Dystopia?: A Glance At Slaughterhouse-Five
by Annelise Royles
Simultaneously whimsical and dark, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five stretches the genre of the dystopian and possibly expands beyond it. The narrative focuses on Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran who cannot stop traveling to different times in his own past. Pilgrim’s nonlinear narrative exposes the reader to a different kind of unreliable narrator; the reader cannot form an informed opinion on Pilgrim until the end of the novel.
In other words, Pilgrim’s being an unreliable narrator is not entirely by choice. The reader becomes more informed about Pilgrim the more she reads and puts pieces of his life together. She must do this while also questioning Pilgrim’s memory, as the first sentence of the novel sets a tone similar to that in A Clockwork Orange where the narrator may not tell the whole truth or exclude important details of his life. Doubt ensues with this first line, “All this happened, more or less” (1), but it could mean a few different things.
The reader quickly learns that Billy wants to remember his wartime experience as a soldier and write a book about it. This first sentence could be Billy’s warning to the reader that he may not remember everything in its entirety and/or that the fellow soldiers he met may not remember/want to speak truthfully about what they saw. This first sentence could also be the reader’s first exposure to Vonnegut’s sharp and witty style. Fleshed out, this sentence could be spoken by Vonnegut about his own fiction piece: Billy Pilgrim tells of events that are fictitious and have both occurred in the real world. He immediately comments on the fine line every dystopian finds between fact and fiction where fictitious elements stem from facts such as fears of totalitarianism and world wars. Either way, Slaughterhouse-Five forces its reader to determine what is fact and what is fiction.
From what we have already read as part of this series, time is extremely important in dystopian fiction. For example, it only takes Fahrenheit 451’s Guy Montag a few days to completely transform his worldview and opinions of his society; Alex’s arrest occurs only about fifty pages into A Clockwork Orange, and his experimental treatment program only lasts about a week. Things move quickly in dystopian fiction to parallel the protagonist’s (and in some cases, antagonist’s) Additionally, time is what (supposedly) separates the reader from the dystopian world about which she is reading.
World War II is where Vonnegut draws his line in the sand between fact and fiction. Billy is shipped off to fight in the war but the Germans quickly capture him and he becomes a POW. He travels with other men in his unit as they try to outrun the Germans. This point in Billy’s life provides the reader with some truly gruesome imagery that Vonnegut cuts with his signature quirky and chilling style. When Weary, one of these men in Billy’s unit who becomes a traitor, attempts to kill Billy, “[h]e slipped his knife into this scabbard. Its triangular blade and blood gutters on all three faces. And then he shook Billy hard, rattled his skeleton, slammed him against a bank...Weary drew back his right boot, aimed a kick at the spine, at the tube which had so many of Billy’s important wires in it. Weary was going to break that tube” (65). The ruthlessness of war shines through in this scene, and demonstrates Vonnegut’s clear anti-war stance.
However, does this negative picture of war make Slaughterhouse-Five a dystopian novel? No, if that were true then All Quiet on the Western Front would be wrongly regarded as a piece of dystopian fiction. Rather, the famous nonchalant phrase “so it goes,” which is repeated whenever a character dies in the novel, illustrates this society’s disregard for human life. This paired with the possibility that Billy’s shell shock leads him to believe that he is abducted by aliens tell of how a war-driven society can drive a man to insanity. Should the reader believe Billy’s alien story or should she explain it away with his “more or less” (1) philosophy about truth and his traumatic experiences with war?
Overall, Slaughterhouse-Five is difficult to define as dystopian, but it contains some key elements of a classic dystopian: world war, an unreliable narrator, intersection with sci-fi, questions of free will, and the perception of unimportant human life. We do not get a glimpse of a totalitarian government or any sort of societal oppression; we simply follow a man’s strange life out of order.
I believe that this novel, with all of Vonnegut’s strange quirks and inexplicably twisted humor, revolves about the slippery nature of truth, which is another dystopian theme. Does the truth of the society in which Billy lives or what Billy believes to be true about his life matter more? Is it for the reader to decide, and how should she react to this story? Does Vonnegut aim to bury this key question under a discombobulating story? If the last question is true, then he definitely succeeded. The reader must decide if one’s personal truth equals factual truth, and if that distinction matters.
I apologize for leaving everyone with more questions than answers, but every Vonnegut story I read leaves me somehow both satisfied and puzzled.
— Annelise Royles is an English major at Kenyon College. She edits for Persimmons Literary Magazine, which was founded and still operates on Kenyon’s campus. A few of her favorite books include A Clockwork Orange, Passing, and Middlemarch.