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Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five works as an adamant anti-war novel, depicting the
effects of trauma through Billy Pilgrim with a peculiar science fiction tone. More specifically, Vonnegut depicts the impact trauma has had on soldiers in war. Psychologically, war trauma can cause various issues, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alexithymia as seen with Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut is unique in his usage of symbols and metaphors to indicate states of mental health and events or effects of trauma. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five utilizes Billy Pilgrim to present the effects and repercussions of psychological trauma.
Vonnegut depicts a highly weakened main character who displays symptoms of PTSD
and suffers from combat related trauma. To best understand the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, one must grasp the science behind war trauma and its possible effects. The main diagnosis of Billy Pilgrim is post traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event” (Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)). Symptoms include flashbacks, recurring thoughts of the traumatic event, dreams or nightmares, and general emotional distress regarding the event. Significant violent experiences can cause serious trauma and may provoke PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)). Specifically, war related trauma can have long term effects on veterans. Combat trauma can cause “difficulty talking about what troubles them [veterans] or they may not wish to burden their loved ones with their fears. The symptoms are treatable, but many fail to seek treatment, wishing instead to pretend that all is normal” (Doctor and Shiromoto). Key indicators of flashbacks, as well as lack of communication and emotions, point to Billy Pilgrim’s probable diagnosis of PTSD. Billy Pilgrim’s becoming “unstuck in time” (Vonnegut, 23) causes him to travel through time and space, experiencing his life out of order. This constant recollection of war events may be interpreted as a form of flashbacks. His mental state indicates significant trauma and dwelling on his past, a core symptom of PTSD (Kimblad 7). Likewise, Vonnegut’s narrative structure with phrases including, “he said” and “so it goes” point to a very broken mindset for Billy. Vonnegut writes, “He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says” (23). This short dialogue emphasizes Billy’s own thoughts, which may not necessarily be a true reality. “He says” connects best to the idea of Billy’s traveling as flashbacks, not an alien abduction. Small details like these support the falsity of Billy’s story. Additionally, Vonnegut constantly and repetitively uses the motif, “so it goes” when a death occurs or is mentioned. The ideology is rooted from the Tralfamadorian view of life, being that no living thing ever dies. The being is simply not alive at a given point in time, but is well in other specific moments (Vonnegut 27). “Slaughterhouse-Five: An analysis of Billy Pilgrim’s Mental Trauma” highlights the more emotional link to this phrase. PTSD veterans often have trouble communicating about their experiences or accepting emotion after war. Billy noting deaths with “so it goes” is satirical, but best functions to represent his numbing mental state (Kimblad 10). Vonnegut carries a dark humor tone throughout the text, from lighter scenes even to deeper, violent war memories. The constant satire, extraterrestrials, and usage of “so it goes” reminds the reader of the impact war has had on Billy’s mental health. The various symptoms of PTSD Billy exhibits work simultaneously to further explain how he copes with the notable trauma of war.
Billy Pilgrim experiences drastic cognitive dissonance and achieves consonance with his
time travel. Slaughterhouse-Five has strong elements of a science fiction novel, but Billy Pilgrim’s time travel has a very specific purpose. To better follow Billy’s emotional actions, the logic of his time travel is vital. Reiko Nitta explains the time expedition bouncing between two distinct groups, being the war and normal days. The scenes during normal days are very spastic and do not follow a linear progression, but they make sense when correlating them to each war memory. Essentially, time travel is an emotional link to his war trauma. This connection further emphasizes the idea of Billy’s PTSD and flashbacks. For example, she cites Vonnegut’s depiction when Billy is in the forest behind the German line and then travels to his life threatening swim in the pool as a child. The flashback then progresses into later events during that period in Billy’s life, which are less fatal and more comforting. The scene feels chaotic and choppy, but with the analysis of emotion, it makes more sense. Billy is using time travel to disguise a coping tactic. This is a sort of escapism in an “attempt to reduce ‘cognitive dissonance’” which is when, “One’s mind becomes unsettled in a situation which is difficult to explain” (Nitta). Billy feels trauma and likely an emotional overload from his war memories. By recalling another point in his life that was life threatening he can connect in feelings in the chaos as well as sort them, since the past reminds him he survived. In essence, time travel calms his chaos, reducing the cognitive dissonance he experiences. It helps to explain and divert Billy from the confusing memories of war and significant mental trauma. Vonnegut uses these scenes to emphasize the mental fatigue and illness war can cause. Likewise, the tone of Billy and the text itself work to highlight the overall effects of war trauma and arise another probable diagnosis.
