Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse-Five" as Historiographic Metafiction

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Kurt Vonnegut’sSlaughterhouse-Fiveas Historiographic Metafiction
1. Historiographic Metafiction
2. Historiographic Metafictional Elements inSlaughterhouse-Five
2.1 Time
2.2 History
2.3 Intertextuality

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The representation of history depends mainly on the perspective, attitude and cultural background of the beholder; which at the same time marks the major flaw of historiography. One topic or event will never be identically described by two historians, even if they are given the very same materials and sources to work with. As a consequence, historiography can only try to create an image, as true and original as possible, but is never able to depict everything that happened as it actually was in its full scope. So there were and always will be fictional elements and interpretations in the reports and writings about past events.

This assumption leads us to historiographic metafiction, a style of writing that emerged during the postmodern era. If there is fiction in scholarly historiography, where is the difference between that and a novel that deals with history? This term paper will try to give an answer to that question and examine features and characteristics of historiographic metafiction, which eventually will be applied to Kurt Vonnegut’sSlaughterhouse-Five. In postmodern literature and, of course, especially in historiographic metafiction, authors tried to find new ways of telling stories and particularly representing history. I will take a closer look at the narrative frame and especially the concept of time Vonnegut used in the novel. But how is history represented inSlaughterhouse-Five? This will be the second part of the analysis that will attempt to find answers why Vonnegut wrote the novel the way he did. The third part will deal with intertextual elements in the novel. All citations from the novel and the pages indicated in brackets are taken from the edition cited below.[1]

II. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as Historiographic Metafiction

1. Historiographic Metafiction

The termpostmodernism, when used in fiction, should, by analogy, best be reserved to describe fiction that is at once metafictional and historical in its echoes of the texts and contexts of the past. In order to distinguish this paradoxical beast from traditional historical fiction, I would like to label it “historiographic metafiction.” […] In the postmodern novel the conventions of both fiction and historiography are simultaneously used and abused, installed and subverted, asserted and denied.[2]

This definition given by Linda Hutcheon describes probably best what is meant by historiographic metafiction, a term coined by herself. Historiographic metafiction tries to combine the best of two worlds that means it combines fictional elements, which it generously uses, and blends it with historical events, which may provide a framework that is filled with fictitious actions and protagonists; thus it unites the ‘world’ and literature.[3]

In order to understand historiographic metafiction, it is necessary to know about the developments that changed the view on representation in the past decades. A sceptical relativism has challenged the authenticity of historiography and its claim for truth. So the denial of ultimate truth in representation led to the so-called postmodern crisis of representation. If the image of the past is influenced by culture, which means that different cultural circles put emphasis on different aspects of historical events, there will always be more than truth. But since art is not obliged and willing to provide a perfect copy of reality, it possesses the freedom to deliver its message in a concealed way.[4] According to Engler the ‘reality’ that is presented to the reader, “is the product of a complex process by which traditionally encoded images and texts structure our perceptions and determine the models by which we construct our notions of self and external reality.”[5] Although historiography is liable to interpretation, the history of a culture is important for the individual, because history is intelligible and comprehensive; and man is a sense making being. The common history of a culture is of vital importance, because it is one of the main aspects – apart from religion, language, etc. – that distinguishes cultures.[6]

Just like historians are trying to give sense to history, authors of fiction intend to make sense of things that seem to be chaotic or unintelligible and by that create something new in which factual truth and the necessity of reality become unimportant. In comparison the writer controls only his own fictional reality, whereas the historian’s realm is reality.[7] So the freedom of the writer enables him to write literature that combines both historical facts and fictional elements and by that creates different views on historical events.

Because if historiography depends on interpretation and constructs reality, then why should historiographic metafiction not provide a ‘true’ image of the past, just like historiography does?

From this perspective the relationship between fictional and historical writing becomes very complex, because they seem to blend partially and historiographic metafiction consequently participates in the historical discourse without being subdued by scientific standards of representation. This mingling of history and fiction leads us to intertextuality.[8] The concept of intertextuality claims that a literary work is interdependent, and defined by “the interdependence of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.”[9] Postmodern literature very often contains intertextual elements; although the phenomenon is not an invention of the 20th century. Intertextuality demands of the reader to recognize the element as such and then of course think about its reference, which requires a certain awareness on the side of the reader.[10]

2. Historiographic Metafictional Elements in Slaughterhouse-Five

2.1 Time

Slaughterhouse-Fiveis not – as many other novels are – structured in a linear way, in which the story begins at a certain point and follows a straight timeline, sometimes interrupted by flashbacks. Vonnegut’s novel is rather a back and forth and up and down. The protagonist’s time-travels do not follow a regular pattern but can be separated into three major time zones. The first is in Billy’s postwar civilian life as an optometrist, the second in World War Two in Europe, and the third on the remote planet Tralfamadore. In addition to that there are several smaller time zones in different decades of Billy’s life to be visited by the main character.[11]

The following is a short description of the ‘timeline’ inSlaughterhouse-Five. It is not to be considered as a summary of the story, but rather a short outline of the time- travels, with very brief hints at the setting of the described scene that focuses primarily on the jumps between various time zones. Since there are so many time-travels in the novel, only the second chapter will be used in order to give an example of the author’s modus operandi.

