27 Jan Vonnegut’s Paradox: Slaughterhouse-Five and the demoralized protagonist
In Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut (1989, University of Alabama Press), Lawrence R. Broer writes: “A striking paradox of Slaughterhouse-Five is that it presents us with Vonnegut’s most completely demoralized protagonist while making what is to this point the most affirmative statement of Vonnegut’s career.” Broer describes Billy Pilgrim as Vonnegut’s “scapegoat,” a character who carries Vonnegut’s heaviest burdens of trauma and despair, but whose sacrifice “makes possible Vonnegut’s own rebirth.” According to Broer, Vonnegut distances himself from Billy with references such as “I was there” and “that was me,” informing the reader of Vonnegut’s own presence within scenes featuring Billy.
Broer’s chapter on Vonnegut’s classic explores how the author pushes against the perceived fatalism of Billy and the Tralfamadorians. “Those who confuse Vonnegut with Billy Pilgrim or mistake the author as a defeatist … miss the predominantly affirmative thrust of Slaughterhouse-Five and Vonnegut’s career as a whole.”
Broer writes, “If settling into his womb-like Tralfamadorian environment, closing his eyes to any unpleasantness in the world, Billy Pilgrim becomes more than ever the playthings of those enormous forces at work on him throughout his life, Kurt Vonnegut may have saved his own sanity through the therapeutic processes of art, climaxed by an act of symbolic amputation: the severing of the Billy Pilgrim within himself, poisoned with existential gangrene. That this is as much Kurt Vonnegut’s baptism by fire as it is the story of Billy’s madness may be the overriding truth of Slaughterhouse-Five.”
For more from Lawrence R. Broer, visit The Daily Vonnegut archives for this interview, in which Professor explorers the connections between Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway.
Finally, here’s a clip from a 1997 seminar featuring Vonnegut, William Styron, and others on the topic bureaucracy and war.