Perception Of The Time In K. Vonneguts’ Slaughterhouse - Five

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Most of the time Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is considered to be an anti-war novel, however, there are moments in the novel where Vonnegut challenges his readers in questioning their character’s perception of time by having the unusual structure of storytelling. We can appreciate this novel at least for its originality and for its unique chronological order. To date, novels, in particular, are rarely structured their chronological order in such a bizarre way as in Slaughterhouse-Five because it often creates incoherency in the main plot which gives hard time for readers. So why does such an unorthodox way of storytelling of work surprisingly well in Slaughterhouse-Five?

The novel starts with Kurt Vonnegut narrating and stating that the story he is about to tell is more or less true. First Chapter tells us that Vonnegut has spent 23 years attempting to write a book about events in Dresden, which he witnessed as a prisoner of war. He describes his life after the war when he was an anthropology student at the University of Chicago. In addition, Vonnegut details his attempts on mapping the plot of his novel, which he notices is becoming much more complex as he progresses. He borrowed his daughter’s crayon to draw the map on the back strip of wallpaper. So why does he uses such a gimmick, to map his novel, instead of just writing a standard draft and making improvements later? The reason behind that is the title of Slaughterhouse-Five and much of its source material came from his own experience. Therefore, to make sense of human behavior after witnessing such dreadful events he began to study an unusual aspect of anthropology: the shapes of stories, which he insisted were just as interesting as the shapes of pots or any other subject. To find the shape, Vonnegut usually graphed the main protagonist’s fortune from the beginning until the very end. Graph consists of (G – I) axis and (B – E) axis. (G – I) axis is a straight vertical line where point G is “Good fortune” located up top and point I is “ill fortune” located at the bottom.

As for the (B – E) axis, it’s a straight horizontal line in the middle of the (G – I) axis, where point B is the “Beginning of the story” located at the beginning of the line, and E is “The end” or “entropy” located far right at the end of the line.

If the line goes down it would mean that the main character is going through the lowest point in his life, the higher the line, the higher the main character’s happiness and the events that are making him happy. Soon Vonnegut realized that shape of his story was complicated and unwieldy. Because it was impossible to distinguish a character’s good fortune from the bad. Therefore, he thought this kind of story was more realistic because the main protagonist was the victim of unpredictable accidents that were not dependent on him, and even more so he could not foresee them nor was unable to predict how long they will last upon him, same as in real-life circumstances. He found very neat and satisfying arcs of many stories that shared similarities with this reality and Vonnegut went on to explore the uncertainty between good and bad fortune in his novel.

When Vonnegut refused to utilize clearly defined fortunes, he also turned down straightforward chronology. The very first sentence of chapter two sets the tone of the whole novel: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”. Billy’s perception of time has changed completely, the very first sentence of chapter two tells us he cannot just walk through the story as a normal character from beginning to end. Something was odd, all moments of his life, past, present, and future were just in front of his eyes and he was jumping into those life events in time constantly from one to another. He could not control time jumps and the experience of time trips was not necessarily fun either since he did not know which moment of his life is coming next. As Martin Coleman has stated in his article: “Billy pilgrim experiences irregular temporal relations. He can recognize a sequence of events, but he is unable to distinguish temporal relations among them so that he might understand why one follows another. His experience is haphazard, disconnected, and thin on significance for his development as an individual”.

Vonnegut’s right of the bat forces his readers to dive deep into that chronological chaos. Nevertheless, all this mess keeps you engaged in the story because as we progress on the novel we find out that all that incoherent mess created by constant time travels has a meaning behind it and is a core structure of the story. Later in the story, we were introduced to Tralfamadorians, creatures from space that are frequent guests of Vonnegut’s books. “He said, too, that he had been kidnaped by a flying saucer in 1967. The saucer was from the planet Tralfamadore, he said. He was taken to Tralfamadore, where he was displayed naked in a zoo, he said.” 

