The Perception of Time

The narrative technique in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is different to many other books we have read in English class. The technique involves manipulation of the structure and organization to bring focus to the content. This puzzles the reader but also induces them to reflect deeper on the progression of the plot and how it connects with the content in the novel. The questions that occurred to me while reading involve how does the way we perceive time affect how we live? As well as how should we perceive time? We can explore the narrative technique of this book and how it influences the reader by comparing it to novels such as The Color Purple and The Awakening.

The structure and organization of the plot directly correlates with the content of the novel which encourages the reader to think about the concept of time. Vonnegut uses a mixture of truth and fiction presented in a non-linear organization to write this novel. This puzzles the reader because the structure is not the cliche progression taught in schools; conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Slaughterhouse- Five however, is not this black and white. Events are shared in a non-chronological order and events skip from one to the next without any background information. I found this technique at first to be confusing but later caused me to reflect and connect more deeply with the content of the book.  

As we delved into this book, we learned about the Tralfamadorian way of life. Once this concept was explained I realized how directly this philosophy, and the narrative technique employed by Vonnegut were connected. For example, Tralfamadorian books are structured like:

“There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvellous moments seen all at one time” (p.88).  

This description instantly clicked with how the organization of SlaughterHouse-Five was presented. Vonnegut utilizes this philosophy in presenting the plot of Billy Pilgrim. He uses the idea that Billy can become “unstuck” in time to travel to the past or future.  The effect of this technique allows the reader to feel as though all the moments in the book are presented simultaneously which connects the plot and the organization of this novel. Now, when presented with this new philosophy of life the reader is no longer puzzled but further intrigued allowing them to think deeper. 

The narrative technique in Slaughterhouse-Five invites the reader to inquire about the perception of time and how this perception of time influences how one lives? By comparing Billy and humanity today this question can be discussed. The best way to describe the difference between the Tralfamadorian philosophy of time and humans’ perception of time is by using the metaphor a Tralfamadorian guide uses to tell his tour about earthlings perception of time:

“The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was a poor earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eye hole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole was a six feet pipe” (p.115).  

The idea that humans can only experience or believe that a single moment in time exists affects our beliefs about death and freewill which shapes how we live life. For example, when Billy thinks about death it’s not something that he mourns because he has adapted to this new philosophy: 

“The most important thing that I learned on Tralfamadore is that when a person dies, he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral” (pp.26-27). 

When a person dies the thought process of Billy is “so it goes”. There is no attachment to a person when they are lost and no fear of dying.  This is very different from how humans today perceive death; we tend to be more upset and mourn deeply. We also tend to live in fear of death. In regard to how perception of time can affect how people live; mortality is a less taboo topic for Billy, making him have a more relaxed life and attitude towards death. 

Another area where one’s perception of time can shape is their belief in fate vs freewill. Using the same comparison, Billy believes in fate and adapts the philosophy that there is no such thing as freewill.  Billy believes he cannot change or influence the future because in his mind all moments are happening at the same time. This mindset eliminates the idea of free will as the Tralfamadorians say: 

“Only on earth is there any talk of freewill” (p.86). 

Due to this mindset Billy lives his life in a more peculiar way than anyone would live their life in our society. For example, in the war he is not interested in combat but has a more passive behaviour and attitude. Perception of time can change attitudes toward other time dependent variables such as death and free will thus affecting one’s daily routines. The second question that occurs from this idea is how should we perceive time? There is no right answer to this question but I think humans today can adopt one concept from Tralfamadore which is to make life more enjoyable by: “Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones” (p.117).

In class we have read many books with different narrative techniques.  When comparing Slaughterhouse-Five to other books we have read such as The Color Purple by Alice Walker and The Awakening by Kate Chopin, there are similarities and differences. The main difference between Slaughterhouse-Five and these two books are the structure and organization. Slaughterhouse-Five is organized in a nonlinear format which helps the reader dig deeper into the concept of the book whereas The Color Purple and The Awakening are organized chronologically. The effect of the nonlinear plot as discussed earlier makes the reader reflect more on the directly linked content. Whereas the linear plot allows the characters to show development which, in The Colour Purple and The Awakening, is crucial to the progression of the plot.   

Another difference between Slaughterhouse-Five and The Color Purple is the point of view the book is set in. Alice Walker writes as letters from Celie to God or her sister Nettie. In Vonnegut’s novel the narrator is not Billy, but we can assume Vonnegut himself as he interjects a few times. The effect of the letter format versus a narrator is that the reader gets deeper insight into Celie’s feelings than Billy. Having the insight into Celie’s thoughts that she only meant for God or Nettie means we get to see her raw emotions. This personal level with Celie makes the connection with her and the reader more personal. It is easier for the reader to relate with Celie because of this than Billy. 

A similarity between the narrative techniques in Slaughterhouse-Five and The Awakening is the use of settings.  Both novels use two main settings to help compare and contrast ideas. In Slaughterhouse-Five the two main settings are Tralfamadore and WWII in Germany. Vonnegut’s use of these two drastically different settings reinforces the ideas of this anti-war book. Utilizing two opposite settings,  influences the reader to compare the two settings.The effect this produces is that the reader fully understands Vonnegut’s point of portraying how unnecessary and awful war is. Kate Chopin also uses two opposite settings to further her point of society’s restrictive roles for women. The novel’s main setting is on a Grand Isle which is a beautiful location next to the ocean. This is where Edna felt the freest and the setting helps portray freedom and independence. The other setting is Edna’s house in New Orleans which conveys more of a rigid busy feeling here Edna struggles to find herself. This setting helps mimic society’s restrictions for women. Chopin uses the two settings to reinforce the idea of Edna’s entrapment by society.  

Overall, each book has a variety of narrative techniques but what I really noticed is how each technique is used to direct the reader to reflect on the themes and questions raised by the novel. 



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