Engl 4300
Recent British and American WritersLuke Whisnant
 

Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughter-House Five


I realized that the two themes to my work had been given to me
by my siblings: "Here I am, cleaning shit off of practically everything,"
and "No pain."   --Kurt Vonnegut

 

Characters

Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, unstuck in time
Valencia, his wife, a great eater of candy bars
Barbara and Robert, their two kids
Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who appears in several other KV books
Kurt Vonnegut himself, both author & fictional character (a metafictional device)
Montana Wildhack, a former porn movie starlet and Billy's companion in the zoo
"Poor old Edgar Derby," shot after the bombing of Dresden for stealing a teapot
A large number of minor characters

 

Chronology of Billy's Life

Because the book is told non-chronologically, it is helpful to reconstruct Billy's life in order. A rough timeline:

1922 Billy born (same year as KV)

1944 Goes to WWII / teams up with Roland Weary / cut off behind lines and captured / becomes unstuck in time for first time / Weary dies; Lazzaro vows to kill Billy / Billy imprisoned in SH-5 / Dresden is bombed on Feb 13th (historical fact)

1948 Has breakdown, institutionalized, meets Elliot Rosewater (from KV's previous novel God Bless You Mr Rosewater); reads Kilgore Trout novels / gets married to Valencia, has two kids

1967 Kidnapped by Tralfamadorians / taken to zoo on planet Tralfamadore where he lives with Montana Wildhack

1968 Billy is in plane crash; Valencia dies due to CO2 poisoning

1976 Feb 13th: Billy killed by Lazzaro exactly 21 years after Dresden

 

Structure

The book is divided into ten chapters. Each chapter is broken into short fragments--moments or "messages," as the Tralfamadorians would call them, usually no more than a page long, sometimes shorter. The narrative is non-chronological, reflecting Billy's "unstuckness"; readers find themselves jumping around in time just like Billy. In this respect, Vonnegut's book is like a Tralfamadorian novel:

. . . each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message--describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time (88).

 

Concepts and Keys to the Book

gospel : found on the title page; from the Greek for "good tidings"; victory over death through Christ. What is Billy's gospel? The gospel of Tralfamador?

Billy Pilgrim : what is the significance of Billy's name? What is his character like? "Billy" connotes youth, innocence, vulnerability; "Pilgrim" connotes quest and Christ-like (a "pilgrim" spreads the gospel). In what way is Billy a Christ figure?

foma n [a Vonnegut coinage] : harmless untruths. "Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy," he advises. Ex: (101); also Billy's epitaph (122) and the Serenity Prayer (60). Note that this word does not appear in SH5.

fatalism [again!] n [L fatalis, fr. fatum, fate] : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance for all time in such a manner that human beings are powerless to change them; also : a belief in or attitude determined by this doctrine.

Tralfamadorian Time This is the gospel that Billy brings back from Tralfamadore, one of the philosophical underpinnings of the book. What is Time? How do we defeat death? So it goes. KV's development and deployment of Tralfamadorian time:

p. 20 playing with the clocks (also pp. 115, 208)
p. 31 Eat and be dead at same time
p. 60 "God grant me" prayer
p. 76 trapped in amber / the moment is structured that way
p. 85-86 view of Tralf. time
p. 88 the Tralf. novel--note metafiction: this describes SH5 as well
p. 115 Earthtime
p. 116-17 Concentrate on the nice moment
p. 198 No free will cf. also p. 157 & epitaph, p. 122
p. 104 Kilgore Trout's Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension

 

Motifs and Refrains

"So it goes." Stated every time someone or something dies; thus, every few pages.
"blue and ivory" repeated about bare feet
"That was all right with Billy Pilgrim" 157, 198, elsewhere
"Poor old Edgar Derby"--used almost every time ED is mentioned
The nightmare of Dresden. Billy watches an anti-war movie 74
The serenity prayer 60, 209

 

A Few Words From the Critics

About KV's humor: "It is not an attempt to defeat an enemy by ridicule, but an attempt to contemplate horror by means of laughter, because laughter, of all our inappropriate responses to total, terminal horror, seems the least inappropriate, the least inhuman." --from a review of KV's Mother Night in the New York Review of Books 31 May 1973.

"There is no beginning, middle, or end to the novel--not in terms of chronological time-scheme nor of plot development. There is also no suspense (we as readers, as well as Billy Pilgrim, learn quite early how and when he will die), and none of the cause and effect relationships of realistic fiction; the book simply reinforces the Tralfamadorian . . . view that what is, is." --Clark Mayo, from Kurt Vonnegut. San Bernadino: Borgo, 1977: 49.

 

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