Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” was his anti-war novel, published in the Vietnam Era, but reliant largely on his own experiences as a soldier in World War II.
Vonnegut employs several techniques of his own making to bring himself into the story from the very beginning. He appears in the first chapter as himself, explaining how he came to write the novel and then again later in the novel as Kilgore Trout, a failed fiction writer from New York. Vonnegut draws from his own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing there to begin the story of Billy Pilgrim and his misadventures travelling through his lifetime. Pilgrim travels back and forth through his life after an encounter with aliens. Vonnegut uses the time travel of the novel to make his statements about the futility of war very plain. In fact, in a most often quoted portion of the first chapter, Vonnegut tells the reader that the story is disjointed and jerky because there is no better way to describe war.While Vonnegut’s fascination with aliens and time travel make this book an interesting read, it is actually the historical impact that makes it most compelling.
Scholars argue that prior to the book, the Allied bombing of Dresden was little more than a historical footnote. Vonnegut brought home the horror of the war. He made it clear that even when the motives are good, the atrocities committed in the name of war are horrendous.
That this book was then published in the midst of Vietnam, a war that many people thought was never justified, simply adds to the overall importance of Vonnegut’s observations. In addition, his choice to leave the standard rules of fiction behind and include himself in the storyline, very clearly as Kurt Vonnegut, the author, draws even further attention to the tragic events. His decision to forego literary tradition by including himself in the novel, to give his perspective as an author very directly, lends credence and horror to the observations at Dresden. It makes the horror more real.In his novel “A Farewell to Arms”, Ernest Hemingway draws on his war experience as an ambulance driver in World War I.
His story chronicles the tale of Frederick Henry, an ambulance drive, and the nurse Catherine Barkley whom he falls in love with. “A Farewell to Arms” chronicles Henry’s observations on the front and his time spent in a Red Cross hospital after being injured. It is at the hospital that he meets Catherine and begins the tragic love affair that defines the novel. Hemingway also emphasizes the futility of the war, evening showing his “hero” deserting when the front comes too close. Though the backdrop is the war, his book is largely about a love story and how it happens and ends because of the war. While Heminway’s description of the war and the “medicine” being practiced there are important, it is the love story and the desperation that accompanies it that makes “A Farewell to Arms” a timeless classic.The similarities between Vonnegut’s “Slaugherhouse Five” and Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” lie in the anti-war sentiment that both men profess and in the way that they draw from their own experiences in the wars. Hemingway even goes so far as to use the geography of Europe as a part of his anti-war mentality, saying that the mountains of Switzerland held a message to soldiers in both wars of hope and neutrality (Halliday 19).
Though Hemingway was injured in 1918 and in France and his character is injured in 1917 at the Italian front. Vonnegut, on the other hand, puts his anti-war novel in exactly the same place that he had suffered in World War II. He was held in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden and was there when the fire-bombing took place. His novel begins in exactly the same place.Both men make it clear through their novels that the lessons they learned on the battlefield made them opposed to war. Vonnegut uses the aliens in “Slaughterhouse Five” to argue that if man truly has freewill he should never resort to war as a means to settle disagreements. His horrifying imagery of the bombing at Dresden brought new light to the way the country won a war that everyone believed in. Hemingway used his main character’s desertion as a way to discuss his anti-war sentiments.
When Lt. Henry and Catherine Barkley attempt to flee to Switzerland to escape the war, Hemingway uses his characters to express the horrors that the war offers.The main difference between the way the two authors handled the issue was in Vonnegut’s insertion of himself into the first chapter.
By writing that, he, the author of the book, was there at Dresden, he twists the fictional element that is “Slaughterhouse Five” into some sort of pseudo-reality. Hemingway keeps his fictional account of his war memories completely fictional. In fact, there has been much debate as to whether Hemingway’s account is at all based on his own experience or if it was just superior research into the era that lead to his choice of time and place for his war story.Another difference between the approach of the two authors is timeline which they use for their stories. Hemingway uses a completely linear timeline and covers a relatively short period of time, just a few months near the end of the war. Vonnegut uses the aliens and the fact that Billy is “unstuck” in time to tell his story in a very non-linear fashion, bouncing around through time at his will.
In the end, it appears that Vonnegut and Hemingway relied on the most standard of writer’s sources for inspiration: their own lives. Each then interpreted their life experiences in different manners to create some of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century. The most interesting fact of both is that 30 years apart and in two different wars, they came to the same ultimate conclusion: war is pointless.