There are certain values in this world which remain unquestioned, especially the boundlessness of time and the concept of eternity. Unquestioned, they provide a certain stability to the pattern of human life. Time is chronological. One day comes after the day before it, and so on for eternity. Year comes after year and event comes after event for humans, but what would it be like if it was not like that? What if a human could be taught to perceive time differently?
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut gives us a taste of what it would be like to live life 'unstuck in time.' He takes his readers through just one mere section of the infinite life of Billy Pilgrim, a feeble optometrist that lives his life over and over, between his birth in 1922 and his death in 1976. In the mere fifty-four years of Billy's life, however, Vonnegut manages to trek throughout several walks of life and adopt a new way to understand time. Although humans have been conditioned to see their lives in only one moment at a time, unlike Billy Pilgrim, they fail to realize that life is not a chronological light-switch that can be turned only off with time. Billy is taught that each person's past, present, and future will eternally be a part of the world. Even if a person is dead in a present or future moment, they are forever alive in past ones. Continuing in this line of thinking, why should grief exist? Why should youth be treasured? Billy Pilgrim becomes just one of Vonnegut's devices for projecting this brand-new ideology to the world, and he serves as both an allusion and a warning. Vonnegut teaches his audience a lesson through a modified version of his lifea lesson his life has taught him well.
Kurt Vonnegut was born into wealth in 1922, but wasn't born early enough to enjoy it. He wasn't even seven years old when his family suffered a major financial setback in the Depression of 1929, and his family was forced to sell their luxurious home and to live in significantly reduced circumstances (Bloom 9). Things seemed to improve for Vonnegut when he enrolled in Cornell University after high school graduation in 1940, but tunneled downwards yet again when he was asked to leave three years later for poor academic performance. His life took another turn when he enlisted in the army in 1943in the midst of the Second World Warand he was sent overseas within months.
Vonnegut was taken prisoner by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, in an event that would change his life forever. He was taken to Dresden along with the other prisoners and put to work in a once-abandoned slaughterhouse meat locker, then turned into a factory that manufactured vitamin syrup for pregnant women. Despite being a prisoner, however, Vonnegut was not unhappy there. Dresden was known as the Florence of the east for its beautiful architecture, and was declared an "open city" for its lack of military installments, but it didn't last long.
Vonnegut, kept safe in the shelter of the slaughterhouse, survived the British and American bombing of the city that killed more than 135,000 of its inhabitants and completely destroying the once-stunning city (Bloom 10). He returned from war a different man short after, and married a childhood friend before finding a job as a public relations officer at General Electric. His new job combined with the sudden wind-down from wartime brought upon mixed feelings for Vonnegut. His job pushed him to justify to the public the work of a large scientific corporation, much of which he realized was morally incorrect himself.
It was at this time that he saw the conflict of presenting a clean image as an official rationalization for a disastera paradox he'd experienced with the government and the disasters of Hiroshima and Dresden. He left the company to start writing novels, thus beginning another low of his life which he called his "scrawny years" (Bly 3). It wasn't until nearly twenty years later that the up-and-down cycle of his life culminated into one masterpiece.
Chapter 2An Author and Reader's Conflict
At the time of its release, Slaughterhouse-Five was a controversial book. It was ignored by early critics until its first credible reviews were favorable, and it suddenly attracted much more attention, but no critic saw the book the same way as another. Some critics praised his use of ruthless humor, some saw it as unpatriotic. Some adored his novel sense of structure, some were disgusted by his messy discontinuous ramblings. Some were enticed by his strong personal connections, and some detested his seeming-apathy and humorous stance on sensitive matters (Bly 6). Still, all recognized the absolute novelty of every aspect of Vonnegut's new work.
