Kurt Vonnegut draws on black humor and satire to give voice to the unspeakable horrors of war. The comical tone transforms a depressing topic into a more palatable form that might otherwise desensitize a reader and cause them to shut down by overloading them with too much sensory detail of misery and depravity.
Vonnegut’s anti-war novel centers on the firebombing of Dresden, focusing on Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during the war and after as he becomes “unstruck” in time after being abducted by aliens. The story unfolds in non-linear time as Billy jumps haphazardly between past, future, and “present” that directly influences his philosophy of life, and helps him create meaning in what is otherwise a chaotic world by ironically embracing the chaos of timelessness.
Billy learns this philosophy from aliens who abduct him called the Tralfamadorians. They teach him an extremely fatalistic understanding of time in which freewill is a human illusion and the past, present, and future have already occurred simultaneously and cannot be changed. The Tralfamadorians take this to such an extreme that they even know when the universe will end, but believe themselves powerless to stop it. Time simply unfolds, it has already unfolded. There is no possibility of individual agency; the living beings of the universe exist as observers pulled about by the strings of events destined to happen and much larger than themselves. On the one hand, this serves as a powerful metaphor for war and history in the sense that large historical events drag people along and uproot them from their lives without them really having any control over it.
The novel opens with a frame story introducing us to the person writing the book. This writer-character converses with a movie star about his plans to write an anti-war novel who responds by telling him he’d be better off writing an anti-glacier book than an anti-war book.
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
In this quote we see reflected the viewpoint of the Tralfamadorians: war is inevitable, and it is extremely unlikely that writing an anti-war book will be effective in preventing the next war. It is a momentary sense of realism in a book whose main character cowers from the realistic by replacing it with the fantastic. I think, however, it would be a mistake on the reader’s part to assume Vonnegut agrees with the perspective of his aliens.
It is true that Vonnegut in this quote seems to accept the inevitability of war. Even though his book criticizes war, he harbors no illusions that it will effectively prevent the next war. On the other hand, he still believes it important to write, to criticize, to share his experiences in a fictional form about his horrible experiences, and hope that his book may have some effect in stopping war. Even if impossible, it is still an ideal worth aiming for. By the very act of writing an anti-war book, he challenges the perspective of the Trafalmadorians, but by acknowledging that his book probably won’t end wars he also affirms it as well. It may be unlikely that you can stop war, but it is still worth the effort to try and depict its brutal realities and senselessness. Like much contemporary fiction, these opposing and intermingling viewpoints also serves as a commentary on the nature of art itself as being both the most powerful and most powerless medium for social change.
The character of Billy is the authors own way of expressing the inexpressible. Billy’s mediocrity as a soldier and a human being in general adds to the absurdist tone of the book, while we watch more promising, stronger, and tougher men die around him during the war, somehow this man survives. Mediocrity defines his whole life. Although he ends up rich he does so by marrying his wife who he doesn’t particularly love or dislike, but feels is satisfactory. He is the most unspecial person in the whole world, sort of coasting through life. All of this brings us to perhaps the most important question of the book: has Billy imagined the aliens in his senility or are we to understand the aliens are real and Billy was actually abducted by them within the narrative? And if he has imagined them, why would he do so?
Certainly the book hints that Billy’s aliens might be a symptom of his senility or brain damage from a plane crash that he survived. The opening of Billy’s story raises his senility as a potential issue:
“Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.”
What I love about stories like this is that it leave open the possibility of the reality of the events and its causes. If we believe the aliens to be an illusion of a crazed mind, was it the terrible experiences and memories of war that caused it? Was it the brain damage he received from the plane crash as Billy’s daughter, Barbra, suggests? Was it reading too many Science Fiction novels by Kilgore Trout that led him to imagine he had been chosen by aliens to learn the philosophy of time? Was he creating these creatures to fantasize away the mediocrity of his life? Or was it all just a dream. There is no correct answer as the novel gives hints that allows the reader to infer all these possibilities, but leaves these issues open-ended enough that any of these can fit or a combination of them. Likewise, there is always the possibility that the aliens are real and he really has learned this philosophy, which of course leads to a very different reading of the story and its theme. It is almost like solving a puzzle with multiple correct ways to solve it.
While recognizing all these possibilities, I like a reading in which Billy makes up the aliens as a way to give some meaning and importance to an otherwise mediocre meaningless life. The Trafalmadorian’s fatalistic philosophy of time helps Billy evade the psychologically traumatic experiences of war, especially the firebombing of Dresden. This belief allows him to reduce death to an unimportant moment in time, one moment in a person’s life not more important than any other moment. Often it feels like when anything too traumatic in the narrative occurs, he jumps to a different time period after the war before he must deal with the emotions. His stock phrase “so it goes” trivializes death; he never faces it in all its grim reality. Although the constant repetition of the phrase also serves as a kind of counter for the reader that calls our attention to the endless quantity of death and destruction. Billy’s experiences living in a zoo on Trafalmador is the ultimate erotic fantasy where he gets to live in an ascetic bubble away from reality and have sex with an attractive famous actress (in comparison to his fat unattractive wife).
Vonnegut writes a science fiction author into the book called Kilgore Trout. We are led to believe that all of this is a fantasy that Billy uses to deal with the mediocrity of his life and the horrors of war when we are told that one of the Kilgore Trout science fiction novel he likes to read has the exact same plot as his alien abduction experience and life in the Trafalmador zoo. Billy’s jumps through time are nothing more than escapism, a way for a senile old man to evade the horrors of his past and the boredom of his quotidian existence through the tropes of science fiction.
Vonnegut has plenty of fun with these science fiction stories within a science fiction story. One of these mini-stories within the story that stands out is about a robot with bad breath and who accidentally incinerates the people around him when he burps up fire. However, it is the bad breath that people find intolerable. Once the robot solves his bad breath problem he quickly becomes the most popular person (robot) in town, despite the fact that he still incinerates people on occasion. This sub textual commentary points out the superficial quality of human beings, and their tendency to focus on the wrong priorities. They care more about bad breath and personal hygiene than people being incinerated, which of course ties back directly to the firebombing in Dresden.
This also leads us to the core point of the book: war and lack of sympathy for others thrives on a loss of human dignity (that moment when people become less than human in the minds of other people). Not only is this explicitly shown throughout the war scenes with its repetition of “so it goes” that degrades the importance of life and death, but it’s a theme that finds expression in the everyday moments of Billy’s life such as when his daughter, Barbra, treats him like a senile old man or when the military officer sharing a hospital room with him after the plane crash finds him repugnant because of his brain damage and thinks they should put the “vegetable” out of his misery, or even the fact that he ends up in a zoo on an alien planet. It is worth noting that the Nazis not only considered Jews undesirable, but also the disabled and even the elderly in certain cases. The justification for the firebombing of Dresden is that Nazism had to be defeated at any cost, but as Vonnegut goes on to show with these everyday examples of dehumanization, Nazism lives on nonetheless.