Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359
Wild Bob: a colonel whose regiment has been destroyed
After Weary and Billy are captured, they hear the shots of the guns that kill the scouts with whom they had been travelling. Weary is relieved of his weapons, as well as his boots, and is given a pair of wooden clogs.
After taking a brief side trip to his optometry practice in 1967, Billy rejoins the prisoners being marched away from the front. Billy returns to 1967, where he drives through the remains of Ilium’s burnt-out ghetto neighborhood. He listens to a Marine major give a speech in favor of increased bombings of North Vietnam at a Lions Club meeting. He drives home for his afternoon nap, which he spends weeping quietly.
Billy opens his eyes to find it is the winter wind that is making them run. Weary, who is marching near him, is also crying, but it is because his feet are being destroyed by his clogs. Billy marvels at the exciting scenery as he walks along, spotting corpses, weapons of mass destruction, and shot-out farmhouses.
The prisoners finally arrive at the railyards. One of the colonels there, who is dying of pneumonia, asks frantically for men from his annihilated regiment. In a delirium, he addresses Billy as if he were his entire body of troops, inviting them all to visit Wild Bob in Cody, Wyoming. Weary is the only member of Wild Bob’s regiment at the railyards, but he is in great pain and does not respond to Wild Bob’s calls. Vonnegut adds that he and O’Hare were at the railyards.
The prisoners are loaded onto the boxcars according to their rank. A man dies in one of the boxcars. After dawdling in their own luxuriously outfitted car, the guards go to fetch the corpse, which is Wild Bob.
The prisoners wait two days for their train to depart, taking turns sleeping on the floor and sharing food. Billy falls asleep and time travels again to the night he was kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians.
This chapter follows the two main threads of Billy’s life: his capture by the Germans and subsequent march to the railyards with other prisoners of war, and his life as an optometrist in 1967.
While Billy is obviously under stress as a prisoner, Billy’s adult life presents several anomalies that seem to indicate a problem below the surface contentment. First, he falls asleep at work, even while examining patients. This is possibly a sign of narcolepsy, a stress-triggered sleeping disorder. Second, Billy cannot make himself care about things, whether it is the future of optometry in Europe or the destruction of North Vietnam by bombing. Third, he is prone to unexplained crying fits. All of these problems indicate stifled emotions.
This combination of symptoms makes it seem doubtful that Billy has adjusted to civilian life as well as his commercial success would indicate. Instead, he seems to be repressing some terrible secret, which requires such tremendous effort to contain that it results in his emotional withdrawal from the world. Even Billy does not know why he cries. It is a mystery for the reader to solve, one that seems likely to illuminate Billy’s flying saucer journey.
Billy’s sanity during his experiences as a prisoner of war is highly questionable. His journey to the railyard is marked by frequent trips through time, which occur even while Billy is involved in some other activity. He also begins to see electric haloes around people’s heads. These signs of mental distress make Billy’s lack of response to the death and destruction he sees seem less likely to be caused by indifference than stress. In fact, his brain is scrambling Billy’s sensory input well enough for him to greet abuse with laughter and smiles, and to welcome the sight of the guards’ home as heartily as that of a bullet-riddened farmhouse. Since Billy has no control over the events around him (as epitomized in the poem hung in his office), his brain seems to have decided to make every experience a pleasant one. The book will later label this a Tralfamadorian way of dealing with life.
Among the many criticisms of Vonnegut’s writing is that his style is too simplistic. As William Allen says in Understanding Kurt Vonnegut, “It is easy to view Vonnegut as the simplest of writers—one who offers his readers short sentences, short paragraphs, cartoon-like characters, and lots of jokes.” Certainly it is true that Vonnegut’s use of short paragraphs and incorporation of open space (and even drawings) makes it easy for the eye to follow his words across the page. As previously noted, this audience-friendly style of writing, combined with Vonnegut’s sales, figures to confirm to many academic critics that his novels lack serious literary merit.
However, it must be observed that Vonnegut has made a conscious decision to write his novels in this fashion. As he said in an oft-quoted interview, “I’m not inclined to play Henry Jamesian games because they’ll exclude too many people from reading the book.… I have made may books easy to read, punctuated carefully, with lots of white space.” In another interview quoted in Loeb’s book, he said since the readers eyes don’t get tired, “you get him [the reader] without him knowing it by making his job easy for him.” Vonnegut wants his novels to be accessible to the general public.
Furthermore, in this age of television, Vonnegut has accepted that people have shorter attention spans. For this reason, his novels have generally been short, as well as frequently paragraphed. Additionally, Vonnegut has rejected pretentiousness and chosen instead to use a naturalistic language in his work. This combination of short, easy-to-read novels written in the vernacular has enabled Vonnegut’s books to, as stated in The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut, “retain the middle class audience to whom the novel genre originally spoke.”
Why should all of this matter to a writer? The answer lies in yet another interview, this one found in The Vonnegut Statement. In wondering why one should bother writing books when the people in power do not read them, Vonnegut responded, as mentioned earlier in this text, that one must catch people who are still open to ideas and “poison their minds with … humanity,” in order to “encourage them to make a better world.” This statement should be kept in mind when attempting to determine the “moral” of Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut does not want people to give up like Billy and withdraw from the world; he wants them to take actions to improve the world.
In order to have any hope of having a positive effect on the world, Vonnegut must reach as many people as possible. This is the underlying reason for his so-called “naive” style. Thus, despite the fact that Slaughterhouse-Five ultimately challenges such notions as “the assumption of national innocence and intrinsic American worth,” according to Klinkowitz, a philosophy which would repulse many readers, by coating his subversive notions in a layer of accessibility and humor, Vonnegut has been able to get readers to “swallow his sugar-coated pill,” according to Loeb, and take in his ideas.
Despite its overt simplicity, critics feel Slaughterhouse-Five certainly qualifies as being sophisticated.” First, the very ordinariness of the text’s description of war scenes imbues them with more horror than complex metaphors, which would more than likely draw attention away from the event and toward artistic device—and its creator’s cleverness. Furthermore, the reader cannot help but wonder why Billy Pilgrim is not reacting unfavorably to what he sees. He cannot possibly perceive so much death and destruction as commonplace. Additionally, the banality of Vonnegut’s prose serves to further emphasize the banality of Billy’s existence. The disconcerting effect this creates is to make Billy’s outer- (and inner-) space adventures seem as commonplace as his time spent in the office, leaving the reader unsure if he is reading about reality or merely a crazy man’s perception of reality. Thus, Vonnegut’s style serves to add further depth to his protagonist.
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