What is the relationship between the structure and the content of Slaughterhouse-Five?
The novel’s random, skipping timeline presents an effective method of representing one man’s inability to live a normal life after experiencing modern warfare. The disjointed collage of Billy Pilgrim’s life gets translated directly to the disjointed collage of the narrative. We experience Billy’s life as he does, without suspense or logical order, randomly orbiting about the firebombing of Dresden.
A traditional novel might start with a youthful Billy Pilgrim and follow him into old age or with an elderly protagonist who flashes back on his life. Billy, however, adopts a Tralfamadorian attitude because it is the only way he can make sense of the loose grip on time he is left with after the war. In order to follow him, the narrative approximates the same attitude. A Tralfamadorian novel, as discussed in Chapter 5, contains urgent, discrete messages describing scenes and situations. The author of such a novel carefully chooses the messages so that, when seen all at once, they form a profound image of life. Otherwise, there is no obvious relationship among them—there is no beginning, middle, climax, or end.
Humans, of course, cannot perceive all the elements of a novel at the same time. We can only approximate this effect like we approximate motion on film—with quick snapshots shown in rapid succession. Showing the snapshots in chronological order yields a traditional linear narrative; shuffling them up yields the closest approximation of a Tralfamadorian whole. Vonnegut entrusts his long-in-the-making Dresden book to a Tralfamadorian template in the hopes that it will produce something profound and beautiful from the memories of a massacre.
Briefly discuss some of the consequences of a Tralfamadorian view of the universe for a human.
The Tralfamadorians see all of time simultaneously. They know what has happened and what will happen and are able to focus on the nice moments. Things always happen the way they do because of how moments are structured, and no one can do anything to change the future. In fact, the concept of change is difficult for a Tralfamadorian to grasp. To them, free will is just a bizarre fiction discussed on Earth, where people cannot see in four dimensions. All time is fixed, but each moment is always accessible to Tralfamadorians, so they can pick and choose what they want to experience. Each moment essentially exists forever.
Without free will, there seems to be no accountability. There is also no time wasted in blame and punishment. Billy does not blame anyone for what he sees in Dresden, for what he experiences in the war, or for the death of his wife. He simply accepts that things happen as they happen.
There also seems to be no incentive to live one’s life well (according to whatever definition one might have of living well). As long as every life has a few good moments, the time traveler can eternally visit those and be eternally content. However, judging from Billy’s experiences, humans do not seem as able to control time travel or remember with the same selectivity as Tralfamadorians. Billy has no say in his comings and goings through time. Thus, he relives atrocity and horror as much as he relives moments of happiness. If atrocities also last forever to be eternally relived, perhaps there is incentive not to act atrociously after all.
How does Vonnegut’s technique of time-shifting affect our understanding of the novel? Is there an advantage to structuring Slaughterhouse-Five in the “telegraphic schizophrenic manner”? If not, is it too random to allow a cohesive, linear story to emerge?
A linear story does emerge out of the jumble of time-shifted details in the novel: the story of Billy Pilgrim, POW, making his way through time and across the European theater of World War II toward Dresden, the scene of ultimate destruction. Every time we return to this thread of the narrative, it unfolds in chronological order. Interspersed in this order are wild zigzags forward and backward through Billy’s life. These time jumps might be confusing, but they give force to the horror we encounter along the way. Vonnegut feeds the novel’s emotional momentum with the transitions between time jumps. For example, in Chapter 3 Billy is transported from his bed in Ilium, where he weeps after seeing cripples in the street, to the POW march in Luxembourg, where he weeps because of the wind in his eyes. Such transitions take the place of traditional narrative devices such as foreshadowing. Vonnegut gives away the climax he had been considering for his grand narrative (Edgar Derby’s execution) in Chapter 1; when we finally get to the telling of it, at the end of Chapter 10, it comes as an afterthought.
In addition, the novel might be schizophrenic, but it is not random. On the one hand, death strikes indiscriminately, and we never know who the next victim will be. But, on the other hand, the sheer volume of seemingly random deaths adds up to an emotional weight like that of the Tralfamadorian novel described in Chapter 5.