The novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut has been the most enjoyable novel I have read throughout the DP English literature course. Almost immediately after reading the story, I made clear connections between Slaughterhouse-Five and other books I have read and enjoyed, namely, Candide and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While reading Slaughterhouse-Five, I made connections because of the similar philosophical questions within the novels. In the past, I never truly thought of myself as someone who enjoyed pursuing philosophic questions and dilemmas; stories akin to Slaughterhouse-Five have piqued my interest by raising some questions for me to ponder. More specifically, the question of: “why do we suffer?”
The first notable appearance of this question is on page twenty-seven:
‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a 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.”‘ (P. 27)
The way death is brushed off here with the saying “so it goes” reminds me of the Greek philosophy of Stoicism. One key idea of Stoicism is that we should accept that which we cannot control. Death is more often than not out of our control; hence, it should not burden us and should instead be accepted. This idea can be seen throughout Vonnegut’s novel, as well as in Candide and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some brief examples include Earth being destroyed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and others robbing Candide of his riches in Candide. These events were out of the protagonist’s control, much like how the deaths caused by the Dresden bombing, for example, were out of Billy’s control. According to Stoicism and the Tralfamadorians, these events are out of the character’s control, and they should therefore accept it for how it is.
When I first pondered these ideas, I thought of how unrealistic they would be for me to apply. If someone with whom I have a strong relationship were to die, and I were to accept it and move on immediately, those around me would either think I did not like that person or assume I am just a psychopath. The grieving process is normal, and practically everyone experiences it in some way. If it were not normal to grieve, the concept of suffering would not exist. Humans only suffer because of the negative emotions experienced due to events considered suffering, and how we lament over suffering. After analyzing what it truly means to suffer and grieve, the practice of accepting that which we cannot control seems less farfetched. Although I am sure I will still mourn, there is something which can be learned from the practice of Stoicism and Tralfamadorian philosophy. If we as the human race truly only suffer because of the emotions we experience (we grieve), then why should we grieve at all? Would we be happier if we accepted circumstances for how they are? These are all tricky questions raised for me throughout my reading of Vonnegut’s novel.
An aspect of the form of this novel which ties into the whole concept of why we suffer, which I really admire, is Vonnegut’s use of chronology. From the beginning of the book, we are given the rules about Tralfamadorians: they experience life from birth to death as a whole rather than a linear experience. Billy experiences life in much the same way. Even after Billy, or anyone, dies or experiences suffering, there is still and always will be the time for which that person was alive or not suffering.
‘The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was 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. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. (P. 26-27)
This quote ties into the philosophy that a being’s death (or suffering) should not be lamented because of the time when there was no death or suffering for that being in the past. Vonnegut’s use of non-linear storytelling in his novel is an admirable way of combining form and content to produce a stronger overall effect. I specifically enjoy how Billy’s death happens in the middle of the book rather than at the end. The effect of this is that the death of Billy is only another event in his life. The story will continue on to show all the experiences Billy encountered in the past, further solidifying the mindset of the Tralfamadorians in the reader.
On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin-who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements. (P. 210)
I want to end with this quote because it gives another example of looking at this whole philosophy of death. If “those who die are meant to die,” then again, according to Stoicism, it is out of our control and should be accepted. Once again, showing the relationship between Stoic and Tralfamadorian philosophy.
Grievance and suffering are interesting concepts because we have fabricated the idea of them. I believe there is a lot of truth to the philosophy of the Tralfamadorians, but also acknowledge that grievance and suffering have led to positive changes in the world. As the novel addresses war, the suffering caused by the war has changed how the world views it. Without the suffering caused by it, the change would most likely not be made because there would be no reason for it. Although the question is virtually impossible to answer, it is interesting to contemplate what suffering truly is and what is worth considering “suffering.” As of now, there is a common idea of what suffering is and the effects it has, which has given the word meaning (a TOK concept for you).
In summary, Vonnegut’s use of form and content is crucial to the novel’s ability to portray its ideas. The questions mentioned, which were raised in the novel, stem from Vonnegut’s ability to use form and content to produce a stronger effect on the reader’s ideas. My reasoning through the novel was especially due to Vonnegut’s use of non-linear chronology and the explanations of the Tralfamadorian’s philosophy.