time Billy loses his touch with reality and Vonnegut does this to show Billy has started to lose his conscious awareness of being alive.
The second piece that is lost is when Billy leaves the military. Billy returns to his hometown and enrolls in an Optometrist school and gets engaged to Valencia. Valencia is a very large woman whom Billy’s mother sets him up with because her family’s wealth has given her a great inheritance:
‘He’s engaged to a very rich girl,’ said Billy’s mother.
‘That’s good,’ said Rosewater, ‘Money can be a great comfort sometimes,’
‘It really can.’
‘Of course it can.’
‘It isn’t much fun if you have to pinch every penny till it screams…
Billy closed that one eye, saw in his memory of the future poor old Edgar Derby in front of a firing squad in the ruins of the war (Vonnegut 104-105).
When Billy goes home everyone around him acts as if the war didn’t happen. No one will talk about the horrible Dresden firebombing, and many just avoid the subject altogether. Yet it’s not enough to let Billy sulk in his situation, Vonnegut mixes in Billy’s mother who waves away his freedom by setting up a loveless match. As the mother states, “Money can be a great comfort sometimes” and she says this while visiting Billy at the hospital. She fusses about the materialistic things money can buy for Billy and disregards the fact that Billy is still trying to recover from the war. In contrast, Billy is a long way off, remembering the horror of witnessing the death of a dear comrade while his mother plans his life for him. This moment is key, Vonnegut puts Billy’s future in the hands of others, signifying Billy has given up his will to “live.” Friends and family must now pick up the slack and support and cajole and force the main character, stuck in time travel to Tralfamador.
Now that Vonnegut has established Billy Pilgrim no longer has hope nor does he have the intention or will to continue to exist in reality, the author lets Billy slide into a rapid decline. Billy soon loses touch with his family, and children, and travels to Tralfamador quite often. He even visits “New York City, and appears on an all-night radio program devoted to alien talk. He said, too, that he had been kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967” (Vonnegut 25). Then, a few days later, Billy’s daughter Barbara has to go to New York City and fetch a tired, old, man home. The correlation between Billy’s age and the increasing belief he holds in Tralfamador greatly suggests Billy’s aging mind aids in the main character’s loss of awareness. But Vonnegut does add a twist to this notion, and has Billy say to a comrade of his, “How nice–to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive” (Vonnegut 134). This indicates that Billy is fully cognizant of the fact that he is losing his grip on the world around him, and suggests to the reader Billy wants this process to occur. Billy fully intends to leave the actual world behind him for the wonders of feeling nothing and still being alive.
Losing one’s mind is a terrible thing many people endure. Kurt Vonnegut depicts this process in Slaughterhouse Five with the main character Billy Pilgrim stumbling throughout his life, losing touch with reality. Vonnegut blurs the lines between the idea of being alive and not living through Billy’s eyes and thrusts the reader into a confusing world of time travel between war, home, family, and Tralfamador. In the twists and turns that life holds for Billy, the reader is left with the impression that the difference between living and being alive is more complex than one can imagine.
Post-war Effects in Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Horrifying Effects of War
War is something that humankind has gone through since the Homo sapiens came around. Most of these wars have sacrificed a lot of people who go off and fight for the states involved. This is because of conflict between the two countries in which results in the two countries going into war to decide these matters. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse—Five, it talks about Billy Pilgrim and World War II. With this being said, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war book because of the after-effects of war.
When two or more states go into war, especially a hot war, it requires states to send their own countrymen into battle. The effects of when these soldiers are in the battlefield can be especially damaging to the mental image because of the horrifying effects of war. When Billy was with Roland and the scouts, “Billy stood there politely, giving the marksman another chance. It was his addled understanding that of the rules of warfare that the marksman should be given another chance” (Vonnegut 42). It is obvious that when the opponent tries to shoot Billy, he should dodge it to try and survive. It is not normal for any soldier in war to give their opponents the okay to shoot at them again. Another case of when Billy’s mind went haywire was when he was with the surgeon. When the surgeon asked Billy a question, that was when “Billy looked at him vaguely. Billy had lost track momentarily of where he was or how he had gotten there. He had no idea that people thought he was clowning” (Vonnegut 193). This time around, Billy was completely out of it with time and location. He was also oblivious to the fact that, what probably was his actions, that caused other people to think that he was acting funny.
This goes on to later on in the novel when Billy was involved in a plane crash. After the plane crashed and when Billy had to get surgery for the fractured skull, he “was unconscious for two days after that, and he dreamed millions of things, some of them true. The true things were time–travel” (Vonnegut 200). In this case, Billy is time-travelling because the mind seems to bring up memories of moments in a situation which was a very depressing and scary moment, such as the war. As a result, and whether this would be Billy’s first war or not, the behavior by which Billy is acting upon is not normal for anyone in war including after the war ended.
