Use of Literary Devices in Slaughterhouse-Five

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An educator on the topic of multi-dimensions states that, If we think of ourselves as we were one minute ago, and imagine ourselves as we are at this moment, [that] would be a line in the fourth dimension. If you were to see your body in the fourth dimension, you’d be like a long undulating snake… (?? ? ?). In the fourth dimension, all of one’s lifespan is viewed, so a normal human would appear snake-like with baby feet on one end, and aged feet on the other.

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All suffering, joy, and loss happens at the exact same time only in different sections of the snake. If the notion of a four dimensional reality is true, then that would mean that every single human effort to create a destiny or a better life does not exist because a fate is already planned without control of the individual. Everything that will be and everything that already happened exists at the same time, fixed in a particular moment in one’s lifespan. Not only that, but if one part of the snake is in trouble physically, and another moment is content, then that would mean ill-fortune is still ever-present. The book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut uses imagery, parallelism, and similes to show that since war is never-ending and unavoidable, it is hopeless for an individual to escape its after effects ensuring that not one person nor a world will ever be free from it.

First of all, the use of imagery reflects how unfeasible it is to avoid obstacles as represented by the main character’s attempts to try and do so. After another one of Billy’s time travel escapades, he struggles out of a stationed military hospital in order to find the latrines outside. He delivered himself to a barbed-wire fence which snagged him in a dozen places. Billy tried to back away from it, but the barbs wouldn’t let go. So Billy did a silly little dance with the fence, taking a step this way, then that way, then returning to the beginning again (Vonnegut 123). The barbed wire fence represents an obstacle in Billy’s life, and in this case, any attempt to find a way around it is fruitless unless he goes back to the root or place before he got stuck. It is more impactful to the reader if they can visualize a scenario in which a problem cannot be solved unless one returns to a time before it happened. In order to avoid war, one must have never started it, which is impossible considering that the world has seen it before (Moody 75). In other words, the obstacles in both scenarios are unpreventable to overcome unless a person goes back to before the catastrophe took place so that the obstacle would have never existed. Yet this absurd notion cannot be obtained because, as shown by Vonnegut’s example of the fence, war entraps and ensnares the defenseless, making it so that war is all the world truly knows.

More over, using imagery shows how war can continue even after the fighting is over due to the morbid descriptions that haunt the main character. As Billy is being hospitalized, he looks upon and vividly captures the essence of the dreary table next to him. There was a still life on Billy’s bedside tabletwo pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette was still burning and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out (Vonnegut 101). The bubbles struggling to get out of the water reflect Billy’s own disposition and experience he had witnessed in the war. This disturbed and morbid representation of imagery is necessary to show how Billy views the war to entrap innocent lives who are too weak to do anything to prevent their demise. In post-war life his ordeal continues, his wartime traumas return to haunt him and he is tested further… (Hinchcliffe 189). Even in the peaceful life that comes after the war, any effort to fully live in harmony is demolished by the left over trauma that manipulates and distorts every day life. As mentioned, how Billy regards the bedside table scene is more troubling than how an average person might have viewed it. He is constantly seeing loss and battles in life whenever he looks at ordinary objects because the ordeals he witnessed as a soldier has been ingrained in his memory.

Moreover, the structural usage of parallelism helps define the impossibility to escape from the clutches of devastation in the war. During Billy’s war experienced, he was imprisoned with many other Englishmen as prisoners of war and watched as they attempted to escape camp. They could tunnel all they pleased. They would inevitably surface within a rectangle of barbed wire, would find themselves greeted listlessly by dying Russians… They could scheme all they pleased to hide aboard a vehicle… but no vehicle ever came… They could feign illness… but that wouldn’t earn them a trip anywhere either (Vonnegut 93). Even through the numerous efforts and attempts at trying to free oneself from the harsh realities experienced by war, all that would come out of it is hopelessness. The use of they could would always be followed by an outcome of sheer despair. The device helps to emphasize the use of how many times the men have tried to escape, showing that no matter what one does to get out of a bad situation, it is unobtainable. Here Vonnegut is expressing his renunciation of the simplistic notion of time on Earth that defines and imprisons us (Sumner 130). Alas, it does not matter how many times one attempts to run from being victimized by war, because time is preventing any change to happen. The fixation of time only proves that the chances of freedom are slim due to the future being set and the events leading up to it are inevitable.

In addition, the overextended use of parallelism applies Billy’s example to show that it is fruitless to run away from one’s unfortunate dilemmas. Whenever a hardship occurs in Billy’s past, present, or future, he travels in time to another moment of his life. As this happens throughout multiple instances, because Billy finds himself in many harsh events, only a few of them are stated. …Billy blinked in 1958, traveled back in time to 1961… Billy traveled in time to another moment which was quite nice… Billy, knowing the plane was going to crash pretty soon, closed his eyes, traveled in time back to 1944 (Vonnegut 46, 118, 156). The only way to get out of a bad situation, in Billy’s mind, is to go back to a time when it was never present. Even after trying to get away from them, he is met with another moment that does not please him and he tries to turn time to get away. This desperate attempt at fleeing is shown multiple times in order to emphasize the reality of how many drastic attempts it takes for Billy to run away from his problems. … The importance thing is to go on, to escape the paralyzing emotional rigidity that can turn one into a pillar of salt (McGinnis 148). Even if perils track Billy down through time and space, he still strives to move on to the next less traumatizing moment in order to ignore any PTSD that tries to come at him. However, this does not excuse Billy from fully fleeing. If time is truly set as Kurt Vonnegut states in his beliefs of a fourth dimension, then that would mean one part of Billy is having a fun moment, when the other Billy in the past is still suffering. The undying proof that one part of his lifespan is in in trouble, shows the constant suffering that will never truly go away.

