Many writers in history have written science fiction novels and had great success with them, but only a few have been as enduring over time as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Slaughterhouse-Five is a personal novel which draws upon Vonnegut’s experience’s as a scout in World War Two, his capture and becoming a prisoner of war, and his witnessing of the fire bombing of Dresden in February of 1945 (the greatest man-caused massacre in history). The novel is about the life and times of a World War Two veteran named Billy Pilgrim. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses structure and point of view to portray the theme that time is relative.
The way Kurt Vonnegut structures Slaughterhouse-Five aids in the portrayal of the theme that time is relative. The novel is broke down into two parts: Vonnegut’s story about the novel and the life story of Billy Pilgrim. The life story of Billy Pilgrim which is “presented as a series of episodes with no chronological order” . This mirrors the structure of the novel which has a beginning, middle, and end but not in there respective places. (Dawley 1) Billy states numerous times in the novel that he has become “unstuck in time” and that the time travel periods “aren’t necessarily fun”. (Vonnegut 23) While the reader never leaves the main plot line of the fire-bombing of Dresden for very long, Billy still travels alot. Billy “has seen his birth and death many times” and “all the events in between”. (Vonnegut 23) The reader learns that “the things Billy Pilgrim” cannot change are “the past, the present, and the future”. (Vonnegut 60) Many of the time warps are to his later-life as an optometrist. During his life as an optometrist he marries one of his professor’s daughters. Even though Billy knows ahead of time, because he has “seen” the future before it happens, he knows that he is only marrying her to get funding from her father to start his own company. More of the time travels Billy has take him to his time on the planet Tralfamadore. Billy says that the aliens abducted him on his daughter’s wedding night and returned him a few milliseconds later, but actually spend many months on Tralfamadore because the Tralfamadorians can also see in the fourth dimension, time, which allowed them to keep Billy for what seemed like longer than what he was actually there. While on Tralfamadore, Billy learns to accept his life as it is dealt to him because nothing that happens to you damages you forever. Since time is relative, and your life is like a mountain range, your death ,birth, and all the events in between are nothing more than peaks in a range of mountains, irremovable and able to be visited numerous times.
The point of view that Slaughterhouse-Five is written from also affects the way the reader fells about time after reading the novel. Since the story is narrated by a omniscient being that is everywhere with Billy Pilgrim, the reader gets a first hand account of every event in his life. Also Billy is very relaxed and accepting all things around him. A good example of this is Billy’s habit of following every death with “so it goes”. (Vonnegut 69) The repetition of this phrase not only de-emphasizes death, but also helps Vonnegut assert control over the readers response after a death. (Dawley 2) The way Billy describes the war as if it is still going also directly relates to his repetition of “so it goes”and his acceptance of the relativity of time. After seeing the clean shaven Americans at the camp, Billy realized how young they were and was shocked, saying,”My God, it’s the Children’s Crusade!” (Vonnegut 91). This shows Billy’s view of war as irrelevant and of no practical use except in the extermination of some mother’s child. He believes that people are no better off, as far as getting along, then when they started the war. Because of his beliefs about war, Billy lackadaisically goes through it accepting everything that happens to him because of it. For example, when Billy is picked up by the wondering group of soldiers he is expected to be the first one to die and accepts that and even tells them to leave him because he would just get them captured or killed. The ironic thing is that the two scouts that abandoned Billy and Roland because they were loud and clumsy ended up being killed by what Billy said were, “Three inoffensive bangs” that “came from far away”. (ClassicNote 1). This shows Billy’s acceptance by the bangs that caused his comrades deaths being inoffensive; whereas, if you ask any veteran of war, no shots are inoffensive even if a fellow person is not killed by it. Billy also visits the planet Tralfamadore in the book. His trip to Tralfamadore explains to the reader how he got his point of view on time. The Tralfamadorians see in four dimensions (time being the fourth); whereas, humans only see in three. The Tralfamadorians try to explain to Billy that time is like “a stretch of the Rocky Mountains” and that “all time is time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations” and that taken moment by moment, a person will find that “we are all … bugs in amber”. (Vonnegut 85-86) To the Tralfamadorians, “the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti” (Vonnegut 87) where humans see only stars. Billy and Vonnegut’s own philosophy about life and time is that death is too important to ignore, yet is nothing to fear, and that the reader should accept the unchangeable course of life and of death, and not look back as Lot’s wife did, and enjoy the good moments and bad as well that life brings to us. (Dunstan 1)
Slaughterhouse-Five gives the reader insight on the meaning of life, time, and war. The thought of humans being able to view their lives moments concurrently and not linearly is erroneous to the reader, yet Kurt Vonnegut brings into the reader’s head the idea of time being relative and only existing in human’s imaginations.
ClassicNote. Insanity of war in Slaughterhouse-Five. 29 Jan 2001. <<a href=”http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/slaughterhousefive/essays/insanitywar.html”>http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/slaughterhousefive/essays/insanitywar.html>.
Dawley, Jason. The use of Fragmentation in Slaughterhouse-Five. 29 Jan 2001.
Dunston, Brittany. Destruction of Dresden, destruction of Vonnegut’s dream. 29 Jan 2001. <http://www.geocities.com/hollywood/4953/kv_dream.html>.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York:Dell, 1991.