On the other hand, though, why this novel does not present itself as an anti-war book goes as the following. At one point during the early part of the war, Ronald Weary was trying to get Billy out of the way of those shots fired. The first time, Billy moved out of the road when Weary cussed at him to get out of the road. Then came the second time Billy was stuck in another situation, Weary had,
‘saved [his] life again, you dumb bastard,’ Weary said to Billy in the ditch. He had been saving Billy’s life for days, cursing him, kicking him, slapping him, making him move. It was absolutely necessary that cruelty be used, because Billy wouldn’t do anything to save himself (Vonnegut 43).
Obviously, Billy was unaware of what he was doing, and even though Weary had to discipline Billy for the sake of his own safety, Billy already has a pre-existing condition coming into the war that caused him to be acting and behaving in the way he is even though he already had been in World War II. Even though it is hard to deal with coping through any traumatic experience Billy had gone through, especially post-traumatic stress disorder, it may be even harder to cope with it since he is fighting his war with Weary and the three musketeers.
When Billy is going through to cause him to behave oddly is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or shortened to PTSD. PTSD is this psychological shock that typically is associated with after-effects of any traumatic experience. In Billy’s case, being in the war and previous wars really had impacted his mindset. PTSD, coming from a war sense, is because there are a lot of cases where soldiers experience a lot of traumatic experiences during the time that they are in war. This can impact their behavior in many ways, each person is different with the severity.
Where was when the surgeon was trying to get Billy to answer him. This was because the surgeon “was demanding some sort of satisfaction. Billy was mystified. Billy wanted to be friendly, to help, if he could, but his resources were meager” (Vonnegut 193). According to what Billy was trying to do, it seemed like he was trying to get out of the situation when obviously, there are horrors like this where Billy had to face during World War II which factored into the post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, being in the slaughterhouse itself, this was a place where “it was going to serve as a home away from home for one hundred American prisoners of war” (Vonnegut 194). Just like any place where prisoners of war were treated, including slaughterhouse five, it is expected that the prisoners of war would be expected to be treated poorly with the horrors that came along with being a prisoner of war. Sometimes, they can be treated so poorly, especially during the second world war, and that, as a result, is another contribution to post-war behavior because of how they were treated while in custody. Even though it may seem like there are reasons why war is inevitable for these particular reasons, including more, war can cause after-effects which veterans can have that can cause behavior changes for a long time.
The main theme that is drawn out of the novel is that the post-war effects can have a huge impact on veterans. In Billy’s case, it was occurrent throughout the work that he was unaware of what he was doing in any given situation and at any given time. It is evident that Billy behaves in a very unusual manner a lot of the time, whether he is at home, war, or even with the Tralfamadorians that he always brings up. Plus, Vonnegut mentions that Billy had time travelled after the surgery. With PTSD, from the war prospective, there can be some flashbacks that can be associated with the dangers of trying to avoid weapons to the passing of some comrades during the war. With all this coming from PTSD that Billy is experiencing, it really comes to show how war can affect veterans coming out of war, hence the reason why Slaughterhouse – Five is an anti-war novel.
Issues of the Contemporary World in Slaughterhouse Five Novel
Slaughterhouse Five, a beautifully written anti-war novel by Kurt Vonnegut, has been under fire by parents and teachers across America. Throughout the book, Vonnegut discusses the shocking truth in human nature by illustrating the world of Billy Pilgrim, a PTSD victim who suffers from recurring alien abductions. Many people oppose this book being taught in schools due to its graphic content; however, it should continue to be taught because it provides students with background that they would otherwise not receive. Slaughterhouse Five should be taught so students will know about the devastating effects of war rather than the glorified versions they see on television, so they are more familiar with the direction that the world is headed in, and because students are never given the opportunity to read books with actual meaning due to the social constraints imposed upon ourselves.
Slaughterhouse Five should be taught in schools across America so students will have a better understanding of the effects of war. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut illustrates the physical and mental destruction of the war by retelling the events of World War II through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim. Modern kids are unaware of the impact war can have because they have not had first-hand experience of one. Kids believe that they know everything about war, when really, they only know about the glorified versions seen on movies. To them, war is a time of valor and heroism, when in reality, war is a time of suffering and of constant fear of death. Along with the fear of life and physical pain, veterans also have to deal with mental fallout, such as Billy’s. “Billy’s condition is, on one level, a symbol of shock, confusion, and dislocation, and desire for escape that result from the horrible experiences of war” (Cox). This condition is referred to as post traumatic stress disorder, and it is a direct result of war. Although not directly expressed, it can easily be inferred that Billy suffers from this due to the recurrence of alien abductions. Billy may have been held captive at Dresden for a year, but he was held captive for life in his head. Students would not be able to relate to the pain and suffering without having heard first hand experience about one; ergo, this novel should be taught so they know just how devastating war can be and so they might try and prevent future ones from occurring.