His first books, however, were miserable failures. They were rewarded with slight praise among America's youth, which became an alert to Vonnegut to steer his work in a new direction. Slaughterhouse-Five's intentional deviation from the normal definition of science-fiction was able to earn him immense popularity within his current audience, and it spread. After a short period of dismissal, Slaughterhouse Five's criticism became overwhelmingly positive except in certain areas. Vonnegut brings up many serious points involving the Dresden incident, previously unknown to the public. Despite the 135,000 death counteven more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combinedthe Dresden bombing was widely kept from the American public. It had no strategic importance to America, coming at a time when they were inches away from winning the war, and Dresden was a location devoid of any military bases. In fact, amidst a country filled with several military hotspots, the choice of Dresdenan entirely peaceful city full of culturewas a horror in itself. Vonnegut brings the incident's previously-untold horrors to light for a new generation and criticizes them with a satiric tone. Critics, especially those from the World War II generation, were shocked not only by the figures and descriptions Vonnegut presents, but by his apathetic attitude towards it. For Alfred Kazin, "Vonnegut deprecates any attempt to see tragedy that day in Dresden," (Bloom 57). Despite this, nearly all critics agree that the success Vonnegut enjoyed due to Slaughterhouse-Five is in part due to the fact that he was able to directly address the pivotal event of his own life with such vivid detail. His experience within his own story brings to life the past events for his audience.
Another part of the success of Slaughterhouse-Five may have been due to its timely release. The popularity of LSD and other consciousness-affecting drugs at the time brought favor to a structure that would never have been accepted merely decades ago. The idea of sequence and integrity of individual events was beginning to break down at the perfect time for Vonnegut's masterpiece to be released. However, to other readers, Slaughterhouse-Five was a mess. Its jumbled 'organization' was not at all classically accepted, nor did his apathetic tones lend to the classic war tale of triumph or the science-fiction-esque sense of mystery. The strong take on anti-war sentiment resonated with the youth of America, especially through Billy Pilgrim, an unlikely medium. It was published during the height of the Vietnam War, and the Tralfamadorians' take on life became a comfort to the protesters. Still, Slaughterhouse-Five suffered through many instances of censorship, both for recounting the horrors of Dresden and several other factors, including use of profanity by American soldiers, irreverent tones, and other instances of obscene content. For Vonnegut, a primary critic of censorship, both from his experiences with the 'censorship' of Dresden and his job as a public relations officer, pushed him to further his belief in freedom of speech (Gale online).
As time progressed, however, and the older generation stepped aside to make room for the loud voice of the counterculture-involved youth, more constant praise found its way to Slaughterhouse-Five. only served to prove that Slaughterhouse-Five (along with Vonnegut's other works) is an acquired taste in the context of the world.
The Standing of a Character and his Author
On the surface, critics dismissed Slaughterhouse-Five as a brutal example of anti-war propaganda with science-fiction overtones, but once the public inspected further, the novel exponentially deepened and gained both praise and even more dismissal.
The biggest leap between Vonnegut's previous works and Slaughterhouse-Five begins with his revelation of self through Billy Pilgrim. The first couple chapters focus on the events that Billy Pilgrim will become involved with later from Vonnegut's perspective, and the first-person overtones don't stop there. He resurfaces randomly throughout the remainder of the novel to interject specific points, and according to James Lundquist, this is because "the novel functions to reveal new view points in somewhat the way that the theory of relativity broke through space and time," (Bloom 44). Each chapter is framed by Vonnegut's voice, forming and intimate connection within the book and anchoring Billy's life to a larger reality and highlighting his struggle to fit into the human world (Gale online).
For his role, Billy is an unlikely character. Unlike the typical war hero, broad-shouldered and strong, Billy is thin and lanky. Billy isn't courageous in the face of danger at all, but in fact, weak in both body and mind. He responds weakly to opposition and expresses wishes that people would stop saving him and let him die. He finds himself being pushed around by those that surround him, culminating with his placement in a Tralfamadorian zoo, where he loses all of his apparent personality. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy to see life not as a linear progression of events, but as an infinite collection of experiences that will never stop existing, and he thus learns to abandon grief. He discards his fear of death and aversion to pain, realizing that if someone is dead in one particular moment, they are certainly alive and happy in others. "So it goes," is the constantly repeated (one-hundred and sixteen times, in fact) phrase marking Billy's personality shift after adopting the Tralfamadorian philosophy, illustrating, if nothing else, the benefits of Billy's accepting lifestyle as opposed to the rampantly strong beliefs of the common hero.
The other characters created by Vonnegut to surround Billy, however, are two-dimensional representations of the constant societal weakness of America. They all surround Billy to test both his resistance and his values, including that of Roland Weary and glorification of war, Edgar Derby and blind patriotism, Billy's wife Valencia and overwhelming materialism, and Montana Wildhack and overt sexuality. Most of the traits illustrated are those that define everything that Vonnegut is not, as a reclusive criticizer of war, but through Billy, stand to prove what they turn a man into.
