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Slaughter House Five, Term Paper Example

Pages: 10

Words: 2880

Term Paper

Introduction

“Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death” is a novel written by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II.  Recognized as one of Vonnegut’s most influential works, the novel is ranked as the 18th greatest English language book of the 20th century by Modern Library.  The acclaim of the book largely stems from the unique cynical approach Vonnegut takes to commenting on the concept of war and the disillusionment caused by the American media.  War propaganda is not used as an iconic theme, but as satire and depicted realistically for its true worth. If Vonnegut’s book does anything, it reveals the ironies of war, and it starts by introducing the reader to the most ironic of war book heroes, Bill Pilgrim. The protagonist is not an anti-hero, but an unconventional model of what the war hero genre is known for portraying. Through Vonnegut’s use of Pilgrim as un unconventional lead in this war story, he is able to take the tale in many directions that could not normally be utilized in a book of this caliber.  The main themes addressed are the traumatic effects of war, the myth of American masculine dominance, and the meaning of war.

Early on in the book, one of the key opening lines is stated by the director Harrison Starr. When commenting on the concept of War books he says, “Do you know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books? . . . I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead (Vonnegut 4)?” This is what real-life director Harrison Starr says to the narrator. This lets the reader know right away that this will not be a traditional war book. The author let’s the reader know he is aware of what came before it and Vonnegut is going to attempt to take the genre somewhere new. This means old motifs of traditional war books, like the manly hero, or the romanticized battler will have to be revamped for a more contemporary reader. He starts by making his hero, Billy Pilgrim. Billy Pilgrim spends most of the novel trying not to die. The reality is that Billy has no control over his destiny. War is chaotic and unpredictable and in many ways illogical. It is very ironic that the narrator also has the complication of struggling with a similar conceptual problems. The question that the author and Billy confront is how should one write a book against war when it will never change?    This novel reveals that war and violence are part of human nature, and addresses the notion that this would be a difficult concept to distinguish.

Body

Billy Pilgrim is the protagonist of Slaughter House Five. The ironic thing about Billy Pilgrim is that he doesn’t contain the traditional characteristics of a war hero protagonist. He is an odd-looking student of optometry who gets drafted to enter the military. When he goes to Luxembourg to fight against Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, he is captured.  He annoys all of his fellow captives, including some of the guards with the weakness and frailty of his body and mind. He is seen as pathetic by almost everyone and yet he still manages to survive where others do not. When the Dresden firebombing occurs, and it’s identified as one of the worst events of the war, with one of the highest death tolls, he survives that as well.  Billy’s uncanny ability to survive horrific endeavors without being heroic, courageous or embodying any of the traditional characteristics common of a war hero, is Vonnegut’s way of commenting on how the very concept of war being a way to separate the men from the boys, or turn boys into men is delusional at best. Many heroic soldiers throughout the book are held captive and killed, due to just being unlucky, or for even being punished for their bravery. Meanwhile, through random selection Billy Pilgrim survives.  This puts Pilgrim’s cynical perspective on the nature of war in An understandable light for the reader.

Throughout the book the main character Billy has a cynical perspective towards war and the system of recruiting, or drafting men into war. He particularly makes this commentary on the propaganda used in film and media to depict war heroes in a certain light. “You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs! . . . But you’re not going to write it that way, are you. . . . 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 other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men…“ Here the author comments on all of the film adaptations of war which depict masculine leading actors like John Wayne and Frank Sinatra (Vonnegut 10). Children see these images, identify with the actors playing these roles and assume to be like these men they must go to war.  Vonnegut goes onto say, “And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs (Vonnegut 10).”  Here he makes a commentary on the American propaganda produced by the army and the American media. The main push to get citizens to enlist in WWII and WWI was the war propaganda the U.S. produced, and the U.S.O. shows and Hollywood films utilizing the celebrity of figures like Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne, and Elvis, dressed as soldiers, going off to war, becoming heroes and always getting the girl in the end, painted an unreal depiction of what young men would encounter overseas. Vonnegut touches on this idea as being one of the driving factors that led his generation to join the war. This is not the only time Vonnegut challenges the concept of manhood.

