After times of heightened stress, many people have difficulty coping with everyday events. Is Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, exaggerating this fact in writing about Billy Pilgrim?
Individual readers will have to decide for themselves whether Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, has presented a credible depiction of the effects wartime stress can have on those who have experienced it. Many readers will point to the long history of soldiers who have suffered psychologically from their participation in war, especially modern war. Recent wars have often been especially horrific, as anyone who has seen films of “shell-shocked” soldiers from World War I (for instance) can testify. (See the YouTube video linked below.) World War II was in some ways even worse, since it often involved the mass destruction of civilians, not only the brutal suffering of soldiers.
Slaughterhouse Five, of course, revolves around one of the most horrible of all such examples of suffering by civilians – the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, a bombing often compared in destructiveness to the later obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs. Surely part of the reason for Billy’s psychological trauma is the realization that it was his “side” that inflicted the suffering at Dresden. Shock, then, is combined with some sense of guilt and responsibility. Passages such as the following help vividly emphasize Billy’s experiences during the war:
A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.
It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.
Many readers feel that Vonnegut’s novel effectively conveys the physical destruction that occurred at Dresden and at other such places as well as the psychological toll that the war took on those who participated in it. Some readers, however, feel that the novel – especially with its alien abduction subplot – trivializes the darker subjects it explores. Fans of Vonnegut will continue to love the book; those uninterested in Vonnegut will continue to pay it little attention.
And so it goes.