Slaughterhouse-Five Through a New Historicist Lense
Slaughterhouse Five follows the life of Billy Pilgrim as he travels through time seeing his life from his birth to his death and everything in between. The story of his life is told out of order and he tells each story in small pieces. Throughout the book he explains what he went through and saw while he was at war and his experience with being abducted by aliens. The reader gets to see glimpses of his life while on the planet Tralfamadore every time that Billy shares something that was traumatic in his life. While reading the story of Billy Pilgrim, readers get the sense that he is disturbed but the further into the story they get the more obvious it is that he is the way he is because of the horrors he had experienced. With the help of New Historicism, this paper will look deep into Billy Pilgrims’s life and how his suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder shaped the way that he told his story. New historicism pushes readers to look at both the texts and the history in order to understand why it was written the way it was and to allow the reader to fully understand what is being talked about. Using a New Historicists lense, this paper will use work written by Louis Montrose to explain the theory and its importance to the book. Post-traumatic stress disorder had a large impact on Billy Pilgrim and by looking further into this disorder it will become clear why he told his story in a nonlinear narrative, why he includes his story of the Tralfamadore, and why he included the story of Dresden.
In Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan’s Literary Theory: An Anthology, Louis Montrose explains New Historicism. Louis Montrose states that “The New Historicism was a reaction against Post‐Structuralism as well as a further iteration of some of its assumptions” (809). Montrose goes onto explain that Post-Structuralism looked at different texts without looking into history (809). Due to this lack of importance in history seen by Post-Structuralism, New Historicism was created (Montrose 809). He analyzes this new theory and puts emphasis on the fact that history was just as important as the text that is being read (Montrose 809). In order to fully understand and look at a text you can’t just look at one or the other, both need to be equally looked at and examined for how they may work together. In the book Slaughterhouse-Five this theory is very important due to the fact that historical moments are mentioned throughout the book. Not only are the historical events that are mentioned important, but so is the history of the author and how his history has to do with what he wrote. Looking into Kurt Vonnegut’s life compared to Billy Pilgrim there are many similarities. Throughout the book Vonnegut points out events that Billy Pilgrim is experiencing that he too had gone through and he does this by saying “I was there” (Vonnegut 67). While reading through the book and all the stories that Vonnegut admits to experiencing himself, the reader can quickly see the horror that he had gone through. All this horror pushes those reading to relate his trauma to post-traumatic stress disorder. According to The Encyclopedia of Depression “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious psychiatric disorder which is initially triggered by an extremely traumatic event, such as a combat experience, a rape or sexual assault, or extreme weather, such as a tsunami or a major hurricane, or other disasters.” (2016). Due to this trauma, it is interesting to look closely at his story and see why he wrote it the way he did. Every part of his book has purpose and it is the reader’s job to figure out why he felt it was necessary to incorporate the things that he did.
From the very beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, the reader gets a sense that the story is going to be all over the place. At the start of chapter two the narrator, also known as Kurt Vonnegut, states “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next … he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.” (Vonnegut 23). In these few lines the narrator introduces himself as the character Billy Pilgrim in the story and warns the reader about the nonlinear narrative that they are about to endure. This warning of random stories Billy Pilgrim is going to mention that he had experienced is the first sign of post-traumatic stress disorder that the reader gets a glimpse of. According to The Encyclopedia of Depression, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder can be “frequent and intrusive memories of the trauma” (2016). This symptom is the first of many that help to make sense of Billy Pilgrim and his way of telling his story. Billy Pilgrim jumps around from story to story in a way that is far from chronological. This symptom of having “frequent and intrusive memories of the trauma” helps readers to understand Billy’s thought process (The Encyclopedia of Depression 2016). As stated in the previous paragraph Vonnegut and Billy share multiple memories that are mentioned throughout the book. A main similarity is the fact that they both had gone to war as a soldier and had been captured and tortured. Having experienced not only the mass deaths of war but also the physical torture of being a prisoner of war helps the reader to make another connection between the two. Not only does Billy Pilgrim have post-traumatic stress disorder, but so does Kurt Vonnegut who is telling his own story through this character. Writing a book that is based off of personal experience, Kurt Vonnegut adds nonlinear narrative to show what he is going through in the only way he knows how. There was no better way for him to show readers how his brain was constantly jumping around from one thing to the next then to force the reader to experience it for themselves.
Beside the nonlinear narrative, another aspect of the book that New Historicist would be interested in is the mention of the Tralfamadorians. When looking further into the story of the Tralfamadorians, new historicist would pay close attention to the story of them and why they are of importance to the story as a whole. Going back into the book and marking the occasions that Billy mentions them, readers can quickly sense a pattern. Billy uses Tralfamadore as a way to get away from reality. To him Tralfamadore is where he can be alone and escape all his memories that he wants to forget. The Encyclopedia of Depression lists both “physiological reactions to reminders of the traumatic event” (2016) and “active attempts to avoid thoughts or feelings about the trauma” (2016) as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Both of these symptoms help to explain why he mentions the Tralfamadorians and also his pattern of saying “so it goes” when he doesn’t want to go further into telling a story. By creating this story and using the phrase, Billy is able to disconnect himself from the emotions he should be feeling. Looking at this information it is easy to see how it relates to post-traumatic stress disorder, but it doesn’t explain to new historicist why Vonnegut felt the need to incorporate it into the story. By incorporating these two things, Vonnegut is able to fully reach the readers and make them see what he does. For someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, they have little chance of escaping the traumas that are played through their head each day. The creation of another world shows just how far someone with this disorder has to go in order to live with what they have seen. They have to go as far as to convince themselves of a story that allows them to disconnect from the outside world and their feelings.
The last thing that will be looked at is the bombing of Dresden that is mentioned in the book. This event being mentioned in the book is of huge importance to new historicist. This event is not only one that occurred and is based off real life, but Vonnegut had experienced it himself and wrote about it. Vonnegut having connection to the event helps new historicist understand why he felt it was necessary to add it in. It gives readers a glimpse into a wide know event told my someone who lived to tell what he had saw. By seeing mass amounts of killings, Vonnegut shares the story of something that could never be forgotten once it was seen. This event being a part of his life helps to explain all the horrid that he had gone through that lead up to his post-traumatic stress disorder.
By writing this book and incorporating all that he did, Vonnegut was able to show the world what he was going through and introduce them to a disorder that was not yet recognized at the time. With each event that occurred in Billy’s life, readers are able to see the connection between these events and to why Billy was the way that he was. Vonnegut’s post-traumatic stress disorder played a huge role in his writing of the book. Without his nonlinear narrative, story of the Tralfamadorians, and including the bombing of Dresden readers would not be able to see Billy’s’ post-traumatic stress disorder as clearly. Being able to see his disorder allows those reading to see connections between the main characters life and that of Billy Pilgrim. Seeing the similarities lets the story have more meaning. Looking at this book with a new historicist lense helps readers to fully understand Vonnegut and his post-traumatic stress disorder and allows them to see why he wrote his book the way that he did.
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