The New Historicist literary lens allows for critical analysis of literature among the American canon. In particular, Louis Montrose’s theory explores historical and cultural context in order to better understand a piece of literature. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, serves as a cryptic piece of Postmodern literature that can benefit from such analysis. The depiction of the novel’s central character, Billy Pilgrim, is heavily deduced from the real-life experiences of the author. Billy Pilgrim utilizes a variety of tools, such as creating a planet called Tralfamadore, when he yearns to escape the brutal realities of the present or come to terms with the harsh truths of his past. Vonnegut’s perspective contributed to the modernized character of Billy Pilgrim and sheds light on the various habits and actions he exhibits throughout the plot. Using New Historicism theory, this essay will explore how the text functions as a part of the continuum. An analysis of Pilgrim’s verbal nuances and fabricated departure points, as well as research of biographical author information and historical context frames a counter-narrative that highlights how the novel is a product of historical importance.
New Historicist theory emphasizes research into the social and historical conditions to better understand or gain new perspective on a particular text. This can be done through inquiry of a number of aspects including prevailing ideas and social dynamics of its historical era and author background. Louis Montrose, theorist and contributor to New Historicist theory, essentially describes this theory as the process of “problematizing the connections between literary and other discourses, the dialect between the text and the world” (Montrose 810). This suggests the importance of digging beyond the surface to reach a more meaningful assessment of a given text. It is often used in conjunction with other literary theories because it can be used to examine standard discourses over several academic disciplines.
Many aspects of Billy Pilgrim are dependent on the life experiences of Kurt Vonnegut. The article, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: How to Storify an Atrocity” by Peter Freese highlights the similarities between the narrator and the story’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. At age twenty, Vonnegut enlisted in the military and was almost immediately sent to fight on the frontlines in Europe. Shortly after his arrival, he was captured as a prisoner of war during the Battle of the Bulge and taken to Dresden, where he was housed nearly eighteen meters underneath the ground in a former slaughterhouse. On February 14, 1945, the Allied Forces dropped a series of explosives on the town, annihilating 135,000 defenseless residents. Despite his survival, Vonnegut was in charge of collecting and burning the remains of those who did not survive the attack (Freeze 17). While the novel was written during the Vietnam war, it was not published until 1969, becoming a celebratory novel due to the drastic shift in social dynamic and prevailing controversy over the war effort. After reviewing the research on Kurt Vonnegut, it blurs the line between memoir and fiction. Slaughterhouse-Five, intended as an “anti-war book,” was a result of Vonnegut’s attempt to confront the traumatic memories of his past. The title itself has a direct correlation to the meat locker and slaughterhouse in which Vonnegut, and many others, remained hostages of German force.
Striking aspects of the text that encapsulate the unimaginable atrocities of war include the erratic, arbitrary structure of the plot, Billy’s unique verbal nuances, as well as the blending of two narratives on different places in the spectrum of reality. The flow of the plot is anything but conventionally chronological, in fact, many details circle back; later ideas are reminiscent of what was already presented. Billy Pilgrim travels to different aspects of his life frequently and unpredictably, such as his birth, death, and what occurs in between. This mirrors the volatile nature of war and the struggle to deal with the atrocities experienced first hand. It is as though the unreliable plot inexplicitly reveals the author’s attempt to conceptualize his jarring experiences, meanwhile utilizing the narrative to therapeutically confront the same daunting memories. Billy Pilgrim’s uses comedy to assuage the true carnage behind recount various aspects of his past. Most notably, Pilgrim redundantly says, “So it goes…” whenever a situation is presented that involves death. In just one instance where this motto is inserted, the narrator is describing Pilgrim’s experience flying to an optometrist convention in Montreal, stating, “The plane crashed on top of Sugarbush Mountain, in Vermont. Everybody was killed by Billy. So it goes”(Vonnegut 25). Billy even confronts his wife’s death from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning with the same catchphrase. He coined this phrase as a reminder that death is a product of life. Due to all the senseless slaughter and violence he had witnessed during his lifetime, his desensitized disposition toward death suggests his acceptance of its inevitability. Fact and fiction become difficult to discern throughout the novel, specifically as a result of Vonnegut’s personal interjection into Billy’s narrative. Besides the beginning and exposition of the plot, there are two occasions in Slaughterhouse-Five where the author inserts himself into the fictional narrative, confirming his presence in the events in which he recounts. Vonnegut prefaces the novel, stating “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Freden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war”(Vonnegut 1). This foreshadows the occasional interjection of the narrator as an emotional displacement tactic. It reinforces the idea that the author is juggling his own mental disturbance and maintaining the fictional narrative he established. The introduction eludes to the future use of unconventional writing style, comedic displacement, and manipulated perspective.
Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time. After facing a string of emotional trauma and loss, Pilgrim claimed to have been abducted by aliens known as Tralfamadorians where he learned the art of time-travel, as well as immersed himself in Tralfamadorian time, where all moments in time exist at once. As previously mentioned, Billy struggles to recount complete memories of his past which is reflected in the erratic writing style. The concept of Tralfamadorian time also validates the narrator’s best effort to provide an orderly progression of events. Vonnegut remarks that Billy is “…spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (Vonnegut 23). This quotation suggests that Billy is terrorized by the unpredictable emergence of violent and painful memories. Perhaps as a helpful strategy to confront trauma, Billy’s ability to travel through time is an indication of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pilgrim’s fantasy world, as Laing calls it, is a “special strategy [invented] in order to live in an unlivable situation,” and creates a safe space for his to escape (qtd. In Freese 20). This may also explain why Billy cannot remember basic facts of his life because the atrocities of war are always on his mind. This diagnosis would make sense considering the ignorance regarding PTSD symptoms or disorders during this time period.
History plays a major role in the understanding of Slaughterhouse-Five. Biographical author information and historical context reveals the extent of loss and trauma faced not only by Billy Pilgrim, but the author, Kurt Vonnegut. Taking note of Billy’s unique mannerisms and extreme coping mechanisms shape the unpredictable plot. The combination of textual aspects shed light on the emotional, inconstence, and distorted reality as a result of war. All of the aspects of Slaughterhouse-Five were heavily impacted on social and historical context emphasized by New Historicist theory.