The Truth of Death in Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut
In war, there is always one constant. Death is inevitable in war. Death can be a traumatic experience especially if someone has witnessed so much of it. In the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut creatively portrays how war traumatizes and desensitizes people. Two motifs that repeatedly appear throughout the book are the phrases “so it goes” and “blue and ivory.” Vonnegut uses motifs in order to show how the war alters people’s view of death. The phrase “so it goes” is the most commonly used phrase in Vonnegut’s novel. The phrase appears every time there is mention of death. The phrase “blue and ivory” is used many times when Vonnegut is writing about a corpse or Billy’s bare feet. One instance where the phrase “so it goes” and “blue and ivory” can be found is when Billy comes across a dead hobo that he had met while he was stuck in a train car as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut describes the hobo by saying, “Somebody had taken his boots. His bare feet were blue and ivory. It was alright somehow, his being dead. So it goes”. The phrase “so it goes” is used in this quotation exactly the same way it is used all the other times it appears in the novel. Vonnegut uses the phrase in a sort of casual, nonchalant way. “So it goes” is used as a phrase that means that something doesn’t matter, or that is just how it is and there is no changing the situation. Vonnegut incorporates this casual phrase to demonstrate to the readers that war gives people this mentality. This mentality is shown in Billy when he says “It was alright somehow, his being dead. So it goes”.
In war, death is so common that it becomes casual and predictable. The war desensitizes people to see needless killing as a normal occurrence. The phrase “blue and ivory” is describing the feet of the hobo. When people think about a corpse the image is usually a person with pale bluish skin. Vonnegut uses this motif as imagery to give the reader dark images of death. But Vonnegut also uses the phrase when describing Billy’s feet, who is very much alive. On the wedding night of Billy’s daughter, Billy gets out of bed because he cannot sleep. When Billy gets up, he looks down at his feet, “they were ivory and blue”. Vonnegut uses this phrase to describe the living and the dead because he is trying to make a point that in war there is no difference between the living and the dead. War causes people to believe that life and death are equally the same. Vonnegut is trying not to distinguish between the living and the dead because it is all the same thing in war. Vonnegut uses the motif “poo-tee-weet?” to show how war is so traumatizing and horrific that it cannot be put into words. The phrase “poo-tee-weet?” a few times throughout the book. In the first chapter, Vonnegut tells the readers that he was unable to write about his experiences in Dresden clearly. He writes about the Dresden massacre saying, “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, … because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘poo-tee-weet?’”.
Something like the Dresden massacre cannot be put into words because it is so traumatizing. Vonnegut says that the massacre is “Short and jumbled and jangled,” similar to the novel’s sporadic time travel, wacky characters, and the Tralfamadorians. The phrase “poo-tee-weet?” clearly shows the confusion and shock that people feel after a massacre. Even the birds don’t understand. The birds are asking a question rather than making a statement because they also do not understand the massacre.
Vonnegut creates the Tralfamadorians and their interesting perspective of humanity to show how Billy copes with his trauma from the war. During random times throughout the book, Billy randomly gets zapped through time and occasionally ends up on Tralfamadore. While Billy is living in the Tralfamadorians’ zoo he learns that “when a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. From that point on, whenever Billy sees a dead person he just shrugs and moves on. The Tralfamadorians are just a figment of Billy’s imagination, and he is using what he “thinks” the Tralfamadorians said to comfort and help him cope with all of the death he has seen in the war. Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorians to show how war can desensitize people into believing that life and death are the same, or that someone’s death doesn’t matter. The war traumatizes people so that they have to see death in a way that does not disturb them. Vonnegut begins the last chapter of his novel mentioning the people he knows who have died recently. He says, “Robert Kennedy … was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes. Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died too. So it goes. My father died many years ago now … So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut too. He left me his guns. They rust”.
Vonnegut implies throughout this novel using repetitive phrases, and in this quotation, that he is repulsed by violence and war; and that it is only destructive and dehumanizing. War makes people lose value in life and consider death casual.
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