When Billy is first placed in the POW camp, his body is sized up in comparison to others and he is found to be meek in comparison. As the author notes “A German measured Billy’s upper right arm with his thumb and forefinger, asked a companion what sort of an army would send a weakling like that to the front. They looked at other American bodies now, pointed out a lot more that were nearly as bad as Billy’s. (Vonnegut 83).” Billy is not the only frail American soldier fighting for his country. This moment is a comment by Vonnegut pointing out how soldiers were not the stereotypical massive gladiators often depicted in news reels. Here heroic stereotypes are questioned and challenged. The notion that Americans have the best body types, or that only the strongest and best fit men were sent to war, are flipped on their head and the reality of the situation is revealed to the reader.  The truth of the matter is that the army was severely understaffed and they were taking all of the enlisted men they could find, and when they ran out of men they sent boys, even those that were not in the best physical condition to fight.  At the time, for an author to take the risk to voice this reality was very risky and new concept.

While Billy is predominately the main character on which the novel focuses, there are other supporting characters that give Slaughter House Five its edge.  Kurt Vonnegut actually incorporates himself as a character in the story since he was once held captive in Dresden. This adds some realistic credibility to the story. He comments both as a character and an author at times. For example, each mention of death Vonnegut comments as both author and character and says, “so it goes.” This is a subtle comment on the dark violent state of war that is coming from a factual credible source. Bernhard V. O’Hare is another fact based insert into the book. He was a wartime friend of Vonnegut’s and adds more realism to the story.  Mary O’Hare’s is Bernhard ‘s wife she provides another addition to the story’s realism in that she is too a non-fictional character. Vonnegut also enlisted many of the men who survived Dresden to provide their memories.  Werner Gluck is a young German guard at who shares his first view of a naked woman with Billy and the two bond despite their cultural and ideological differences. Barbara Page is Billy’s daughter and she represents life after Dresden. She has to deal with his constant bouts of PTSD, as well as his delusion about Tralfamadorians. Her presence in the book not only gives a fore-shadow of the generations to come after the war, but it also allows the reader to see Billy interacting with a real character that is not delusional. Like Barbara, Billy’s son Robert Pilgrim also represents the future of Billy’s era, but instead he embodies Vonnegut’s view that war is inevitable. By Robert going to fight in the Vietnam War he is continuing in his father’s footsteps without ever knowing much about his father’s past.  The reader is aware that this was probably the last thing Billy could have wanted for his son, but Billy’s experience in the war has mad ehim impotent to communicating with his son on an intimate level.

Mary O’Hare argues that wars are popularized as something to admire because writers glorify the exploits of soldiers. Slaughterhouse-Five, on the other hand, portrays war as dark and horrific. In many cases, the characters are pitied. Vonnegut even inserts himself in the novel to make his own indirect commentaries on the nature of war. When Vonnegut’s message to his son’s is compared alongside the narrator’s interpretation of Billy’s relationship with Robert it becomes very clear that Billy has a disproportionate relationship with his son compared to the author. The message on the surface Vonnegut is trying to make is that for many soldiers who suffer from PTSD, the war takes away their ability to develop intimate relationships with their family. The narrator says, “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee (Vonnegut 19).”  In a later passage it is noted that, “Billy’s son Robert had a lot of trouble in high school, but then he joined the famous Green Berets. He straightened out, became a fine young man, and he fought in Vietnam. (Vonnegut 24).”  Here the use of the term straightened out and fine young man are used ironically and Vonnegut is implying both that war is inevitable and that Billy has passed nothing onto his son at the same time. The narrator’s treatment of his sons differs from Billy’s treatment of Robert Pilgrim in that the narrator went to war and returned to teach his children what he learned? Billy, on the other hand, allows Robert to run wild and be a disturbance to society. When Robert finally looks to his father for discipline his father is completely estranged from him due to his PTSD. Finally Robert enlists in the ary to fight in Vietnam only to relive only to retrace his father’s path and make all of the same mistakes. In part this is Vonneguts commentary on war being inevitable, but there is also something to be said for the fact that he warned his children against ever going to war.

