Sunday, October 25, 2009

Humanism and Fatalism

One of the initial things that amazed me about “Slaughterhouse – Five” was just how much Vonnegut was able to cram into what is a really a pretty short novel. In coming up with discussion questions for the novel, I found myself easily rattling off question after question, trying to unravel Vonnegut’s dense satiric web of a man’s fractured life after witnessing atrocities of World War II. Of course, this is very common for postmodern novels, often leaving the question of where one would even start when attempting to start discussion. Since the book is structured very uniquely, it might seem best to start there. Here we have a novel written as if it is a Tralfamadorian novel using the fourth dimension: “Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message – describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other [. . .] What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time” (88). Certainly as the plot dictates, the story should jump back and forth through time, because this is the way Billy experiences time, or so he claims. However, there is certainly more to it than that, and one of the reasons seems to be that for the most part, Billy’s wartime experiences are told chronologically. Every once in a while, there will be a flash towards a different time during the war, but in general, the book follows Billy from his wandering experiences with Weary to the labor camps to the firebombing of Dresden. Flashes to the rest of his life and his Tralfamadore experiences occur out of order and at random, but his wartime experiences don’t.
The question this raises is does Vonnegut share the fatalistic beliefs of the Tralfamadorians, that everything is predestined and that one should only focus on the happy parts of life? I certainly don’t think so, and it seems Vonnegut’s inclusion of the serenity prayer in the text gives us insight into his own beliefs. To a certain extent, Vonnegut makes it clear that some things may be predetermined, as one will naturally live out their life one must inevitably face death, and perhaps even something huge and insurmountable as war is unstoppable – it has been happening since the beginning of mankind and probably will continue. However, there are some things that can be changed, and something such as the firebombing of Dresden may be one of those unnecessary, inexcusable things, along with the execution of Edgar Derby at the end of the novel, something that doesn’t occur within the reaches of war, what amounts to essentially murder (over a tea pot). As Vonnegut is a renowned Humanist, a reasonable way to sum up what he might say about such events may be “that humans should be as nice to each other as they can be for the sake of each other’s humanity given the unchangeable passing of time.”

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