Constructing "Slaughterhouse-Five"

The Interplay between Fiction, Reality, Structure and Time

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

25 Pages, Grade: 2,3 (B)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Telling the tale
2. 1. Telling the unimaginable
2.2. The fiction of reality
2.2.1. Mary O’Hare, war books and Roland Weary
2.2.2. The Children’s Crusade and history
2.2.3 The Kilgore Trout novels
2.3. Presenting a personal reality

3. Tralfamadorian concepts
3.1. The Tralfamadorian novel
3.2. Tralfamadorian time

4. Unstuck in time
4.1. Billy and his story
4.2. Billy, time and Tralfamadorian time
4.2.1. Billy and the logic of Dresden

5. Conclusion

6. Literature

1. Introduction

The plot, cause-and-effect, development, choice and time are all concepts based on linearity. They are all considered truths for a narrative as well as reality and the individual’s perception of reality. But what if an experience, a memory or an event is so traumatic and grave that it is not possible to depict it adequately in such a form? With this comes the awareness that the convention of linearity, which is dominant in language, narratives and the designing of experience, is not always the sufficient way to describe reality. This is one of the main problems of Slaughterhouse-Five, which is a book about the bombing of Dresden and about writing about the bombing of Dresden, as critics agree. It is also a book that is aware of how the conceptualization of such an event in a narrative is an analogous process to the individual’s conceptualization of such an event in creating its own reality. There is a reciprocal link between fiction prescribing reality and reality prescribing fiction, linearity being one aspect of that.

This essay will first closely analyse the metafictionality in chapter one, the narrators difficulties in conceptualizing his experience adequately and the mutual dependencies of narration, fiction, history, religion, public relation, officials and the mind in offering versions of reality. Those dependencies are beside the selection and gathering of information especially the tools, conventions and structures used to form information and order events. As it is not discernable where fact ends and fiction begins, what is truth and what is invention, Slaughterhouse-Five establishes an air of distrust towards facts, their organisators and their organization.

For the depiction of his Dresden experience Slaughterhouse-Five chooses a form that tries to free itself from the convention of linear time as determiner for its perception. It forces the reader to choose a mode of his own for finding coherence and meaning. There is a paradox: in trying to heave the event over the form and context it is presented in, the form becomes crucially important. To make this a conscious process the novel provides an alternate form for the tale that is based on a time perception different from the human: the Tralfamadorian. Thus, the second part of this essay will be concerned with the Tralfamadorian novel and the Tralfamadorian time.

The last part of this essay is an analysis of the tale of Billy Pilgrim “somewhat in the schizophrenic telegraphic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore”[1]. The structure of Billy’s story will be paid as much attention to as to the models of temporal reality present in Billy’s life. This is an essay on Slaughterhouse-Five.

It begins like this:

“All this happened, more or less.”

It ends like this:


2. Telling the tale

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”[2] Slaughterhouse-Five starts with an emphasis of the factuality of the events it describes only reduce this factuality in the following sentence. This contributes to an awareness of the narrative process these facts are imbedded in. “This opening words introduce an unstable verisimilitude where merge true and false, past and future, here and there, inner space and outer space”[3] in which the reader is at the mercy of the narrator, the narrator’s memories, and the way he organizes them in the novel. While the reader is reminded of the fallibility of the narrator and thus the narration, the events that provide the basis for the novel are introduced as realities.[4] They stand alone and above the story, their significance independent from narrator and narrative form, any meaning subject only to the reader’s judgment.[5]

This reflects one main topic of the novel, which analogously is the crisis of narrative processes and forms and the conceptualization of reality in historiography and on the level of the individual. This crisis derives from the narrator’s inability to conceptualise and relate his war experience’s, above all the bombing of Dresden, into a comprehendible reality, which leads to a growing awareness of narrative processes and how they are used to conceptualise memories – on an individual level – or events – in a greater scale – into an acceptable reality. “We are at least made aware that the life of forms relates to the form of our lives”.[6] These issues are presented in the first chapter, which many critics find agreeably crucial for the understanding of Slaughterhouse-Five.[7]

2. 1. Telling the unimaginable

How to write about Dresden is the problem the narrator is facing in chapter one. He is provided with a set of memories of war related events. And he has the plan to “write [a book] about the destruction of Dresden”[8] which “would be a masterpiece or at least make […] a lot of money, since the subject was so big”[9]. But he is not able to instrumentalise his memories in such a way, instead he has to realize “how useless the Dresden part of […] [his] memory has been”[10] as “not many words about Dresden came from […] [his] mind then”[11]. The uselessness of his war memories and thus his Dresden experience is not founded in their being insignificant or unimportant; they remain all the time part of his life, even when he has “become an old fart with his memories”[12] in the book.

To him they seem useless as “however tempting Dresden has been to write about”[13] they don’t fit into any narrative concept or convention he tries to apply to them. His tools as “a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations”[14] with which he “had outlined the Dresden story many times”[15] don’t work. When telling his war buddy O’Hare his idea that “the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby”[16] because “the irony is so great”[17], O’Hare unmasks this technique as instrument of a trade. The event of the killing of Edgar Derby is turned into the ironical climax of the burning of a whole city and the killing of thousands of people in the bombing and Dresden.[18] Thus the events as moments of killing and burning, which should in a civilised society have a connotation of cruelty and terror, are sacrificed for the narrative context - in this case to irony. The narrative form does not represent reality, but it distorts it.[19]