Billy’s story begins in the second chapter of the book at his home in Ilium, New York (p. 19-22) in the year 1968. Shortly after these introductory pages he jumps back to the year 1944, which is the time he joined the army and after basic training is sent to Europe to fight in the Battle of the Bulge; one of the last major German military operations in World War Two against the western allies (p. 22-31). At the end of this scene Billy becomes unstuck in time for the first time, which brings him back to his childhood, where he has to face an unpleasant situation in a public swimming pool at the local YMCA, while his father is teaching him how to swim by the means of sink or swim (p. 31-32). From this event he moves on to the 60s and visits his mother in a nursing home (p. 32-33), which is followed by a brief episode of a banquet in 1958 (p. 33). After that he leaps three years ahead in time and betrays his wife with a coworker at a New Year’s Eve party (p. 33-34). From this somewhat pleasant scenery Billy is taken back to the Battle of the Bulge, finding himself in a creek bed on the way back to the American lines (p.34-36); interrupted by a short interlude, in which he is teleported to the year 1957, where he delivers a speech at the Lions Club in New York (p. 36) and after that is pulled back to the European theater of operations (p. 36-40).

As the example of chapter two shows, the novel does not possess a linear timeline. On 157 pages Billy journeys almost fifty times through time. Sometimes one page contains up to three different time zones.[12] This lack of linearity can be seen as a means of showing the reader a different understanding of time. For the protagonist time is no longer a line with beginning and end, but a circle in which everything is predetermined and unchangeable. As a consequence, death, for instance, is not dreadful; because a person might be dead in one time zone but still be alive in another one. In addition to that Tanner points out that “this gives him an entirely new attitude to the significance and tragedies of those people who still live in an irreversible, linear-temporal sequence”.[13] Pilgrim’s new perspective on life appears to be a suitable means of dealing with the atrocities he has witnessed in his life, especially in World War Two and other unpleasant moments he had to encounter, such as the plane crash, the tragic death of his wife and even his own assassination.[14] The obligatory phrase ‘so it goes’, which Vonnegut attaches to every death of someone or something, reflects Billy’s incapability to make a change or to influence the situation. As Cordle points out, “[t]he mechanical regularity of the appearance of this phrase is a denial of any form of development and progression.”[15]


[1] Kurt Vonnegut,Slaughterhouse-Five: The Children’s Crusade A Duty-Dance With Death(1969; repr. London: Vintage, 1991).

[2] Linda Hutcheon, “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertexts of History”,Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction,eds. P. O'Donnell and Robert Con Davis. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 3-5.

[3] “Parody and the Intertexts of History”, 4.

[4] Bernd Engler. “The Dismemberment of Clio: Fictionality, Narrartivity, and the Construction of Historical Reality in Historiographic Metafiction.”Historiographic Metafiction in Modern American and Canadian Literature,eds. Bernd Engler and Kurt Müller. Paderborn: Schöningh, 1994, 14-15.

[5] “The Dismemberment of Clio”, 15.

[6] “The Dismemberment of Clio”, 26.

[7] “The Dismemberment of Clio”, 26-27.

[8] “Parody and the Intertexts of History”, 4.

[9] J. A. Cuddon and C. E. Preston, ed.Dictionaryof Literary Terms and Literary Theory(1977; repr. London: Penguin Books, 1999) 424.

[10] “Parody and the Intertexts of History”, 8.

[11] The term “time zone” usually refers to the different time zones on the planet Earth. These time zones exist next to each other and since Billy Pilgrim’s life is in a certain way not a line, but simultaneous coexistence of all the events that happened during his lifespan, I consider this image of time zones very appropriate in this context.

[12] “Slaughterhouse-Five”,61; 91; 113.

[13] “Slaughterhouse-Five”, 22; Tony Tanner, “The Uncertain Messenger: A Reading of Slaughterhouse-Five,” CriticalEssays on Kurt Vonnegut, ed. Robert Merrill (Boston: Hall 1990) 128.

[14] See also: Charles B. Harris, “Illusion and Absurdity: The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut,”Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut, ed. Robert Merrill (Boston: Hall 1990) 138.

[15] Daniel Cordle, “Changing the Old Guard: Time Travel and Literary Technique in the Work of Kurt Vonnegut,” The Yearbook of English Studies: Time and Narrative, ed. Nicola Bradbury (Leeds: Maney & Son, 2000) 175.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse-Five" as Historiographic Metafiction
University of Bamberg  (Professur für Amerikanistik)
American Historiographic Metafiction
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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448 KB
Aus dem Gutachten: "Die [...] Arbeit überzeugt alles in allem inhaltlich wie argumentativ. Slaughterhouse-Five wird überzeugend als historiographic metafiction analysiert." Ich möchte noch hinzufügen, dass ich in dieser Version alle Korrekturvorschläge umgesetzt habe und es sich hier um die korregierte Fassung handelt.
Kurt, Vonnegut’s, Slaughterhouse-Five, Historiographic, Metafiction, American, Historiographic, Metafiction
Quote paper
Markus Schneider (Author), 2008, Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse-Five" as Historiographic Metafiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/117815


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