The Slaughterhouse Five, a novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, centers around the life of the protagonist and solo character Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim grew up in New York and was very intelligent during his youth. He took Optometry classes and eventually was drafted into World War II. Prior to being shipped off, his father died. Death is a common topic that follows Billy throughout the story. Thus, he battled personal thoughts and his mental health was that of the uncommon. War played a role in his mental issues as well. The contextual analysis will elaborate on the way in which specific aspects of the novel affect the theme, character, symbolism, and setting of the story.
Kurt Vonnegut was a soldier during World War II. He was captured by Nazis and held in a slaughterhouse beneath Dresden. He uses much of his experience in addition to his satirical personality to create The Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war and witnessed many events such as the bombing. Most people who have never been in a war see it as a very anxiety ridden, horrific event. For Vonnegut, this was the exact same.
The only difference was that he actually was involved and survived. Vonnegut wanted to tell his story, but having to relive the war was testing his strength. He eventually brought himself to tell his story through a fictional character, establishing The Slaughterhouse Five. The background of the author plays a major role in the story, not only due to the plot, but the manner in which the story is told through Billy Pilgrim. Much of Vonnegut’s diction and analytics shows that he was very anti-war even though he was a soldier.
Although there are many themes throughout the novel. The central theme is the philosophy and idea of ‘purpose’ as Billy challenges himself to find his role in life. From the beginning, it was clear that he did not see worth in himself and was not very confident in who he was. This shows in elements throughout the story. When he was drafted in the war, he was disliked by most because of his inability to be productive which was due to his lack of confidence in his man hood. “ Billy was a chaplain’s assistant in the war. A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American army.
Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher,expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms…” Even during his time in the military, Billy was not taken seriously. He knew that, so that also made him ponder on what his purpose is not only in the army, but in life itself. Diction such as ‘powerless’ provides proof that Vonnegut used this character to represent the uselessness of the war.
During his pre-war years, Billy also settled for marrying his wife, who was considered overweight and less attractive.This is yet another example of Billy being careless because in his mind he serves no real purpose, until he figures out what that purpose is. Throughout the story he finds himself entangled in his own mind. He thinks very in depth about why is he is on earth and what purpose does he serve . This overthinking causes him to have illusions and visions.
In addition to purpose, Billy searches for free will. Often times people tend to question this aspect of life. What exactly is free will? Well, according to dicitionary.com free will can be defined as a noun meaning “ the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate.” The topic of free will is subliminally discussed throughout The Slaughterhouse Five. Billy believes there is no free will.
“Little Billy was terrified, because because his father had said Billy was going to learn to swim by the method of sink-or-swim. His father was going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Bill was going to damn well swim.” This event may seem like a normal, minor situation in his life, considering many parents use this technique as a teaching method for their kids. But for Billy, this was much deeper than that.
This was similar to that of an execution in his eyes. He had no free will. His dad did not allow him to choose whether or not he wanted to learn to swim or if he wanted to learn this way. He was forced. Billy feels that everything in life is forced. Just like he was forced to swim, he was forced to marry, and he was forced into the military. There is no freedom, there is no free will. This is just one of the memories that Billy had a flashback of during his mental breakdown after the war.
The war opened his eyes to reality. This then caused him to question whether or not free will is existent. Billy felt that there was no free will; he gained this idea from the Tralfamadorians. He believed that there is no way that human beings willingly and freely would choose to act in a violent manner (war, killings, bombings). This goes hand in hand with Vonnegut’s anti war beliefs. War creates the inability of free will amongst the country as well as the soldiers fighting. He uses free will as a key theme to display his ideal of anti war antics.
A very repetitive idea throughout the novel was time. Billy Pilgrim spends much of days and nights reliving his experiences in the war. He does a lot of mental time traveling. He recollects memories of his personal life, as well as memories during his time in Dresden. Vonnegut references the Tralfamadorians in The Slaughterhouse Five. These are fictional alien characters that Vonnegut uses. Billy Pilgrim strongly believes that the Tralfamadorians abduct him and take them to their planet to discuss their beliefs and theories on “time.”
Billy even missed his daughter’s wedding because he was certain that the Tralfamadorians brought him to their land and he only was away from earth for a “microsecond.” In reality he was absent for much longer than that. Billy finds himself using Tralfamadore as his escape. Everytime he finds himself stressed or being tested by life, he takes himself to be with the Tralfamadorians. This is the same thing that people suffering from mental illness do in real life. They tend to find something that they can latch on and use it as their escape.
It is clear that Billy suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, because he starts having these “time travels” and visits with the aliens after he returned from the war. “Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event- either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event (mayoclinic).
