Post Modern Interpretation of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Essay

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Slaughterhouse Five

Pastiche and Metafiction: Postmodernism in Slaughterhouse Five

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It is accepted, by the literary illuminati of history, that a plot, to be a plot, must organize itself around a question, often one with a yes-or-no answer centered on the novel's main character: Will Ahab kill the great, white whale? Will Pip escape the meanness of his upbringing? Will Frodo deliver the ring to the fires of Barad'dur? In this respect it seems that Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five fails the reader: no acceptable central question can be found to follow Billy Pilgrim. Certainly there is no question of whether he will survive Dresden, and, if there is, no conflicting or rising action exists to support that question as central. Perhaps the question is whether Billy is suffering from psychological illness or telling the truth, then. but, while no conclusive answer to such a question is ever presented -- which may be taken for a postmodern open ending -- it also must be considered that neither answer given to that particular question alters the spirit of the narrative in any way. Billy may be crazy, or he may have been kidnapped by aliens, but either way Dresden has been burned and Edgar Derby has been executed by firing squad in its ashes. It is submitted then that, like any great author, Vonnegut has supplied to his reader the crucible of his plot in the opening pages of his novel -- in the very first chapter, before Billy Pilgrim has been revealed -- and that this question centers not on the novel's main character, but on its author and narrator, Vonnegut himself. This question is: Will Vonnegut write about the Conradian horror of Dresden? Slaughterhouse Five is about an author's attempt to reconcile with his soul an irreconcilable event, an event so profound that, as per the postmodern perspective, it affects and reflects everything else in that author's life; Slaughterhouse Five is a man's dialogue with his own novel, and through it, with himself.

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"I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden," (Vonnegut, p.2) writes Vonnegut and later adds, "but not many words about Dresden came from my mind then -- not enough of them to make a book anyway. And not many words come now, either," (Vonnegut, p.2). In fact, he gives the reader to understand that the process has been long in the brewing, and a quick glance at the copyrights page confirms: the novel was not published until twenty four years after the bombing. The first chapter, then, must not, as many critics would have it, be read as purely autobiographical but as an integral part of the fictionalization of the events the book describes. This fictionalization is the whole of the plot itself, it must not be missed by the reader if he wishes to understand the firebombing of Dresden as Vonnegut at last has understood it. for, like any good plot, this one looks inwards to its characters, Vonnegut, the narrator and author, himself.

Vonnegut admits there are very few characters in this work (p. 164) -- and but for Billy Pilgrim it is difficult to find anyone E.M. Forester would have approved of as "round" -- yet, by the end of the first chapter, the reader has already seen the novel's roundest character, Vonnegut the author and narrator. Glimpses of him continue to be found throughout the narrative. Continuously, the flow of the prose is suddenly impeded by these guest appearances. "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book," (Vonnegut, p. 125), Vonnegut shouts suddenly in the middle of a vomiting latrine scene. It is a lament, a self-assertion, and a sorrowed reminder: Vonnegut was there, Billy Pilgrim was not, but even so, while the event has followed Vonnegut twenty four years, he too is no longer there. As Peter Barry would have it, the whole of the novel represents the third stage of the postmodern progression:

…the sign disguises the fact that there is no corresponding reality underneath… what is shown beyond the window is not reality against which the painting within the painting can be judged, but simply another sign, another depiction, which has no more authority or reality than the painting within the painting, (Barry, p. 88).

For never having been there, Billy has no authority; for the horror which he has never overcome, which has sugared over into a cynical misanthropy, Vonnegut recognizes that he, himself, has no authority either. So, neither does the novel have any authority. As such he, Vonnegut, remains, trapped in the amber of the moment, merely a character, alongside Billy, in a fictionalized narrative of the firebombing of Dresden. Vonnegut's ultimate answer to the central question of his novel is that he cannot write about Dresden, he is forced to merely report and fictionalize, perhaps because he has never reconciled.

The devices by which Vonnegut achieves this fictionalization are important to understanding the main-character/narrator/author; pastiche, in the form of Billy's disjointed, time-traveling narrative, is the most obvious. Barry asserts that pastiche is "clearly related to the abandonment of the divine pretensions of authorship," (Barry, p. 83), and so a second reference to the author's lack of authority must be seen. Billy's time-tripping and his adventures with the Tralfamadoreans are an exercise in the meaninglessness of free will, a challenge that it does even exist, and Vonnegut's assertion seems to be that, where he himself has been robbed of free will, he must certainly be considered no authority. The lamenting tone with which Vonnegut approaches this loss might be considered modern as opposed to postmodern by Barry -- he seems to pine for something lost -- yet a postmodern argument can be made: the novel as a whole represents an embrace of the lack of control. Dresden is not Vonnegut's, but rather he belongs to it -- "I think of how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has been to write about," (Vonnegut, p.2) -- and he was only finally able to write about it after embracing this fact. Similarly, Billy boards the plane he knows will crash, denying his own authority.

Moreover, the use of pastiche must be taken to reflect the suffusion of Dresden throughout the narrative of Vonnegut's life, to reflect that he has not owned Dresden but it has owned him. Billy's time-traveling is not confined to the most important moments of his life but to various events, in most of which Dresden's influence can be felt. Certainly that influence is present in the hospital scene alongside Rumfoord. Certainly it is the unspoken monster in the honeymoon bed scene. In fact, if the Tralfamadoreans are to be taken as manifestations of a mind unhinged by Dresden, then at the root of all this time-traveling is Dresden itself. and, accepting that the time-traveling is a symbol for the suffusion of Dresden, it must be remarked that the technique extends into moments which Billy feels have no bearing -- he outright denies the influence of the swim-or-drown moment in his later psychology, and yet, because it is an instance of time-traveling, Dresden's influence must be present -- and that influence extends even into moments which pre-date Dresden. Dresden has reached backwards through static time to re-cast Billy's, and presumably the author's, very childhood. Not finally but certainly ultimately, Billy's time-traveling takes him to the Tralfamadorean zoo where he is placed under a glass dome for the public to view, just as, not finally but certainly ultimately, the author places himself and the defining moment of his life for personal and public view under a glass dome through this novel. At times, the time-weary Tralfamadorean arbiter of the dome drops a canvas over the glass to simulate… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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