Professor M. Benton
ENG 102: Writing II
October 16, 2019
Surviving the Slaughterhouse: Vonnegut’s Coping Mechanism
My goal for this paper is to argue against the views of Lawrence Broer, author of Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia In the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut who believes that schizophrenia influenced many of the themes in Vonnegut’s novels (Broer). In my teenage years, I read many of Vonnegut’s novels. At the time I read Vonnegut’s novels, I was very alone, alienated by choices of my family. It’s my belief that Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five and survivor of the bombing of Dresden was experiencing loneliness himself. Vonnegut was a man that survived the improbable and his writing reflects said fact. Vonnegut’s writing also reflect his beliefs. Slaughterhouse Five was Vonnegut’s first commercial success, and cast his novels into the spotlight to enjoy today. Vonnegut famously went on to state that the only person who benefitted from the bombing of Dresden was himself, and that his book made about $2 - $3 per person who died in Dresden. This loneliness and capitalization of death would also be enough to cause mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, which is exactly what Lawrence Broer, the author of Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia In the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut believes (Broer). In addition, many themes in Slaughterhouse Five would support the presence of mental illness. However, I believe that the events of Dresden affected Kurt Vonnegut, but didn’t cause any mental illness, or that if they did, the mental illness didn’t affect Vonnegut’s writing to the drastic degree that Broer believes it did (Broer). On the contrary, I believe that the events in Dresden gave Vonnegut’s writing its edge, direction, and intelligence it carries.
The first proposed indicator of mental illness in Vonnegut, is the fragmented timeline throughout Slaughterhouse Five. Throughout Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim doesn’t experience time in a sequential manner, nor does the reader experience Slaughterhouse Five sequentially. Instead, Slaughterhouse Five seems to come to a middle, punctuated by the constant presence and dismissal of life and death with the book’s signature phrase, “So it goes.” Vonnegut seems to write about three timelines throughout Slaughterhouse Five. The first being Billy Pilgrim’s life before World War II, and the bombing of Dresden. The pre-war timeline seems to be the least detailed of them all, often only being introduced to provide comic relief or a sudden change of tone. It makes sense that The pre-war timeline isn’t very detailed. There’s not much for Pilgrim to share about his time before World War II, since Slaughterhouse Five’s main theme is anti-war. The second timeline detailed in Slaughterhouse Five is Pilgrim’s time in war. The war timeline is the most flushed out and detailed of the timelines, as Slaughterhouse Five is centered around anti-war themes, and the consequences of warfare. The last timeline is the post-war timeline, which is easily the most disjointed and confusing of all three timelines, due to its heavy focus on Tralfamadorians, the fictional alien race featured in Slaughterhouse Five. In addition, the post-war timeline isn’t the centerpiece of Slaughterhouse Five, the war timeline is. However, the post-war timeline is used intermittently in the war timeline to sometime provide comic relief. In addition, the normal everyday run-of-the-mill events of the post-war timeline are also used contrast the strong war themes throughout Slaughterhosue Five.
The second proposed indication of mental illness in Vonnegut would be the prominence of aliens in a story that is supposed to be somewhat historical fiction. Throughout the story, the involvement of aliens constantly interferes with the life of Billy Pilgrim, the story’s main protagonist. Due to time being free-flowing for Pilgrim, he often knows of or predicts events that have yet to happen. The first big major example of this in Slaughterhouse Five takes place right before Pilgrim is about to get captured by the Tralfamadorians, when Pilgrim restlessly wakes up from sleep, and awaits his capture from the aliens. In a weird turn of events, Pilgrim knows about his capture, but doesn’t nothing to avoid or escape it. At this point in the story, Pilgrim acts very much like the Tralfamadorians that he’s consistently contrasted to. It’d be easy to mark down the aliens in Slaughterhouse Five as nothing but schizophrenia fueled delusions, but I believe that they’re something more. As stated in the into, at one point or another, you’ve felt alone due to the experiences you’ve been though, which had changed the way Vonnegut viewed the world, causing everyone else to seem like aliens to Vonnegut. Which is what I believe the role of the Tralfamadorians is in Slaughterhouse Five. They’re a placeholder for other humans, humans whose existence is based off of blissful ignorance. In one line from Slaughterhouse Five itself, a Tralfamadorian says, “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” (Vonnegut 150). Billy Pilgrim could only respond with, “Um” (Vonnegut 150). This is further supported by how wildly the Tralfamadorian’s views are to those of Pilgrim. This again, can be related to the beliefs of Vonnegut versus the beliefs of what Vonnegut considers common people.
