Satirical Elements in “Slaughterhouse-Five”
Kurt Vonnegut uses a variety of elements including satire which he was credited with being a master of, in “Slaughterhouse-Five” where he tells the story of Billy Pilgrim. The book is loosely based on Vonnegut’s experiences during the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. The literary element in “Slaughterhouse-Five” that I will focus on is this paper is his element of satire.
Even the plot of this novel can be found to have satire in it. This main character Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time after being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he is mated with a porn star.
I even found satire in that Billy Pilgrim, was a bumbling and unlikely hero character. The fictional alter ego Billy Pilgrim was born in 1922, which if you happen to know about Vonnegut’s life, he too was born in 1922. I find satire in his Vonnegut’s fictional author, Kilgore Trout. It is rumored that this “Kilgore” could have been anyone from author Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction author Philip K. Dick or even Vonnegut’s own alter ego. Readers could find satire in the circumstances of the death of character Edgar Derby.
Edgar was among the survivors of the war of Dresden and was engaged in the clean-up activities. The imprisoned soldiers were instructed to use flame-throwers to burn the bodies and the ruins of the war left in Dresden. Derby then gets shot by a guard for simply taking a teapot from the ruins after Derby had survived the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II. In one part of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” we find an inebriated Billy Pilgrim entering his car while desperately trying to locate the missing steering wheel to the car and the readers are then clued in that he has entered the back seat area of the car.
In another part of “Slaughterhouse-Five” Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time while watching television. We read as Billy then watches a war film backwards and then he watches it forwards. During the wedding night to his wife Valencia, he first travels from the zoo on Tralfamadore. Billy wakes up only to find himself in a German prison camp. Upon returning from the bathroom, he finds himself back with his wife. Billy goes to sleep again only to wake up on a train to his father’s funeral.
The story used satire and dark humor somewhat interchangeably at points. A kind of ironic satire perhaps could be found when Billy’s American compatriot Roland continues to hit Billy because he feels Billy is moving too slowly. The German soldiers or “the enemies” then arrive and rescue Billy from further mistreatment from his American compatriot. Billy’s fear of being displayed naked in the zoo could be satire or associated with Billy (or Vonnegut) not yet feeling comfortable in revealing his personal thought processes at this time.
He could have been aware enough that he realized he didn’t want to be exposed for who he really was at that point in his life or that point in his mind. One could count it political satire when Vonnegut includes bits denegrading U. S. foreign policy and the U. S. Army in general. Vonnegut also satires egocentricity. I suppose some of the satire can be seen in how Billy Pilgrim criticizes those who are not assertive, those who are not in control of their lives. However, throughout the novel, even when Billy knew the plane was going to crash he said nothing and did nothing.
He just let the flow of events happen. At this point he still felt as if the moment is structured and one cannot alter the moment. It wasn’t until the end when Billy has brain surgery he changes from being indifferent towards life to being proactive. It wasn’t until the brain surgery that Billy showed initiative and actively helped others. One could see satire in that in his normal state without surgery Billy was a passive member of society. It wasn’t until brain surgery, the positive changes or proactive changes begin to occur in Billy’s life.