War is the epitome of cruelty and violence, an experience that can prove maddening and strip away some of the most intrinsic characteristics of humanity. Kurt Vonnegut’s experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II inspired his critically hailed novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), in which characters continually search for meaning in the aftermath of mankind’s irrational cruelty ("Kurt Vonnegut: 1922-2007" 287). Both the main character, Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut have been in Dresden for the firebombing, and that is what motivates their narrative (Klinkowitz 335). In his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut expresses the adverse emotional effects of war through the psyche of Billy Pilgrim.
Vonnegut’s distinct style conveys that the horrors of war are not only tragic, but inexplicable and absurd. His use of black humor, such as Billy's attempts to publicize his encounters with the Tralfamadorians, conveys the incongruity/senselessness of war (“Slaughterhouse-Five” 267). While this is an example of black humor in a larger plot element, the device can also be used in small details. This is evident in the description of the half-crazed Billy Pilgrim after the Battle of the Bulge. “Wind and cold and violent exercise had turned his face crimson” causing Billy to be designated by Vonnegut as a “filthy flamingo” (Vonnegut 42). By utilizing black humor, Vonnegut is able to convey not merely the tragedy, but also the absurdity, of an event.
Vonnegut’s uniqueness of style includes not only the descriptions of events but their arrangement as well. The narrator tells his friend that “It is so short and jumbled and jangled Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (Vonnegut 24). Starting during his captivity behind German lines, Pilgrim can at any point be transported to any moment in his past or future causing one scene of Billy in a prison camp to be immediately followed by his wedding night or a scarring childhood memory (Cox 270). This peculiar organization of events parallels the psyche of Billy Pilgrim. Brent Cox states that “The novel's ‘short and jumbled and jangled’ structure reflects the condition of its protagonist” (270). Just like the order of events in the novel, Billy’s consciousness is a sporadic hodgepodge of unpredictable thoughts and feelings.
Furthermore, Vonnegut employs a simple prose style in describing overwhelming, horrible, and often inexplicable events. For example, as the Germans march Billy Pilgrim to a prison camp, he notes, "A motion-picture camera was set up at the border--to record the fabulous victory...One of them signaled out Billy's face for a moment, then focused at infinity again. There was a tiny plume of smoke at infinity. There was a battle there. People were dying there. So it goes" (Vonnegut 83). These vivid, yet simple details force the reader to confront the fundamental horror and absurdity of war. The novel's skilled use of humor, innovative structure,...