Slaughter House Five It seems as though all we hear on the news lately is bad news. So it goes, right? After all, if we took to heart all the tragedies that occur everyday in the world we’d never get out of bed in the morning. We would have an overload of grief so heavy that we’d probably all die of a broken heart. What we sometimes forget is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Likewise, every time someone dies another is born.
Every time a marriage ends in divorce, a newlywed couple celebrates their honeymoon somewhere else in the world. The world is in a constant state of renewal. So why do we only notice the bad things? Probably because we’re human. Even though the bulk of our problems are self-inflicted or man-made, they still come as a shock to us nearly every time. We have created an absurd time to live in. So now what? How do we deal with it? How should we react to the horrors of war, heartache, and famine? Do we try to solve our problems all at once, or do we sit back and watch things fall apart? Kurt Vonnegut has an interesting idea of what to do, as is shown in his novel, Slaughter House Five.
Vonnegut’s prescription for dealing with the tragic absurdity of the twentieth century is to simply not deal with it. In his novel, Vonnegut shows that he is more inclined to sit back and watch than to let things effect him. Being an anti-war novel, his book is filled with shocking events and gruesome deaths. But Vonnegut portrays death as something trivial. Every time someone dies or something bad happens where the reader might think “oh my gosh, that’s awful!” Vonnegut says, “so it goes.” It’s as if he saying that that kind of thing happens all the time and since no one can stop it we shouldn’t get all worked up about it. But he goes to the extent to make the reader think he doesn’t care.
When he reacts this way up to four times in one page, it’s like he’s suggesting we glaze over the horrible moments as if they never really happened. Vonnegut’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, has learned how to glaze over bad times like this. He has become, as he says, “unstuck in time,” meaning his life is no longer in chronological order. It has become, to him, a series of moments. As he learned from the Tralfamadorians, he is able to time travel to any given moment in his life whenever he wants. Billy hasn’t yet learned how to choose what moment he travels to, but he seems to be able to choose when he goes.
He hops around from moment to moment as if he’s flipping channels on a TV. For example, he starts out talking to his daughter, and then he gets in an argument with her and finds himself on Tralfamadore, where he is being displayed in a “zoo” for the locals to observe. Then he finds himself in bed with his wife on their honeymoon. When he gets up to look for the bathroom, he finds himself as a prisoner of war looking for the latrine. When he finds it, he sees that some of the other prisoners have become violently ill and are writhing in pain.
So it goes. He is then reminded of his stay in a veteran’s hospital and is transported there, where he has to listen to his roommate complain about him as if he’s not there. Then he finds himself on the bank of a river being beaten in the snow, and hears the gunshots of two of his other travel mates being shot. So it goes. Next he is being led through an underground passage in Dresden, a city that will later be bombed, in which more people will die than in the bombing of Hiroshima.
So it goes. The story is broken up like this throughout the novel. Every time Billy is in a bad situation he time travels. Therefore he never really deals with the present situation. He ignores his present situation instead.
He’s deciding to live in other moments in the past and future. He’s living in denial. Through this example Vonnegut seems to be telling us that we don’t need to put up with today’s absurdities. We can live in the past (or future) like Billy. A lot of people do this.
They either dwell in the past and aren’t able to get over things that happened a long time ago, or they have such a hard time dealing with the present that they choose to live in denial and think everything is just how it has always been. This is a very immature solution to handling the world’s absurdities. We don’t have the choice to “flip the channels” in our lives like Billy does; however we often flip the channel when the news comes on. But we can’t just ignore our problems and expect them to go away. That never works for anybody.
Nor does denial, which living in the past is, plain and simple. We have to deal with things in a more mature way. As Vonnegut subtly points out, we have to help the things we can and understand the things we can’t, and hopefully we will never lose sight of the difference.