Metafiction and the anti-war message of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

The use of metafiction in anti-war fiction is fairly common (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Things They Carried).  Does the inclusion of the author as a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (and the knowledge that the “author” fought in World War II) lend credibility to the anti-war message, or does it weaken the message by taking away from the story and characters by using an overbearing delivery?

I’m going to argue both points—and I do think both views are valid and very arguable.  But, first, a basic summary.

Kurt Vonnegut the character opens the book by visiting an old military buddy, where he talks about a book he’s always wanted to write about the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II.  The book he’s writing is about Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant who is a POW in a slaughterhouse during the destruction of Dresden, and later becomes “unstuck in time” after he is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

The aliens can see in four dimensions (time being the fourth) and can focus on any one time in their life.  They do not believe people can choose their destiny, and Billy comes to agree with them after spending time in a Tralfamadore zoo as an exhibit.  The book has a nonlinear narrative structure and flits between different time periods in Billy’s life, with Vonnegut as character occasionally interjecting.

The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five lends credibility to the narrative and the book’s anti-war message.

Slaughterhouse-Five is metafiction at its most pure.  The author appears as a character, who is writing a book.  The author tells us about his military service in World War II and how he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden.

Since we know the author (as a character in the book) was there, we feel more inclined to believe Billy’s account of the tragedy within the book-within-a-book.  He was there, and only one a few who survived to tell about it, so he immediately becomes a more reliable narrator.

Which makes us wonder if Billy is crazy when he starts talking about aliens from Tralfamadore, or if the aliens really exist.  Wondering about those pesky Tralfamadorans leads us to a slew of other questions: Is our destiny, as Billy comes to believe, really fixed?  Are we doomed to keep fighting wars or do we have the power to stop them?  How can we stop them?

Although Billy turns to fatalism and pessimism on the topic of free-will and our ultimate destiny, we are able to recognize that he feels this way because he’s witnessed and lived through horrors that we can’t understand, having not been through them ourselves.  I felt sorry for Vonnegut the character, trying to write his book and always putting it off.  Even if he could get the words down, who would want to listen to such an awful story?

But we, the readers, because of Vonnegut the character and Billy’s viewpoints, know that we must listen to this story, so that we can do our part to prevent other stories like Billy’s from happening ever again, thus making the author appearing as a character an integral part of the book’s anti-war message.

The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five is overbearing and takes away from both the message and the story.

Slaughterhouse-Five is not a hopeful book, and it doesn’t really have a happy ending.  The general feeling it leaves me with is “oh well, that’s how it is,” which the book’s characters echo with the oft-repeated phrase “So it goes.”

Being a book that decries the horrors of war, this isn’t surprising.  What surprises me is Vonnegut the character’s similar depression.  He doesn’t seem to want to change the world or give a call to action to end war.  The book that Vonnegut the author writes shows a character, Bill Pilgrim, that hates war but makes little effort to campaign against it, even though he claims to know exactly when and how he’ll die.

The fatalism of both Billy and Vonnegut the character does, in my opinion, work against the anti-war message.  It is depressing rather than inspiring, and can only make the reader feel guilty for being a part of a humanity that still fights wars.

If you remove Vonnegut the character from the equation, we’re left with Billy Pilgrim, who is probably crazy.  Knowing that he’s suffering from the effects of witnessing the horrors of war, we can take his pessimism and fatalism and turn it around:  This is what happens to people who fight wars, let’s work to avoid this.

With the author-as-character in the book, that’s harder to do.  The author-as-character is, by his presence, giving us his opinion through Billy’s story.  Since that author-as-character is Vonnegut, it feels (whether or not it is is another discussion) that he’s telling us there is nothing we can do about war.  Since Vonnegut the character is giving us his opinion, it’s harder to view the book in any other light.

A version of this post originally appeared on October 4, 2010 in my now defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.

5 thoughts on “Metafiction and the anti-war message of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

  1. I guess the inspiring part is that Vonnegut survived the horror of his WWII experience and channeled it, eventually, into a piece of anti-war art that worked to condemn a specific war (Vietnam, or the American war as the Vietnamese call it) and all wars at the same time. War is shit, the survivor says, but he says it in a way that sticks in unusual ways. To me at least it’s inspiring because of the survivor who wrote it and how he chose to deliver the message.

