Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut is a world-renowned author with a history of very influential books. Vonnegut has one of the most unique writing styles of any author ever. In many of his works, including Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut uses autobiographical elements. Parts of the stories connect to a moment in Vonnegut’s life. Vonnegut also uses very creative themes to explain what is going through his character’s minds or to explain a person or events. Slaughterhouse Five is an interesting, yet upsetting novel that uses a character named Billy Pilgrim to explain Vonnegut’s fears and struggles when he was in war.
Kurt Vonnegut, who is still living today, was born on November 11, 1922. His parents were Kurt Vonnegut Sr. and Edith Vonnegut who were very important to Vonnegut in his life. He has one brother, Bernard, and one sister, Alice. Vonnegut attended some very helpful colleges, namely Cornell University, Carnegie-Mellon University, and the University of Chicago. Vonnegut became a prisoner of war on December 22, 1944 after the Battle of the Bulge and survived, but helped his ideas on writing. His most popular writings include Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, Welcome to the Monkey House, and Cat’s Cradle. After realizing the shrinking of the Short Story market, he began concentrating entirely on novels.
The novel Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, details the events in the life of one Billy Pilgrim, as told from the view of an unidentified man close to Billy when he was in the army. In fact, there is never any indication that the subject, Billy Pilgrim, ever met the narrator. This doesn’t subtract from the story, however.
When we first meet Billy, he is in the midst of time travel, which he has been taught the secret of. It is revealed that Mr. Pilgrim grew up the son of a barber, and was scrawny and funny looking as a child and young adult. He grew up to become an optometrist, optometry being a profession that made him a great fortune. It is soon explained how Billy learned the secret of time travel. On the day of his daughter’s wedding, aliens from the planet Tralfamadore abducted Billy. These creatures explained to him that time as an Earthling concept didn’t exist. He was told that time was just a lot of moments in no particular order, that moments weren’t a string of beads with a particular order, but that they could go out of order and be repeated by someone who knew the secret. They said that if he wanted to, he could go back and look in on, and act out, different moments of his life. So he does, willingly and unwillingly throughout the book.
Many events are detailed, naturally in no specific order, in the life of Billy Pilgrim. We see the parties he hosts for optometrists and their wives. We see the plane crash he was in, being only one of the two survivors of an accident that cost several men their lives. More purposefully, we are shown the time Billy Pilgrim spent in World War II. In this period, not all detailed at once; we see Billy’s adventures with a man who decides that his own death was a result of Billy’s actions. Once captured, this man commissions a friend in his prison to kill Billy. Billy sees the part of his life where this is carried out. Or, more accurately, he sees his death. But on his basis of time, Billy just travels back to other moments in his life where he was not dead. After that, the reader is shown how Billy and his fellow American troops were held in captivity in Germany in a prison the book is named after, Slaughterhouse Five. In these scenes, details of hardship under captivity during war are brought about.
Most of the book is based on Vonnegut’s life. It uses many autobiographical elements. Kurt Vonnegut was visibly shaken as he revisited the eastern German City, through Billy, where he witnessed allied air raids as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. Most of the story is what Vonnegut actually witnessed and went through. Everything that went on in Billy’s mind in Slaughterhouse Five went through Vonnegut’s. “Billy needs to travel back and forth in time not only to understand himself but also to endure himself, to become his history. He is many personalities, many selves existing together at once. He is a living Tralfamadorian clump’ (Lindquist 80). Vonnegut was much the same way in which he tried to understand himself at times. Billy has the same feelings but uses very wisely through the use of the Tralfamadorians. Vonnegut expresses Billy’s emotions so well that it seems like Billy is a very confused individual, when in reality Billy is confused, scared and delusional because he doesn’t know what is going to happen and he needs to find a way out. “Slaughterhouse Five is a novel that works toward the resolution of Vonnegut’s own obsessions at the same time it works toward the resolution of several nervous questions concerning the viability of the genre itself” (Lundquist 84). Vonnegut must have been very depressed and confused when the obsessions and questions of Billy are much the same as his own. Vonnegut never really understood a lot of things about the war and through Billy some of his questions were being answered. “Vonnegut prefaces Slaughterhouse Five with an account of his own pilgrimages through time as he tried to write about his Dresden experience” (Lundquist 77). There is no doubt that most of the pilgrimages that Vonnegut went through, he explained through Billy. The autobiogaphical elements of the book make it very interesting and helps a person understand war and what can actually happen inside of somebody’s mind.
Through the mind of Billy Pilgrim in the autobiographical elements, Vonnegut creates a very unique and distinct writing style. “Vonnegut’s reluctance to depict well developed characters and to supply them with conventional motives for their actions serves as a conscious burlesque of the whole concept of realism in the novel” (Lundquist 74). Kurt Vonnegut does not describe Billy in detail in the book. He uses other techniques to show Billy as a person and lets the reader envision him on his own. He uses this technique many times in various books. This is a very big part of his writing style. Vonnegut knows that the reader wants to know a lot of information about the character and he gives the reader what he/she wants but in a different way. By seeing what goes on in Billy’s head and by what his fears and strengths are, you are getting a lot of interesting information on Billy. “The process of re-invention is made vivid by Vonnegut’s style with its hesitant short sentences and his tendency to return again and again to the same images” (Lundquist 82). This is another form of Vonnegut’s writing style. He uses very short sentences but still manages to maintain what is going on in the story in a creative way. He is also very repetitive by getting his point across in using the line “so it goes” after someone dies. Vonnegut knows that he has the reader’s full attention by writing short sentences to show him that things go on very fast paced outside and inside the mind of Billy.
Vonnegut’s writing style uses many techniques, such as a very interesting one known as symbolism. Vonnegut writes, “all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve” (Vonnegut 101). The reference to Adam and Eve goes back to the vision Billy saw earlier in the book, in the German corporal’s boot years before. This also occurs when Billy hears the barking of the dog outside his house, as it reflects the barking Billy heard just before the corporal captured him. “And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead (Vonnegut 98). Vonnegut shows symbolism here by representing characters as crayons on paper. When the yellow line stopped, that meant the character he was representing had died. This is a very creative style used by Vonnegut. Throughout the novel there is considerable emphasis on seeing things, and there is a continuous contrast between the way the world looks to Billy and the way others see him. For Billy himself, there is considerable development in the way he views what has happened to him. Vonnegut’s use of symbolism, along with the imagery and ideas that he has and inspired make Slaughterhouse Five even more enjoyable.
Kurt Vonnegut is a very expressive author with views and points unlike any other author. In Slaughterhouse Five, his life is relived in many ways through Billy Pilgrim and some of the dreams and ideas he has had for many years. Slaughterhouse Five had a charming and different way of looking at and displaying events rather than a regular old sequence or even flashbacks. It was very descriptive and entertaining to read. One hopes to see other such clever methods of storytelling in other novels.