Themes And Writing Styles In Slaughterhouse-Five By Kurt Vonnegut
Generally, there is a false misconception that a novel can only be considered valuable through the usage of intricate and complex language. However, value of literature can also be attained with the examination of how major ideas are being evolved by the author throughout the novel and essentially being conveyed with his or her word choice and plot. The storyline plays a major role in the author’s writing style because often times writers will have a signature routine of incorporating a certain genre into novels. The way an author articulates ideas and decides on a plot depends on their writing style. These two techniques are displayed overall in Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
In the creation of the novel, Vonnegut uses two styles to develop the novel: minimalist writing to explore themes and science fiction to deepen the themes being portrayed. The usage of minimalist writing in Slaughterhouse Five can be seen through the comparison of Vonnegut and Charles Dickens, whose style completely differs, and the analysis of one segment displays Vonnegut’s abilities to convey the massive amount of emotion in only a few words. Through the exploration of his article on “How to write with style”, we learn “Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. "To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare's Hamlet.” As shown in this excerpt by Vonnegut, he looks up to other famous writers such as William Shakespeare who can use phrases such as ''To be or not to be'', to send his readers down a philosophical path. This was a similar vision Vonnegut had in mind before starting Slaughterhouse Five, and transformed it to his personal writing style by personal beliefs on various themes.
Through minimalist writing, the first theme Vonnegut effectively explores is war, and he uses this technique to relay his perspective on the topic. The theme of war plays a major role because Vonnegut acknowledges it is inevitable, but emphasizes the fallacy of war due to the constant recurrence of war. The idea of there being nothing intelligent to say about a massacre is something that Vonnegut comments on in multiple instances throughout the novel. In the first chapter, Vonnegut writes about how no one can talk about a massacre and the only sound that is made is “Poo tee weet”. This simple phrase is incredibly important to the overall point of this novel as an anti-war book because it does not go into great depths attempting to explain the events of a massacre. Plus, if he did attempt to explain the war in greater depth, then he would have to write from a certain perspective of either being against or for. Thus, causing a complex and indirect way of proving his point as well as possibly romanticizing war.
Furthermore, the idea of birds singing is one that is associated with sunrises and new beginnings, and Vonnegut combined that idea with the sun rising on people who would never again be able to see it because they are dead. Through his comparison, Vonnegut allows the reader to examine that truth in a concise way and with a new perspective. This connects a universal symbol that the average citizen can listen to the unbelievable aspects of war, but typically cannot completely understand it. Also, there is an overlying absurdity of birds providing a commentary on war, which is used to call out the other popular novels in his lifetime that attempt to provide a descriptive recollection of war. Vonnegut does this to emphasize that talking about something related to war should be as absurd to birds talking. This makes the reader reevaluate the severity of war because novels in this time period frequently romanticized war.
Another theme which overlaps with war and can be explored through the previous concept of simplistic writing is death. The concept of death displayed by Vonnegut is very straightforward and the word choices are brief, leaving the reader to use their personal imagination. His writing technique is effective in conveying death because it creates a unique picture in the minds of each reader. Also, his decision to dismiss such an emotional topic as nothing makes readers question themselves about the meaning of death and the endless cost of humans in war. This is seen throughout the novel as Billy states, “So it goes” after any situation that relates to death. Vonnegut uses this quote to show Billy’s way of letting the reader know that death is just a moment that a person can choose to ignore because there are so many other marvelous moments. Billy’s constant repetition of the phrase allows time for the reader to truly understand this concept. One example of a death that Vonnegut uses concise language is with the explanation of the destruction of Dresden. “Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes.” There are many examples of Billy summarizing the murders and deaths rather than explaining it in detail which furthers Vonnegut’s writing style. Vonnegut says, "So it goes" once again for the bombing of an entire town in one sentence. The amount of deaths is immense and to create a gloomy atmosphere, Vonnegut purposely pushes the story aside after one sentence.
The final theme that is investigated with the use of minimalist writing style is the ideology of fate vs free will. The concept of fate overlaps with Billy’s views on time and how memories and events should be regarded. A fatalistic future is a common belief by Billy as stated in his numerous short sentences. “Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.” (Vonnegut). This clearly indicates even if Billy wished to believe that free will exists, Vonnegut shows that his entire lifespan is mapped and everything that has happened, will happen. Billy Pilgrim is most often the character used to show Vonnegut’s opinions. He is used as an example of a man living opposite of Vonnegut’s views. Billy feels that his life was outlined beforehand and he has no free will to change his life as he wishes. This causes his life with a very apathetic attitude. “Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug...” He combines the ideology of fate and death as to just a bad moment in time and that the person is still very much alive in all other moments, past, present, and future. Through his word choice of “I simply shrug,” we learn that Billy accepts Tralfamadorian views on life and chooses to go with the flow without a major response. This lethargic attitude is frequently seen throughout the novel with his actions. For example, when Billy decides to marry Valencia even though he does not love her. It seems as though he doesn’t care enough to stop any of this and is slowly sinking into a state of there is no free will. These actions shown by simple word choices led to the exploration of different themes throughout the novel.