  2. I agree about the inspiring part. I think that is why I am drawn to writers like Vonnegut and Tim O’Brien who use their own personal experiences to explore war and its consequences.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Very interesting piece on metafiction! Unfortunatley im not here to argue 🙁 im actually here for yours or others help. Im doing an argumentative research paper on— “How the horrors of The Vietnam War influenced the creation of metafiction during the contemporary era?”… if u can help in any way it would be more than appreciated because i have no idea how im going to approach this argument and u seem to have some knowledge in this field considering that u seem to enjoy talking about metafictional books
    Any help from anyone would be great im assuming u all have my email feel free to send a message anytime

    Sorry for being off topic from the primary discussion 🙁

    • Adam, I have also written about The Things They Carried, a metafictional novel set during Vietnam. Feel free to read that piece here: http://narrativeintheblog.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/everything-is-true-and-none-of-it-happened/. That might help get you some ideas, but that’s the only Vietnam-era metafictional book I’ve read. I’d suggest looking at it from the angle of “truth” vs. “reality” and how Vietnam affected those who fought there, and their perceptions of both ideas. If this would be considered a “credible” source for your paper, feel free to cite my work as part of your research, but do please cite me if you use anything you find here.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I enjoyed reading this article very much. I am actually exploring metafiction myself and trying to fully understand its use. At any rate, I do love a good argument, and since you already started two opposing viewpoints, I will argue against a point that is made in the second argument. Here is the point: “The fatalism of both Billy and Vonnegut the character does, in my opinion, work against the anti-war message. It is depressing rather than inspiring, and can only make the reader feel guilty for being a part of a humanity that still fights wars.”

    This argument, in my opinion, is missing the point of the “anti-war” message. Describing the book as anti-war is deeply ironic and paradoxical, which is actually inseparable from the book as a whole. Vonnegut as a character presents this book and its anti-war message as “lousy” and basically a waste of time and money. He is told that writing an anti-war book is like writing an “anti-glacier” book. It is futile. The images in the first chapter support this central theme. When Vonnegut thinks about the uselessness of his memories of the war, for example, he recalls a limerick and a song. Like the infinite looping song, the memories of Dresden play over and over “and so on until infinity,” but they never actually go anywhere or serve any useful purpose (like writing about the war). But this is crucial to his overall message about war. War never serves its purpose except to keep itself alive. Perhaps war happens for an ideal, a belief, or for power, but the other side is often fighting for the same ideals. Someone “wins” for a time, perhaps, until another power shows up to fight for freedom or greater power. In the meantime, the losing side now bears a major grudge and looks for any moment to avenge itself. “So it goes.” Fighting/campaigning against war only sustains the infinite loop of fighting for an ideal. What does it even mean to be anti-war? Isn’t opposition to war a contradiction? I believe that the fatalism in Billy Pilgrim and all of his strange experiences basically support the futility of war equally as much as the futility of “anti-war.” Yes, war is horrific and depressing and inspires many well-intentioned people to campaign against it. Vonnegut’s message, however, is that fighting against war is as futile as war itself. In a sense, the book can be called anti-war, but doing so is contradictory at the same time (this calls to my mind the deconstruction of binary oppositions: war/anti-war). So, taking out the author as a character would change the author’s entire purpose–a philosophical exploration of the futility of war and the ideals that war inspires.

    Not everyone will agree with Vonnegut’s message, and the argument against such a message is, of course, a credible viewpoint. Taking on the belief that “nothing can be done about the war so why even try” does seem pessimistic and, obviously, fatalistic, but, for Vonnegut, it is a major point in his book. “If you remove Vonnegut the character from the equation, we’re left with Billy Pilgrim, who is probably crazy. Knowing that he’s suffering from the effects of witnessing the horrors of war, we can take his pessimism and fatalism and turn it around: This is what happens to people who fight wars, let’s work to avoid this.” True, but this is not Vonnegut’s point. I don’t think his novel is ambiguous about the futility of war and anti-war, and I don’t think he means it to be. So, in my opinion, saying that the author-as-character should be removed from the equation is like telling Vonnegut he should have written about something else, that his subject matter and themes are not worthy of a novel–which, funnily enough, he actually says himself!

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