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  • Skylar Hamilton Burris

Thoughts on Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegjut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse Five displays a monotonous indifference to death, human cruelty, and suffering. An extreme relativism also pervades the novel, so that the death of a million Jews is treated no differently than the death of “[b]ody lice and bacteria” (84). Both are followed by the same resigned phrase: “So it goes.” If we accept Billy’s story, then this indifference is appropriate because none of these things matter, since time is not linear and life has no meaning: “There is no why” (77). There is no free will, and therefore no responsibility, no sin, no redemption, no hope of change. Life can be “guilt-free” because fate controls all and every moment is “structured” (207). Because neither past, present, nor future can be changed, there is no sense regretting anything or laboring to reform anything.

This sort of utter resignation is apparently comforting to Billy, although I must agree with the narrator who says that “[i]f what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true . . . I am not overjoyed” (211). It is easier to approach tragedy with indifference than to attempt to avoid or alleviate it and possibly fail to do so. Slaughterhouse Five is, on one level, an antiwar book, but, on another level, it teaches that there is no sense trying to avoid war, since war is as inevitable as a glacier (3). Does all this indifference to suffering and brutality really result from a belief in “fate” or does it come from “a feeble will to survive” (151)? The narrator says both have “costumed” Billy, but the two seem contradictory to me. If there truly is a controlling fate, then Billy’s will to survive--whether weak or strong--is irrelevant.

If we do not accept Billy’s story, we can see his indifference to human tragedy as a psychological self-defense mechanism, born of witnessing too much brutality in the war. To survive such scenes, one naturally becomes desensitized. This would explain the narrator’s attitude as well; he also seems cynical and indifferent, and he too has experienced the war. The narrator says he learned in college that “nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting” and that that is why none of his books have villains (8). But it seems that perhaps the war might also have taught him this lesson. Forced to become inured to brutality, neither human tragedy nor cruelty has any emotional effect on him, and therefore no one can seem evil. Since the war has reduced the whole of human existence to absurdity, no one individual can appear ridiculous. The ridiculous can only be revealed by contrast to the sensible, and there is nothing sensible.

If there is neither good nor bad, neither sense nor absurdity, neither sin nor redemption, then life must inevitably become monotonous and meaningless. To the narrator, there is no sense in thinking about the future, and even the present is intangible: “And I asked myself about the present, how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep” (18). Billy, in war, sees no reason to live: “Billy wouldn’t do anything to save himself. Billy wanted to quit” (34). At times he goes through motions, doing what he has to, without feeling or fear: “Billy did the simplest thing. He drove on” (59). He is “unenthusiastic about living” (60). He seems to have had a suicide wish even as a child, but he may be remembering this event through the lens of war. After all, “Billy first came unstuck while World War II was in progress” (30).

The other thing which interests me in this novel is the potentially symbolic nature of names. Billy’s last name is “Pilgrim,” significant because he is a traveler himself (through time). Yet a pilgrimage implies some goal, some development, some meaning--and Billy’s travels are not linear, not progressing to any point, and they teach him not that he can develop, but that everything is unchangeable. The name of Billy’s hometown, “Ilium,” probably reminds us of the Battle of Troy depicted by Homer in The Iliad. What might this tale and Vonnegut’s have in common?

#literarycriticism #KurtVonnegut #bookreviews

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