The definition of PTSD is the prime description of what Billy Pilgrim was going through. His time travels were unrealistic and he was so traumatized by the war that he genuinely believed what he was experiencing. The war had a huge effect on him mentally. This was also a method that Vonnegut used to show that the war is devastating and pointless. Nothing positive comes from it, and he makes this clear through Billy’s struggle through PTSD.
Vonnegut himself was so traumatized by the war that he could not express his inner emotions and stress that the war caused, therefore he told it through this novel. He uses elements of time such as time travel and memories to show that the way you live your life and the experiences you go through can have a deep effect both mentally and physically. If Billy would have been more tough and more confident then his life experiences, including war may have went a little less traumatizing. If his memories would have been more enlightening, he may not have ended up in such a dark space.
Character choice in this story plays an important role. Vonnegut uses one main character to convey the reality of life. Billy is a character with a very strange yet unique personality. Although he is the main character and is a soldier, he does not have heroic qualities to him, which most would expect from a lead character in the army. Vonnegut uses Billy to represent the lonely reality that mental illness can cause. Although he has a wife and a daughter and son, he is still alone. Him and his mind are all that’s existent to him. The author makes Billy the total opposite of a brave soldier to show what everyone else fails to show.
Vonnegut was in the war so he has firsts hand experience of how real it is and how much of an effect it can have on people. Billy suffering from depression and mental illness makes it easier for the reader to understand that being a soldier at war is not all that its made out to be. Vonnegut could have easily made Billy a strong and stable man fighting hard for the country, who returns home with happiness, riches, and a normal life. If he were to do that, then he would not be telling his story or showing the naked truth of war.
“There are almost no characters in this story…and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.” Everyone in the novel is in deed sick in different manners. Valencia, the wife of Billy, is overweight and self conscious. She did not ever expect anyone to ever want to marry her. She eventually dies of carbon monoxide poison.
Then there is Billy’s father who is barely mentioned, but his controlling mannerisms show that he has some sort of mental illness. All of the other minimal characters mentioned throughout the novel each have something they are dealing with, whether its anger, fear, weakness, etc. Vonnegut is the narrator of the novel and he himself battled with mental health issues. It is clear that Vonnegut made all of the characters including his main character in a sense crazy and ill. As previously discussed, he wanted to share with the world the reality of it all, specifically war.
This goes back to what is purpose? Everyone in the novel is living but barely existent. Then on the other hand there is Billy who is living, but is encaptured in the illusions and time travel that he is existing in too many elements. The novel would not have got the point across if every character in the book had a large personality like Billy. Although he was strange and weak, he had a lot going on. With that, Vonnegut was able to write and show post war problems. Too many strong personalities would have just made the message confusing.
Symbolism is used throughout the novel to further relay Vonnegut’s idea and message. Sight seems to be an important piece of the story. Billy goes to school for optometry which correlates with the fact that he has these visions of the past and of the Tralfamadorians. Sight symbolizes one’s perspective and view on life, considering this was Billy’s struggle through the novel.
“So it goes,” is repeatedly used during the book. Billy tends to say this phrase after someone dies. Vonnegut and satirical writing, uses this as a sort of comic relief from the death that just occured. It is similar to “life goes on.” Billy is the perfect character to use this phrase as he is so nonchalant and in a sense clueless to reality so he says “so it goes,” just to get over the situation.
The slaughterhouse is a symbol of humanity being treated as animals. Typically, a slaughterhouse is used to kill animals, but in this case it was used as a hideout for soldiers. It shows that the war has no warm heart for anyone or anything. People are being forced into these slaughterhouses, just as animals, to die in some cases.
“The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the Suburbs, women and children dug rifle pits…World War II in Europe was over…One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?” Billy discusses the horrific sight of Dresden, and there were no kind or intelligent words to say. The bird makes the ‘Poo-tee-weet’ sounds throughout the story. It represents the inability to describe or speak on something, specifically regarding the war. After the bombing of Dresden, there were no words for the terrifying and disastrous scenery that was left behind, therefore all there was to say was ‘Poo-tee-weet.”
The novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is a very unique yet powerful read. Vonnegut uses diction, theme, characters,symbolism and scenery to uniquely express the reality of the war. The destructiveness of the war is expressed throughout. The whole city of Dresden was wiped out all from this war. Although it may seem that he is simply writing about a goofy soldier, Billy Pilgrim, he is really telling a deep message of post war. He thoroughly explains how serious war can be for humanity in regards to memories, fear, depression, and mental health. Not only does Vonnegut shed light on war, he in a sense shows the importance of taking care of one’s mental health. If you do not take care of yourself and your mind, then you may just end up in Tralfamadore with Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”