Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dealing With Trauma in Time

Within Kurt Vonnegut’s text for SlaughterHouse-Five is a temporal play on time which is used significantly to help deal with trauma. The main character, the narrator, writes a book about the events that happened in WW II. The trick that the narrator does though is to tell the story through a somewhat goofy, if not crazy character named Billy. While the story plays out, our narrator does his best to describe what happened in the war through the lens of a man who can travel through time at a whim and was kidnapped by aliens.

One of the first things to consider when reading this is the discussion of how reliable our narrator is through the text. The parts that are based around the war seem somewhat true, at least when it gets to the point where Billy is brought in with the other 100 Americans that were captured. This seems to be the case due to the fact that the narrator interjects himself in the text, stating that “he was there,” or referring to a certain soldier and saying “that was me.” With the narrator interjecting himself into the story, it at least gives the reader a somewhat reliable presence, at least to the events in Dresden. The rest of the novel, however, is very much up in the air. With Billy’s trips to Tralfamadore and his time travel, the reliability of how much truth Billy is actually telling is in serious doubt. It feels almost as though the narrator has to say he was there for the story to be believable.

However, looking at the space travel first, it makes perfect sense on why the author chose to use this. One of the biggest problems that face many people that have suffered through traumatic events is dealing with what happened. By using Billy as a space traveler, who conveniently is captured by aliens that can see into the fourth dimension and therefore all of time and space simultaneously, they can help Billy come to terms with what has happened to him and where he sould go from there. The Tralfamadorians possess what seems to be an infinite knowledge due to how they interact with both time and space. When Billy interacts with them, they seem to be able to bring him peace that he wasn’t able to gain on Earth. They assure him that the violence that happens on Earth is universal and nothing can be done about it. They also reassure them that, despite the massive amounts of violence, it won’t be humanity that brings an end to the universe. By imparting their wisdom on him, such as telling him to just view universally happy moments in his life, he can live in peace. They almost feel like a counselor that the narrator may have seen that helped give him the wisdom he needed to go on. It is either that, or much like how Billy’s aliens line up closely to what Kilgore Trout writes about in one of his novels, may be simply the author respecting the ideas another writer had and using them to help console himself.

It’s also worth addressing the time travel that the narrator uses throughout most of his piece. Within the text, the story often jumps from time period to time period, all within areas of Billy’s life. His ability to jump in time and space makes the story feel like at first that it’s a bit scatter brained. With closer examination though, that isn’t the case. The jumps in time make it so Billy can tell his story without having to suffer through the more traumatic times he had during the war. Several times, when things seem or feel like they’re going to get gruesome, Billy jumps in time to a happier moment. This seems to mirror what the Tralfamadorians tell Billy to do. Whether or not they secretly give him this ability or not remains untold, but it feels like it may be likely so that he may no longer have to suffer.

There are a few other areas in Billy’s life as well that seem curious as to whether or not they were real for the narrator or not and how reliable Billy really is. For example, towards the end of the book, he was in a plane crash where everyone but himself and one other person survived. He ends up losing his wife in the process, and is seen to potentially become a vegetable. During his time in there, the man sharing the room with him openly admits that he wish they would just let Billy die. This felt as though it was a contrast to the time Billy had spent in World War II. When he was in the war, he often tried to let himself die, only to be saved. Now that he is saved, he isn’t willing to just let himself die, even when someone else wants him to. It feels as though Billy may have made this section up and was having a more internal thought than actually listening to someone else in the room. Although I have no proof to back this claim, I find it hard to believe that through most of the novel Billy is indifferent to life or death, and here when a man is finally saying that he wants Billy to die, he instead chooses to talk to him about Dresden later on.

The character that is written, Billy, also seems to be a ploy used to help deal with the trauma of the war. Billy’s character is rather goofy, ill-equipped, and it seems to be that he is not well liked. It felt as though this was another area that the author was trying to mask through Billy. He says at the beginning of the novel that he promises to write this as a children’s crusade over making the novel seem like a bunch of heroic men doing  honorable deeds to defend the nation. This rings true with how Billy is portrayed throughout the novel. He is often bumbling through the war, not sure what to do or say and often gives up. He has to have others take care of him, although many of them are just as young and foolish and playing grown-up. It’s Billy that dresses in absurd clothes and often gets mocked or treated poorly. When he jumps in time to when he’s older, the damage of the war shows through in how he acts and talks with other people. The author used Billy as the true way to show the trauma the war had on children. Having him time travel between the war and his future allows for the reader to truly understand what the war did to not just Billy, but every kid that was forced to serve and how their life would play out after.

