The use of metafiction in anti-war fiction is fairly common (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Things They Carried). Does the inclusion of the author as a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (and the knowledge that the “author” fought in World War II) lend credibility to the anti-war message, or does it weaken the message by taking away from the story and characters by using an overbearing delivery?
I’m going to argue both points—and I do think both views are valid and very arguable. But, first, a basic summary.
Kurt Vonnegut the character opens the book by visiting an old military buddy, where he talks about a book he’s always wanted to write about the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II. The book he’s writing is about Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant who is a POW in a slaughterhouse during the destruction of Dresden, and later becomes “unstuck in time” after he is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.
The aliens can see in four dimensions (time being the fourth) and can focus on any one time in their life. They do not believe people can choose their destiny, and Billy comes to agree with them after spending time in a Tralfamadore zoo as an exhibit. The book has a nonlinear narrative structure and flits between different time periods in Billy’s life, with Vonnegut as character occasionally interjecting.
The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five lends credibility to the narrative and the book’s anti-war message.
Slaughterhouse-Five is metafiction at its most pure. The author appears as a character, who is writing a book. The author tells us about his military service in World War II and how he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden.
Since we know the author (as a character in the book) was there, we feel more inclined to believe Billy’s account of the tragedy within the book-within-a-book. He was there, and only one a few who survived to tell about it, so he immediately becomes a more reliable narrator.
Which makes us wonder if Billy is crazy when he starts talking about aliens from Tralfamadore, or if the aliens really exist. Wondering about those pesky Tralfamadorans leads us to a slew of other questions: Is our destiny, as Billy comes to believe, really fixed? Are we doomed to keep fighting wars or do we have the power to stop them? How can we stop them?
Although Billy turns to fatalism and pessimism on the topic of free-will and our ultimate destiny, we are able to recognize that he feels this way because he’s witnessed and lived through horrors that we can’t understand, having not been through them ourselves. I felt sorry for Vonnegut the character, trying to write his book and always putting it off. Even if he could get the words down, who would want to listen to such an awful story?
But we, the readers, because of Vonnegut the character and Billy’s viewpoints, know that we must listen to this story, so that we can do our part to prevent other stories like Billy’s from happening ever again, thus making the author appearing as a character an integral part of the book’s anti-war message.
The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five is overbearing and takes away from both the message and the story.
Slaughterhouse-Five is not a hopeful book, and it doesn’t really have a happy ending. The general feeling it leaves me with is “oh well, that’s how it is,” which the book’s characters echo with the oft-repeated phrase “So it goes.”
Being a book that decries the horrors of war, this isn’t surprising. What surprises me is Vonnegut the character’s similar depression. He doesn’t seem to want to change the world or give a call to action to end war. The book that Vonnegut the author writes shows a character, Bill Pilgrim, that hates war but makes little effort to campaign against it, even though he claims to know exactly when and how he’ll die.
The fatalism of both Billy and Vonnegut the character does, in my opinion, work against the anti-war message. It is depressing rather than inspiring, and can only make the reader feel guilty for being a part of a humanity that still fights wars.
If you remove Vonnegut the character from the equation, we’re left with Billy Pilgrim, who is probably crazy. Knowing that he’s suffering from the effects of witnessing the horrors of war, we can take his pessimism and fatalism and turn it around: This is what happens to people who fight wars, let’s work to avoid this.
With the author-as-character in the book, that’s harder to do. The author-as-character is, by his presence, giving us his opinion through Billy’s story. Since that author-as-character is Vonnegut, it feels (whether or not it is is another discussion) that he’s telling us there is nothing we can do about war. Since Vonnegut the character is giving us his opinion, it’s harder to view the book in any other light.
A version of this post originally appeared on October 4, 2010 in my now defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.