The Use of Fragmentation in Slaughterhouse-Five

The Use of Fragmentation in Slaughterhouse-Five

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The Use of Fragmentation in Slaughterhouse-Five


In the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses
fragmentation of time, structure and character in order to unify
his non-linear narrative. Vonnegut's main character, Billy
Pilgrim, travels back and forth in his own life span "paying
random visits to all events in between" (SF 23). The result is
Billy's life is presented as a series of episodes without any
chronological obligations. This mirrors the structure of the
novel which has a beginning, middle and end but not in their
traditional places.

The first piece of information that is given about Billy is
that he has "come unstuck in time" (SF23). With this sentence
Vonnegut has turned time from the intangible to the tangible and
thus he is now able to use it to fit his own purposes. By using
the word "unstuck", Vonnegut implies that Billy has now become
free. Consequently, Vonnegut's narrative, as well as Billy, has
achieved a freedom of sorts. Vonnegut will not be tied down by
the conventions of time; now he will be able to place Billy in
any time frame he chooses. Vonnegut moves Billy rapidly,having
him experience a mere fragment of his life before whisking him
off again. This creates a collage effect in the novel, which is
made up of bits and pieces of Billy's life. By fragmenting
Billy's life like this, Vonnegut is able to bring the events that
comprise his life closer together. One minute Billy is marching
through a forest and the next he is waiting at a public pool for
his father to teach him how to swim. This co nstant fragmentation
of Billy's life serves, ironically, to unify Billy's character
for the reader. By going back and forth in Billy's life the
reader is able to see a whole picture of what Billy is actually
like instead of just one fragment of his personality.

Vonnegut also uses time fragmentation in order keep the
Dresden bombing fresh in the reader's mind.

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When Billy goes back
to Dresden the reader goes with him. The reader is able to get
a first hand account of the massacre, but, at the same time, to
gain a distance from it. Vonnegut gives the reader both worlds.
The reader is able to live through the horrors of war and then,
in almost the same instant, reflect on them. The fragmentation of
Billy's life in the war and after enables the unification of the
emotional and intellectual response of the reader.

Due to the fragmentation of time there is no past, present
or future in Slaughterhouse-Five. This view of all time existing
at once becomes a lesson that Billy learns from a group of aliens
called Tralfamadorians. Their way of looking at time is
comparable to a human's way of looking at "a stretch of the Rocky
Mountains" (SF 27). The Tralfamadorian way of looking at the
universe, the acceptance that all things good or bad are destined
to happen, becomes Billy's way. The reader cannot help being
drawn into this mind frame because he or she is constantly seeing
through Billy's eyes. The reader is with Billy wherever he goes.
Just as Billy has no control over his time travel, the reader
feels exposed to the author's every whim. Vonnegut asserts his
own control of the reader response by adding "so it goes" after
every account of death. This repitition of the phrase
de-emphasizes the tragedy of death while at the same time cries
out at the formation of such a hardened exterior. Vonnegut uses
the post-modern technique of fusing opposite meanings in one
phrase in order to show the struggle that he has accepting
negative aspects. Vonnegut became a realist after living through
the actual Dresden bombing, but he fears losing his compassion
because of it. As he says in the autobiographical first chapter
when referring to a family tragedy "I've seen lots worse than
that in the war" (SF 10).

This leads back to one of the main reasons why Vonnegut has
fragmented time for Billy. By having the story of Billy read as
a series of fragmented episodes, Vonnegut is able to return again
and again to Dresden. The brutality that occurs to and around
Billy is not allowed to be buried in the past. Vonnegut presents
the war experience as one that still goes on (so it goes?). Billy
never leaves the war for long; as a result neither does the
reader. The reader is not allowed to experience the war and
become desensitized, Vonnegut gives the reader horrific details,
but saves the actual account of the bombing until the reader is
firmly entrenched in the narrative. The reader is denied the
luxury of saying that he or she has seen worse; the worst has
been going on since the start of the novel.

Vonnegut continues his time fragmented novel by having
Billy step out of time, and earth, to the planet Trafalmadore.
This planet is often described by both Billy and Vonnegut as
"heavenly". It is interesting to note that the only place
Vonnegut allows Billy to have any peace is the one that abandons
all time laws, and free will, completely. The aliens teach Billy
to view his own existence as a long line rather than
concentrating on one point in particular. In the same way,
Vonnegut takes the reader out of any particular time frame and
forces him or her to view the novel as a whole rather than pieces
of events.

With all the fragmenting going on in Slaughterhouse-Five,
it is no wonder that Billy Pilgrim always seems on the verge of
breaking up. Billy is constantly reacting to the pressures of the
outside world. Billy's character is defined by whichever event he
finds himself in. Billy says that he is in "a constant state of
stage fright" (SF 23). Billy has been forced to split himself
into many different parts including soldier, husband and
employer. Physically and mentally, Billy seems to be spread
a little too thin to handle all of these roles. As Billy ages, he
becomes so separated from himself that he must play a role at
each stage of his life. Even when he steps out of time and
becomes involved in a true caring relationship with Montana
Wildhack, he is still performing. Every one of his moments with
Montana is scrutinized by the Tralfamadorians. Billy is always on
stage. Vonnegut's concern for the dangers of role playing
surfaces with the example of Billy Pilgrim. In Vonnegut's novel
Mother Night, the moral was "we are who we pretend to be". Billy
takes this slogan a step further by becoming a person who must
pretend in order to be.

Vonnegut has said that the science fiction parts in his
novels are intended as comic relief, but it has been shown that
they are not merely meant for entertainment purposes. The
Tralfamadorians' theory of time is essential to the narrative. At
first, the short, blocky sections that the novel is split into
seem chaotic. After taking into account the Trafalmadorians' way
of seeing time as a whole rather than fragments however, the
reader is able to view Billy's life in terms of the larger con
text rather than the bits and pieces that are given.

The joining of Trafalmadorian and Vonnegut theory comes
with the introduction of the Trafalmadorian novels to Billy.
These novels consist of clumps, eahc one of which contains
a message. These clumps are not in any particular order and are
not read individually but simultaneously. This is exactly how
Vonnegut wishes his novel to be read. He breaks apart Billy's
life and then pieces it together again in a non-sequential order
so that the reade will be able to view Billy's life all at once
rather than day by day. It is important for the reader to see
Billy's whole life so that there are no illusions of a happy
ending. The reader must read through the narrative knowing that
the main character will suffer and die without coming up with any
answers. In the post modern fashion, Vonnegut does not give any
solutions to the problems that arise in the text. The point that
he labours to make is that "there is nothing intelligent to say
about a massacre" (SF 19).

The use of fragmentation is Slaughterhouse-Five goes far
beyond simply dividing the text into short sections. Vonnegut
uses fragmentation to clarify Billy's character, to ilustrate the
Trafalmadorians time theory, and to maintain the Dresden bombing
as an on-going atrocity. All these elements interweave in order
to give uniformity to a text that, at first glance, seems to be
going in all different directions. Of course, this is exactly
what Vonnegut has set out to achieve; all these directions work
to spread ou the novel and force it to be viewed as a whole
rather than the fragments it consists of.
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