“Slaughterhouse-Five” PR – The Complexity of Time & War

Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel written by American humorist, Kurt Vonnegut in 1969. This novel explores the complicated nature of time through its unique narrative technique. I particularly enjoy reading this novel due to the infusion of science fiction elements, such as the presence of extraterrestrial creatures (the Tralfamadorians) and time travel. Although the timeline of the book was confusing in the beginning, as the plot progressed, I was able to make connections between each event. Vonnegut indirectly references and displays the cruelty of war through the lens of our protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut raises the public’s awareness of the cruelty of war and provokes a sense of anti-war sentiment through unique narrative techniques: a combination of third and first-person perspectives, collage, and non-linear narrative.

Vonnegut utilizes a combination of third-person and first-person narration. The whole story, except chapter 1, is written primarily in the third-person perspective. Meanwhile, chapter 10 shows a clear combination of both first and third-person narrations. Chapter 1 is written from Vonnegut’s own perspective which briefly describes his struggles after the war and while writing this book. The rest of the chapters are written from Billy’s perspective. But there are multiple times when Vonnegut jumps out in these chapters to make a connection between his experience and Billy’s. This allows Vonengut to inform the readers that this is part of his experience too. However, this narrative technique raises the question, “To what extent does Billy’s experiences parallel, or perhaps, overlap with Vonnegut’s stories?”

“I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare.” (p. 67)

“Somebody behind him in the boxcar said, ‘Oz.’ That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.” (p. 148)

The above quotations are evidence that Vonnegut attempts to insert his presence when portraying Billy’s stories during WWII. This illustrates the subtle, intertwined connection between Vonnegut and Billy’s characters. Also, allows us to assume that Billy’s character and experiences might be, to a great extent, based on Vonnegut’s real-life experience.

Vonnegut also utilizes a collage narrative to highlight wars’ traumatizing effects on the psychological aspect of soldiers. This novel is composed of stories that illustrate Billy’s experiences in various stages of life: before the war (childhood and teenage), during the war, and after the war (his marriage life, optometry clinic, and his experience on Tralfamadore). The inclusion of events from various life stages provides profound insights into Billy’s character arc. We can see how war pushes a teenager to achieve maturity in a short period of time. Billy was once experiencing a normal childhood although he appears to be shy. However, after the war, he becomes introverted and has trouble sharing his feelings openly with others.

“Later on, as a middle-aged optometrist, he would weep quietly and privately sometimes, but never make loud boohooing noises.” (p. 197)

When Billy is middle-aged, he is depicted as reluctant to talk about anything related to the war openly to Valencia and Montana Wildhack. However, it is shown that other characters in the novel never bring up topics related to war easily, constructing a sense that people are seemingly avoiding talking about the negative impacts that war has created on soldiers. This narrative highlights the traumatizing effects that war has on soldiers’ psychology.

Moreover, Vonnegut utilizes a non-linear narrative technique to scramble the chronological order of events, thus, constructing a sense of complexity in the story’s timeline. Billy often comes “unstuck in time”.

“Billy blinked in 1958, traveled in time to 1961.” (p.46)

“Then he swings back into life again, all the way back to an hour after his life was threatened by Lazzaro – in 1945.” (p. 143)

The above quotations show Billy often traveling back and forth in his life experiences. Billy’s ability to time travel makes this novel’s timeline extremely complicated. Billy could be in Dresden but in Tralfamadore the next moment. This shows that Billy, or perhaps, Vonnegut has a vague sense in interpreting time. Thus, emphasizing the main idea valued by the Tralfamadorian: all moments are eternal, they appear to be the past or future because we are not living in them at this current moment. This idea could be interpreted as a “coping mechanism” where Billy consoles himself that no one is actually dead, they are just not in good condition at this moment. Billy’s repetitive mention of this Tralfamadorian accentuates the traumatizing effects that war has on soldiers’ psychology.

Comparing the narrative technique in Slaughterhouse-Five to The Awakening, they are both primarily written in the third narration. However, Chopin only offers a third-person perspective when describing Edna Pontellier’s awakening process. There is a limiting perspective when interpreting Edna’s inner thoughts and feelings because their character arc is primarily described from others’ perspectives. This contradicts with Slaughterhouse-Five where Vonnegut often introduces his own perspectives and association with Billy’s experience. Overall, both novels utilize a third-person narrative, but Vonnegut’s novel is more successful in displaying the protagonist’s emotional depth.

Also comparing Slaughterhouse-Five to The Color Purple, they both incorporate first-person narration. This similarity allows both novels to excel in illustrating the emotional depth and inner thoughts of their protagonists. However, Walker only shows Celie’s perspective at the beginning of the novel. This makes the reader oblivious to other characters’ thoughts and feelings. Also, Walker utilizes a linear narrative to showcase Celie’s character arc. This makes her novel’s timeline comparatively easy to interpret but less intriguing compared to the time-traveling and non-linear narrative in Vonnegut’s novel.

I enjoy reading Slaughterhouse-Five and The Awakening more than The Color Purple. All author displays masterful narrative in their novel, it is a personal preference based on the elements incorporated within the novel. To conclude, Slaughterhouse-Five provides unique perspectives for understanding historical events in WWII outside of history textbooks. It successfully raises anti-war sentiment and awareness of soldiers’ mental health by depicting the cruelty of war through a combination of third and first-person perspectives, collage, and non-linear narrative.

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