2 The Disruption of The Traditional War Narrative and the Use of Irony
3 Billy’s Extraneousness to Real Life and the Criticism of American Society
4 Billy’s Philosophy of Passive Acceptance and The Implicit Condemnation of War
6 List of References
In this essay I will analyze Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughter-House Five. I will take into consideration both its form and content analyzing in the first place how these components are willingly put in a contradictory relationship and how Vonnegut unexpectedly relies on ironic devices in order to describe the horrible conditions of the American soldiers in Germany. In the second place it will be argued how the character of Billy Pilgrim, with his antiheroic aptitude, serves as a means of criticism to the indifference and the rampant materialism getting hold of the American society and how Billy purports an unconventional (and for some aspects controversial) life philosophy that still wants to bring about a deeper reflection on the responsibility of the individual in the process of social change.
2. The Disruption of The Traditional War Narrative and the Use of Irony
Since every content in order to be handed on must be fixed into some kind of form, the author of Slaughter-House Five draws the attention not only to the traumatic experience of the war, but also to the more theoretical issue of how such an experience should be described. Vonnegut knows that realism would not be able to convey the dramatic reach of the bombing of Dresden, not even with the most appropriate words of mourning and sorrow apt to decry the death of 135.000 civilians.
If the bombing of Dresden is something that the human language cannot express but that must be somehow recounted, Amanda Wicks’ argument in “All This Happened, More or Less: The Science Fiction of Trauma in Slaughter-House Five” must be validated, namely that the only solution lies in the creation of a clearly fictitious narrative which deliberately encompasses the sense of an out-of-world experience.
Since “trauma resists traditional narrative structure” (Wicks 331) Vonnegut seems to assert that a tragic truth is best told through a patent lie than through a sickening realistic account. If we consider literature as an overall fictionalization of reality, it is possible to state that Vonnegut exploits this quality to its greatest degree. Literature, as a form of linguistic interpretation of reality, implies a certain distancing from the subject matter and what Vonnegut does is to amplify this distance, revealing the unreliability of literature’s pretense of realism. From the very start the reader is warned about the inconstancy of the narrator as he declares: “all of this happened, more or less”(1). Literature becomes then for Vonnegut a way to process the events of his past by analyzing them through an artificial frame and allows the author to deal with that trauma in a more detached way. It has been already argued multiple times how the role of science fiction is crucial to the precessing of Vonnegut’s trauma, but I find it particularly important to take conscience of what Wicks defines Vonnegut’s trademark, which occurs as the result of this process of distancing from the subject: a keen sense of humor and specially of black humor. Slaughter-House Five is indeed rich of humorous passages that work to exorcise the drama of the Dresden experience (Wicks 338). The use of humor proves also to be essential to the purpose of demystifying the publicized gloriousness of the war; the whole narrative is a campaign aimed at undermining the credibility of the war hero stereotype, in his stance Vonnegut presents to the reader Billy Pilgrim, a “cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent” boy (Vonnegut 34) helplessly unprepared for the cruelties and the hardships of war. Vonnegut utilizes a specific ironic device which relies on the contrast between two core elements: the desperate conditions of war, which provide an extra-ordinary scenario of deprivation and a consequent necessity to reinterpret reality in function of surviving, and Billy’s utmost lack of self-love and his helplessness in the face of the events. In the German camp Billy is given a new overcoat which is evidently intended to make him look like a fool since “it was much too small for Billy. It had a fur collar and a lining of crimson silk, and had apparently been made for an impresario about as big as an organ-grinder’s monkey” (Vonnegut 90). Billy fails nonetheless to react to the insult and instead, he puts on the coat allowing everybody around to boisterously laugh at him. This is one case in which the author utilizes Billy’s physicality and appearance in order to create a comic visual effect, in particular Vonnegut proposes Billy as what D. C. Muecke defines the victim of irony, namely a “person whose confident unawareness has directly involved him in an ironic situation” (Muecke 34). The whole narrative of Slaughter-House Five after all is conceived as an overturning of the traditional heroic plot in order to recount the story of a victim who has been involved in the unnatural situation of war.
The key to Vonnegut’s irony can be better understood through Bergson’s in-depth analysis of the principles of comedy outlined in the treaty “Laughter”. Bergson argues that one of the causes of the comic effect is the “idea of an artificial MECHANISATION of the human body” (Bergson 23). With this expression he intends that irony arises in the moment when the observer perceives a disharmony or a paradoxical contrast between the content and the form; more specifically Bergson’s argument focuses on the contrast between the soul and the body, affirming that: “ANY INCIDENT IS COMIC THAT CALLS OUR ATTENTION TO THE PHYSICAL IN A PERSON WHEN IT IS THE MORAL SIDE THAT IS CONCERNED.” (Bergson 24)
A war narrative must necessarily deal with themes of physical necessities and material privations, and the logic of war, which is the logic of survival, must necessarily rank the body over the soul bringing about a conceptual mechanization of the person. Therefore, the material covered in Slaughter-House Five proves to be the perfect ground for the thriving of irony. Vonnegut’s style complies to the intent of putting the physicality of war on display but he goes a step further: instead of tragically commenting on the inhuman conditions of the soldiers, he exposes the weakness and the ridiculousness of those bodies which where supposed to represent American strength and pride, so when the American troops get to Dresden their appearance is in such a state of decay that they resemble nothing more than “hundred ridiculous creatures”, “crippled human beings” and “fools” who would more appropriately belong to a show of “light opera”. On the same note, before being deported to Dresden, we see Billy getting himself dressed up in the azure curtains used for the staging of Cinderella in the camp theatre and wearing a pair of silver boots skillfully decorated for the show. When the troops reach Dresden Billy cannot but stand out as a peculiar human specimen “in his blue toga and silver shoes, with his hands in a muff” (Vonnegut 149). Billy embodies here once more the victim of irony. There is surely a conspicuous tragicomic taste in this image since it was the necessity to shelter himself from the cold to motivate Billy, and the author does not hesitate to remind us of it: “it was Fate, of course, which had costumed him-Fate, and a feeble will to survive” (Vonnegut 151). Vonnegut uses then an effective combination of drama and comedy, showing that even the most laughable twists of events are the result of some kind of pain and that in the chaos of life the struggle for survival is just a show of puppets being fooled by Destiny.
