What are some examples of the ways Kurt Vonnegut uses images of light and darkness in his novel Slaughterhouse Five?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kurt Vonnegut uses imagery of light and darkness in various ways in his novel titled Slaughterhouse Five.  Examples include the following:

  • At one point, Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time” and begins to

swing through the full arc of his life, passing into death, which was violet light. There wasn’t anybody else there, or any thing. There was just a violet light – and a hum.

This passage is variously effective. Since death seems a strange and mysterious event to most people, it seems appropriate that Vonnegut should associate it with a very unusual and uncommon color of light. The light is neither white nor bright (which might make death sound comforting), nor is it utterly black (which might make death sound totally frightening). Instead, the light associated with death is purple – a kind of light seen very rarely, if ever, by most human beings during their lifetimes.  Purple is neither ugly nor comforting; it is simply a highly unusual kind of light and therefore appropriate to Vonnegut’s depiction of death.

  • Later, Billy is approached by a flying saucer. It, too, is illuminated by a purple light – a light that seems mysterious and intriguing for all the reasons already mentioned. Once more, Billy is faced with a light that seems highly uncommon in normal human experience, and thus this light is also appropriate to yet another strange event.
  • At the beginning of Chapter 6, Billy wakes up in a windowless hospital in which the candles have gone out.  Very little light is visible, even though outside the hospital it is dawn. The general darkness here is appropriate to Billy’s sense of alienation and disorientation in this episode.
  • At one point, when Billy is about to be kidnapped by a flying saucer, he walks down a hallway that looks “zebra-striped with moonlight and darkness.” The mixed lighting seems appropriate to Billy’s mixed feelings, as Vonnegut soon implies when he writes, “Billy was guided by dread and the lack of dread.”
  • Finally, at one point the narrator describes some English prisoners of war who sang every night together and had been doing so for years.  Symbolically, these men are making the best of a bad situation. They are producing and sharing a kind of light together in the midst of their dark situation and dark surroundings.

As these examples suggest, Vonnegut uses images of light and darkness often in his novel, and often very effectively.


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