Defining Reality in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s "Slaughterhouse Five"
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all events in between (4).”
So begins Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s science fiction novel Slaughterhouse Five; a truly spectacular and radical look into the inner workings of the mind and the way that individuals interpret and process the concept of reality. Vonnegut, Jr. speaks through the story’s fictional protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who has found himself in the midst of deconstructing the linearity of the events that compose his lifetime, instead replacing them with a framework in which all moments (past, present, and future) simultaneously coexist (4). Through his struggle to find his identity and delve within the experiences that he believes are his, the lines become blurred between what actually exists and what is simply elaborate, farfetched fabrication. Consequently, Billy Pilgrim, a survivor of the Dresden bombing and other significant hardships throughout his life, may appear superficially to have ‘lost his marbles’. However, the story which Vonnegut, Jr. crafts for him appears to have significant worth in terms of a person’s ability to define reality as whatever he or she chooses it to be and the effect that trauma can have on changing or influencing one’s outlook on time and memory.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s visionary portrayal of the story and thought processes of Billy Pilgrim subtly contends to the amazing capabilities of the mind and raises questions pertaining to how the brain to can elicit thoughts and imagery so vivid that it is difficult to tell what’s real from what is not. From the point when he became “unstuck in time” in the early chapters of Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim’s life is depicted by Vonnegut, Jr. through a series of seemingly distinct events that are presented in a purposefully non-chronological fashion (4). Its almost as if Billy progresses through these experiences on a whim; the reader doesn’t necessarily know where Billy’s mind will take you next. All these events, although appearing to be jumbled and detached from one another, are in fact connected in the sense that they are all experiences that chronicle Billy Pilgrim’s lifetime. Collectively, they are called upon or recalled in vivid bits and fragments as in a fashion that mimics the their presentation by the mind, which draws associations and constantly changes its train of thought. This is where I believe Vonnegut, Jr. was onto something; the idea that the flow of the mind, via processing of sensory input, dictates who, what, when, where, and why we are at a given instance. Recollection and our other mental processes, in general, can draw us deep into a reality that we create for ourselves. I think back to instances that I have had in my own experience, where I have been daydreaming or deep in thought. In these cases, although I believe that I am in a classroom, for instance, my mind takes me elsewhere. In a similar light, the way that I am feeling, whether I am happy or sad, causes drastic differences in my outlook, how I perceive a given situation, and my concept of reality as a whole. This set of observations may indicate that the experiences concepts, or feelings which I consciously or unconsciously choose to elaborate on with my mind are in fact what paints my reality. I have collected my experiences in this sense from my own interpretation of the world around me, everything from colors, to shapes and objects, to their associations with one another. Is perceiving believing then? If nothing else, Billy Pilgrims journey and our own experiential encounters indicate this very clearly. We are who, what, and where our mind makes us out to be, just as we are to other people, what they interpret us to be. Whether Billy thinks he is on the far way planet Tralfalmadore, the slaughterhouse during the WWII air raid in Dresden, or in the comfort of his hospital bed, where he is real and perfectly convincing to him (4). Interestingly, the brain can switch gears between one experience and link it together with others to create our own story, not necessarily constructing a linear progression, but rather a coherent encounter with the things that our brains have come to associate with one another. This is what allows us to make the connections necessary to jump between the different ideas that we think about. However, what mechanisms or actions can allow for one’s perception to become effectively consumed, essentially blocking out that person’s detection of the outside world? In other words, what produces the ability of the mind to override what we are doing or where we are with the thoughts and ideas which it generates, because as painted by the portrayal of Billy Pilgrim, we can be one place while actually perceiving we are in another place entirely? Although the answer is still unclear to me, this remains one of the most interesting questions raised by the details of Vonnegut, Jr.’s work.
A second interesting quandary arising from the account of Billy Pilgrim’s story from the book Slaughterhouse Five is the extent that emotional trauma on the ability to generate particular memories and thoughts, and to develop the associations that link these ideas that compose one’s reality. Billy Pilgrim’s story is wrought with tragedy and emotional trauma, which he simply over the course of the novel comes to dismiss with the term “So it goes”. Everything from experiencing the death of his father and mother, his wife, and the numerous casualties of the Dresden bombing show this well (4). It seems apparent, that being witness to such a great deal of unpleasant events has impacted Billy to change the way he thinks and initiate the start of his belief that he has become “unstuck in time”. But how does emotional trauma allow one to shift their outlook on how they perceive their experiences? It assuredly possesses the ability to jilt a person, causing the very foundations of his or her emotions to be rattled and generates extremely pronounced and lucid responses to relevant external stimuli. Results of physical and emotional disorders have been shown to alter a variety of moods or functions within a given individual and give insight into this issue. Studies performed on those inflicted with traumatic brain injury have been shown to generate a decrease in their previous ability to interpret perceived stimuli pertaining to emotion, such as facial expressions or other cues due to alterations to the amygdala and other areas of the brain which trigger emotional responses (3). Similarly, the formation of gas bubbles, leaving cavity formation in the brain is associated with the negative effects of most shell shock victims, who experience pronounced behavioral and psychiatric changes as a result of pressure from exposure to exploding shells during war (1). Also, depression and other behavior/perception altering conditions have been linked to variations in neurotransmitters signaling (2). Therefore, it seems likely that, in the case of Billy, the shift in his behavior and thought processes may have been directly linked to the tragedies he was forced to encounter over the course of his life. His altered conception of the timeframe that once dictated the order of the experiences within this memory could be attributed to the neurological changes brought on by his previous traumatic hardships, most likely manifesting themselves in the mechanisms responsible for the way ideas or concepts are associated within his brain. In this light, it appears that we are consistently modifying our points of view and interpretations of the memories that we have, given the influence of outside stimuli, and not simply just recalling one-time generated recollections. With trauma in the sense that Billy has experienced it, it seems that the tragedy that he has experienced has allowed him not only to build on these concepts such as that which defines how he thinks of time, but also to modify them in ways that effectively deconstructed his methods through which he once looked at them. Consequently, he is able to pair together certain memories of his life and interpret them in ways that he would never have before. In this sense, our minds are dictated by an ever-changing assortment of interconnected ideas and frameworks, which are modified by the experiences and encounters (such as trauma) that we encounter over the course of our lives. In this way, we not only possess the ability to change the way in which understand or think, but also find ways to modify or filter future sensory information which we will receive in ways that are influenced by these previously formulated viewpoints.
In summary, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five has dramatically impacted the ways in which I view my mind and ability to think. If nothing else, it as made me question even more what I sense to be real, opening my eyes to the fact that a great deal of my life and perceived experience may be subconsciously or consciously an illusion. To what extent then is our ‘tangible reality’ actually tangible? Where does one draw the line between what is really present and that which the brain is convincingly projecting to itself as a believable, yet totally self-generated construction?
(1) Glasser, Ronald. “A Shock Wave of Brain Injuries”. Washington Post. April8,
2007. 4 May 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
(2) GlaxoSmithKline. “Causes of Depression”, on Depression.com,
http://www.depression.com/causes_of_depression.html: accessed 4 May
(3) Saunders, Jennifer Clare, McDonald, Skye, and Richardson, Rick. “Loss of Emotional
Experience After Traumatic Brain Injury: Findings With the Startle Probe
Procedure.” Neuropsychology. 20 (2): 224-231. 2006.
(4) Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1984.