Slaughterhouse-Five and the Psychological Consequences of War
Length: 1382 words (3.9 double-spaced pages)
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In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five the main character Billy Pilgrim experiences few emotions during his time in World War II. His responses to people and events lack intensity or passion. Throughout the novel Billy describes his time travel to different moments in his life, including his experience with the creatures of Tralfamadore and the bombing of Dresden. He wishes to die during most of the novel and is unable to connect with almost anyone on Earth. The fictional planet Tralfamadore appears to be Billy’s only way of escaping the horrors of war, and acts as coping mechanism. Billy seems to be a soldier with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as he struggles to express feelings and live in his reality. At the beginning of the novel the narrator proposes his reason for writing the book is to explain what happened in the Dresden fire bombing, yet he focuses on Billy’s psyche more than the bombing itself. PTSD prevents Billy from living a healthy life, which shows readers that the war does not stop after the fighting is over and the aftermath is ongoing. Billy Pilgrim’s story portrays the bombing and war in a negative light to readers, as Vonnegut shows the damaging effects of war on an individual, such as misperception of time, disconnect from peers, and inability to feel strong emotions, to overall create a stronger message.
Billy Pilgrim time travels to various moments in his life at random, which suggests he has no power over his mind and the memories that haunt him. He “is spastic in time, (and) has no control over where he is going next” (Vonnegut 43), as he struggles to make sense of his past. Billy’s ability to remember events in an erratic sequence, mirrors the happenings of war. War is sudden, fast paced, and filled with unexpected twists and turns. Billy cannot forget what he experienced during his time as a soldier, and in turn his mind subconsciously imitates this hectic quality of war. This behavior proves that although the war is over, “psychologically, Billy has never fully left” (Vees-Gulani). For many soldiers, especially those who were prisoners of war (POW), it is inevitable that their mind will not be like it once was (Vees-Gulani).
In Susanne Vees-Gulani’s critique of Slaughterhouse-Five, she finds Billy’s thought process of time similar to those with PTSD. POW with the condition are still “psychologically remaining bound in the timelessness of the prison" (qtd. Vees-Gulani), as it was a part of their life for so long. Vonnegut features a soldier that is scarred with symptoms like these to highlight the damaging aspects of war, and make the topic of the novel bigger than just the story of Dresden. The problems that Billy and other soldiers experience do not stop at one. As Billy jumps from various points of time in his life he also loses sense of reality in the process, and eventually the memories turn into fantasies.
Billy often blurs the line of what is real and what is a figment of his imagination. He refers to the science fiction planet of Tralfamadore as an actual place so much that the reader has difficulty deciding what to believe. This planet acts as an escape for Billy and a way to cope with the war. Towards the end of the novel, the reader learns this planet and Billy’s experience there is identical to the plot of Kilgore Trout’s science fiction novel. Billy has taken something familiar, so in turn he “controls his anxiety (and) nothing can surprise or scare him” (Vees-Gulani). The story of the Tralfamadorians also helps Billy makes sense of his life and all the deaths around him. Billy finds “the most important thing (he) learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die” (Vonnegut 49). These creatures think it is unnecessary to cry when someone passes because he or she is still “living” in the past. By making the Tralfamadorians’ views this way, Billy makes his actions and emotions seem normal. Billy did not cry when his own wife passed away. In the war he “often saw things worth crying about” (Vonnegut 183), but did not react to them. After the bombing Billy is confronted by a couple who notices the poor condition of the horses the Americans own. Billy walks over to look at the horses and begins to sob, even though he “hadn’t cried about anything else in the war” (Vonnegut 333). This response shows how unstable Billy’s emotions can be and his difficulty in voicing them at appropriate times.
By following the Tralfamdorian’s belief system of death Billy also justifies how comfortable with his own death he is (Vees-Gulani). In war, death is inevitable, but rarely do people consider how death affects those still living. Rather than focusing on those who died in World War II, Vonnegut chooses to talk about the way soldiers can develop a twisted perception of what death is, which makes readers realize war does not just take lives, but distorts minds.
Billy’s disorder affects him both internally and socially. Vonnegut makes Billy a character who has difficulty interacting or relating to the humans around him. In an interview Vonnegut mentions that his family and friends “simply cannot read (him)” (Vonnegut, Interview). Through Billy Vonnegut displays this same feeling of separation he, as well as other soldiers, experience. Billy does not show any emotional attachment or strong bond to those in his life, including his wife and fellow soldiers. While walking behind the German lines in World War II, Billy urges the others to go on without him. The soldiers are confused as to why he wishes to die, but Billy just communicates that he is “O.K” (Vonnegut 84) and they should continue on. Many books and movies paint soldiers to be men who stick together, but Vonnegut makes Billy feel like the other men cannot understand him. Billy’s relationship with his wife, Valencia, consists of monotone interactions, void of any passion or love. Valencia cares for Billy and cannot believe he chose her. She tells him “I never thought anybody would marry me” (Vonnegut 206). Billy’s only reply is “um” (206). The “diminished responsiveness to the world around him” (Vees-Gulani) is a symptom of PTSD and prevents Billy from developing or maintaining relationships. Billy will spend the rest of his life never having anyone to turn to or connect with, reinforcing the fact that the struggle of soldiers does not end after battle.
Others who read Vonnegut’s novel may find the main topic of the book is the Dresden fire bombing, and Billy’s character is simply an interesting side story. Vonnegut decides to talk about Dresden at the beginning and end of the book, which are the first and last things the reader sees. In the first chapter the narrator describes “how tempting Dresden has been to write about” (Vonnegut 9). This reflection does not mention any sort of problem with PTSD or express an alternative motive for creating the novel. But, the way the narrator describes his struggle to write the novel resembles the same way Billy fails to fully let out his thoughts and feelings. The narrator can’t express what happened the way he feels is best, and therefore reveals his own trauma caused by the war.
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel that steers from the typical historic account of an event. It is based on the bombing of Dresden, but most of the story is set in places outside of the war zone. By doing this, Vonnegut makes readers consider that war affects soldiers even when they’re out of uniform. Billy Pilgrim represents the soldiers who feel lost and detached from society. Vonnegut has had much success after the war, but his main character is not as fortunate. Vonnegut notes that he is the exception, and wants the public to see that he was the “only person (who) benefited” from the war (Vonnegut, Interview). Billy is the soldier in World War II that doesn’t have a voice because he or she can’t express it. Characteristics like this one, make Billy seem inhuman, therefore representing the ability of war to dehumanize a person and change them forever.