Slaughterhouse Five should also be taught in schools across America because it gives perspective to the direction that the world is headed in. Every day without us even knowing, the world becomes darker and darker. “Vonnegut’s anti-war fiction illustrates war machine and time machine that produce thoughtless machine-like humans… Vonnegut’s dark picture criticizes our contemporary world and the devastative direction in which we are headed” (Babaee). This novel comments on cybernetic nature by suggesting that we are more like intelligent machine than we are human. We claim to adopt free will to justify our decisions, when in reality we feel helpless while making them. “America has adopted the Tralfamadorian philosophy which justified apathy. We have lost our sense of individuality; we feel powerless, helpless, and impotent. We consider ourselves the ‘listless playthings of enormous forces’” (Vanderwerken). Americans justify the suppression of emotion because they feel that life is pre-determined, just as the Tralfamadorians did, and that they can’t follow their own path but merely the path that has already been paved for them. This mentality is disastrous. The ability to think for oneself is what differentiates humans from machine, but by thinking that one cannot control their own decisions, they surrender the cybernetic system. The machine-like system responsible for dystopia in America is already omnipresent, we just have to be conscious not to be trapped in it. Students are most likely unaware of this, therefore, they should read this novel so they are familiar with the human behaviors that may one day be the bane of our contemporary existence.
Lastly, Slaughterhouse Five should be taught in schools across America because students are never presented with the opportunities to read books with actual meaning in class. The books we read in school are said to have application in the real world when in reality they only speak of nonsense that will most likely not be remembered years down the road. “The curriculum is arranged so the student never reads about drugs, liquor, love, or lIfe. This leaves him with pets and mountains. He can walk into a class on physics or math and expect to learn something real. But in English and social studies he encounters a never-never land in which the books have little relationship to life at the corner or life behind the barn” (Veix). Schools claim to prepare us for life, but the books they have us read do not reflect that. Ergo, Slaughterhouse Five should be taught because it allows students to see the dark side of life they will be forced to face rather than the wonderlands they were raised on. Vonnegut addresses war and alcohol throughout the entirety of the novel, and kids need to know about harsh topics such as these before entering the real world. The books already implemented in the curriculum only skip the surface of these topics, resulting in kids lacking depth of knowledge in areas that may at one point be crucial to their wellbeing.
Slaughterhouse Five is a great novel that illustrates the issues of the contemporary world. Kids everywhere are entering the real world without essential knowledge that could easily be taught in a book as such. It should be taught in schools across America so students will be more familiar with the devastating effects of war, so they know about the direction that the world is headed in, and so they can read a book that has actual meaning. Perhaps if this novel was taught with more rigor, students would not struggle with adversity as much as those in the past, and perhaps war may come to a halt.
The Tralfamadorian Philosophy in Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut
During the Second World War, Americans were sent into Germany to fight off Nazism, and when they came back home, it was hard for them to transition back to normal life. Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five was one of those soldiers, and in his book he creates a character named Billy who was so affected by war that he claims that he was kidnapped by an alien race who call themselves the Tralfamadorians. Billy is affected by the Tralfamadorian views and to some extent loses his mind by rejecting free will, fantasizing death, escaping war, and dreaming of seeing all points in time at once like the Tralfamadorians.
When Billy is first kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, he feels as if he is trapped in his current situation. Billy is confused as to why he is the one that was captured instead of anyone else, and the Tralfamadorians respond with ‘there is no why’. The aliens tell Billy while he is captured that ‘only on Earth is there any talk of free will’ and it is silly to think that it exists. On their planet, the beings teach Billy that from the beginning to the end of his life, he will be trapped in every moment of his life. They go on to describe the feeling of being caught in a moment like being a bug trapped in amber. The moments will never stop or cease to exist unless a person dies.
After the Tralfamadorians explained this to Billy, he begins to realize that free will doesn’t exist just as they said. He understands that moments always exist, and humans are stuck in the current one. Life goes on without being able to stop it, and eventually, Billy becomes calm knowing this fact and doesn’t fight the way his life is moving or has moved. He claims to know when he will die and that he will be assassinated, but he doesn’t seem to care because that’s what he learned on Tralfamadore when he was there. To remind himself that everything that happens, happens for a reason Billy often repeats the phrase, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change’. Another character, Montana Wildhack, has this displayed on a necklace she wears, so when Billy sees her, he is reminded of this phrase and the meaning he makes of it.
While Billy is a prisoner of war and aboard the Tralfamadorian spaceship, he thinks about free will in war and if humans did have free will, then conflict should not prevail. He thinks about all that the Tralfamadorians have taught him, and now he doesn’t agree with war or any other type of large scale conflict. After witnessing the firebombing in Dresden, he believes that there must be a way to prevent actions such as this. War is inhumane, and no human should willingly want to be used as a puppet for the act of war. In Slaughterhouse-Five, most of the characters are affected by the lack of free will and those that are not affected are often to be sadistic humans. Roland Weary, for example, believes that he is a tough fighter known for his torture techniques and ways of killing people. In reality, he was ditched by soldiers better than him, and he was forced to wander around a forest with Billy, so Weary often makes fun of him.
