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.
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