Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a story about the firebombing of Dresden, but there is a catch. It’s funny. Vonnegut uses humor and the absurd nature of the story (Billy coming unstuck in time, his time on Tralfamadore, and the structure of the narrative) to make Slaughterhouse-Five more lighthearted and entertaining. The novel is still very grave and serious, but way the story is narrated makes the events seem more distant and muted. It is the combination of the humor, absurd events, and the narration which prevent Slaughterhouse-Five from being a ghastly, depressing tale of the horrors of war. In fact, they make it a funny, entertaining novel which is able to address these serious events and not lose the reader in the absurdity of the tale.
The actual story in Slaughterhouse Five doesn’t begin until chapter two, with the first chapter being written from Vonnegut’s point of view and about events that happened to him. He then segues into Billy Pilgrim’s story by saying: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (29). This is the real introduction to the story, as the first chapter is background into Vonnegut’s reasons for writing the novel. It is in chapter two that the narrator gets into the surreal humor which defines Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim becoming unstuck in time forces him to randomly jump to various points of his life, from his birth to his time in the war to his death. This random walk through time allows Vonnegut to still present the horrors of the war to the reader, but by jumping from the war to later points in Billy’s life also gives the reader a reprieve from the depressing conditions of the war. “The Americans’ clothes were meanwhile passing through poison gas. Body lice and bacteria and fleas were dying by the billions. So it goes. And Billy zoomed back in time to his infancy,” (107). Billy coming unstuck in time and his experiences with the Tralfamadorians are certainly not regular experiences. They are fantastic, unbelievable events. However, Vonnegut doesn’t let himself get carried away with them, and he keeps the focus on the horrid conditions of the war. He uses the absurdity to strengthen the narration instead of overpowering the narrative.
The narration in Slaughterhouse-Five is third person, but it is close to Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut does an excellent job of structuring the narrative so that it emphasizes the distance between Billy and the events of his life. I think the best example of this is repeating of the phrase “So it goes”. This phrase often follows a tragic event or description of something terrible, e.g. “…Edgar Derby, the high school teacher who would be shot to death in Dresden. So it goes,” (125) or “In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.” (182). This phrase adds distance to the events, and allows Billy (and the reader) to detach himself from what his happening around him. It emphasizes the general apathy of the narrator, who treats the events involving Tralfamadore with the same tone that he treats the events in Dresden and those of Billy’s time in the optometry practice. This narration is consistent throughout the story, which is important because the story can be difficult to follow. I think if the narration were too emotionally charged and Vonnegut tried to emphasize the drama of every war scene, then the reader would be exhausted after reading and the book wouldn’t flow well. As it stands the narrative does a good job of presenting the fantastic nature of the story in a way which makes the events and timeline clear and also reflects Billy’s character.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel that uses fantastic elements and a very fitting narration to tell the story of Billy Pilgrim’s time as a P.O.W. in Germany during World War Two. The narrator never steals the spotlight or shifts the focus away from the actual story. The fantastic elements are not the object of the story, but simply a way to tell it. Slaughterhouse-Five expertly weaves the narrative into the events of the story to create a tale which is believable yet fantastic, absurd yet grounded, and horrific yet engaging.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughter-Five. New York: Random House, 1969.