Not only is Vonnegut well known for his minimalist style to explore themes throughout the novel, but also the accumulation of science fiction within his novels to further deepen the themes. This is seen as Vonnegut’s writing style due to his previous records of using some format of science fiction in all of his novels that create confusion but also deepens the exploration of the themes being conveyed in his works. “His novels — 14 in all — were alternate universes, filled with topsy-turvy images and populated by races of his own creation, 41like the Tralfamadorians and the Mercurian Harmoniums.” The Tralfamadorians as well as the role of time were two key aspects seen in Slaughterhouse Five that were used to further discuss Vonnegut’s opinions on war, death, and fate vs. free will. The use of two key aspects of science fiction, Tralfamadorians and the concept of time, the readers build a stronger understanding within the theme of war as well as provide Vonnegut’s personal beliefs. In the novel, Billy learns ideas such as the inevitability of war through his comparison with the alternate and reality. For example, “We know how the Universe ends,' said the guide… 'We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.'... 'He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.' 'So,' said Billy grudgingly, I suppose that the idea of, preventing war on Earth is stupid, too. ’ 'Of course.'
The Tralfamadorians view time to be experienced in like all at once like the past, present, and future which is unique from the human perspective of life being experienced through a moment at a time. Life remains static and unchanging, the events that occur cannot change. Through this explanation of war, Billy begins to change his views on war and he furthers himself and the novel by becoming an an apathetic protagonist. Even though science fiction is often related with less reflection on the discussion being provided, it still let the reader consider the most flamboyant events with the same seriousness associated with realistic scenarios.
Another theme that uses the science fiction components in Slaughterhouse Five is death and the aftermath paralleling such events. The phrase, “So it goes”, is one that originated in the Tralfamadorian universe due to their ability to view time in a singular moment. “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment... Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "so it goes.”
Showing the parallels between the two worlds is Vonnegut’s way to emphasize the themes and provide new ways of thinking. The Tralfamadorians adopt the idea of the unimportance of death because the dead person is only dead in that moment, but they are alive in so many other moments that the specific moment of their death is nothing. This concept of experiencing only the good moments is best exemplified in the novel when Billy is trying to understand a Tralfamadorian book and one of the Tralfamadorians explains the book to him: “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once time”. The phrase “so it goes” illustrates this idea perfectly in Billy’s application of the original Tralfamadorian concept. Death is only death in that moment and life continues to go on and then a person can just choose which moments they want to experience. It is Billy’s way of letting the reader know that death is just a moment that a person can choose to ignore because there are so many other marvelous moments and Billy’s constant usage of it allows time for the reader to truly understand this concept. Lastly, the use of science fiction in correlation to furthering the theme of fate vs. free will is a major style Vonnegut uses to because it gives himself a powerful creative license to . It allows him to show the effects of fate by creating scenarios that would never occur in other genres. This is best seen through the Tralfamadorian concept of time. Unlike humans who only experience life one moment at a time, Tralfamadorians see everything that occurs all at once. Life remains stagnant, the events that occur cannot change as seen in the extreme example presented, the Tralfamadorians know how the universe will end but do nothing to stop it. This is the eternal epitome of lack of free will as the wipe out of the universe is known, but cannot be altered. The addition of these unrealistic ideas provide a deeper meaning into fatalistic ideology as well as Vonnegut’s personal beliefs.
In general, Vonnegut provides an in-depth analysis of the themes in Slaughterhouse Five through the usage of minimalistic style and the incorporation of science fiction. Through the usage of these two techniques, the readers are able to understand Vonnegut’s underlying message of the fallacies in war, thus making this an anti-war novel. Vonnegut is able to understand the importance of concise language and a unique plot due to science fiction would allow him to build a novel that would challenge pre-existing ideas of death, war, and fate vs free will. His ability to explore such ideas in his personal writing style caused readers to question many hypocrisies of his time period. In the end, it is the manner in which Vonnegut writes for his reader that creates literary effectiveness in this novel.
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