Weary eventually dies during the war and Billy just accepts it. Billy, again is used to Tralfamadorian way of thinking instead of sorrow and mourning for death on Earth. When a Tralfamadorian dies on their planet, they are still alive in all of their previous moments, so the Tralfamadorians don’t think about death as a noteworthy occasion. In addition to this Billy can also go forward and backward to various points in time like the Tralfamadorians can, and he knows how he will die and he’s not at all concerned. The Tralfamadorians changed his ideals to make him believe that death isn’t anything to be sad about, according to the Tralfamadorians. In fact, anytime someone dies, the Tralfamadorians just respond with ‘so it goes”. Billy’s speaks his ideals so that they are clear to readers when he says: “The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore 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 and always will exist… It is an illusion we have on Earth that one moment followed another one like beads on a string, and once that moment is gone, it’s gone forever.” Even though moments pass by quickly, the aliens often advise Billy to focus on the more joyous parts of life and not to dwell on the more serious or sad moments. They go on saying look at only the more beautiful things of life, because life is mostly wondrous.
Though life may be beautiful and wondrous, there is still conflict and chaos that ensues. While on Tralfamadore, Billy relates to the aliens concerning wars on Earth, and what an extraordinary danger to all life the humans of his planet must be. The Tralfamadorians view his worries as incompetent because they know how the world ends and it is not because of humans. The Tralfamadorians eternal view is not that humans are preposterous and primitive to take part in war. It is that Billy is so simple-minded to expect such a consistent future, and he overestimates the significance of the human part in the Universe. Specifically, he exaggerates free will and neglects to perceive that war and extreme destruction happen, because that is the way it is supposed to happen.
In explaining all of this to Billy, they make him ‘dead to the world’ and take away his ability to live successfully, but Billy’s Tralfamadorian encounters enable him to deal with all the death he has seen, because death doesn’t mean anything to them. Billy’s Tralfamadorian dreams are an opiate that causes him adapt to injury, much like the morphine he was given subsequent to losing control in the German prisoner of war camp. Billy is continually dragged back to his wartime memories, because they have influenced him significantly, and he is unable to ignore them. The last thing that the Tralfamadorians teach Billy about is time. They tell him that it is not linear and has no limits or boundaries. Time is simply time. There is no escaping it or running away from it. Humans must exist and bear through each moment unlike the Tralfamadorians who can see all moments at once.
While in some ways the Tralfamadorian reasoning may appear to be more rational than humans perspectives of time and the Universe to Billy, they were written to appear almost comical in the fact that their bodies are shaped and colored strangely. What’s more, the Tralfamadorians sound suspiciously like the German guards while Billy was a prisoner of war. Specifically, like a German guard who severely beats an American prisoner and says, ‘Vy You? Vy Anybody?’ The Tralfamadorians also say, ‘Why You? Why Us For That Matter? Why Anything?’ when Billy inquires as to why they have picked him to take with them. There is no why in anything that happens. The Tralfamadorians even know about how the Universe ends but they don’t stop it. As opposed to acting in attempt to change the future, the Tralfamadorians reveal to Billy they just don’t even look at it. They explain to him and tell him that it’s better just to look at the happy times. For Billy, all time is fluid and runs together. Each moment passes quickly, but it doesn’t matter to him, because he can appear in any one of them whenever he wants to. Billy uses this ability to cope with the fact that he witnessed the event in Dresden all those years ago.
Billy in an attempt to see all points in time like the Tralfamadorians, he frequently becomes unstuck in time. He creates the Tralfamadorians and their philosophy to try to prevent losing his mind, but it doesn’t work. Billy cannot forget that he witnessed Dresden, and frequently sees visions of those memories pass through his mind over and over again. By the end of his life, Billy is ready to die because of all of the philosophy he learned on Tralfamadore. He completely gives up on having a single ounce of free will because he is taught that it doesn’t exist while he is there. Death affects him to the point that he doesn’t even recognize that it is there. The conflict around him becomes looked over so that the happier times are the ones that are the most remembered. Moments around him are passing without any chance of stopping and he has the ability to travel through them. The result of Billy being kidnapped and taken to Tralfamadore was that he was less of a functioning human being when he left.
