What does Kurt Vonnegut achieve by placing himself as a character in his novel "Slaughterhouse-Five?"

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kurt Vonnegut, in writing Slaughterhouse-Five, looked upon the task as a cathartic experience.  The key to understanding this novel is in the preface, which is entirely autobiographical, and in which Vonnegut relates the history of his decision to write a novel inspired from his experiences in World War II.  And, make no mistake, those experiences were harrowing.  Vonnegut, while a prisoner-of-war in Germany, and being held in the city of Dresden, emerged from captivity to gaze upon a scene of destruction that rivaled, as he himself noted, the devastation from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The firebombing of Dresden by Allied air forces caused a level of destruction commensurate with that experienced by residents of those two Japanese cities, and it left an indelible impression upon the young soldier.   As he relates his impressions regarding that single incident from the war, he emphasizes the incomprehensibility of the scale and nature of the bombing, and of the surrealistic experience of surviving it:

“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again.  Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.  And what do the birds say?  All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-tweet’.”

The final line in Slaughterhouse-Five is, again, “Poo-tee-tweet.”  Vonnegut is left with little to add other than to reemphasize the incomprehensibility of the devastation wrought by human beings during World War II.  He employs first-person narrative because it is a uniquely personal story, in which he is hoping to attain some greater understanding through the process of writing, but to no avail.  As he notes in his “novel,” “all this happened, more or less.”  Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut’s fictional alter-ego, but Pilgrim’s story is interspersed with Vonnegut’s own.  Slaughterhouse-Five employs Vonnegut’s voice because it his story.

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