Introduction

Kurt
Vonnegut Jr. is one of the most famous writers of postmodernism. His writing is
hailed as easily approachable but profound – simple structures dealing with
serious questions about the society while blurring the lines between aspects of
the real world and science fiction. (Farrell 3) Slaughterhouse-Five is, perhaps, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s most famous
work as well as one of the most famous postmodernist works, and it deals with
the remnants in the society of what was one of the most harrowing events of the
20th century. It is partially also meant to be autobiographical, as
the writer intends to portray the Bombing of Dresden as he saw when he was a
prisoner of war, too. This essay aims to examine in which ways Kurt Vonnegut
Jr. reflects on World War II and what kind of sentiments are represented in the
book.

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            Billy
Pilgrim

The
focal point of Slaughterhouse-Five is
Billy Pilgrim whose life the reader gets to see in fragments as Billy travels
though time, a consequence of being abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore.
Tralfamadorians teach Billy about their beliefs, which heavily rely on
predetermination and examining all events as a singular point in time,
happening “all at one time”. (Vonnegut ##) This
in turn shapes a bigger portion of Billy’s insights and plenty of them take
time throughout the novel to fully develop into a picture that explains Billy’s
background.

Nihilism
and fatalism dominate in Billy’s point of view as he is portrayed as a relatively
helpless person who does not seem to live his life, but his life rather seems
to just kind of happen around him, which includes becoming “unstuck in time”
seemingly at random. Vonnegut does seem to offer a possible explanation for the
elements of time travelling, and Billy’s existentialist way of coping: “…they
were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a
big help.” (##) This is said as Billy and Eliot
Rosewater are being treated at a mental health veteran’s hospital and Rosewater
introduces Billy to the works of a science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, who
seems to be a continuous influence on the episodes Billy experiences while
travelling through time.

Contemporary
psychologists suggest Billy’s case of travelling through time can be
interpreted as PTSD episodes, which are influenced in part by the Kilgore Trout
novels he has read but does not fully remember. (FFFF)
This can also account for Billy’s resigned attitude towards life, a coping
mechanism where he is only able to sustain if he takes everything that happens
as something that must have happened. “So it goes” is by far the most used
phrase in the novel, noted each time death is mentioned, regardless if it is
war related, if it was a group of people, a person or even horses. It happens
as if to confirm the thought that death is just what happens and there is not
much one can do about it. It is taken out of a Tralfamadorian philosophy Billy
says he has learnt – “dead person is in bad condition in that particular
moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now,
when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the
Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'” (Vonnegut ##)

It
seems then, that through Billy, Vonnegut is trying to rationalise a battle with
the aftermaths of war. He seems to be exploring what lengths a person might go
to, emotionally and mentally, to be able to face both with the past and with
life afterwards. Billy has developed a sort of a detachment from the outside
world, despite finishing school, being successful at his job, marrying and
having children. However, once he is “unstuck in time” he is not much more than
an observer of his life who becoming more and more transfixed with Tralfamadorian
views, to the point where he wants to make other people aware of them, perhaps
because they have helped him tackle life after he wound up in the veteran’s
mental hospital after the war.

            Other
Characters’ Perspectives

The
first character that gives a blunt view on the war in the novel is Mary O’Hare,
the wife of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s fellow veteran who has also lived through the
Bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut visits his friend and talks about writing a book
on Dresden, which seems to unsettle his friend’s wife. “…then I understood. It
was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s
babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and
movies.” He echoes her sentiment and promises to her: “I’ll call it ‘The
Children’s Crusade.'”, and true to his promise, that is the subtitle of the
book. (Vonnegut 18)

Through
the character of Billy Pilgrim’s wife, Valencia, as she asks Billy about the
war as they watch a glamorous yacht go past them on their wedding night,
Vonnegut tries to in a very general manner comment on the other side of the female
perspective on war somewhat begrudgingly, but sticking to his conviction that
the image of war as a noble cause should be destroyed. He writes: “When the
beautiful people were past, Valencia questioned her funny-looking husband about
war. It was a simple-minded thing for a female Earthling to do, to associate
sex and glamor with war.” (68)

Vonnegut
also supplies views on the war in the war scenes where he through, for example Roland
Weary, tries to portray a man who has a heavily glamourised and romanticised
vision of the war in his mind, not unlike those Mary O’Hare fears, only to have
his strength and determination torn apart by the devastating consequences of
the war.

The
most strikingly different insight Vonnegut provides in the story is from Bertram
Copeland Rumfoord, with whom Billy shared a hospital room after his airplane
accident. Rumfoord is a historian who is trying to do research on Dresden who
although he does acknowledge the devastation in Dresden, also says, as him and
Billy share the following exchange:

            “”It had to be done,” Rumfoord told
Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

            “I know,” said Billy.

            “That’s war.”

            “I know. I’m not complaining.”

            “It must have been hell on the ground.”

            “It was,” said Billy Pilgrim.

            “Pity the men who had to do it.””

            (Vonnegut 104)

Vonnegut
is echoing what many historians and people alike did and do use to lessen the destruction
that happens in war when it is against the enemy. It is to justify it as a necessary
side effect of war.  Even more so,
Rumfoord specifically also pays mind to the people carrying out the air raids
as well, while only giving the people on the ground a passing thought.

            Kurt
Vonnegut’s Insights

Through
the technique of metafiction, Vonnegut is able to be present and to voice his
thoughts throughout the book – mostly in the beginning where he dedicates the
first chapter to his own story about trying to write the novel and in the end.

            Dresden

Throughout
the entire novel, Vonnegut cannot escape the dreading thought that the Bombing
of Dresden is not something that is known or talked about, given the multitude
of the event. A later revision of the numbers provided in the book however puts
the death toll of the Dresden bombings anywhere from about 18,000 to 25,000,
significantly less than the estimates at the time of Vonnegut’s writing of the
book. (Beevor 810)

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