Portrayal Of The Damage Caused By War Through The Protagonist In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, the author uses the protagonist Billy Pilgrims experiences to portray the damage caused by war. Billy Pilgrim, a veteran of WWII, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disorders from his experiences in the war. Due to these mental illnesses, Billy believes he can travel through time and space, ultimately seeing time differently. Through his time travel, he attempts to understand and express the atrocities he experienced in the war. He simply cannot understand the world in which he lives after the war. Through this struggle of Billy, Vonnegut argues that war contains no meaning and causes more harm than good. He uses the phrase “so it goes”, the Tralfamadorian view on time, and the structure of the novel to raise important questions about war and to open people’s eyes to the harm it causes. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut uses the phrase “So it goes” to connect together all the deaths that occur. This repetition create a sense of satire throughout the novel. So it goes functions to make death seem meaningless, that all death simply does not matter and contains no meaning. Billy adopts this believe so much so that he does not care about his own death nor the death of his friends. “Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Trafamadoians say about dead people, which is ‘so it goes’”. Through Billy’s apathy towards death, Vonnegut argues that death does have meaning and that people should care when people die. The satire here represents the view people have on war and how Vonnegut wants that to change. He argues that due to the death and destruction war causes it should carry a heavy weight when leaders make decisions.
This Tralfamadorians believe in a nonlinear timeline which contains many implication towards Vonnegut’s argument. When Billy asks questions about the view of time to the Tralfamadorians, they describes it as “seeing time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains”. This theory of time means one can see so much of it at once. They can move to see the beginning and the end. To further this image, he also uses this analogy; “Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber”. This image refers to bugs who have been crystallized in amber for hundreds of years. The Tralfamadorians argue that in earthling view of time, humans get stuck too much in the single moments and don’t understand that “All moment, past, present, and future always have existed, always will exist”. These differing viewpoints change the way people live their lives. Humans, more so than the Tralfamadorian, value the moment. The Tralfamadorians however can see all of time past, present, and future. They can see what happens in the future, yet choose to do not change anything. This apathy serves to build on the satirical nature of the novel. Vonnegut argues here that carelessness of war means pitfalls and damages. The Tralfamadorians know how the universe gets destroyed, they cause it through an accident occurring during a rocket fuel test. They have knowledge about how the accident will occur yet change nothing. People know that going to war has the probability of killing many people yet still engage in it. Vonnegut purposely creates this similarity to illustrate the problem that keeps occurring. Vonnegut uses the structure of the novel to illustrate the struggles caused to people as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. When Billy time travels, he “has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t always necessarily fun.” The spacisity of his time travel relates directly to veterans having memories and dreams of war. Vonnegut emphasizes these similarities even more so by having half of the novel consists of memories of real time war. This back and forth mirrors someone inability to remove a certain memory from of their head. He also discusses the difficult nature of coping with PTSD. Billy pilgrim uses the idea of time travel to attempt to cope, process, and understand the experiences he encountered in war. He relives certain events in this other planet several times displaying the struggles he encountered. Vonnegut also displays Billy’s inability to process the events of war in his own life through Billy’s interaction with his daughter. She calls to him and he does not respond, “Father? Daddy, Where are you? And so on. Billy didn’t answer her, so she was nearly hysterical…”.
Not only does this search for her father happening in real life but occurs metaphorically as well. Billy cannot help his daughter understand his struggles because he cannot even process it himself. All these scenes further Vonnegut’s point that veterans suffering from PTSD struggle themself and so do their family. He also uses this to argue about the negative aspects of war. He ultimately means the benefits of war do not out weight the negative aspects of it. Vonnegut also uses the structure of the novel to argue about the meaninglessness of war. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut seems to haphazardly switch between Billy’s time travel and the war. Through the different shifts, little logic seems involved in their organization. This represents the illogical nature of war. It does not make sense to participate in war when it causes all this hurt to its victims. Vonnegut seems to give insight into this structure when the Tralfamadorians tell Billy about how they write their books; “there isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep”. He uses this crazy, mixed up story to show his audience the complexities of war. These two different ways he uses the structure of the novel to argue against war are directly relates to his experiences in war. Vonnegut himself suffered through WWII as a veteran. He expresses his struggles and hardships with coping through the charter of Billy. Vonnegut agrees through this that hope can be seen and something “beautiful, surprising and deep” through all of this depressing aspects of war. Billy has a quote in his office that offers more insight into the whole argument of the novel; “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”. Billy’s inability to do these things builds an ironic aspect to the story. He cannot change his past and must come to terms with that.
In order to move on, he needs to understand this. Billy serves as testament that when one cannot understand this concept, he will have a difficult and painful life. Vonnegut argues that there certain aspects of people’s lives cannot change and that the key to living in peace and happiness people must be able to understand those things. All in all Vonnegut uses Billy as an example of how now to deal with stress and trauma in one’s past. Vonnegut has experiences similar to Billy’s so this novel serves as a way for him to process these events at all. In a similar fashion as Billy using his fake reality, Vonnegut uses this fictional novel to process his all too real life. This personal insight builds to the meaning of the novel. People process their past in different ways. Some people cannot succeed, like Billy. The final section of the novel show Billy at the end of the war. He had been burning and burying bodies. The novel end with a bird saying “Poo-tee-weet?”. This phrase repeats several times throughout the novel. It continues to signify the illogical nature of war. Nothing else can be said except for some nonsensical phrase by a bird. This has more significant because the newly freed prisoners do not celebrate. They simply stand there, unable to process that the war has finished. Vonnegut includes a question mark as if one could understand the question. This questions functions to show that war has no simple answers. This represents Vonnegut’s beliefs about war. There is nothing logical about it, it hurts all involved, and needs to end, but how? Vonnegut does discuss the inevitability of wars; “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers”. Vonnegut does not know the answer because there may not be one. This novel expresses the dangers so that changes may happen eventually in the future.