The third proposed indication of mental illness starts with the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five, specifically, as Billy Pilgrim is estranged behind German lines avoiding capture. Pilgrim was accompanied by two scouts and an anti-tank gunner. Throughout his trek behind enemy lines, Pilgrim constantly expresses his will to be left behind to his companions. Pilgrim also goes as far to put himself in harm’s way, once putting himself into the sights of an enemy sniper, attempting to let the sniper shoot him. Pilgrim is even quoted to say, “You guys go on without me (Vonnegut 43).” Later, when Pilgrim and his companions are captured by the Germans, they were loaded into boxcars stationed on railroads. During his journey, Pilgrim more emphatically expressed his will to die. To make matters worse, Pilgrim was unable to sleep for most of his time in the boxcar. Willingness to die and inability to sleep also seem like excellent signifiers of mental illness. On the contrary, I interpret Pilgrim’s whole situation as a reflection of Vonnegut’s journey back to a normal life. Vonnegut witnessed atrocities in Dresden, dug up bodies, and was one of the few survivors of the Dresden bombing. Lack of sleep is to be expected, but it’s also safe to say that Vonnegut could’ve been experiencing some form of survivor’s guilt, caused by being one out of thousands to survive a bombing that destroyed a peaceful and artistic city. Here’s the closest I get to understanding Broer’s belief that Vonnegut is suffering from schizophrenia. It is believable that schizophrenia could be caused by survivor’s guilt and the constant presence of death. But, keeping consistent with my central message, I still believe that Vonnegut uses Slaughterhouse Five as a coping method to work through his experiences in Dresden. In addition, there’s the school of thought that putting your problems down on paper helps people to work through their problems. This is supported by the personal experience of working through past problems by putting my troubled thoughts on paper, which served as a medium to express frustrations that I felt I couldn’t confide in anyone else. Slaughterhouse Five server as Vonnegut’s medium of expressing his troubled thoughts. But instead of hiding those thoughts on a bookshelf in his room, Vonnegut shared his thoughts with the world.
The last proposed indication of mental illness in Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut’s morbid fascination with death, torture, and suffering throughout Slaughterhouse Five, punctuated with the consistent appearance and dismissal of death, often presented un-impactful and practically meaningless, with character deaths often being presented, detailed, and then dismissed without a second thought. The best example of this takes place in story of Edgar Derby, a character who was introduced to take care of Billy Pilgrim after Pilgrim had a mental break. Edgar Derby was presented as an intelligent and caring character, selflessly volunteering his time to look after Pilgrim. However, the introduction of Derby is finished by stating,
“…Edgar Derby, the high school teacher who would be shot to death in Dresden. So it goes (Vonnegut 125).”
Derby’s death is developed further later in the book, when it’s stated that Derby was shot to death by a firing squad. From a reader’s standpoint Derby’s death is awful, but un-impactful. We as the reader never made the connection with the character that was Edgar Derby, and any attempt to do so would be meaningless since Derby’s death was introduced just after the character was introduced. Vonnegut made sure that there was no connection to be had, just as he likely avoided making connections with people during his service. The imminence of death, torture, and suffering made it very costly to get attached to people. Care was a commodity in World War II, and Vonnegut wanted to waste none of it, for his own sanity. Vonnegut isn’t stating that he doesn’t care about people in warfare, but instead, he’s stating that he cares too much to get involved. Vonnegut is showing that everyone is a victim of war, whether it’s the citizens of Dresden, soldiers on the battlefield, or high school teacher looking after a mentally broken soldier. This idea is expanded upon when Billy Pilgrim details the death of Edgar Derby to his then wife, Valencia Merble. When Pilgrim is recalling the story, he’s reluctant to tell the story, reflecting how Vonnegut feels about the deaths of his friends throughout the war. Again, Vonnegut is contrasted to the typical person through Pilgrim and Merble. Pilgrim views the World War II as an awful tragedy that he barely survived, while Merble views World War II in an almost romanticized manner, eagerly pressing Pilgrim for more events and details (Vonnegut 155). This concept is further supported by the preceding sexual intercourse Pilgrim and Merble engaged in, furthering the concept that death, torture, and suffering is romanticized by the general public, in Vonnegut’s opinion.
I hope that I’ve shown enough evidence to show that Kurt Vonnegut’s writing doesn’t originate out of mental illness, but instead out of intelligence honed and sharpened by his life’s experiences. At the end of the day, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war book at its core, not a pleading for help. Vonnegut writes to make points, challenge views, share his beliefs, and to share his absurd sense of humor based on his life. If anything, Slaughterhouse Five is not a call for help, it’s a coping mechanism. Vonnegut’s novel is one of the most honest and truest experiences and retellings of a warfare experience. It’s even more fortunate that we as the readers are able to experience such an honest and true retelling of warfare. Lastly, the most fortunate thing is that Vonnegut rose to his stardom when he did, allowing readers around the world to experience warfare in a new light, one where the main character isn’t a killing machine that regrets what he’s done, but instead, an unwilling advocate to death. In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut also expresses his fear of never being discovered through another one of his characters, Kilgore Trout. In Vonnegut’s novel, Kilgore Trout is said to have great novel ideas, but terrible prose and execution, which is exactly any writer would fear for their own works. One of the opening lines of Slaughterhouse Five states, “I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time” (Vonnegut 2), implying that Vonnegut worked through his experiences in Dresden through writing Slaughterhouse Five.
Broer, Lawrence R.. Sanity Plea : Schizophrenia In the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, University of Alabama Press, 1994. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bluegrasskctcs-ebooks/detail.action?docID=547634.
Tally, R. (2013). Kurt Vonnegut. Ipswich, Mass: Salem Press.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperback, 1999. Print.
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