Slaughterhouse Five is a novel written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1969, 24 years after the end of the Second World War. Vonnegut was serving the US army from 1943 to 1945, who survived the aerial bombing of Dresden. Slaughterhouse Five is a classic pacifistic novel. Apart from realistic events that are narrated by the narrator, Vonnegut, the novel also consists of fictional components including the Tralfamadorian – extraterrestrial creatures and time-traveling, which intrigue readers to continue reading. Vonnegut utilizes a highly satirical tone throughout Slaughterhouse Five to visualize the main themes including fate and the sense of antiwar. Although Billy Pilgrim – the main character is threatened to death by different characters, he survives the war but is killed by a laser gun.
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” (p.23)
The word “unstuck” literally means no longer stuck, Billy is no longer stuck in normal timeline, normal time progression, instead, he is skipping time from one moment to another. I believe that human brains recall the important life events before they die. Therefore, to me, Billy’s time-traveling is as the recall of memory before he dies.
Comparing the narrative techniques used in The Awakening and Slaughterhouse Five, Chopin and Vonnegut both utilized third person narration to inform the readers the plot. In The Awakening, although Edna is not the narrator of the story, the narrator informs Edna’s experiences and awakening process with an omniscient perspective. The narrator provides readers a thorough insight into Edna’s action, and allows the audience to attempt to interpret Edna’s thoughts and emotions. Vonnegut also utilizes an omniscient, third person narrative in Slaughterhouse Five, which describes the appearance, actions, expressions of Billy, which guides readers to interpret his emotions during reading. The novel begins with “Listen!” (chapter 2, 6), which gathers audience’s attention and inform them the narrator has begin to tell the story. This type of narration elucidates an in depth insight of the main character.
In the Awakening, Chopin employed linear narration, which follows the timeline of the plot. This increases the tension as the plot progresses. Linear narrative emphasizes the progression of Edna’s self-discovery, leading the reader to focus on Edna’s transformation and awakening. The narration is also character centered, which encourages the audience to focus on the protagonist’s emotion and thoughts, instead of any other characters or the events. Vonnegut uses metafiction, which he is intentionally mentioning reality and the artificialness to blur the boundary between fiction and reality. This technique is revealed a couple times throughout the fiction. First, chapter 1 is named “chapter 1” instead of “preface” to catch the reader’s attention and blends the line between fiction and real historical backgrounds. Vonnegut also becomes involved in the fiction:
“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)
These 2 quotes affirm the audience of the fiction’s reliability so that the audience are more devoted as they read along, also mitigating the doubtness of fictionality. This raises a question: if Billy Pilgrim truly existed in reality, or he is just a fictional character for Vonnegut to express his satirical and opposition thoughts against the war, which is traumatizing and the effect on a human’s mental health condition?
Slaughterhouse Five is narrated in a non-linear way, which does not follow the normal progression of timeline, yet back and forth to the important events of Billy’s life. This creates a sense of confusion for the audience, reflecting Billy’s confusion of his experience on time-traveling and encounter with Tralfamadorians. Although the progression of Slaughterhouse Five is not according to the timeline, the fragments of Billy’s life connect to another part of his life events. For example, Billy has insomnia during his daughter Barbara’s wedding because the colour of the tent – black and orange reminds him of the trains that transfers him to the POW camp. I particularly admire Vonnegut’s minor but significant connection between events that convey his thoughts on war effectively to readers.
Contrasting the narrative techniques between The Colour Purple and Slaughterhouse Five, Walker and Vonnegut both utilizes first person narrative, yet there are two narrators in The Colour Purple – Celie, and Nettie. The novel is written in an epistolary form, which is a collection of letters. Since there are two narrators narrating about their lives, the audience gains a better insight into their emotions, experiences and their mindsets. As The Colour Purple progresses, we gain knowledge about Celie’s thought and realization of her ideas. It emphasizes the relationship between Celie and Nettie, which is extremely intimate. The linear narrative allows the audience to focus on the theme of self-discovery and transformation, from desensitizing thoughts and feelings to bravely expressing and advocating ideas through actions. Celie’s illustration of her life – what she writes and narrates from letters shows her evolution, from disorganized paragraphs in non-standard English, to coherent and longer paragraphs that expresses her emotions productively.
Slaughterhouse Five consists of science fiction components, especially the encounter with Tralfamadorian and experience on Tralfamadore. A significant example of this is the Tralfamadorians thought on the idea of death:
“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 reveals the emotionlessness of Tralfamadorian, who is the extraterrestrial creature of Slaughterhouse Five, especially the idea of crying at funerals is silly. Vonnegut symbolizes war as Tralfamadore, visualizes the absurdity and ruthlessness of war as Tralfamadorian, emphasizes the senselessness of war by incorporating Tralfamadorian. It echoes with chapter 1, when Vonnegut is talking with O’Hare’s wife, who thinks wars are a “children crusade”. (p.15)
“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” (p.14)
Billy is one of the “baby”, who has no control on anything, including being “spastic in time”, which contradicts the idea of “free will”; Tralfamadorians think free will is “simply an illusion since they can see past, present, and future simultaneously so they believe in fate, the idea of everything is planned. The incorporation of Tralfamadorian connects with Billy’s encounter, visualizes the senselessness of war by conveying and promoting their thoughts to Billy, promotes and creates a sense of antiwar to readers, meanwhile raises a question about the theme – does free will exist?
To conclude, I enjoyed reading Slaughterhouse Five due to its unconventional, non-linear way of narrating that intrigues my curiosity to keep reading and discover Billy’s experiences between fragments of events. I enjoy the sarcasm within Slaughterhouse Five, typically the attitude that Billy acts towards death – “so it goes” even though he survives from scenarios near to death multiple times during and after the war. On the contrary, Celie from The Colour Purple tries her best to stay alive. The contrast of the thoughts of the two main characters produces and accentuate the satirical perception towards Billy. Slaughterhouse Five raises a question: would the world be better if people are more sensitive instead of being senseless?