Analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

Analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

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Analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five


Section One- Introduction

Slaughterhouse-Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut Junior, was
published in 1968 after twenty-three years of internal anguish.
The novel was a "progressive work" after Vonnegut returned from
World War II. Why did it take twenty-three years for Kurt
Vonnegut to write this novel? The answer lies within the book and
within the man himself.

Kurt Vonnegut served in the Armed Forces during World War
II and was captured during The Battle of the Bulge. He and
a group of American Prisoners of War were taken to Dresden to
take part in a prisoner work camp. Vonnegut and his fellow
soldiers were housed in an underground facility when Dresden
became history as the most loss of human life at one time. On the
night of February 13, 1945, when the Americans were underground,
Dresden was firebombed by the Allied Air Force. The entire city
was annihilated while 135,000 people were killed. The number of
casualties is greater than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
combined.

The bombing of Dresden, Germany is why it took Kurt
Vonnegut so long to write this book. The human pain and suffering
is still fresh in the mind of the author twenty-three years
later. One can only imagine the intense emotional scarring that
one would suffer after exiting an underground shelter with
a dozen other men to find a city destroyed and its people dead,
corpses laying all around.

These feelings are what prompted Kurt Vonnegut to write
Slaughterhouse-Five as he did. The main character of this novel
mirrors the author in many ways, but the striking similarity is
their inability to deal with the events of Dresden on the night
of February 13, 1945.


Section Two- Critical Commentaries

Kurt Vonnegut's work is nothing new to critics, but
Slaughterhouse-Five is considered to be his best work.

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Many other
authors and critics have critiqued and analyzed his work, some
coming to much different conclusions than others.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a perfect example of differences in
critical commentary and how a writer can relay some thoughts when
meaning to share others.

Tony Tanner wrote an article in American Fiction entitled
"The Uncertain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut,
Jr.". In Mr. Tanner's analyzation of Slaughterhouse-Five, he
originally sees what most comprehend at the beginning of the
novel; that after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Billy
Pilgrim can not find a way to cope with the death and
destruction, so he creates the "Tralfamadorians". The
Tralfamadorians are an alien species that Billy claims abduct
him. The Tralfamadorians can see time in a completely different
way than humans. They see an entire event instead of individual
moments like humans. Tralfamadorians have seen the beginning and
end of the universe. They describe this ability to Billy as
looking at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains instead of a small
pebble of it. With this new knowledge of time, the
Tralfamadorians gave Billy the ability to become "unstuck" in
time. This means that Billy is free to travel to any point in his
life at any time without control.

Tanner thinks that the most crucial moral issue in the
novel is this: "Billy Pilgrim is a professional optometrist. He
spends his life on earth prescribing corrective lenses for people
suffering form defects of vision. It is entirely in keeping with
his calling, then, when he has learned to see time in an entirely
new Tralfamadorian way, that he should try to correct the whole
erroneous Western view of time, and explain to everyone the
meaninglessness of individual death, because everyone lives
forever in the eyes of a Tralfamadorian.

Tanner goes on to state that Vonnegut's whole work
"suggests that if man doesn't do something about the conditions
and quality of human life on earth, no one and nothing else
will." Tanner also states that Vonnegut makes several references
to death and destruction, such as the concentration camps, the
destruction of European Jewry, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the
Children's Crusade. The author cites Vonnegut as a literal
hypocrite because the story of Billy Pilgrim and Dresden is so
terrible that Pilgrim can not possibly consciously face it, yet
he includes so many other instances of destruction wrought by
man.

Vonnegut also recounts the assassinations of several
famous Americans and includes his father's natural death at the
end. Tanner states that if death itself is the outrage, then
humans can not be held accountable for it, since it is built into
the very structure of things. He goes on to conclude that "This
conflation of natural death with murders of various sorts is
a consistent feature of Slaughterhouse-Five."

Another author who was fortunate enough to give
a critical commentary of Slaughterhouse-Five is Charles B.
Harris, who wrote "Time, Uncertainty, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:
A Reading of 'Slaughterhouse-Five'" for The Centennial Review.
Harris believes that there are three important crucial facts to
a proper understanding of this novel: (1) the novel is less about
Dresden than about the psychological impact of time, death, and
uncertainty on its main character; (2) the novel's main character
is not Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut; (3) the novel is not
a conventional anti-war novel at all, but an experimental novel
of considerable complexity.

Harris focuses more on, and successfully accomplishes,
explaining Tralfamadore as a psychological stumbling block of
Billy and Vonnegut. In every possible way, Harris explains
Billy's happenings on Tralfamadore are related to his
subconscious mind. For instance, Vonnegut shows up three times in
the story of Billy Pilgrim as the story teller. Harris notices
that when the paths of Billy and the narrator meet up at Dresden,
there is a brief period of person shift. The narrator uses 'us'
and 'we', simply because he is there too.

Harris explains Vonneguts sudden change in person as
this: "He, too, had suffered capture and malnutrition and the
devastating firebombing. He, too, worked in the corpse mines and
saw a friend shot for plundering a teapot from the ruins." Harris
was extremely successful in tracing Billy and Vonnegut's trama
back to the bombing in Dresden.


Section Three- A Discussion of Vonnegut's Style

The unusual circumstances of this novel make it
a peculiar instance of almost any literary topic, including
Vonnegut's writing style. Throughout most of Vonnegut's career,
he has put little consideration and description into characters,
perhaps as a way to make the reader more interested as to what
will happen next, or what will be revealed next about the
character. In any case, the character description, or lack
thereof, of Kurt Vonnegut is very simple, so he can convey his
feelings about the character immediately without having to list
every minute detail. For example, Vonnegut describes Billy
Pilgrim, the main character of the book as "a funny-looking child
that became a funny-looking youth-tall, weak, and shaped like
a Coca-Cola bottle." Note the fact that there was no hair or eye
color given; no facial description; no personality description,
either, but Vonnegut still very effectively gets his point across
that Billy is a lanky, akward, and "funny-looking" person. From
this, Vonnegut's short description, we immediately form a mental
picture of the character.