The temporal play in Slaughterhouse-Five is a great way of showing a means to deal with trauma and teach others about the effects. Vonnegut does a great job of having Billy show these things to the reader in different aspects of his life through different moments in time and space.


  1. Ty, you said exactly what I would have said if I had chosen to write a traditional academic post. Not sure if this means great minds think alike, English grad students think alike, or Slaughterhouse-Five has lost its luster. I think S-F was groundbreaking and provocative in 1966/1968 as we were entering the ugly phase of the Vietnam conflict. Its antiwar stance was almost revolutionary. But in the 21st century, we are careful to not judge our soldiers; we judge our leaders and the so-called bad guys. I think many people would identify themselves as antiwar unless it was a "justified" war or attack (in the psychological sense, not in the political science sense). I even think the time travel doesn't phase today's readers because we recognize the parallels to PTSD. Regardless, I still love S-F and Vonnegut.

  2. Interesting post, Ty. I honestly hadn't thought about how the trauma narrative might play into the temporal play. I think I was too hung up on the aliens, which is what I have a question about. How do they fit into all of this? Are they just a way for Billy to see past the trauma? Or do you think they serve another purpose?

  3. I love the connection you made with Kilgore Trout. It seems that Trout does for Billy what Vonnegut does for us.
    While I do feel that Billy suffers throughout the novel, the silver lining in all of it does seem to be that at least Billy knows his suffering won't last for long--something we as people "stuck" in time don't get the privilege of knowing or even experiencing.

  4. Ty, I completely agree with the reading of this text as "dealing with the trauma of war" and find Billy - not your typical war hero or suffering post-war figure - to be all the more interesting because of it.

  5. I never thought of the Trafalmadorians as a soothing presence for Billy, but it makes sense in light of the fact that the creatures are based loosely on Billy's experience in captivity. Billy may be attempting to humanize his experience with his German captors in a way, ironically, that portrays them as aliens! For example, Billy witnesses an altercation between a German captor and a fellow American POW, who, after being violently struck by the German, asks, "Why me?" to which the German responds, "Vy you? Vy anybody?" After Billy is kidnapped by the Trafalmadorians, he asks, "why me?" The response from the Trafalmadorian captor mirrors the German's response:"Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is...There is no why?" (97). Also, after reaching the POW camp, Billy and his fellow captives were told to remove their clothing: "That was the first thing they told him to do on Tralfamadore, too" (105).

  6. Ty, one of the first points you mentioned was the reliability of the narrator. I agree with you about the fact that the narrator feels, for the most part, like a reliable narrator, going so far as to interject himself into the situation. One thing that is notable about this is that Kurt Vonnegut himself was present during the Dresden bombing and did, in fact, take cover in a meat locker (much like Slaughterhouse-Five is based on) to survive the bombing. And I also have to agree that the parts outside of the war, specifically the Tralfamadorians, seem very out of place in a novel about the war, although for good reason.

    My question is if you have read any of the other works by Vonnegut in relation to the Tralfamadores? The reason I ask is because in nearly every work of his that includes the Tralfamadorians and their planet Tralfamadore, they routinely change form or purpose. For example in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," the planet is a thought exercise. The main character, Eliot Rosewater, shows up later in Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy is in the hospital. Rosewater is also the character who introduces science fiction (especially that of Kilgore Trout, who you know is rather important to the story) to Billy, but also mentions "that everything there was to know about life was in 'The Brothers Karamazov'" (129). This is curious because the novel focuses on ethics, morality, and the idea of free will, all of which play important roles in Billy's life.

    I also like that you bring up Billy's understanding of his own mortality. In the way you describe it, that Billy tries to let himself die but can't, but doesn't want to die when he can, is similar to that of the early discussion in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." As Heller's main character Yossarian describes it: "Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to." This goes on with the idea of insanity and free will, both with the reliability of the narrator and Billy Pilgrim. Billy would have to be crazy to want to keep fighting, but he also has to be crazy for wanting to let himself die rather than fight back.

  7. I definitely agree that the novel feels like it is Vonnegut's way of working through trauma through Billy and his experiences. Billy is confused and just stumbles through his life and the events in Dresden, as you mentioned, and it distances Vonnegut from the events, instead pretending they happened to this other character, allowing a veil to form between Vonnegut and Dresden, especially since Vonnegut appears in the story, but not as the main character.