Kelsey Keane So It Goes: Discovering Hope Amidst the Apparent

Kelsey Keane
So It Goes:
Discovering Hope Amidst the Apparent Chaos of Postmodern Work Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969 and regarded by many as his
“major achievement” (McGinnis 148), presents the story of Billy Pilgrim, a child at heart and
soldier by draft, through “an irreverent novel which mixes horror and humor while bordering on
science fiction” (Greiner 111). The postmodern work, which Vonnegut finished writing during
the height of the Vietnam War, speaks to an entire generation of Americans who have come to
view war, not with the romanticized enthusiasm of past generations (the nineteenth century
especially), but with the disillusionment of a society hardened by the perverseness of war.
Written to reflect the despondency brought by war through one veteran’s sporadic jumps in time,
the seemingly chaotic narrative may initially lead readers to assume that Slaughterhouse-Five
mimics the fatalistic conclusions evident in the postmodernist tradition; however, upon closer
reading of Vonnegut’s work, a stylistic order becomes evident, which in turn establishes
cohesive themes concerning the effects of trauma and the discovery of hope amidst the atrocity
of war.
The work opens with a revealing chapter written from the point of view of the implied
narrator—Vonnegut himself. Confessing to the hardships encountered during the writing
process, which range from his own suppressed memories to others’ concern that his work would
glorify a moment of horrible atrocity, he concludes the chapter with the deeply sarcastic
declaration: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore”
(Vonnegut 22). In direct contradiction to the bold statement, the remainder of the novel
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illustrates Vonnegut’s own purposeful look back—a look into the gaps of his memory and into
the holes in recorded history to remember and demystify the atrocious slaughter of more than
135,000 innocent lives in Dresden, Germany, during World War II. Following the journeys of
protagonist Billy Pilgrim through both time and space as he is literally “unstuck in time,” the
reader vicariously travels from the warfront in Germany to Pilgrim’s comfortable office of
optometry, from his irksome marriage to wife Valencia to his romantic affair with Hollywood
starlet Montana Wildhack on the planet of Tralfamadore, from fantasy to reality, and from reality
to moments of horrific wartime atrocity. While his jumps in time are initially signaled by
mentions of specific actions, colors, or ideas, the jumps become increasingly more sporadic, less
coherent, and entirely unpredictable as both the author and the protagonist move towards the
critical memory of the bombing of Dresden (Boon). The ultimate effect of the work is the direct
and purposeful contact of the author, narrator, protagonist, and reader with knowledge of terrible
human acts and the clear understanding that society must reflect on the past—in the autonomous
act of looking back, society finds hope.
No critical analysis of Slaughterhouse-Five can ignore Vonnegut’s starkly postmodern
stylistic approach to his subject of the bombing of Dresden; the work blatantly “defies the
conventional forms of plot,” relating the subject matter to its readers through fragmentation and
seeming choas (Hooti 817). Vonnegut disregards traditional linear plot development in favor of a
circular development which mimics Pilgrim’s jump through time. Because the jumps in time
prevent the directly linear development of any one occasion from beginning to end, the novel
exists without a climax; the fragmentation of plot leaves both the reader and protagonist feeling
lost in the chaos of the narrative, never knowing where or when they will be when the next
moment occurs (Hooti 820). Even the narrator’s control of the material is called into question as
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he openly admits having trouble remembering much of what happened. The reader must,
therefore, accept that he/she is reading a work in which “All of this happened, more or less.” The
underlying uncertainty of what is fact and what is fiction permeates the work, calling into
question not only the reality of the novel, but also the reality of all of the reader holds true
(Stralen 287). There is no clearly defined reality, narrative authority, or plot development; upon
first glance, there is only the circular ramblings in time and space of a protagonist who readers
cannot even definitively identify as man, soldier, or child.
Within the “chaotic atmosphere surrounding Vonnegut’s novel” (Stralen 286), however,
readers cannot simply deem the chaos as the ultimate focus of Vonnegut’s attention, as “only a
shattered and disintegrated narrative can fully transfer the sense of anxiety and disturbance to the
readers” (Hooti 819). The seemingly chaotic narrative form mimics the soldier’s experience of
World War II and ensures that both characters and readers come direct contact with the question
only large-scale destruction could raise in such an unprecedented manner: perhaps the ideology
of free will is merely a false metanarrative and all human beings are merely “quiet observers” of
their own existence (Cacicedo 367). An entire generation, stretched across the globe, grappled
with such questions of their own autonomy, many accepting the postmodern fatalism typical of
the times following World War II; Vonnegut joins his contemporaries in grappling with the
issues of violence, life, purpose, and autonomy throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, ultimately
criticizing and satirizing such bleak conclusions and abandonment of hope by his peers.
