Saturday, November 28, 2009

Building Imagery in Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade

Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade. Delacorte Press: New York. 1969.

Kurt Vonnegut was an American novelist and short-story writer. He has published 12 books, including Player Piano, Slapstick and Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. Several of his books are considered classic literature, including Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut is reputed as one of the most notable authors of the 20th century, and his book, Slaughterhouse-Five, appeared on Time magazine's list of 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923. Vonnegut’s writing is well-known and popular for its blending of satire, black humor and science-fiction. Many of his novels contain similar elements, such as the alien planet Tralfamadore, the writer (and Vonnegut’s alter ego) Kilgore Trout, the American nazi Howard W. Campbell and the birdcall "Poo-tee-weet?"
In the book Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes by building, so by the end of the novel, there are several connotations within some of the words.

There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.” (Vonnegut 186)

By starting the first-half of the first sentence with the claim that “there was only one vehicle,” Vonnegut strikes up the Tralfamadorian idea of fatalism. Throughout the book, there are references to an alien planet called Tralfamadore. Its inhabitants, according to the narrator, can see time as the fourth dimension. The Tralfamadorians see everything they have ever done and how they died, so they believe that death is simply a bad spot and everyone is always alive somewhere. Due to this, the Tralfamadorians don’t try to mess with fate. They keep fighting wars and, even, destroy the universe because it has always been that way. While the narrator claims there was only one vehicle in the quoted section, Vonnegut is referring to the only way that Billy Pilgrim and his crew would ever take because they are fated to take it. The wording of “only one” refers to there being only one way.
The metaphor becomes clearer once the sentence continues describing the vehicle as “an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses.” It is described in the same way as the wagon and two horses that brought Billy back to Dresden after the bombing. Of course, the word “abandoned” is used to describe Billy and the other prisoners-of-war’s plight. They’ve been abandoned by the Germans, abandoned by America, abandoned by God, etc. But the fact that it is described as the same wagon and horses that brought Billy back to Dresden implies that Billy is fated to relive this one experience in his life. As is the case with many POWs, all of Billy’s roads begin and end in Dresden. He can’t escape it.
The second sentence describes the wagon, so the reader knows that it is the same one that brought Billy back to Dresden. It is unmistakably “green and coffin-shaped.” With that description, Vonnegut shows the dichotomy of hope and despair with POWs. In this book, the color green is associated with spring. Just a few sentences earlier, Vonnegut writes that it was spring and the “trees were leafing out.” (Vonnegut 186) Spring is usually related to birth, hope and renewal. However, the next description is that the wagon is coffin-shaped. This is obviously an allusion to death, literal and figurative. There is death all around Billy at Dresden, but his life as he knew it died there as well. He becomes a different person after being held captive. His figurative death signifies the birth of his new life, so Billy’s life and death after Dresden are always linked. That is why Vonnegut wrote “green and coffin-shaped” together. However, “coffin-shaped” is the final image because death is inescapable throughout POW’s lives, generally tormenting them. That is also why Vonnegut chose such an obvious image to represent death. You cannot mistake the allusion to death when “coffin” is written out.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I very much appreciate your analysis on Slaughterhouse Five. I was looking for the explanation of wagon related incident, I share the same view. About the two horses, I think, they represent the two belligerent sides that inevitably receive in the war because of the irrational human behavior. And the humans are left to regret their actions later on.
    thank you,
    New Delhi