The novel Slaughterhouse Five raises important questions about the necessity of war based on the harm it causes to the people involved. Vonnegut, thought the story of BIlly Pilgrim, show the struggles of living through post- war life as a person who has been a part of it. Billy creates an alternate reality in his head which represents this struggle. Vonnegut also builds his argument through the structure he employs throughout the novel. He uses a confusing seemingly random arrangement to represent the meaninglessness of war. Finally, he uses a nonsensical question of a bird to show that he cannot think of an answer to this complex issue. Through this book, Vonnegut hopes to show the way not to struggle through a traumatic past. He uses Billy’s story to display this.
The Meaning of the Structure in Vonnegut’s Novel
One of the most distinguishing aspects of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is the structure in which it is written. Throughout the novel, Billy Pilgrim travels uncontrollably to non-sequential moments of his life, or as Vonnegut says, “paying random visits to all events in between.” (23). In order to exemplify this for the reader, Vonnegut uses a non-linear and seemingly sporadic storyline. However, by the end of the novel, Vonnegut’s use of plot fragmentation is clear. By constantly jumping back and forth throughout time, Vonnegut keeps all of the novel’s most significant events fresh in the reader’s mind.
With his immediate and thought provoking introduction, “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”(23), Vonnegut establishes that there is something unique about Billy Pilgrim. By choosing the word “unstuck”, he implies that Billy has just been freed of something. In doing so, Vonnegut also prepares the reader for the non-linear storyline that follows. In fact, the rest of the novel consists of nothing more than random moments of Billy Pilgrim’s life. By portraying Billy in this way, the reader gets an all-encompassing perspective of Billy as a person, instead of having a myopic view that is based on a particular incident of Billy’s life.
This same technique also allows Vonnegut to keep significant parts of Billy’s life fresh in the reader’s mind throughout the novel. For example, Billy’s experience during World War II and the bombing of Dresden are some of the most significant parts of his life. Vonnegut introduces them to the reader very early on in the novel simply by mentioning “Billy first came unstuck while World War II was in progress” (30). Again, Vonnegut’s way of writing has allowed him to redefine what makes sense in Slaughterhouse Five, as opposed to a typical chronological novel. As a result, the reader will be aware of the ongoing war, allowing them to build a mental picture that is constantly being developed with each event Billy encounters.
Furthermore, Vonnegut’s ability to give a first-hand account of an event before it happens chronologically in turn allows readers to be able to reflect on an event as it resurfaces later in the novel. Again, this theme most strongly relates to Billy’s wartime experiences. Vonnegut returns time after time to the violence and destruction that surrounded Billy while he was a prisoner of war. And since these frightful and damaging thoughts rarely leave Billy’s mind, Vonnegut makes it so that they do the same for the reader.
While Billy’s horrific experiences during the war play an active role in his personality and lifestyle, he is manipulated even further by his ability to become “unstuck in time”. Because Billy is constantly jumping through time, he is never given the opportunity to become comfortable in a single moment of his life. As a result, Billy says that he is in “a constant state of stage fright” (Vonnegut 23). This explains Billy’s lack of focus and initiative that is evident throughout the novel. He is forced to improvise his entire life, attempting to portray all of it at once, going fearfully from one moment to another, always without warning. Billy’s life consists of pieces that have no obvious coherency with on and other.
Vonnegut himself sums up the meaning of his approach in describing the Tralfamadorian’s books through the words of Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut writes: “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 we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.” (Vonnegut 88). In this statement, Vonnegut emphasizes once more the importance of viewing many moments as a whole picture. At first glance, the spontaneous events appear to be incompatible with each other, telling many stories, but signifying nothing. However, this is exactly what Vonnegut hoped to achieve; these separate stories force the reader to view them all as one, or not at all.
A Strange Case of Self-assertion in Vonnegut’s Novel
Assuming you got a message anonymously, informing you that you were going to die because of a car accident tomorrow at noon, would you use this message to try avoiding death or would you simply accept and embrace your destiny? Many people, presumably, would be willing to make an effort to keep death away. But Billy Pilgrim’s reaction is acceptance. Slaughterhouse-Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut, presents protagonist Billy Pilgrim as accepting nearly all the events that happened in his life, including his own death. Billy is indifferent and apathetic to his surroundings. He appears to be a fatalist, which sends readers the superficial message that Vonnegut is advocating passive acceptance. In contrast, the actual message is hidden a little more deeply. Instead of actually persuading the reader to truly believe in the idea of fatalism and giving up free will, Vonnegut hoped to incite the reader to resist fatalism and consider profoundly what free will means.
