Slaughterhouse-Five: Part 4

Chapters 6 & 7 (136–161)

In chapters 6 and 7 of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut employs a particularly interesting literary device: he spoils the book’s ending. While Slaughterhouse-Five’s non-linear structure seems to imply that it won’t have a traditional ending anyways, this is solidified on page 143, when “Billy experiences death.” At this point, Vonnegut has essentially told his readers everything there is to know about the way the novel ends: Dresden will be fire bombed, and Pilgrim will be assassinated by Paul Lazzaro’s friend. This seems to go against the basic rules of storytelling — we are always taught as readers not to watch movies before finishing the books, not to skip to the last chapter of a novel, not to Google what happens to our favorite characters. The ending of books are, in many ways, treated as sacred moments. Vonnegut tosses this convention aside, however, and it is surprisingly effective. By nonchalantly spoiling Pilgrim’s death and the Dresden bombings, Vonnegut reinforces many of the novel’s themes. For instance, Pilgrim is well aware of his death before it occurs — he has even “described it [his death] to a tape recorder” (141) — but does absolutely nothing to prevent it from happening. This, of course, reinforces the dangers of the deterministic philosophy that I discussed in my third reflection. It also reminds readers of the inevitability of death that I described in my first reflection: “‘It is high time I was dead’” (142), Pilgrim exclaims to his crowd of followers. With this phrase, Pilgrim essentially acknowledges that he must die at some point, and implies that his death is overdue anyways. Finally, this technique reflects Pilgrim’s nonchalant attitude toward death. While this is obviously exemplified by Pilgrim’s complacent attitude, it is also an inherent property of the technique itself. Simply by telling readers of the main characters death before the end of the novel, Vonnegut seems to imply that the main character’s death (and by extension, death itself) is not a big deal — if it were, he would save it for the novel’s sacred end.

The dangers of deterministic complacency are displayed yet again in Chapter 7, when Pilgrim allows his fellow orthodontists to board a plane that he knows is destined to crash. He and his co-workers are supposed to be heading to a convention in Montreal — but only Pilgrim knows that the plane will never make it that far. But instead of warning his father-in-law and other coworkers of their impending doom, instead of telling them not to board the plane, instead of saving 28 lives, Pilgrim chose to do nothing. While it could be argued that their is nothing inherently wrong with Pilgrim allowing himself to be murdered — it is his own life, after all — it is much harder to defend his actions here. Pilgrim’s justification for his non-action, assuming anyone were able to confront him about it, would obviously be that “the moment was structured that way. It was inevitable.” Yet, the moment doesn’t have to be structured that way: Pilgrim’s rare ability to travel through time should give him the ability to manipulate his future. But instead, Pilgrim chooses to follow the Tralfamadorian’s example, using his knowledge of the future to justify complacency.

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