3. Billy ’s Extraneousness to Real Life and the Criticism of American Society
As promised in the preface to the novel, Vonnegut shows that the real protagonists of war are far from the ideals proposed by the American collective consciousness, therefore he takes Billy as the emblem of the antihero and puts him at the centre of the plot.
The irony intrinsic in the character of Billy originates from his hopeless status of outsider. There is no place where he belongs nor where he is able to disclose his full potential, at least on Earth. Only on Tralfamadore he gets the chance to elevate himself above the mass of self-deceived Earthlings and to gain a deeper insight in the processes of the Universe and of Time. This new awareness acquired on Tralfamadore has nonetheless a duplicitous effect: on the one hand he finds a place where his existence can flow harmoniously with the uncontested principles of Fate, but on the other hand Billy establishes himself even more as an outsider among his fellow Earthlings. The name of the protagonist is itself indicative of the quality of the narrative, he is a pilgrim in life and in time, someone who never really learned to live and never found his own place. Even when Billy returns from the war and establishes himself as a successful optometrist in Ilium, the meaninglessness of life comes back upon him stronger than ever and all the preoccupations with rank, money and commodities typical of a bourgeois existence cannot but emphasize the void created by the experience of the war:
Billy owned a lovely Georgian home in Ilium. He was rich as Croesus, something he had never expected to be, not in a million years. He had five other optometrists working for him in the shopping plaza location, and netted over sixty thousand dollars a year. In addition, he owned a fifth of the new Holiday Inn out on Route 54, and half of the three Tastee-Freeze stands. Tastee-Freeze was a sort of frozen custard. It gave all the pleasure that ice cream could give, without the stiffness and bitter coldness of ice cream. (Vonnegut 61)
Paradoxically enough, a man who never fought for anything, not even for his own survival, succeeded in achieving a formally perfect life, but Billy is not blind in front of the futility of these achievements. An object meant to carry a heavy symbolic meaning in the narrative is surely the diamond that Billy brought back from Germany as a war booty. To the middle-class people of Ilium the diamond signifies nothing more than a delightful piece of jewelry and an invaluable decoration for Valencia’s fat hand as exemplified by Maggie White’s exclamation: “she’s ever got the biggest diamond I ever saw outside of a movie” (Vonnegut 174), but there is no questioning about the story that surrounds that diamond nor a mention of the hideous circumstances that brought to its finding.
Somewhere in Billy’s unconsciousness dramatic memories still bring him to cry for no specific reasons and no one around him, not even his doctor, seems to recognize the symptoms of his brokenness, so much that the only suggestion he receives is to install a vibrator in his mattress that would help him fall asleep. The vibrator, as well as the electric blanket, the house and the Cadillac constitute just a poor surface on Billy’s deep restlessness. As Susanne Vees-Gulani argues in his essay “ Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five” this restlessness is certainly buried in memories that Billy hardly manages to re-evoke but it is nonetheless a determining presence in his life as we see later in the episode of Billy’s anniversary party; when the barbershop quartet starts singing a song about gangs, old fellows, sweethearts and pals Unexpectedly Billy found himself upset by the song and the occasion. He had never had an old gang, old sweethearts and pals. […] Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as really he were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack. (Vonnegut 173)
This is the moment when Billy’s ever lasting sense of oppression eventually erupts and shows all the unknown and suppressed monsters that inhabit his mind.
The parts describing Billy’s life after the war throughout the novel are skillfully scattered with details recalling moments of his experience as a war prisoner, these details are clearly inserted in the narration to describe the unconscious working of Billy’s mind but here, in this final scene, Billy’s memories eventually surface to his consciousness and he is finally able to conduct an active research in his past: “Billy thought hard about the effect the quartet had had on him, and then found an association with an experience he had had long ago. He did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly — as follows:” (Vonnegut 177). It is worth noticing then that for the first time Billy’s response to a particular intense emotive stimulation is not to be dragged through a sudden and uncontrolled time travel, in this occasion he is eventually able to conduct a rational analysis on his emotions and to uncover the unconscious connection between the barbershop quartet song and Dresden. Despite the convivial situation portrayed in this scene, it must nonetheless be considered how the anniversary party exemplifies Billy’s extraneousness to that world of middle-class trivialities that leaves no space for the brutal reality of war. The same extraneousness is evident in the relationship between Billy and the very members of his family with whom, apart from legal or genetic reasons, he has no real connection. During their honeymoon Valencia asks him about the war, but even in this moment of intimacy no real communication about the topic is possible. She is dismissed by the author as a “female Earthling” that cannot but posit “simple-minded question[s]” (Vonnegut 122). The conclusive answer that Billy devices for himself and for the others around him is an epitaph that recites: “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” (Vonnegut 122). This beautiful lie is necessary to Billy not only to avoid a real confrontation with his past but also to create for himself an acceptable role in a society too preoccupied with money and mundanity to look at the horrors of the world. Through the writing of Slaughter-House Five Vonnegut not only condemns war as the culmination of human tragedy, he also carries out a final criticism to the America society which, after the war, wanted to celebrate and glorify its heroes but was not ready to welcome back a horde of psychologically wrecked soldiers.