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What is Vonnegut really saying?

kobieta's picture

For the first time in a really long time, I don't have much to say. I find myself confused between what I thought was clearly the message of Slaughterhouse Five, and the discussions we had this past week.

I thought that Slaughterhouse Five clearly showed the effects of war and how it cannot be reversed, can never be properly addressed, and most certainly, that the very root of the problem, which is war itself, can never be stopped. This was done by what appeared to a lack of structure, by the juxtaposition of Billy Pilgrim's so-called "time travels" and his reality, by the clever invention of Tralfamadorians and what they have to say. It seemed as if on the outside, Billy Pilgrim has gotten over what he has seen at war, by merely saying "So it goes" for every death he has to encounter or remember, relive. In reality, however, he still cannot escape his tragic past, and the way which he copes with it is by imagining this world of Tralfamadore, where everything already exists, has already happened, where he is not accountable for anything he had no power over, and where the inhabitants seem to be nonchalant about even the most devastating events like death, because there's no other way to correct, alter or change them. Tralfamadore was his escape, where he need not feel guilty for how he felt, being unable to stop the bombing in Dresden. I thought the message was to show that these are inescapable effects of war, that there is no way of changing it, just as his imagined world of Tralfamadore perceives time and events.

I'm starting to believe otherwise, though. After our discussions this past week, I'm convinced that maybe, if his satire and irony are not received and digested properly, that's what it seems to be saying. But digging a little deeper makes you realize that he wants you to do something about it. Maybe he wrote the book in such a way, making everything seems so final, so miniscule, in order to evoke a multitude of emotions in his reader, and enough of them to actually make us do something. In example, by saying "so it goes" after every story of a death, the audience disagrees with the nonchalance he shows, which may also be mirroring how deaths during war are treated and perceived, and wants to do something about it. I think that is what both froggies and I felt. He makes Billy Pilgrim so obedient, passive, and so damn boring so that the audience will be inspired to something about wars, about just agreeing with them and not stopping them from happening, stopping the creation of men like Billy Pilgrim, and perhaps, no one has to ever feel like how Billy Pilgrim, and thus, Kurt Vonnegut, felt even several decades after the war.


vspaeth's picture

I love your perspective on this

Something about Billy Pilgram has been bothering me and I haven't been able to figure it out but you said it for me.  Billy Pilgram is Vonnegut's characterization of that part of him destroyed by the war.  Let me see if I can clear that up.  So we've obviously been talking about what's fact and what's fiction (if we can even use these words anymore) and how there are truths within works of fiction just like there are fabrications within works of non-fiction.  Considering that Vonnegut had been in the war and this book was writing with the intent to talk about his experiences it isn't a long shot to assume that part of Vonnegut went into making the character of Billy (even if Billy wasn't a direct representation).  

We all agreed, more or less, that the character of Billy was borning, and almost annoying in his passivity towards everything.  Our desire for free will is incredibly strong.  I mean, what's the point of trying hard for anything if you believe your life is completely predetermined?  Whether or not Billy Pilgram was abducted by aliens or insane in the world of Slaughterhouse Five, he was still human, and yet he lacked that desire for freewill.  I think you're really on to something when you say that Vonnegut is getting his message across by making us want to prevent the creation of men like Billy Pilgram.  We don't want to live in a world where something terrible happens and everyone just calmly claims "so it goes."  Like you said, it makes us angry, it makes us want to do something, and that's exactly what I think Vonnegut wanted.

EGrumer's picture

Kurt and Billy

Billy Pilgram is Vonnegut's characterization of that part of him destroyed by the war.

This is a really interesting perspective, and one that hadn't occured to me before.  Thinking about it now, though, I wonder if maybe Billy is not the part of Kurt that was destroyed by war, but the part that war brought out.  Billy is helpess, apathetic, and weak.  All he asks for is grace to know what he cannot change, and he knows that what he cannot change is everything.  He just flows along, doing as he is directed to do.  So it goes.

And, maybe, that's how war makes a person feel.  Made Kurt Vonnegut feel.  You follow orders and march along, doing things that you have no respect for and no desire to do.  You see horrors, but you cannot do anything about them.  You cannot change anything.  You don't have that power.  You are trapped in the amber of the moment.  That's how Billy feels all the time, and maybe that's the part of a person that experiences war.  Maybe that's a part of Kurt Vonnegut that the writer hoped never to inhabit again.

Ayla's picture

not necessarily something more, but something different

I think there is something that Vonnegut wanted us to get out of his book, other than that we should do something, and I think it runs parallel to v and k's suggestions.  The Tralfamadorians still remind me of those people in power who believe that their hands are forced into bad decisions.  "Oh we had no choice but to go to war when Pearle Harbor was hit"  "Oh the Japanese were out of control, we just had to bomb Hiroshima"  "Oh the Germans need to pay for the WWI war reparations even though it will destroy their economy and basically start WWII".  Right, we had no choice but to go to war - isn't that what they tell us?  I can't stand it.  What the hell is the concept that you had no choice?  There's always a choice - but somehow people actually like to fall into predetermination because it relieves you of responsibility.  This is directly and explicitly shown in Pilgram's interactions with Tralfalmadore, and k summarized it well.  He is not responsible for the deaths he caused and the bombing of Dresden.  He is not even responsible for preventing another war.  I think that "doing something" is probably one of Vonnegut's morals, but I think it is something different as well.  It is a recognition of who we are "doing something" against - and that "who" is the people who fall into predetermination.