Similar, the narrator agrees that “the best outline I have ever made”[20], which is “on the back of a roll of wallpaper”[21], actually is more “the prettiest one”[22]. Strictly following the notions of linear plot and linear time, it has a “beginning of the story”[23], a middle and an end.[24] “The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange crosshatching”[25] in it and thus reduced to an obstacle in the characters stories that is deprived of its impact and traumatic effect. It is easily dismissed, as this outline is followed by the descriptive account of the book’s planned end. The surviving soldiers are returned to there side. As the narrator accounts “we were flown to a rest camp in France, where we were fed chocolate malted milkshakes and other rich foods until we were all covered with baby fat. Then we were sent home, and I married a pretty girl who was covered with baby fat, too.”[26] The war is over, civilisation is restored. The soldiers return to a state of infantile innocence, instead of leaving its mark on them, the war remains existential only in form of souvenirs.[27]

But obviously, reality itself proves to be not so easy to handle In the following paragraph the narrator characterizes himself again as “an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls”[28]. The war experience is not abandoned by ordering them in a narrative construct. It is not dissoluted in the simple resolution of returning into an ordered existence in society.[29] War does not loose its terror so easily. The veterans in the narrator’s environment “who’d really fought”[30] are “the ones who hated the war the most”[31], and “the kindest and funniest one”[32]. Thus the consequence of the war experience is a hate of war.

Beyond a hate for it, there is no other sense of war. There is no significance to be found in a plot with a linear development; cause-and-effect. The experiences as such are significant for war. They defy such structures. ”The traditional concept of a story as a sequential narrative with a ‘consequential significance’, it seemed, [is] invalidated by the crude and brutal facts of reality” Schöpp describes the failure of fiction and history.[33] Those structures rather designify the war experience, as the war appears meaningful in such a coherent, structured, logical setting. There seems to be a clear-cut end, at which the individual terror ceases while global effects of the war remain. The only meaning attached to the war to those who fought it in the representation of the narrator is its meaninglessness; it produces the urge to prevent war.

2.2. The fiction of reality

Narratives shape the view of the world and the perception of reality. “A work of history and a story die Geschichte and die Geschichten, l’istoria and la storia have always been recognized as essentially analogous human activities and mental constructs by which a world is organized which would otherwise remain chaotic and enigmatic”.[34] The awareness of the reciprocal relation of fiction and reality, or rather individual reality, is one of the main features of Slaughterhouse-Five. In chapter one, “we are at least made aware that the life of forms relates to the form of our lives”.[35]

2.2.1. Mary O’Hare, war books and Roland Weary

In chapter one, the relation between narratives and reality is most directly addressed by Mary O’Hare. She accuses the narrator of distorting the truth:

“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 glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them”.[36]

She points to the fact that narrative schemes are not only sometimes unsuitable to represent reality and distort it, but that this representation has a very real effect on the world and the individual. There is not only a discrepancy between the narrator’s believe that “one of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters”[37] and the conventions of a war novel, but those conventions are actually received as reality or at least used to conceptualize reality. In the story of Billy Pilgrim this is embodied by Roland Weary, a soldier who turns his direct war experience into “a true war story – whereas the true war story was still going on”.[38] He designs his experience.[39] His fictious world is separate and distinct from “real life”[40], he is one of the “babies in the war”[41] as Mary O’Hare calls them that is trying to comprehend his surroundings by learned cliches and conventions.[42] The narrator trying to outline the story on a piece of wallpaper and Roland Weary designing his own reality are analogous processes. But while an author of a war books creates conventions – even if he might not be aware of it in following the same conventions - Roland Weary is on the consumer side. His reality is governed by those conventions, in structure and in details. He carries as well a second source, for an official version of reality, with him, in the form of pamphlets entitled “Why we fight” and “Know your enemy”[43], published by the US army.


[1] Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five. New York 1991. Title page.

[2] Slaughterhouse-Five. P. 1.

[3] Richard Gianone: Vonnegut – A Preface To His Novels. Port Washington / London, 1977.P. 87.

[4] Slaughterhouse-Five. P. 1.

[5] Compare T. J. Matheson: “‘This lousy little Book’: The Genesis and Development of Slaughterhouse-Five as revealed in Chapter one”. Studies in the Novel 16(2). 1984. P. 229.

[6] Gianone. P. 83.

[7] Compare Robert Merill and Peter A. Scholl: “Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: The Requirements of Chaos”. Studies in American Fiction 6. Boston, 1978. P. 70. Matheson. P. 229. James Lundquist: Kurt Vonnegut. New York, 1972. P. 74.

[8] Slaughterhouse-Five. P. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p. 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. P. 4f.

[17] Ibid. P. 5.

[18] Compare Ibid.

[19] Compare Matheson. P. 232f.

[20] Slaughterhouse-Five. P. 5.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. P. 7.

[27] Compare Ibid. P. 5f.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Compare Matheson. P. 234.

[30] Ibid. P. 11.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Joseph C. Schöpp: “Slaughterhouse-Five: The Struggle with a Form that Fails”. Amerikastudien / America Studies 28(3). 1983. P. 336.

[34] Schöpp. P. 335

[35] Gianone. P. 83.

[36] Slaughterhouse-Five. P. 14.

[37] Ibid. P. 164.

[38] Ibid. P. 42.

[39] Bernd Schäbler: Amerikanische Metafiction im Kontext der europäischen Moderne (Beiträge zur Anglistik ; Bd. 7). Giessen, 1983. P. 604.

[40] Slaughterhouse-Five. P. 42.

[41] Ibid. P. 14.

[42] Comp. Schäbler. P. 620f.

[43] Slaughterhouse-Five. P. 40.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Constructing "Slaughterhouse-Five"
The Interplay between Fiction, Reality, Structure and Time
University of Stuttgart  (American Studies)
Postmodern Fiction
2,3 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
521 KB
Constructing, Slaughterhouse-Five, Postmodern, Fiction
Quote paper
Marc Regler (Author), 2003, Constructing "Slaughterhouse-Five", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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