Vonnegut uses the sentence “it is structured that way” to explain why events have happened. When Billy is trapped by Tralfamadorian aliens for the first time, he asks for a reason why he is chosen. Instead of giving an explicit answer, Tralfamadorians respond to him with three questions: “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything?”(97). Three consecutive “whys” evoke a deeper thought: whether people make decisions just because they are doomed to. Tralfamadorians believe that “this moment simply is” (97), indicating that moments always occur without any reason. However, the inability to think of a reason, or the lack of awareness of one, doesn’t mean that the reason does not exist. Humans are manipulated neither by God nor by Fate. It is they who have the power to choose the path to walk on. Paths are created by choices, while choices originate from reasons. The Tralfamadorians met Billy not because time is structured, or that they are fated to encounter him; they met him because Tralfamadorians made a decision to study Earthlings and they chose to come to the Earth. Tralfamadorians, serve as characters advocating fatalism, also made an implicit decision which indicates Vonnegut actually encourages the reader to stand on the side of free will.
Billy Pilgrim, in an ironic twist on free will, learned to accept and embrace his fate after he met Tralfamadorians. They once told Billy that the universe was destroyed by one of their pilots when “experimenting with new fuels” (149). Facing his question that why not prevent it, Tralfamadorians explained to him that the pilot “has always pressed it, and he always will” (149) and that they “always let him and they always will let him” (149). Tralfamadorians convince Billy that these and indeed any occurrences cannot be altered by any creature. Even though they know how the universe is going to be destroyed, they are not willing to make changes due to their belief in fatalism. Conversely, what if the universe is eventually destroyed just because they take no action to rescue it? It is their belief in fatalism that causes the end of the universe, yet they use the excuse “the time is structured” and fatalism to explain and cover up their fault.
Billy stayed on Tralfamadore for several days, and when away from it he yearned for the “peaceful life” on the planet. What he didn’t know is that they “have wars as horrible as any he’s ever seen or read about on other days” (150). They live tranquilly by “ignoring bad moments” and “spending eternity looking at pleasant moments” since they firmly believe that “there isn’t anything they can do about them” (150). Tralfamadorians deemed it true that occurrence could not be altered, so they used the method of avoiding instead of making an effort to change or make up for bad moments. Indeed, avoiding bad moments could bring much happiness. But all moments are fixed moments. Even though there may be no chance to start over and stop it from happening, it is useless to avoid and simply give up the chance of remedy. Tralfamadorians would not like to make up for those horrible moments or wars because of fatalism. In fact, “fatalism” is their methods of avoiding confronting bad moments and terrible experiences.
Even though the book is full of moments spreading fatalism superficially, there’s no lack of scenes supporting free will, but Vonnegut depicts them in a subtle way. When the commander comes to persuade American soldiers to fight Russians with him, almost no one stands up to speak against him. Vonnegut explains “one of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters” (208). He suggests that soldiers have been tortured by war so long that their only reaction to a new war is acceptance. They have already given up their free will. However, when Edgar Derby chooses to speak up and resist new war, Vonnegut describes him, saying he “was a character now” (208). He addresses the idea that free will offers the ability to possess one’s own characteristics and to be a true character.Billy holds a belief in fatalism, but he is not a fanatic of it. There are also several moments Vonnegut depicts showing free will inside Billy’s heart. Vonnegut implies to the reader that Billy doesn’t like to talk about Tralfamadorians and always keeps it as a secret in his heart. Even when people ask him about it, he denies that he has secrets inside him. However, “Billy went to New York City, and got on an all-night radio program devoted to talk. He told about having come unstuck in time. He said, too, that he had been kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967” (32). After being through all these experiences, Billy becomes active and makes a decision by himself: speak about Tralfamadorians in front of the public. He doesn’t hide secrets and he isn’t passive any more. He chooses to be himself instead of being a victim of fate.
At the moment Billy decides to unveil his secret and speak about time-travel in public, he is on the side of free will, and so is Vonnegut.Vonnegut always leaves a small space for rumination and refutation when depicting every moment that advocated fatalism. He hopes readers will consider more deeply instead of just looking at the surface. By expressing the message of free will indirectly, he helps us to understand and comprehend those who believe in fatalism, and then build up our own idea. Hence, Vonnegut is making a strong case for the significance of free will.
The Countercultural Discourse of Vonnegut’s Novel
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five is, at first glance, nothing more than a science fiction tale of one man’s travels to another planet and his ability to view his life out of chronological order because of his power to time travel. There are too many similarities to historical facts, human philosophies, and Vonnegut’s own life for readers to believe that this novel about another world was created solely for entertainment, though. In looking at the deeper meaning behind this piece, we see that the physical setting is always Earth, and that the travels that Billy Pilgrim takes are simply hallucinations, created either from chemicals or Pilrgim’s head injuries. By understanding Vonnegut’s experiences with war and placing the publication of the novel during the late 1960’s, readers are able to see that the author is condemning not only the Vietnam War, but also the counterculture movement that ignored the problems of the war.