Next, the presence of similes portrays how war will feel never-ending if it continues to be glorified and fought by inexperienced soldiers. As Vonnegut visits his war friend, Bernard V. O’Hare, he is lectured by an angry Mary O’Hare in concern of how he will write his anti-war novel. You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies… And war will look just wonderful so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs (Vonnegut 14). Generally, it is common knowledge that during World War II, young people were most likely drafted for the war. However, it is not advisable, as Mary claims, for media to glorify the young participants’ stories because it leads to more war. This would in fact attract more impressionable youths to fight, in hopes of becoming big shots. By comparing the youths in the war, to the children in Mary’s house, the device amplifies the absurdness of fighting a war of children war because it only brings more war in the future. Convinced that his novel will glorify war and make young people eager to fight, she reminds Vonnegut that most soldiers are really children (Marvin 114). At a relatively young age, Billy fought in the war, and due to his lack of ability and ingenuousness, many of the traumatic events amplified and followed him longer in life. Vonnegut deliberately wanted to compare how other forms of media about try to showcase a war fought for honor and bravery, when in reality the youths who get drafted are more susceptible to PTSD and are so inexperienced that war can drag on longer.

Lastly, similes play a key role in comparing the trauma Billy receives with torture objects to represent how war will continue to follow an individual. In one of the flashbacks, Billy is at his eighteenth wedding anniversary party when he starts to react strangely to a barbershop quartet that triggers a post traumatic experience. Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rock (Vonnegut 173). It is quite concerning for Billy to recall a torture device and collate it to his expression. This vivid and troubled comparison proves the war continuing to follow him by the result of his views on everyday objects. Billy reacts to the memory called up by this association by having what seems to be a cardiac seizure (Edelstein 35). Again, it is important to not over look how normal things, such as a quartet, stress and give Billy anxiety because of the memories that he associates them with. The forced situations Billy had to undergo during the war will continue to slip into the crevices of his mind, and distort Billy’s outlook of the world. If this were to go on for the rest of his life, then everything that Billy will look at will be compared to another recollection of the war causing it to feel unending.

Overall, imagery, parallelism, and similes signify that war in Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, can never be fully stopped because it is unachievable for a participant, or the entire world, to be able to run away from its clutches because it will always try to follow them. It is important to distinguish the use of imagery and how a few of the examples either shown that the main character cannot evade an unfortunate obstacle, or how it represents the darkness of war that hides in one’s mind as they look at the good of the world. To add, parallelism in the novel is known to emphasize the numerous amounts of times it takes to escape disaster and never attain it. Also it serves to show that it is impractical to even try to escape through the main character’s example. Finally, the use of similes prove how war follows an individual because of how young they might have been when they first participated in it. It also shows how it follows an individual by comparing one’s trauma to that of other horrid objects. No matter the instance, war can still be
present in another part in the snake. However, it is not wholly impossible to live a life in the snake that was unhappy because who knows just how long their own lifespan may go and the many moments they will experience.

Works Cited

  1. How-to-Imagine-Tenth-Dimension. YouTube, YouTube, 23 Jan. 2009,
    youtu.be/0ca4miMMaCE. Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.
  2. Edelstein, Arnold. Slaughterhouse-Five: Time out of Joint. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt
    Vonnegut, edited by Leonard Mustazza, Salem Press, 2011, pp. 132??“147.
  3. Hinchcliffe, Richard. Would’St Thou Be in a Dream’: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
    and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. European Journal of American Culture, vol. 20, no. 3, p. 183. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=10011762&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.
  4. Marvin, Thomas F. Kurt Vonnegut: a Critical Companion. Greenwood Press, 2002.
  5. McGinnis, Wayne D. The Arbitrary Cycle of Slaughterhouse-Five: A Relation of Form to
    Theme. Critical Insights: Slaughterhouse-Five, edited by Leonard Mustazza, Salem Press, 2010, pp. 148??“163.
  6. Moody, Jennifer. Mixing Fantasy with Fact: Kurt Vonnegut’s Use of Structure in
    Slaughterhouse-Five. Theocrit: The Online Journal of Undergraduate Literary Criticism and Theory 1.1, Theocrit, 2009, pp. 132-147. https://theocrit.sfasu.edu/docs/spring2009/Mixing%20Fantasy%20with%20Fact.pdf. Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.
  7. Sumner, Gregory D. Unstuck in Time: a Journey through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels.
    Hunter Publishers, 2013.
  8. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. Dell Pub., 1991.

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