LITERARY TREND AND AUTHOR CANON
Vonnegut is a representative postmodern writer and a pacifist. He mixes literary genres and humourizes the problems that plague societies, including war, which is treated as absurd.
- Use of science fiction tropes (alien societies and civilizations – the purpose is to emphasize or exaggerate the absurdities of our world);
- Satire tropes (considers that laughter has a humanizing value and that through laughter, his readers will understand the faults of the contemporary society);
- A postmodern philosophical view that truth is subjective and there is no absolute truth in the world;
- Narrative fragmentation;
- Metafictional techniques: “Slaughterhouse-Five” represents actual historical events and problematises the notion of representing historical events.
Slaughterhouse-Five (published 1969)
- Genre: a postmodern novel
- The novel combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, war novel, and semi-autobiographical novel. The structure of the novel mimics the structure of the alien Tralfamadorian novel (the Tralfamadorian are an alien civilization which the main character imagines to avoid thinking about the horrors that he endured during the Dresden bombing), which aims to have “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense”. The novel is also a metafiction that constantly reminds the readers that it is a product of the author’s imagination. As a postmodern novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five” cannot be classified within different genres. SETTING
- Germany and Luxembourg during World War II;
- Ilium, New York, during the post-war era;
- Tralfamadore, an alien planet where Billy is kept at the zoo.
Main theme: war
The main character is a private who doesn’t belong on the battlefield. From this position, he witnesses one of the most tragic attacks of the Second World War, the allied bombing of Dresden. After he survives the bombing, he emerges in a city in ruins, where he is forced, as a war prisoner, to search for the dead and wounded from the attack, until Russian forces occupy the city and set him free. As it focuses on the prisoners of war, the novel draws attention to the suffering caused by war, not to the seemingly heroic side. The story of the war is told in fragments, as Billy remembers the experience from his present life and mixes it with the products of his imaginary captivity on an alien planet.
- Free will;
The novel has a non-chronological plot, with almost all of the events happening simultaneously, as the main character travels through time. The novel is structured in small sections that present various moments in the protagonist’s life.
Billy Pilgrim is born in 1922. He goes to optometry school and is drafted into the army during World War Two. In Belgium, he is taken prisoner behind German lines. He works as a war prisoner in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden and survives the allied bombing of the city that kills 130,000 civilians. He is forced to excavate corpses from the rubble and later is freed by the Russian forces. He returns to the USA, finishes school, gets married, and has two children. He has time-shifting incidents, in which he travels uncontrollably through time, but doesn’t pay any attention to them. On his 18th wedding anniversary, he has a breakdown caused by a barbershop quartet that triggers a memory of Dresden. Later, he is kidnapped by two aliens and taken to their planet, where he is kept on display in a zoo. The aliens perceive time in a non-linear manner which reflects Billy’s views on time caused by his time-shifting experiences. After he survives a plane crash and his wife dies, he decides to tell his story to the world. He also predicts his own death and its causes. He explains his perception of time as independent moments and explains that he has experienced his death and birth many times. The novel ends with the moment Billy is set free after the war ends.
Characters presented in the analysis of the literary fragment should be adapted to the fragment itself.
- Billy Pilgrim – he is the main character of the novel, a survivor of the Dresden bombing, an optometrist, husband, and father. He believes that he is “unstuck in time”. He has a fragmented experience of time, which structures the novel as short episodes. This manner of storytelling and perception of time has the purpose of showing the difficulty of recounting traumatic experiences.
- Bernhard O’Hare – a wartime friend of Vonnegut. Vonnegut visits him and his wife in Pennsylvania as he tries to research the past for his Dresden book. He is a non-fictional character, who has the purpose of grounding the novel in reality and of presenting the experience as authentic. Through his presence, Vonnegut (who is also a character in the novel) can present the novelistic details as facts.
- Roland Weary – a stupid and cruel soldier who is a prisoner of the Germans along with Billy. He is deluded by the glory of war and imagines that he is a hero. He saves Billy’s life out of a desire to be heroic.
POINT OF VIEW
- 3rd person omniscient point of view. This perspective also reflects Billy’s experience of time, who knows the entire trajectory of his life.
- Interruptions from a 1st person narrative perspective, belonging to the author (who is also a character) Kurt Vonnegut. He speaks directly to the reader, referring to the writing process of his book. The 1st person perspective reveals Vonnegut’s desire for authenticity.
- Resigned, detached, gently mocking.
- In the 1st person fragments, the tone is familiar and self-deprecating.
- Minimalist, dry writing style;
- Very few adjectives, verbs stand out;
- Short, declarative sentences;
“The war was nearly over. The locomotives began to move east in late December. The war would end in May.”
- Lots of dialogue and action;
- Black humour: even though Billy has a horrific experience of war, the war adds on more gruesome details (gathering the corpses after the bombing);
- The style is used to emphasize the absurdity of war.