The diction of Vonnegut stays the same throughout the
narrative sections of the book, but the diction of the individual
is prone to the individual character. This is another literary
tool that Vonnegut has mastered. Even though the narration stays
constant, the diction of the characters is vastly different, so
the reader doesn't become bored with the same writing style for
all of the characters of a plot.

For instance, Kilgore Trout, the famous science fiction
writer in many of Kurt Vonnegut's works is seen here running
a newspaper delivery service. He has just announced the boy or
girl who sells the most subscriptions will get a trip to
"Martha's fucking Vinyard" for a week, all expenses paid, if they
would just get up and go sell something for once. A little girl,
ecstatic at the news, askes Trout if she could bring her sister,
too. His reply is, "Hell no, you think money grows on trees?"


Section Four- A Discussion of Vonnegut's Technique

Again, when one choose to discuss Vonnegut's literary
tools and how he uses them in Slaughterhouse-Five, one must
remember the complexities of this particular novel. Because this
story is a blend of fiction and non-fiction, Vonnegut's narration
can be seen as both third person and first person. The majority
of the novel is written in third person, with Vonnegut narrating
Billy's life. When Billy arrives at the Dresden work camp,
though, for a brief moment Vonnegut swings into first person, he
being another soldier in the group. The effect of the slip into
first person is a good step for Vonnegut, because it shows he is
also a member of these men who fight to survive, he is not just
an innocent bystander telling a story.

In the case of this novel, the narrator is not completely
reliable. Vonnegut-as-narrator tells one of Billy's
hallucinations and dreams of the Tralfamadorians, and states them
as fact, when in reality, they are created by Billy to escape the
reality of the war and the bombing.

The literary tool of a flashback technically could not be
used in this novel, although several references to the past are
made. The truth of the matter is that no one knows where the plot
begins, so when a jump to another time made, it is unknown as to
whether it is a flashback of a flashforward. The use of these
flashbacks and flashforwards is to show one Billy's mental
instability; that is he travels to a happier time in life rather
than face reality.

The most notable part of Vonnegut's character
presentation is the lack of it; that is he is not very specific
with character descriptions and presentations to a situation. The
characterization of Vonnegut's characters are neither dramatic or
descriptive: they are merely there. That is a large part of the
story line, though. Vonnegut wants one to think that the
characters have no will of their own and are led by a stronger
force: fate.

Vonnegut is not a very emotional writer, he simply brings
his ideas to the mind of the reader and lets the reader decide
how to feel. The one technique that Vonnegut does use is humor,
in the form of characters such as Kilgore Trout and the
activities that they do and their dialogue. Vonnegut's comic
relief is greatly appreciated after the presentation of
a particularly complex or important story line.


Section Five- An Explanation of Vonnegut's Structure

Once again, the peculiarity of this novel has found need
to be explained by its structure, or complete lack thereof. This
novel could be seen as having a circular pattern, but the plot
line begins at the bottom of the circle, jumps back to the top of
the circle, jumps forward to the right side of the circle, and so
on. Yes, there is an eventual circular pattern when the novel is
finished. One would think that the events to this story would all
lead up to the bombing of Dresden, but it is quite the contrary.
There are several separate plots that survive on their own which
have absolutely nothing to do with Dresden and everything to do
with Billy Pilgrim and his life after the war. Vonnegut has
visited the same scene two or three times before, but only to
show the fact that Billy is "unstuck" in time.

Section Six- An Explanation of Vonnegut's Theme

Vonnegut's entire purpose in writing this novel was to
release the feelings that he had bottled up inside for
twenty-three long years. He wanted others to know what happened
and he wanted to remove himself from the situation like Billy
Pilgrim did, but he didn't have Tralfamadorians to take him away,
so he did the only thing he knew how: he wrote. He wrote every
agonizing word about the experience that he never wants to live
through or see happen again. This was simply the purpose of the
novel. The theme that Kurt Vonnegut wanted everyone who read his
book to know just exactly how bad war is. He wanted people to
know a man was killed for stealing a teapot. He wanted people to
know that a city of 135,000 can be completely obliterated in the
name of war. He wanted people to know the mental scars that war
can carry. All that he was trying to say is that it hurt; it hurt
him inside and out; war hurt Vonnegut enough to write this novel.
He wants people to know the atrocities of war, and that it should
never happen again.

Section Seven- A Conclusion

It took Kurt Vonnegut Jr. twenty-three years to put all
his feelings on paper. This is an important novel because it is
not just a novel, it also dabbles in non-fiction a bit, also.
This would be Dresden and war for the most part. The reader must
also understand Vonnegut's background and the story, because if
the story is simply taken at face value, it was worthless and
a waste of time.

Every time someone or something dies in
Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator says "so it goes". Tony Tanner,
one of the authors who critiqued the novel, saw this phrase as
apathetic and unsympathetic towards death. One could also see
this as a phrased used instead of apparent concern to stimulate
more thought, more sympathy, and more feeling, so Vonnegut could
get his point across even more. In the last chapter of
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut leaves us with these brief
paragraphs that one would think pushes for peace as a last ditch
attempt if nothing else in the book got through:

Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles
away from the home I live in all year round, 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.

And everyday my government gives me a count of
corpses created by the military service in Vietnam. So
it goes.

My father died many years ago now--of natural
causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun
nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
They rust.
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