Preparing to defy traditional linear plot development, Vonnegut announces on the title
(Vonnegut). Unfamiliar with the teachings of Tralfamadore at this point in the novel, readers are
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uninformed concerning the nature of Tralfamadorian tales; however, the reader now expects a
novel which breaks from the typical literary experience. The Tralfamadorian literary approach
itself is best later described by the Tralfamadorians themselves:
…we Tralfamdorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any
particular relationship between all the messages, expect 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 depth of many marvelous
moments seen all at once time. (Vonnegut 88)
By mimicking and even implementing the stylistic approach of the mythical Tralfamadorian text,
Vonnegut moves away from framing and concretely towards an “unresolved circular structure”
(McGinnis 149). The Tralfamadorian nature of Vonnegut’s own creative process guards the
reader against accepting simple, fatalistic conclusions concerning the events of the work to look
instead at the resounding depth in narrator’s overall purpose. Vonnegut, like a Tralfamadorian
author, has chosen the messages and moments of the work carefully to produce one image, one
idea. To ignore Vonnegut’s purposefulness as an author is to disregard his genius and render
oneself unaware of his intended message. When considered in totality, Slaughterhouse-Five is
not simply a story written to recount the time jumps of Billy Pilgrim; instead the work shares
with the reader the implied narrator’s psychological and creative struggle to process and to
express his indignant horror at the bombing of Dresden to ensure that no future generations can
live unaware of what occurred.
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The fragmented form of the work’s form maintains the atrocity of the bombing of
Dresden ever present in the minds of the implied narrator and the reader as well. The work
circles closer and closer to the direct remembering of the bombings, with each jump in time
inching the conscious mind of Billy Pilgrim closer towards remembering the traumatic memories
his subconscious has suppressed since the war’s end. The seemingly chaotic elements of the
work are, therefore, “all purposefully inserted to prevent the reader from emerging from the work
with a comfortable sense that moral order has been restored with the ending of the war, or that
the factors that precipitated the carnage have been resolves or eradicated” (Matheson 227).
Without the opportunity to quietly store the novel’s moments of atrocity within the recesses of
the mind, readers have no choice but to seriously consider the horrific perverseness of war within
Vonnegut’s context of a critical remembering (Matheson 226-228).
The effects of Billy Pilgrim’s fragmented time travels on his inner psyche stem from his
utter lack of authority in his comings and goings; while scientists have often dreamed of
traveling through time, Billy fears the travel—he realizes that the jumps leave him functioning as
an actor in his own story as he is “too effaced and too manipulated by the author to have [any]
kind of independent being” (McGinnis 156). The lack of autonomy leads Pilgrim to live in “a
constant state of stage fright…because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to
act in next” (Vonnegut 23). While attempting to embrace Tralfamadorian teachings of distancing
oneself from the bad and focusing only on the good in life, “his serenity…is bought at the price
of complicity in the ‘indifference to moral problems which is the ultimate cause of events like
Dresden’” (Cacicedo 358). Unable to establish his presence coherently or cohesively in any one
time or place, the protagonist exists without the ability to control his contact with the past,
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present, or future, rendering him therefore unable to process his own experiences and frightened
by the prospect of where he may be thrown next.
Billy Pilgrim’s existence is one void of hope; he maintains no ability to purposefully or
critically reflect on the meaning of individual situations. With Pilgrim unable to formulate a
singular or one cohesive impression from the moments of his life (as a Tralfamadorian would)
the individual moments of his conscious memories exist without any understood connection to
his present—as something meaningless. As his own subconscious sends him shooting across
time and space, he cannot reflect upon his own person, losing authority in his own story, and
therefore losing all possibility for belief in the hope for tomorrow. The puppet protagonist
remains stagnantly undeveloped throughout the work, leading a life in which one must blindly
ignore the bad rather than addressing the problems or working towards a solution. Because he
never develops a grounded opinion concerning the war beyond complacency, he can never work
towards the better of the situation. Through the Tralfamadorian stylistic approach and Pilgrim’s
loss of autonomy, Vonnegut reminds readers to form a complete understanding of the world by
refusing to retreat into imaginative fantasies; Tralfamadore provides both a model and a
cautionary tale.
