Fact, Fiction, and Everything in Between: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-five

Essay by kytarenHigh School, 12th gradeA+, October 2008

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Fact: Dresden was a massacre, where 135,000 people were killed by 20,000 tons of TNT. Billy Pilgrim was a witness to this atrocity and had difficulty dealing with the memory. Fiction: Billy Pilgrim was kidnapped by short, plunger-shaped, green aliens from Tralfamadore who taught him that death is only a moment in time, and that life can be found in countless more. Everything in between is a mountain of ideas or questions that can neither be proven true nor false. Vonnegut shows that, in order to face ones fate or future it is best to approach the cycle of your past and the horrors you’ve witnessed piece by piece to a point when the difference between fact and fiction no longer matters and everything in between, like imagination, should not be forgotten.

“The ability to go on, to escape fixity by motion in time is precisely what Slaughterhouse-five is about” (Brifonski 529).

Vonnegut uses the idea of “time travel” to show how one faces his or her past in the mind. The structure, seemingly random, is very much like someone’s thought process, even though it’s probably more sporadic than most. Then again, Billy Pilgrim was traumatized when he was a child in World War II. The transition starts off slowly, Billy would relive a scene when he was a POW, then skip around to moments after the war almost to give himself comfort, and he would soon time travel back to that last scene to fully describe certain adversities. When he was a voiceless soldier with a ratty civilian outfit and being bossed around by Roland Weary, he would go forward in time when he had a powerful voice and was a good public speaker. He time traveled back to Weary with a new sense of indifference so he can gradually lead up to Dresden.

This technique is very much a circular structure, a cycle that begins as soon as Billy becomes “unstuck in time”. Billy gains a new point of view or a form of corrective lenses that are used both metaphorically and physically. The quote “frames are where the money is” is part of this metaphor and helps show why Vonnegut decided to write the novel with a non-linear structure. Anyone can read the facts of the bombing at Dresden in that way, especially in textbooks. The phrase “so it goes” helps his writing cycle further. Every time someone dies, “so it goes” does not pause but leads the story on further only to be directed around the same path again. “It enables the novel to go on despite – even because of – the proliferation of deaths” (Brifonski 529).

Fictionally, this brings up a very Tralfamadorian idea: death is a part of life or death keeps life in motion. People die and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that, Billy Pilgrim learned to accept the deaths and move on in his life only to die himself and keep the cycle moving. Pilgrim did not do all of this rationally, however, he used his imagination to reinvent himself. His imagination created the Tralfamadorians and all of their impassive views of life to help him find meaning in life again, or meaning in the meaninglessness.

Through many flights, Billy Pilgrim or Vonnegut, seek to answer the unanswerable questions. These are the questions that have only opinions for answers that can neither be proven as fact nor fiction. Vonnegut wonders, through Pilgrim, about the mindless brutality of war, the senseless pride of American society, and how anyone can produce, so inhumanely, a holocaust of over 100,000 innocent people, when World War II was almost over, the Germans had been defeated, and any need of bombing a city had disappeared. To Vonnegut, this is the “epitome of man’s inhumanity to man, and the terrible pain with which life confronts the human being” (Riley 453). This is what usually leads man to create myths or start religions in order to declare that life has meaning or a purpose.

Fact: War is inevitable because of human nature. Fiction: The destruction of war on Earth doesn’t matter because in the end the Tralfamadorians will destroy the universe. As Harrison Starr says, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” (Vonnegut 11). However, Kurt Vonnegut didn’t write an anti-war book, even though it is very similar to one. Vonnegut is trying to say what most writers try to say to people in their own artistic way: stop blaming the institutions, we must blame ourselves. Humans commit the most horrendous crimes with the best intentions. “This is what his book keeps whispering in its quietest voice: Be kind. Don’t hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway, and it is better to be Lot’s wife looking back through salty eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities of the plain in order to save them” (Riley 451).

Work CitedBrifonski and Mendelson (Editors); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.8 Detroit: 1978; Gale Research CoRiley, Carolyn and Barbara Harte (Editors); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.2 Detroit: 1974; Gale Research CoVonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five; or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Random House Inc., 1999.