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Post-Modernism, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 729

Essay

It may be argued that Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, is not merely post-modernist in form and style, but an ultimate example of post-modernism.  On one level, and obviously, the subject of the book reflects a foundation or component of the genre: warfare.  This is reinforced by the era in which the book was written, that of the rebellious, late 1960s.  In those years, the nation was undergoing profound cultural change, much of it generated by public reaction to the Vietnam War.  This was a conflict that created new, widespread thinking about war itself, completely challenging the blind patriotism of earlier eras, and it set the stage for post-modernism in the arts.  Vonnegut seized this opportunity, then, to plunge into Billy Pilgrim’s story with a kind of abandon and throwing him into this kind of attitude in a World War II setting. The novel would be post-modern at least partially because, in that time, it was felt that few answers could be trusted.  Post-modernism exist partly through its questioning of accepted values so, by not even acknowledging any authority to traditional values, Vonnegut pioneered the movement. 

Similarly, Slaughterhouse-Five is completely post-modern by virtue of its most drastic device, that of Billy’s ability to move through his life in a non-linear way.  No matter their other deviations in form, traditional narration follows the trajectories of human life in an absolute way.  As post-modernism questions the values and authorities of the current reality, so too may it dismiss any parameters placed by humanity, including that of identifying the nature of time.  It is not so much that the novel has a specific point to make, and about anything at all, but that it exists solely through examining all possibilities of existence.  Billy knows exactly how and when he will die, just as he moves back to his imprisonment in the German camps.  Vonnegut employs Billy, in fact, as a “post-modern agent,” or test case.  He is the question moving through his own life, taking it in yet essentially understanding nothing, because post-modernism does not accept that there is anything to understand.  The genre is debated in terms of its defining characteristics, but post-modernism appears to rely on one element: a lack of conviction, or faith.  It is denial as an active style, and it attaches no importance to anything based on traditional means of doing so.  Even realities fragmented in time or consequential and unimportant, as evidenced by the first line of the novel: “All this happened, more or less” (Vonnegut  1).   The qualification is extraordinary because it discounts meaning of events, and clearly then reflects the inherently questioning nature of post-modernism.

This factor goes to another of post-modernism, and one consistently evident in the novel, that of response.  More exactly, response must indicate weight.  How a character in a novel reacts informs the reader of the gravity of the situation, so response is typically a validating force.  In Vonnegut’s post-modernist Billy, this is transformed into a kind of tangible absence of response.

The motif of the novel is, “so it goes,” and Billy usually expresses this after recounting a tragedy or a death, as that of Le Fevre in prison: “He dies there of pneumonia. So it goes” (51).  Much later, his own father’s death is recalled in the same way:  “My father died many years ago…So it goes”  (268).  What is important here, and what is strikingly post-modern, is that Billy is not actually discounting these events.  He does not overtly deny them of any significance.  Instead, the words are a sort of post-modern chant, expressing a thing seen before and likely to be seen again.

Billy’s response to his alien abduction is not appreciably different, even as the planet of Tralfamadore certainly reflects post-modernism’s lack of concern for recognized boundaries.  Billy accepts, as Vonnegut asks his reader to accept that, if there are beings who can know four dimensions, they would have an insight incomprehensible to us.  Here, as throughout the entire novel, Vonnegut plays with perceptions and expectations in a consistently post-modern way.  It is not exactly existential and it is not necessarily despairing.  What it is, as noted, and what marks Slaughterhouse-Five as a post-modern template in fiction, is interrogatory.  It never asserts because, in simple terms, Billy and the story are always looking beyond whatever frontier is at hand.

Vonnegut, Kurt.  Slaughterhouse-Five.  New York: Rosetta Books, 1969. Print.

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