The overall attitude of Billy Pilgrim resembles the effects of trauma and through a further
diagnosis of alexithymia. Kimblad notes this numbing attitude by connecting it with PTSD, but the emotional distance can also be caused by alexithymia. Alexithymia is the psychological inability to express feelings and emotion. This effect is due to minimal reflection over the traumatic experiences (George 8). Billy Pilgrim is constantly experiencing severely violent scenes in war and chooses to ignore them. Throughout the second chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy listens to Ronald Weary describe horrifying deaths and torture techniques as Billy listens quietly, with minimal reactions or regard for the humanity of the conversation. Weary describes torturous tools, making even the reader feel sick, but Billy is too caught up in the war to acknowledge this insanity (Vonnegut). Emotional detachment is a major side effect of war trauma, resulting in alexithymia. As Vonnegut depicts various deaths and losses in Billy’s life, the despair is either not acknowledged by Billy or he chooses to cover the horror with a phrase on Tralfamadorian ideology. By dodging these emotions and simply succumbing the events of the war displays great emotional disconnect, taking a significant toll on his mental health. In essence, these symptoms extend Billy’s PTSD issue to another repercussion of trauma, being alexithymia. The satire and numbing disposition contribute to the developing idea of war trauma and Billy’s degrading mental wellness.
In conclusion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five develops a major theme of war
trauma to accurately depict war through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim. The science fiction element of time travel discreetly intertwines the mental aftermath of war for soldiers. Repercussions include PTSD and alexithymia, as seen with Pilgrim. Despite the melancholy undergoes of the text, his dark themes of mental trauma are vital and effective in progressing the novel with a strong anti-war theme. Vonnegut’s message is clear and precise in its media friendly story of war and the trauma it carries for those involved by illustrating Billy Pilgrim’s struggles and experiences as a recovering soldier.
- Doctor, Ronald M., and Frank N. Shiromoto. “Trauma and Traumatic Stress Disorders.” Health Reference Center, Facts on File, 2009, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=18218&itemid=WE48&articleId=123637. Accessed 7 May 2019.
- George, Anna. “Trauma Narrative of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five.” Academia, s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/33088437/project.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1557249743&Signature=9oL26wzg592%2F3Zag4f8CF0Ozb74%3D&response-content-disposition=attachment%3B%20filename%3DTRAUMA_NARRATIVE_OF_KURT_VONNEGUTS_SLAUG.pdf. Accessed 7 May 2019.
- Kho, Laura. “Trauma and Time in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.” The Undergraduate Awards Library, 2014,www.undergraduatelibrary.org/2014/literature/trauma-and-time- kurt-vonneguts-slaughterhouse-five. Accessed 7 May 2019.
- Niclas, Kimblad. “Slaughterhouse-Five: An analysis of Billy Pilgrim’s Mental Trauma.” DiVA, Karlstads University, 2017, www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1134110/FULLTEXT01.pdf. Accessed 7 May 2019.
- Nitta, Reiko. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Psychological Strategies in Slaughterhouse-Five.” PsyArt: An Online Journal for Psycological Studies, 18 Nov. 2011, www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/nitta-kurt_vonneguts_psychological_strategies_. Accessed 7 May 2019.
- “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic, 6 July 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/ diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967. Accessed 11 May 2019.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York, Dial Press, 2005.
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