Billy believes that in 1944 he became unstuck in time. A core reason why he is so awkward through the book has to do with his inability to rationalize where he is at certain moments. There are times when he is in a POW camp and other times when he is in the middle of giving a speech to the Lions Club, or on his honeymoon with his wife. The story jumps around with Billy’s point of view. Throughout the book Billy refers to an alien abduction which resulted in him gaining a new understanding of time.  Been Abducted? A major theme of the novel is the idea of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s made known to the reader that Billy has nightmares when he falls asleep in a boxcar on the way to a German POW camp. The other prisoners in the boxcar avoid sleeping next to him due to all of his kicking and screaming in his sleep.    Billy is easily startled. When he hears a siren going off, he becomes scared that World War III has started. This bout of excessive paranoia is one of the most prime examples of post traumatic stress disorder.    His PTSD becomes even more extreme as he travels back in time to Tralfamadore to relive horrific past experiences.  All of these events make Billy less reliable as a narrator to the reader. His point of view is always put into questions, and at times it appeares though he is not in the real world. Likewise, it this reveals to the reade rhow difficult it must be for Billy to engage with his family. The scattered way Billy’s mind works is great at keeping the story non-linear and allowing the plot to move freely.

Billy’s concept of time coincides with how the book is narrated.  The revelation Billy reveals to the reader that he believes he was abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore in 1967 to be part of a zoo exhibit. Billy goes on the radio and writes letters to the local newspaper explaining the Tralfamadorian concept of time. The most assertive act resembling actual combat action which Bill takes is when he escapes from the hospital take a radio talk show hostage and talk about being taken captive by the aliens of Tralfamadore. Tralfamadorians believe time is non-linear, which is to say time does not go forward but instead, all points in time exist simultaneously. Nothing happens before or after anything, so nothing can be changed and no one ever really dies.  He argues that moments when one is dead or unborn exist alongside all moments of an individual’s life. Billy becomes obsessive compulsive with getting these points across, as he feels this should comfort everyone.  This also seems to be Vonneguts attempt to redeem the story and to find some meaning in war. He fails to find any justifiable reason for the atrocities caused at Dresden, or in the bombings, but he does put a pleasant twist on the concept of warfare with the excerpts about Tralfamadorian culture.  It’s understandable why Billy would imagine such a unique alien society. With all the horroers Billy seems to survive, the fact is he takes every tragic memory with him. It makes one wonder what would a person have to imagine to forget such offal events. Vonnegut forces the reader to identify with Billy in this way.

The reader is given reason to question the validity of Billy’s interpretations of his life story.  This is due to the fact that he has virtually kept most of the mentioned events from 1944 a secret up until 1968, when he suffers a severe head injury.  This is oddly similar to the real-life experiences of the French author Céline. The narrator mentions Céline in the first chapter, who experiences “noises in his head” after a head injury. The only stable ground the book has to stand on stems from Vonnegut’s use of real life people as characters in the book. The realism leads the novel to being more than a work of fiction but in many ways an anthropological archive of the World War II era. Vonnegut in his own right established himself as a sacred treasure of the time through the success of the novel.

Conclusion

In sum, a lot of what Bill goes through in the book can be understood on multiple levels. It’s true that many people view war with a romantic lens. Soldiers are glorified, specifically those from the WWWI and WWII eras. Vonnegut manages to present a perspective to the reader that is both new and authentic.  Vonnegut’s gritty straight forward portrayal of war is not to be mistaken with gore for shock value, despite the fact that there are numerous horrific mentions of death and war casualty. The author inserts himself in the story to for reality to always be an element. This makes it so the book is always making a commentary on the realities of war. The character of Billy Piligrim despite being a no man, he is also an everyman in many ways. Vonnegut does everything in his power to make Billy a character that is hard to completely understand or identify with, and yet when he touches on moments of profound clarity like the concept of non-linear time, the reader can’t help but sympathize. Vonnegut’s most telling commentary can be seen in the relationship Billy has with his son. After the reader experiences Billy’s hardships during the war, Billy son’s goes onto fight in an even more gruesome cause overseas. The reader can’t help but feel Billy’s one purpose for surviving the war was to advise his son against fighting, and he failed. In the end, war is the only constant, and the soldiers just change from father to son.

Work Cited:

Vonnegut, Kurt. “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Randomhouse.com. Random House, 1969. Web. 22 Aug. 2012. <http://www.randomhouse.com/book/184345/slaughterhouse-five-by-kurt-vonnegut/>.

Young, Paul. “Vonnegut’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Reality.” – Kurt Vonnegut Bio, Essays, Stories, More! N.p., 2003. Web. 21 Aug. 2012. <http://www.kurtvonnegutcorner.eu/essay-collection/c2006013101-vonnegut-s-crusade–a-duty-dance-with-reality.html>.

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