Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Overcoming Trauma in Slaughterhouse-Five and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

            Like some of the posts that came before me, I found a lot of connections between Jonathan Safran Foer’s, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.   I would go so far as to argue that the books are concerned with the same themes and offer similar answers in regards to living with, and hopefully, overcoming trauma.  Both authors present characters attempting to adjust their lives in the wake of a traumatic event.  In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut offers the reader himself in the role of the narrator and also Billy Pilgrim.  In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer offers the reader Thomas Schell and Oskar Schell.  Oskar Schell and Kurt Vonnegut, in his role as the narrator, find similar ways to deal with their traumas.  They embark on a quest to find meaning in their anguish.  Billy Pilgrim and Thomas Schell are comparable as well because they are unable to find a way to live outside their trauma, in a way, these two characters provide a foil for Oskar and Vonnegut.  Billy Pilgrim cannot live his life without suffering constant flashbacks to the bombing of Dresden, likewise, Thomas Schell has a hard time adjusting his life in light of losing everyone he loved in Dresden.

            Both Kurt Vonnegut and Oskar Schell are comparable characters.  Kurt actively tries to find an explanation to the events of Dresden.  In chapter one of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut embarks on a mission to spark his memory of Dresden.  He wants to write the book of Dresden.  Unfortunately, his memory has left him, he can hardly recall his experience.  To find out more, he calls his old friend Bernard V. O’Hare, another POW in Dresden.  They set up a date to meet to talk about the events but when the time comes, they both realize that their memories have gone blank.  Eventually, the two head off to Dresden to dig up more answers. This active quest, is quite similar to the way Oskar Schell deals with the death of his father and the aftermath of 9/11.
            Oskar was incredibly close to his father.  So when his father died, he reacted in an extreme manner.  One day he decides to dig through his parent’s closet.  Inside, he finds a vase with an envelope.  The envelope has the name Black printed on one side and inside is a key.  Oskar determines that the key will lead him to answers about his father and bring some meaning to his trauma.  He travels New York City, just as Vonnegut travels to Dresden, in order to meet all the Blacks and hopefully uncover an answer. 
            The two characters are similar because they both actively seek to overcome their pain.  They believe in an answer and they are still able to find purpose in their lives.  Oskar must find the lock to his key, and Vonnegut must write a book about Dresden.  The fact that they are able to find a purpose is in contrast to Billy Pilgrim and Thomas Schell.

            Billy Pilgrim and Thomas Schell act in similar ways in the wake of Dresden.  They are never fully able to find purpose to life.  Billy Pilgrim’s constant flashbacks and inability to experience time in linear order suggests that he is unable to overcome the trauma he experienced in Dresden.  Like Thomas Schell, Billy is never able to talk to anyone about his time in Dresden.  The one time he talks to someone about it, he is on Tralfamadore, an arguably non-existent planet.  The person he tells is an ex-adult entertainer who, like Tralfamadroe, may or may not be real.  Billy progressively disconnects from reality in order to give his life a shape.  It could be argued that he never does find meaning to his life in the book.

            Thomas Schell, like Billy Pilgrim, cannot overcome his experience in Dresden.  He disconnects from reality and stops speaking altogether.  In order to get by, he writes down everything that he wants to say.  His apartment is filled with taped off spaces, spaces he says are non-existent.  He goes into these spaces to disappear from reality and to be alone.  This is similar to the way Billy Pilgrim disappears to Tralfamadore.  Both seem to be non-entities to their families.  Thomas Schell is unable to fully connect with his wife and Billy never seems to understand his family. 
            Fortunately, Billy and Thomas do find a way to bring purpose to life.  Billy is eventually set on spreading the word of Tralfamadore and their theories of time.  Whereas Thomas, is eventually redeemed, in a way, through his relationship with Oscar.  By burying his letters to his dead son, Oskar’s father, metaphorically puts the past behind him. 
            Slaghterhouse-Five and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, deal with the theme of overcoming trauma in similar ways.  Both books use characters as foils to present two different ways to deal with Trauma.  The books seem to suggest that keeping the past in the past is the best way to the future. 



  1. Your connection of Thomas Sr. and Grandma's "nothing spaces" to Billy's departure from reality via Tralfamadore has really given me a lot to think about. In a way, every character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a non-entity to his/her family, similar to Billy Pilgrim, who, as you mentioned in a post last week, can only relate the trauma associated with Dresden to Montana Wildhack on Tralfamadore, just as Oskar can only relate to strangers and not his family. Interestingly, Oskar cannot truly empathize with the pain of others because he is so focused on his own trauma. Billy, too seems unable to face an empathetic understanding of the trauma of others, as well as of his own.

  2. Great connection between Vonnegut's relationship with Billy and Oskar's relationship with his father. I found the Dresden setting in both novels interesting as well. the grandfather's trauma from Dresden has caused him to quit talking, and Billy's time in Dresden doesn't leave him in the best place either. I saw the 9/11 attack (within the novel) to be a sort of unexplainable "repeat" of the tragedy in Dresden. Americans (and German-Americans) have gone through generations of trauma, so it was interesting to see those two events juxtaposed even in one novel.