Though war is a traumatizing and miserable experience, it may also be able to move and inspire people to write a brilliant piece of literature. One example, for instance, is Kurt Vonnegut who may have been stimulated by the war, thus writing Slaughterhouse – Five. Though one may categorize this piece as science fiction or even auto – biographical, it can also be interpreted as an anti – war piece. Because Vonnegut is classified as a post modernist, one can take into account all the details, such as the similarities between the main character and Vonnegut, the Tralfamadorians, and the style and themes of the novel, and interpret this piece with an anti – war perspective. Vonnegut demonstrates his own antiwar sentiments throughout Slaughterhouse – Five with the use of irony, satire, science fiction and dark humor .
Billy Pilgrim, the main character, is similar to Vonnegut in many ways. One can agree that the most significant time in Vonnegut’s life was when he served in WWII, and was a prisoner of war (POW) in Dresden, Germany. There he experienced the firebombings of Dresden, which greatly shaped his feelings about war (1969 Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five). When Vonnegut created Billy Pilgrim, he made Billy subject to the experience of war. In fact, like Vonnegut , Billy was able to experience the same situations including the experiences of being a POW and in the firebombing of Dresden. But in Billy’s case, Vonnegut writes with a sense of being anti – war (Insanity). For instance, when Vonnegut writes of the ways Billy views things, he makes Billy’s view “slanted, which makes the reader perceive the war as something absurd, grotesque, macabre–in any case, not quite real” (Classic Notes). Here it is apparent that Vonnegut uses Billy to let the reader know of his own personal views by creating Billy much like himself. Vonnegut said the he always meant to place himself in all of his works and here is a great example of that (American Writers 753).
Though Vonnegut already emphasized Billy in his life during the war, he continues to do so after as well. Billy struggles to put himself back together after the war, which really shows the destructive power of war, but he does finally resolve to be an optometrist. One can also interpret his profession as a theme:
The importance of sight (Lichtenstein). This relates to Billy having “sight” before the war but losing his “true” sense after. Ironically, he tries to correct the vision of others as an optometrist. Along those lines Jesse Lichtenstein says, “Vonnegut may be commenting on the futility of life and the destructiveness of war: the one employed to correct the myopic view of all his patients may be the most blind of all” (Lichtenstein). Billy feels that everything that he is doing is useless or futile and it is contradictory to everything that is happening. With this, the use of irony shows Vonnegut’s anti-war feelings.
Science fiction was also used by Vonnegut through the Tralfamadorians in order to convey his feelings again. The Tralfamadorians are aliens that abduct the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. They can observe a fourth dimension, free from time itself, which, “contains all moments of time occurring and reoccurring endlessly and simultaneously” (Lichtenstein). Due to this ability, they have very different views and criticize the beliefs of those on earth. The Tralfamadorians are another way Vonnegut tells his feelings.
Tralfamadorians are able to criticize those on earth, with their unique views with war. Tralfamadorians comment on how people on earth are only concerned with talking about free will (Novels for Students 265). Since earthlings believe only in free will and not fatalism (the belief that there is no free will and everything that happens is fate) like the Tralfamdorians do, they believe that earth is corrupt (Classic Notes).
Tralfamadorians believe that free will is on earth because humans believe that time progresses in such a way that is only two dimensional with linear fashion, rather than having four dimensions in time as with the Tralfamadorians. Since Tralfamadorians think that there is only fatalism and linear development of time, they do not believe that free will actually exists. The Tralfamadorians also believe that there will always be war on earth, since humans are designed that way. With that, Vonnegut uses satire with the Tralfamadorians to criticize the fact that there is war on earth and it will be constant .
The presence of the Tralfamadorians is another way Vonnegut conveys his feelings against war. In an article about the novel, Jesse Lichtenstein notes on how the kidnap of Billy Pilgrim by the Tralfamadorians is a delusion that could be just an outlet for him to escape from war (Lichtenstein). Similarly, Classic Notes says that Billy Pilgrim runs away there when he is stressed, from his experiences of war on earth. These aliens are a vessel for Billy’s mind to escape on, out of a world overwhelmed by war
(Classic Notes). In many ways, Vonnegut’s own feelings in opposition to war are interpreted into the Tralfamadorian views. For example these views of the Tralfamadorians are said to also reveal Vonnegut’s fatalistic views, which are naturally against the ideas of free will. Vonnegut shows how free will is mistaken with Billy Pilgrim’s life experiences, like being rescued from the bottom of the pool against his free will and being drafted into war (Lichtenstein). This demonstrates how the Tralfamadorian views can be taken a step further to show how their feelings actually reflect those feelings of their creator, Vonnegut.
The novel Slaughterhouse – Five uses the theme of war as black humor or dark comedyBlack humor is seen in describing the main character as a “filthy flamingo” or when Billy attempted to publish his encounter with the Tralfamadorians.. Both are even satirical and are even reinforced by comments such as, “nothing tragic, but inexplicable and absurd” (Novels for Students 270). Thus, the somewhat mocking component of dark humor is yet one more method for thoughts against war to be exposed. The novel, “about war and the cruelty and violence in war” (Vit), was written with no sense of being connected which directly relates to Vonnegut’s sentiments with war. Billy is unstuck in time, and the novel goes from one to scene to the next, without any specific order (Novels for Students 264). According to Novels for Students, this being unstuck in time is “a metaphor for the sense of alienation and dislocation which follows the experience of catastrophic violence (World War II)”, and also is “a metaphor for feeling dislocated after war” (264). The sense of estrangement and solitude is just one of the many themes in the book. These themes are all tied into one major theme: war (Dunstan). Because the principal theme in the book is war, it is apparent that Vonnegut really wanted readers to know how awful war really was (Quinn).
Vonnegut’s feelings about war are further reinforced with more ironies in the novel. For example Billy and Ronald join the two infantry scouts. Classic Notes points out that it is ironic that the skilled infantry scouts are killed, but not the amateur Billy or Ronald. Another example of an irony is shown in the sounds of a bird. When the bird chirps the sounds “poo-tee-weet?” to Billy, it has importance, in that it shows that “there is nothing to say about an unnecessary massacre, and that war is illogical, like the
bird’s words. This is ironic, since the theme of the novel, which should be the clearest message derived from the story, is summed up in the incoherent words of a bird” (Classic Notes). This illustrates irony by providing comic relief, but also clearly conveys Vonnegut’s feelings.
The many features of war manipulated Vonnegut’s writing significantly. Vonnegut was able to transmit his feelings through the experiences that he had with war. Vonnegut conveys these feelings to the readers in many ways, such as: Billy Pilgrim the Tralfamadorians and in the themes, writing style, and structure of the book.
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five can be interpreted in many ways. It can either be a science fiction novel, autobiographical novel or as an anti – war piece of writing. But it may also be a different, out of the norm, combination of science fiction and autobiographical themes to reinforce the author’s own anti-war sentiments. In any situation, one can agree that this novel is based solely on war. Since Slaughterhouse – Five has such universal dilemmas, it may then also be a reference for any wars that may occur in future decades.
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