The depiction of war in the novels Slaughterhouse-Five and A Farewell to Arms
The two novels A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut have a lot in common at first sight. Both are books about wars in Europe written by American authors, and although the protagonists in both novels experience things that are partly very similar to their authors’ experiences, none of the novels is an autobiography, e.g. Hemingway’s story ends about two months before he went to Europe (Cooper, 33). Both of the novels deal not only with war stories but roam around other genres, be it a science fiction story in Vonnegut’s case or a love story in Hemingway’s. Both authors had direct and severe experiences with war. Despite of all similarities we also find very big differences in the depiction of war and the way the two authors cope with their shocking experiences. Both of the authors use a very own and subjective depiction of war in their novels and we find big differences in the way they describe war. This essay will take a closer look on how the two novels depict war in different ways and the messages that we can draw from their works.
The authors and the novels’ backgrounds
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), awarded with the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954, worked, just like his fictional protagonist in A Farewell to Arms named Frederic Henry, for the Red Cross during World War I in Italy. Hemingway’s legs were injured in 1918 by a shell mortar explosion, and he recovered in a hospital in Milan, exactly like Frederic Henry (McDowell 17-19). In Milan, Hemingway fell in love with a nurse, who in the novel is transformed into the protagonist’s fiancée Catherine Barkley, but unlike Frederic Henry, Hemingway had only a platonic affair with the nurse. Like Hemingway, Frederic Henry is a heavy drinker. A Farewell to Arms, the title of which was taken from a sixteenth-century poem (Tyler 59), was Hemingway’s second novel and written in a very short time. It was first published in September 1929. Almost fifty percent of his manuscript pages went into the final copy without revision because Hemingway had been working over the material for almost ten years (Reynolds 275-276). During the process of writing, Hemingway’s work was influenced by the birth of his second child and his father’s suicide. A Farewell to Arms was one of Hemingway’s best-selling works. Until his death, one and a half million copies were sold (McDowell 60-63). Just like his father before him, Hemingway committed suicide. In 1961 he shot himself in the head with a double-barred shotgun after having suffered from various irreversible physical and mental diseases (McDowell 98-100).
Kurt Vonnegut (*1922) served as an American soldier during World War II. He was captured as an infantry scout by German troops in December 1944 and a prisoner-of-war (POW) in Dresden until the German surrender in May 1945. On February 13th, 1945, the allied forces bombed Dresden so heavily that 135,000 people died in the firestorm and the city was almost entirely devastated. Although the fire-bombing of Dresden was not even a military necessity, it is considered as the event with the largest loss of life in European history. Vonnegut survived only because his group of POWs was sheltered in a meat locker several stories underground, referred to as “Schlachthof 5” (= Slaughterhouse 5) (Klinkowitz, 262-265). The following weeks Vonnegut worked primarily in the exhumation and burning of dead bodies. These occurrences sharpened his awareness of his own death and influenced his philosophy and style as a writer. The novel Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969, twenty-four years after Vonnegut’s repatriation and shortly after the end of the war in Vietnam. Although Vonnegut had written various famous novels before, Slaughterhouse-Five can be considered as his breakthrough to fame since it was his first novel that earned a best-seller status (Austin, 272). Slaughterhouse-Five is an unconventional novel in many ways. Vonnegut uses the entire first chapter for explanation why he wrote the novel and why he wrote it that way. Furthermore, Kurt Vonnegut appears himself as a character in the novel but unlike one might think not as main character. The novel’s main character named Billy Pilgrim is fictional.
A comparison of the two authors’ writing styles
Hemingway’s style of writing is widely considered as very original and unique and influenced many other writers. Hemingway avoids supplying the reader with background information and forces him to figure out himself what happened. For example, Hemingway avoids the expression Great European War (which was the expression for World War I at that time). In the first chapters the reader only gets the information that the Italians fight against Austrians. Later the reader incidentally learns that the Germans and French are involved as well, and it is not until the middle of the book that the reader learns that the Americans “are training an army of ten million” (149). This information should eradicate the last bit of doubt that it must be World War I, even for readers who are not very sophisticated in history. The only information Hemingway gives to identify the exact time is the mentioning of certain places of battles like San Gabriele (160) for instance.
Like Hemingway’s writing style, Vonnegut’s is unique. It is best characterized by his extraordinary humour and unconventional turns his story-telling takes. In contrast to Hemingway’s style, Vonnegut even dedicates the entire first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five only to inform the reader about the circumstances that made him write the novel and why, when and where the story takes place. Vonnegut’s writing style is full of surprising and funny occurrences, which make his novels entertaining. He expresses criticism in an ironic and sometimes sarcastic way.
In the following extract from A Farewell to Arms Frederic Henry gets hit by the trench mortar shell:
I ate the end of my piece of cheese and took a swallow of wine. Through the other noise I heard a cough, then came the chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh – then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself (…) I breathed and I was back. (…) In the jolt of my head I heard somebody crying. I thought somebody was screaming. I tried to move but I could not move. (51)
As we can see, Hemingway uses a limited first-person point-of-view. The narrator is the main character Henry himself. The reader does not learn that Henry was hit by a trench mortar shell for the next two pages. The reader even needs a while to realize that Henry was obviously suddenly injured, because Hemingway gives the reader as little information as Henry has got himself. Vonnegut’s novel uses a different style of writing:
Billy Pilgrim had stopped in the forest. He was leaning against a tree with his eyes closed. His head was tilted back and his nostrils were flaring. He was like a poet in the Parthenon.
This was when Billy first came unstuck in time. His attention began to swing grandly through the full arc of his life, passing into death, which was violet light. (…) And then Billy swung into life again and stopped. He was a little boy taking a shower with his hairy father at Ilium Y.M.C.A. He smelled chlorine from the swimming pool next door, heard the springboard boom. (…)
From there he travelled in time to 1965. He was forty-one years old, and he was visiting his decrepit mother at Pine Knoll, an old people’s home he had put her in only a month before. She had caught pneumonia, and wasn’t expected to live. She did live, though, for years after that. (43-44)
Unlike Hemingway, Vonnegut uses an omniscient third-person narrator which also seems to be very necessary, because Billy Pilgrim travels through time and space. If there was no exact information when and where Billy is to find, the reader would become very confused. If Slaughterhouse-Five gave as little information as A Farewell to Arms, the story would probably be received as incoherent. On the one hand Vonnegut’s point-of-view writing style is easier to read because all the information is given; on the other hand it does not create as much suspense and atmosphere as Hemingway’s style does. Another example is that Vonnegut provides the reader quite early in the novel with the information, that his main character will not die during the war and become an old man. In Hemingway’s novel the reader is thrilled because he does not know if Henry will die in the war or not until he has finished reading the book. In other words, Hemingway’s novel thrills the reader by putting him at a loss while Vonnegut’s novel is not so concerned with tension but uses different ways to entertain the reader. This is one reason why Vonnegut’s writing style appears much more easy-going. Every time when somebody dies in Vonnegut’s novel he uses the words “so it goes”. He does that more than a hundred times, thousands of people die in Vonnegut’s novel. In A Farewell to Arms on the other hand only a very few die, but it appears much more gloomy, cold and threatening than Slaughterhouse 5 anyway.