Vonnegut’s condemnation of war comes quickly in this piece, as the book begins with the author’s narration about the creation of the piece. In attempting to create a novel about his personal experiences in World War II, Vonnegut visits one of the men that was with him in Dresden, Bernard O’Hare. During their conversation, O’Hare’s wife, Mary, becomes upset because she believes that Vonnegut will glorify the thrill of victory over the enemy, furthering the romantic fascination the man has with war. She argues that they “were just babies then,” robbed of their innocence and forced to witness unnecessary violence that either haunted them or had been repressed so much that they forgot a great deal about the experience. The writer agrees with her view and pledges that the book will not celebrate the war.
Chapter Two begins the saga of Billy Pilgrim. Quickly, we are informed of the parallels between Vonnegut and Pilgrim, such as their identical ages and their imprisonment in Dresden. Pilgrim, though, has a special gift, given to him by the Tralfamadorians, which is the ability to travel throughout time. Here, the Tralfamadorians are supposed to represent a society following the ideals of the counterculture, who were given extrasensory powers by the drugs that they ingested. It is possible to hypothesize that Billy’s first encounter with the Tralfamadorians was a result of the half-full bottle of champagne that he drank at his daughter’s wedding. Whether or not the drink was spiked with a psychoactive substance is debatable, but Vonnegut does support this conclusion by incorporating the “Drink Me” phrase (73), reminiscent of a scene in from the movie Alice in Wonderland, created in 1951. Remember that during the late 1960’s, the story was used by the counterculture to illustrate the hypocrisy they felt that parents had, for parents taught the story which was laced with numerous drug references, yet taught children that drugs were bad (ex. “White Rabbit” by the Jefferson Airplane).
Pilgrim’s trip to Tralfamadore resembles a visit to a counterculture haven such as the Haight-Ashbury district. Just as Billy and Montana are put in a zoo, tours of San Francisco in the late 1960’s included the famous hippie haven, where tourists witnessed a culture that was entirely foreign to them. The Tralfamadorian guide that talks to Billy upon his arrival reminds readers of a leader like Ken Kesey, especially since he is referred to as a guide. This is the same term that is used when Kesey refuses to be the guide for Sandy’s unauthorized trip in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (EKAAT, 97) In addition to the similarity in wording, the Tralfamadorian philosophies also resemble those of the counterculture. Echoing Kesey’s sentiments at Berkeley, the guide tells Billy to close his eyes to the bad. He tells him that there is no such thing as free will, for one’s life is planned, thus there is no reason to try to stop it. Instead, one must go with the flow, experiencing whatever time period he is taken to as it occurs. Both good and bad experiences may be recalled, but the Tralfamadorian informs Billy that the trick is to “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.” (117)
Since the book is semi-autobiographical, one wonders whether Vonnegut experimented with any psychoactive substances and hallucinated this alternate reality. Regardless, the novel shows even if he did, both he and Billy do not agree with the Tralfamadorian’s helpless views. One of the first indicators is that Billy is taken against his will and placed in a cage. He is not given the option of returning to Earth and is only released after his captors grow bored of him. Another example of Billy’s refusal to accept Tralfamadorian beliefs is the long quotation found on the wall of his office (60), taken from the inscription on Montana’s locket, which serves both as a reminder of her and as Billy’s belief that some parts of the future can be changed if one has the courage to do so.
The creation of the world is done solely as a condemnation of counterculture values, as it emphasizes the hopelessness of their views. By repeatedly using the phrase “So it goes” following any bad situation, Vonnegut mocks those who simply accept or ignore the bad experiences that life brings us. His use of the phrase so frequently annoys the reader, especially in a situation such as the inevitable destruction of Tralfamadore.(117) In addition, the destruction of the planet emphasizes that society can not survive if it is unwilling to change.
In following typical structure for science fiction pieces, Vonnegut makes the aliens the misguided race and uses them to illustrate the views that he disputes. In a technique that I have seen used in other science fiction pieces, such as film Planet of the Apes, the aliens are really our current civilization if societal trends continue. His preoccupation with the Children’s Crusade, an event that occurred 750 years earlier, shows that society has not taken the courage to change its violent ways. The author sees the counterculture philosophy of shirking responsibility and going with the flow to be even more detrimental, since society is already showing its inability to change based upon history. In addition, by showing that the world was ended by experimentation with new fuels, much as the United States and Russia had been experimenting with atomic weapons at the same time as the book’s publication, Vonnegut expresses his urgency for societal change. In this respect, since the Tralfamadorians represent a human civilization enveloped in counterculture ideals, the novel is Vonnegut’s plea to society to take notice of what is happening and change it by ending war before mankind destroys itself.