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Tralfamadorians aliens that kidnapped Billy possessed the same ability of time travel and were able to see all moments simultaneously. Tralfamadorians introduced him to the concept of their time flow. “All moments, past, present, and future always have existed, always will exist”. In addition, Billy was introduced to Tralfamadorian novels, which are written in a way where all moments happen at once and you experience everything at once. There is also no beginning nor the end. Tralfamadorians are a sort of excuse for Vonnegut’s way of storytelling out of chronological order because clearly, Tralfamadorian Billy Pilgrim adopted their perception of time, as well as novel tries to possess their time flow. Daniel Cordle elaborates more in his journal article: “Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five, who describe their books to Billy Pilgrim in this way: “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books is the depth of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.” It is very tempting to read this as a template for many of Vonnegut’s novels, composed like so many of them isof short staccato sections of prose, separated by numerous white line breaks. This template seems particularly appealing about Slaughterhouse-Five itself, which, to mirror the central character’s time-traveling, mixes up the chronology of the tale. Indeed, the title page of the novel even says that it is ‘somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamador’.

However, it is only ‘somewhat’ like Tralfamadorian novels, and it is important to realize that, despite Billy’s infatuation with Tralfamadorians’ philosophy, there is an inherently disturbing aspect to their worldview from which the novel distances itself, and it would therefore be wrong to suggest that Vonnegut’s novel form tries to emulate that described by his imaginary aliens. Indeed, despite the disruption of chronology, the ordering of events in Slaughterhouse-Five is extremely significant.”

While Tralfamadorians see all moments at once, they do not tend to interfere and change courses of events. So terrorizing events such as wars are inevitable and predetermined. Even though it sounds awful Tralfamadorians seem to be at peace with their abilities while Billy is only getting used to it. Sure Billy adopted the Tralfamadorian perception of time, but if we look at it in the shape of a story point of view and put it on the graph. Is it a “Good fortune” or “Ill fortune”? In any other novel ability of Tralfamadorians can be considered good fortune but in this novel, Billy’s time travels weren’t as fun. Time has become meaningless to him. Therefore, any terrorizing event of the past meant nothing to him because he unlearned to act upon those events in a certain way. Same with events that are supposed to make him happy, so we can’t determine whether it’s a “Good fortune” or “Ill fortune”. So it goes.

Speaking of the phrase “so it goes”. While doing my research I stumbled upon many articles emphasizing the importance of this phrase. This phrase was often a response to death in the novel. Daniel Cordele states: The mechanical regulatory of this phrase is a denial of any form of development and progression. This denial is entirely appropriate as ‘so it goes’ encapsulates the philosophy the Tralfamadorians persuade Billy to accept everything is predetermined, and individuals are unable to make any difference to their course of events.” While reading the book that phrase didn’t bother me the first couple of times but the more I read it, the more I become irritated by it because it turned into some sort of signal of death in the novel. Action upon someone’s death was followed by a simple phrase: “So it goes”.

After so many repeats that phrase had a new meaning of inhumanity that was slowly crawling deep into Billy’s heart and his acceptance of the inevitable.Vonnegut’s idea behind that phrase was to show the slow disconnection of humanity in Billy as he progresses in the story. “Slaughterhouse-Five ends with a demonstration of Billy Pilgrim following the Tralfamadorians’ advice. Instead of showing us the Maori’s physical disgust at the dead bodies in the ruins of Dresden or the senseless execution of Edgar Derby, the novel’s final scene begins with a retelling of Billy’s paradisical ride through the streets of Dresden the happiest moment of his life. More rational than Billy and more aware of the horrors of life and death, Kurt Vonnegut at least implied the nevertheless Kurt Vonnegut of Slaughterhouse-five – might agree with Tralfamadorians.”

Even in the end, Billy proceeds to have the happiest days of his life. The ending leaves uncertainty by depicting birds above singing. This shows indifference to the nature of Billy’s fate, which directly reflects on a symbol of there being “no way”.

To sum up the story, the main protagonist Billy by possessing a perception of the time of Tralfamadorians put at stake his free will. Time became meaningless to him as well as events he witnessed and it wasn’t under his control. He became motionless and began to adopt the Tralfamadorian mentality and philosophy of acceptance of the inevitable which means he become less human. Perhaps that is why Vonnegut considered this novel as a failure no matter what the complex way of his storytelling disconnects humanity from the main character.  

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