The cyclical nature of the work and Pilgrim’s lack of autonomy combine to create a
sometimes overwhelming sense of the arbitrary nature of the cyclical work. While fatalists would
argue that the arbitrary nature of cycle established throughout the work point toward a lack of
free will, Vonnegut seems to point towards the hopefulness of such a cycle; no matter how
senseless or numerous deaths may be, the cycle of life will always continue. There will always
be the opportunity for the next generation to be better—less violent, more empathic, more
peaceful. The proliferation of the phrase “so it goes” throughout the text reminds readers that
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“[p]aradoxically, the expression of fatalism serves as a source of renewal…for it enables the
work to go on despite—even because of—the proliferation of deaths” (McGinnis 152). The
phrase serves as a statement of human survival: despite the human race’s rash decisions and
seeming determination to ensure otherwise, life will continue; with new life comes a new day, a
new opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. The ability of the human race to simply
go on is best exemplified by the birth of a child to Pilgrim and Hollywood starlet Montana
Wildhack during their stay on the Tralfamadorian planet. While the aliens have determined,
based on years of research, that one of the human race’s most dominant characteristic is its
ability to self-destruct, this is far from the outcome of their zoo-like display of human race.
Pilgrim and Wildhack’s child becomes a symbol for “illustrating humanity’s drive to continue
the race, which may help to counterbalance its drive to destroy it” (Morse 272).
Through the writing process of creating Slaughterhouse-Five, the implied narrator of the
work achieves an understanding of his war memories and their place in the recording of history
that Billy Pilgrim never manages to consider. Vonnegut’s narrative character recounts his
experiences in Dresden to arouse the indignation that makes it possible to write a relentlessly
antiwar book persuasively. While Billy Pilgrim is unable to take action due to the adoption of the
Tralfamadorian tendency to ignore the bad and the resulting inability to establish himself as the
authority in his own story, the narrator condemns the refusal to work purposefully towards an
understanding of the world around him. He will not sit idle, accepting the world as unchangeable
and hopeless; but instead puts pen to paper to intentionally create a work which cohesively
speaks to the effects of the atrocities of war on the human psyche through a narrative of
disconnected time.
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Throughout the circular style of Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut not only asks but begs
the reader to indignantly object to the horrors and atrocities by war, suggesting that such
indignance must be established by looking straight at such terrible atrocities, addressing the
memories of the horror or the gore, grappling with the disillusionment and even just simply
continuing to survive so that no generation can forget the brutal reality. In this message there is
surprising but resounding hope: the reader, and society at large, can initiate a change—a move
away from senseless violence, if only he/she is brave enough to stare boldly into the face of
traumatic memory (Cacicedo 360- 362). One cannot retreat into recesses of the imagination but
for so long; as the narrator of the work discovers, there is an ethical duty to record the events
because “for all his immaturity a sense somewhere of moral and artistic responsibility to the
events concerned” (Matheson 218).
Within a text which many critics argue structurally point to a fatalistic hopelessness, the
unexpected hope prevails. Life continues, providing society with the opportunity to critically
analyze the mistakes of the past in order to learn from the atrocity by comprehending and
recording humanity’s darkest capabilities. By forgetting, the world condemns itself to repeating
the configurations of the war. By remembering, the world can guarantee itself responsible of its
“My father died many years ago now—of natural causes. So it goes. He was a good man. He was
a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.”
(Vonnegut 182)
A time can come when the world can let the guns rust. So it goes.
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Works Cited
Boon, Kevin Alexander. "Temporal Cohesion And Disorientation In Slaughterhouse-Five: A
Chronicle Of Form Cuts And Transitional Devices In The Novel." Critical Insights:
Slaughterhouse-Five. 36-63. n.p.: Salem Press, 2010. Literary Reference Center.
Cacicedo, Alberto. "You Must Remember This": Trauma And Memory In Catch-22 And
Slaughterhouse-Five." Critique 46.4 (2005): 357-368. Sociological Collection.
Greiner, Donald J. "Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five And The Fiction Of Atrocity."
Critical Insights: Slaughterhouse-Five. 111-124. n.p.: Salem Press, 2010. Literary
Reference Center.
Matheson, T.J. "This Lousy Little Book": The Genesis And Development Of Slaughterhouse
Five As Revealed In Chapter One." Studies In The Novel 16.2 (1984): 228. Literary
Reference Center.
McGinnis, Wayne D. "The Arbitrary Cycle of Slaughterhouse-Five: A Relation of Form to
Theme." Critical Insights: Slaughterhouse-Five. Hackensack: Salem, 2010. 148-63.
Morse, Donald E. "Vonnegut As Messenger: Slaughterhouse-Five." Critical Insights:
Slaughterhouse-Five. 268-278. n.p.: Salem Press, 2010. Literary Reference Center.
Noorbakhsh, Hooti, and Omrani Vahid. "Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: A
Postmodernist Study." Journal Of Language Teaching And Research 4 (2011): 816.
Directory of Open Access Journals.
Stralen, Hans va. "Slaughterhouse-Five: Existentialist Themes Elaborated In A Postmodernist
Way." Critical Insights: Slaughterhouse-Five. 279-291. n.p.: Salem Press, 2010. Literary
Reference Center.
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Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
New York, NY: Dell, 1991. Print.