Slaughterhouse-Five is an intriguing book written by Kurt Vonnegut covering WWII and the struggles which the soldiers endured throughout the war. However, the book isn’t interesting only for its content; the way the main character experiences and illustrates the book creates room for strange interpretations. This novel is presented in a random, skipping timeline which effectively represents one man’s inability to live a normal life after experiencing the traumatic events of WWII. Main character Billy Pilgrim’s life get’s translated directly to the disjointed collage of the narrative, setting it up for debatable interpretations. Throughout the novel we are experiencing Billy’s life just as he does; without suspense or any logical order; we are randomly orbiting through events, leading up to the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. Taking on a Tralfamadorian narrative creates, for humans, a very jumbled and confusing narrative; however throughout, the text regularly comes back to a chronological order ultimately leading up to the firebombing of Dresden.
Traditional novels of this subject might start with a young Billy Pilgrim and briefly follow him into his older age; or it could start with an elder, wiser Billy Pilgrim; who, throughout the story, flashes back to major events on his life, leading up to the firebombing of Dresden. However, Billy adopts a Tralfamadorian attitude towards life, because this is the best and maybe only way he can make sense of the loose grip on time he is left with after the war. In order to effectively present Billy’s life, the narrative approximates the same attitude while keeping an almost hidden chronological narrative. A Tralfamadorian novel, as discussed in Chapter 5, contains urgent, discrete messages describing scenes and situations; all of which are read simultaneously and put together to create something beautiful and free of moral lesson. The author of a Tralfamadorian novel chooses all the messages so that when seen all at once, they form a profound image of life. If read in other form there appears to be no clear relationship among the messages, there is no beginning, middle, climax, or end. Vonneguts’ novel in many ways reflects this layout, but he keeps coming back to a simple chronological narrative.
In order to better understand Slaughterhouse-Five, it is very important to get a clearer understanding of what exactly a Tralfamadorian novel is like. Humans, of course, cannot perceive every element of a novel all at one time, therefore cannot perceive a Tralfamadorian novel as meant to be. People can only approximate this effect like a motion picture film; using quick snapshots shown in rapid succession, creating a storyline. When these snapshots are shown in chronological order it creates a linear narrative, as seen in most traditional novels or films. When shuffled thoroughly, and then flipped through, we get a close representation of what a Tralfamadorian novel is like. Vonnegut entrusts his Dresden book to a Tralfamadoian-like template; hoping that it will produce something profound and possibly beautiful from the memories of such a horrible massacre.
As the reader gets into Slaughterhouse-Five it becomes more evident that although it takes on a Tralfamadorian form, there is a less obvious chronological narrative that appears. A linear story does emerge out of the jumble of time-shifted details within the novel, which is of Billy Pilgrim, a POW who’s making his way through time and across Europe towards Dresden, the scene of ultimate destruction. Throughout the novel we return to this thread of the narrative, and it unfolds in chronological order. However, dispersed within this order are wild zigzags forward and backward in time, reflecting on Billy’s life. The time jumps seem confusing most of the time, but they give force to the horror we encounter along the way. Vonnegut does a brilliant job feeding the novel’s emotional momentum with these somewhat random transitions between time jumps. A good example of this comes in Chapter 3 when Billy is transported from his bed in Ilium, where he weeps after seeing cripples in the street, to the POW march in Luxembourg, where he is weeping because of the wind in his eyes. These transitions take the place of traditional narrative devices such as foreshadowing. Vonnegut gives away the climax he had been considering for his grand narrative, Edgar Derby’s execution, in Chapter 1; but when we finally get to the telling of it, in Chapter 10, it comes simply as an afterthought. These time jumps and strange unorthodox foreshadowing play important roles in creating a Tralfamadorian-like novel branching off a more traditional human timeline based narrative.
In addition, as argued by Dr. Willi Real, Billy could be a schizophrenic. It’s important to remember to note that Vonnegut himself uses the word schizophrenia in his novel near the beginning. “This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of planet Tralfamadore, where flying saucers come from.” This show’s that Vonnegut wants the reader to let schizophrenia play an important element in his novel. A very important step in this argument includes defining the word schizophrenia. In his article on Vonnegut’s novel, Putz qhotes R.D. Laing’s definition of schizophrenia: “a special strategy that a person invents in order to live an unlivable situation.” This differs from traditional views of schizophrenia which states that people suffering from schizophrenia have a split personality. This new context also doesn’t look at schizophrenia as an illness; instead it looks at it as an understandable reaction to a very negative environment. Also, in this new definition by Laing the Tralfamadorians themselves must be schizophrenic, always neglecting the negative implications of life and focusing exclusively on the good moments.
While reading Slaughterhouse-Five the reader will easily notice that Billy’s life consists of very negative depressing phases involving a series of personal catastrophes. These catastrophes include the death of Billy’s wife, a poor childhood, difficult children, and Billy’s experiences in the war. These experiences are prevalent throughout Billy’s whole life , therefore his life could be described as unlivable, and attempted escape seems to be a possible if not logical consequence for Billy. In the hospital when Rosewater utters to the psychiatrist corroborates the assumption that life seems unbearable for people. “Another time Billy heard Rosewater say to the psychiatrist, ‘I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.’” This creates a sense that Billy wants to escape all of his negative experiences to live on another planet. With this better understanding of the word schizophrenia, maybe both arguments about the reason for Vonnegut’s narrative choice are correct.
It’s made obvious early in the novel that Vonnegut wants the reader to be aware of the schizophrenic-like narrative. Yet, later in the novel when Tralfamadorian novels are being explained it’s as if the Tralfamadorians are describing Slaughterhouse-Five itself. In conclusion the reader could say that although the novel seems chaotic and incoherent and first, Vonnegut achieves a brilliant order by using unorthodox techniques that were described above. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five thoroughly, readers will be able to recognize the underlying principles structuring this beautifully written novel.
Vonnegut, Kurt: Slaughterhouse-Five. Ed. Ruth Freifrau von Ledebur. 2nd ed. Berlin: Cornelsen, 1993. Secondary Literature
Real, Willi. "Slaughterhouse Five - Narrative Technique." Slaughterhouse Five - Narrative Technique. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Jan. 2013. Harris, Charles B., "Time, Uncertainty and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.": A Reading of Slaughterhouse Five, The Centennial Review 20 (1976), pp. 228-243. Pütz, Manfred, "Who am I this time? Die Romane von Kurt Vonnegut", Amerikastudien 19:1 (1974), pp. 31-42.