An American writer, Kurt Vonnegut was inspired by war to write Slaughterhouse-Five, which reffers to a science fiction or semi – autobiographical novel. Above all, I believe, this book should be seen as an antiwar novel. Vonnegut transmits his anti-war feelings to the readers through the novel’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, the liteary techniques of the novel, namely black humour, irony and Tralfamadorians.
The very beginning of the novel tells the readers that the novel is an anti-war rhetoric. Kurt Vonnegut as the minor character writes in his own voice and agrees that his novel would be an anti-war book in a conversation with Harrison Starr. In spite of the fact that such a book would be an anti-glacier book because a war just as a glacier cannot be stopped,what is suggested by Star, Vonnegut persues his idea. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war and experienced the firebombing of Dresden in Germany and the main character of Slaughterhouse V, Billy Pilgrim, shares the experiences with the author. I can truly say that by means of Billy’s point of view of the war, Kurt Vonnegut wanted to show his own perception of the war.
In the first chapter, while giving his book about Dresden to Sam, Vonegut says: “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” And he adds that everyone is supposed to be dead and everything is supposed to to be quite after a masacra, except for the birds which say: “Poo-tee-weet” (Vonnegut 14). This statement clearly shows Vonnegut’s feeling against war and the nonsense of it. The birds’ “Poo-tee-weet,” which actually means nothing, may also present the absurdity of war which is illogical like the birds words. The clearest message and Vonnegut’s attitude towards war might be summed up in the incoherent words of birds.
An important element suggesting Vonnegut’s negative attitude towards war might be Billy’s attitude and behaviour during the war. Whenever Billy’s life is in danger, he does not really do anything to save himself. One of the soldiers, Roland Weary, saves Billy’s life in perilous situations cursing him, kicking, slapping, making him move. This also might be seen as an irony because in Weary’s mind, he constantly saves Billy from death, but in fact he takes pleasure in beating him. The narrator reveals that Billy wanted to quit because he was hungry, cold, incompetent. He found no differences between walking and standing still (Vonnegut 24-25). It is clear to be noticed Billy as a passive “participant” in the war. I believe that by means of Billy’s lack of acting, even unwillingness to save his own life, Vonnegut wanted to emphasize the absurdity of war.
Vonnegut not only talks about Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during the war, but also Billy’s post war everyday life. After the war, the main character is, to certain extent, insane. Vonnegut shows the destructive aspect of war which, in case of Billy, results in mental unstableness. An example would be when Vonnegut explains how he used to cry without any particular reason: “Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping” (Vonnegut 44). Billy visits regularly the doctor who is the only person who knows about these instable feelings. Having seen so many traumatizing images during the bombing of Dresden, Billy may suffer from depression. All this indicates the hurtfullness of war and surely shows Vonnegut’s anti-war sentiments.
One of the novel’s literary technique such as black humour might be also seen as the author’s anti-war attitude. It may be easily observed in the Billy’s appearance description. During the war he is empty-handed, without a helmet, overcoat, weapon and what is more, without boots. He does not look like a soldier but like a “filthy flamingo” (Vonnegut 24). Vonnegut embellishes the scope of black humour by means of irony which often leads to absurdity. The best example would be the execution of an old high school teacher, Edgar Derby. While a whole city gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed, Derby is arrested for having taken a teapot found in the ruins. He is given a regular trial and he is shot. Another example would be the death of Maori Billy, who survives the firebombing, but dies afterward from dry heaves because his task is to bury dead bodies (Vonnegut 157). Another example of irony might be the survival of Billy and Weary, two unprepared soldiers, “disarmed” while the two scouts, good soldiers were killed: “The two scouts who had ditched Billy and Weary had just been shot” (Vonnegut 39). The use of black humour and irony shows Vonnegut’s anti-war feelings.
Another way in which Vonnegut shows his feeling against war is the existance of Tralfamadorians. The fact that Billy Pilgrim “escapes” to the Tralfamadorian world might be seen as his way to escape a world destroyed by war. It is worth mentioning that Billy usually “escapes” when he is stressed from his experience of war on earth. His time-travelling and trips on Tralfamadore planet seem to be a rationalizing fantasy. He images new himself and his new world in order to be able to go on living. In his created Universe free will does not exist. It seems that for Billy everything was planned, framed and nothing can be changed. Tralfamadorian says: “If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings…I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will” (Vonnegut 62). It seems for me that in a way Billy prefers to believe that the war had to happen, it was unavoidable. Such perception is perhabs better than conceiving war as human idea, which for Billy and Vonnegut is an absurdity.
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five can be seen as a semi-autobiographical novel, science fiction novel and what is more, as an anti-war rhetoric. The unique combination of autobiographical elements and science fiction may support Vonnegut’s anti-war feelings.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse – Five, Vintage edition, 1991