Billy, despite his multitude of weaknesses, has one trait that is completely unique to him; a perfect knowledge of true sight. Billy's experiences with the Tralfamadorians has equipped him with the tools to correct the vision of a world that can only see time linearly, and the irony of his position as an optometrist only adds to the beauty of the skill. His personal vision is perfect indeed; he knows exactly what is to come and what has already happened in his life because, in the philosophy of the Tralfamadorians, everything has already happened and will continue to happen for eternity.
Another view on the same issue, however, is that Billy lacks sight completely, as it is never stated whether or not Billy's journey back and forth in time is a delusion or an actual occurrence. Billy's traumatic wartime experiences certainly merit the possibility of insanity, as his daughter, Barbara, seems to conclude to. In the big picture, however, it doesn't really matter. For Vonnegut, Billy is a vessela listless plaything for overbearing forces to tamper with. Billy is just a device for conveying one of Vonnegut's main visionsa way of life foreign to the typical human.
The peculiar organization style of Slaughterhouse-Five lends itself to the solution of another long-considered problem of its author; how to convey a reality that is beyond human imagination (Bloom 45). Vonnegut's exact solution is to write his novel in the format of a set of his characters, the Tralfamadorians. Their books consist of non-sequential clumps of information meant to be taken in simultaneously and give the reader a beautiful context of an entire life at once through carefully chosen images. This means that there is no beginning, middle, or end, and humans, of course, cannot perceive images like this. Still, Vonnegut does all he can to fit his inevitable war-odyssey into the Tralfamadorian template in the paradoxical hope that it will become something deep and beautiful, even though it began as memories of a massacre.
So It Goes
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut reveals his unique view of the world through Billy Pilgrim and a 'structure' marked by distortion and chaotically organized vedettes. Both his main character and his signature hectic quality in writing are distinct indications of his life up to that point. Just as Billy's life is marked by swinging back and forth through time, Vonnegut's life was characterized by a different kind of oscillation. He lived through wealth and poverty, peace and war, and failure and success, embracing each time as an inevitable piece of his life. Billy is thrown into several of the same situations as Vonnegut, including college life as a science-related major and Dresden at the end of World War II, but unlike Vonnegut, Billy's abduction by the Tralfamadorians leads him to a life full of foreign beliefs and alien viewpoints.
One of the leading viewpoints from his life that Vonnegut strives to present through Slaughterhouse-Five is the human illusion of free will. According to the Tralfamadorians, there is only talk of free will on Earth because humans, they claim, mistakenly think of time as a linear progression. Even within the context of the book itself, Vonnegut notes that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book (4). This concept is difficult for Billy to understand, at first, but things become clear after his first encounter with the Tralfamadorians. "Why me?" Billy asks when first confronted by his abductors, which is answered with, "That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us, for that matter? Because this moment simply is." (Vonnegut 76-77). Vonnegut's own experience with critics create a direct tie between the real world and Tralfamadore, in which hean already-strong proponent of free-speechironically suffered several instances of censorship. Later on the same page, the Tralfamadorians even go as far as to claim "There is no why." (Vonnegut 77).
Slaughterhouse-Five is less of a novel and more of a lengthy, conceptual essay. Vonnegut attempts to illustrate a innovativebut still plausibleversion of time. He shows us that even though life is chaotic and takes several turns for the worse, there is likely to be at least one pleasant moment on which we should focus. Through his own chaos, Vonnegut has crafted a deep and evocative theory that he hopes, should it be applied, will cause mankind to revise itself for the better.
- Bloom, Harold. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Chelsea House , 2007. Print. Bloom's Guides.
- Bloom, Harold. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Print. Interpretations.
- Bly, William. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Woodbury: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1985. Print. Barron's Educational Series.
- "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." American Decades. Gale Research, 1998.
- Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010.
- Rios, Alberto "Slaughterhouse Five." Slaughterhouse Five. 4 Jan. 2010.
- Reproduced in EzineArticles.com. 23 Feb. 2010.
- Smith, Dennis Stanton. Cliff's Notes on Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Hungry Minds, 1997. Print. Cliff's Notes.
- Stanley Schatt, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." Twayne's United States Authors Series Online. New York. 1999. G. K. Hall & Co. 23 Feb. 2010