Intertextual Travels


in Slaughterhouse-Five


 
“Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer.”
 

If we were to search for a fictional character that could represent the antithesis of Billy Pilgrim we wouldn't need to look very far: Vonnegut's beloved Cinderella, cited in multiple occasions inside Slaughterhouse-Five, would do perfectly fine. I'm not talking about the happy ending of her story against the dark, nihilist, culmination of his. Pilgrim wouldn't change his flying saucer for a pumpkin-shaped shaped carriage: he knows that there is no such a thing as a happy ending, and he also knows that Cinderella might have reached her goals, but sooner or later she too will die, just like the rest of us, because, well, so it goes. Cinderella is in no way luckier than Pilgrim - they both become successful after a period of suffering and oppression -, but the way they move through life differs greatly. Hopefulness against hopelessness, desire for a better future against acceptance for whatever the future has in store, free will against determinism are only some of the elements that juxtapose these two figures connected only by their absurdity.

The use of external references to better define characters and events it's not uncommon in Vonnegut's work. If combining time travel, alien kidnappings and the bombing of Dresden wasn't enough, Slaughterhouse-Five's numerous intertextual hints manage to blur even more the lines between what is real and what is fictional. The narrator uses published books to describe imaginary people, imaginary authors to discuss philosophical issues, historical facts to question religion and pop symbols to ridicule humanity. Every literary, musical or historical allusion in Slaughterhouse-Five works as a window opening into a different world, a world that the reader is free to explore or avoid completely. The frequent linking to what is outside creates a powerful parallelism with the events recounted in the novel: while Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, travels uncontrollably through space and the different stages of his life, the reader is also constantly connected to different realities and asked for active participation to fully understand the story, as if Vonnegut's narrative and stylistic choices were meant to represent one another.
In the diagram above it is possible to see how all the literary references are intertwined. Chapter One of Slaughterhouse-Five opens with the narrator introducing his "Dresden book", by telling how the idea of the novel developed over time and how he struggled to complete it. At a certain point in the chapter he promises to Mary O'Hare to name the novel The Children's Crusade, a title explained in the following paragraph with the words of Charles Mackay from his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In Chapter Two Billy Pilgrim's story begins.

The literary references that follow have been divided in the diagram into three categories: those linking to existing texts or authors, those connected to other works produced by Vonnegut himself and those that relate to texts that have never been written. In the first category we can see religious and historical literature appearing most frequently. The first instance in which we see a biblical reference is in the introductory chapter:
 
People aren't supposed to look back. I'm certainly not going to anymore.
I've finished my war book now. The next I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, since it was written by a pillar of salt.
 
Vonnegut refers to the story of Lot's wife, contained in The Book of Genesis, where a woman is transformed into a pillar of salt after looking back at the evil city of Sodom, disobeying the orders given by the angels. This passage shows the narrator's guilt in romanticizing a tragedy such as the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut seems to be aware of the moral conflict of turning to the past and using the horrific events of the war to create a work of art, of the possibility of gaining fame and wealth through human suffering. In an interview with the Paris Review released in 1977 he replied to criticism by saying in his typical self-deprecating manner:
 
It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.
 
Adam and Eve appear in Slaughterhouse-Five on three different occasions. In all of these they are viewed by Billy Pilgrim as the ultimate symbol of purity. Their reflection can be seen on polished military boots and they are imagined as a blissful conclusion to world history, if only this was written backwards. The name "Pilgrim" itself has religious connotations and Billy's image is very close to the one of Adam and Eve. Billy, who uses this childish nickname instead of his full name William, is depicted as innocent, weak and helpless, he serves as a chaplain assistant and he is one of the few to come out alive from the bombings, just like Adam and Eve in the war movie he watches backwards once back in Ilium.

Vonnegut often uses biblical symbolism to highlight the contradictions and paradoxes of human faith and morality. In Chapter Three, for example, soldier Roland Weary is robbed by German guards of the bulletproof bible he kept in a pocket over his heart, which is found together with "a dirty picture of a woman attempting sexual intercourse with a Shetland pony." In Chapter Five he mentions a book written by imaginary author Kilgore Trout, The Gospel from Outer Space, that tells the story of an alien visitor coming to Earth to understand how Christians can be so cruel with each other.
 
The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought [...]:
Oh, boy - they surely picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected. So it goes.
 
Reference to history and war texts is even more frequent in Slaughterhouse-Five than the appearance of biblical symbolism. Books are used to define characters and their standing in regards to the war. Bertrand Copeland Rumfoord, who Pilgrim meets in the hospital after having crashed with an airplane in Vermont, is described mainly through the quotes of the books that he has read and through those that he is the author of. Rumfoord is said to have written Sex and Strenuous Athletics for Men Over Sixty-Five, he studies the seven-volume Official History of the Army Air Force in World War II and asks his twenty-three year old girlfriend to sit next to his bed and read Harry Truman's announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima. Vonnegut paints the image of this self-proclaimed superhero in relation his culture, creating a male chauvinist figure through literary references.

Slaughterhouse-Five perfectly falls into Linda Hutchens' definition of "historiographic metafiction", a postmodernist historical novel where "Irony does indeed mark the difference from the past, but the intertextual echoing simultaneously works to affirm – textually and hermeneutically – the connection with the past." The experimental structure of the novel rejects the categorization of fact and fiction, blending aspects of both in order to remind the reader that history should never be considered entirely truthful, as this too has been written from a subjective point of view. Slaughterhouse-Five opening line - "All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true." - establishes from the beginning that what is described has an imaginary element to it. By mentioning authors and publications existing outside of the novel Vonnegut holds a grip to reality, but for the reader without background knowledge these become just as valuable as those created by the mind of Vonnegut himself, such as the various text authored by Kilgore Trout.

Kilgore Trout first appears in Vonnegut's novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and will be seen often in many other novels. Trout is an unsuccessful author based in Ilium, Billy Pilgrim's hometown, who doesn't remember how many books he has written and who has never made any money from his writing. Trout is only one of the many references to Vonnegut's own work inside Slaughterhouse-Five. Whether they have been inserted as a marketing scheme or to give the reader a lesson in relativism is hard to say, but by exploring the stories behind such characters one can find a meaning behind their role.

Trafalmadorians are first seen ten years before the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, in Vonnegut's second novel The Sirens of Titan. Here too they are a species that negates the free will of humans and have the ability to travel through time warps. Pilgrim views Trafalmadorians as higher beings beholding the truth and shortly after being kidnapped accepts their philosophy, which is preached as a religion once back in America. The aliens of Trafalmadore exhibit Pilgrim in a zoo, where he lives with actress Montana Wildhack. Trafalmadore is a place where a clear split between good and evil does not exist: while Billy escapes the dirty underground slaughterhouse in which he is held captive to travel to a comfortable environment in the sky, he still finds himself locked in a prison. Prison which is not only the physical zoo or slaughterhouse that he cannot leave, but also the discursive jail he is stuck in either way. In this sense, free will does indeed not exists, as any decision is always driven by a larger ideology, being this the war on Earth or the determinism on Trafalmadore. Heaven and hell become suddenly two borderless parts of the same whole.

Vonnegut deconstructs characters and concepts by putting them side by side with their polar opposites. Eliot Rosewater meets Billy Pilgrim in a psychiatric hospital, but this is not the first time he appears in a novel. The wealthy philanthropist is introduced to Vonnegut's reader in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, published in 1965, where he is seen transforming from tax evader to volunteer firefighter. Rosewater is a war veteran just like Pilgrim, but his drive to fight social injustice contrasts Pilgrim lack of action and acceptance for all thing positive or negative. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Eliot, the millionaire son of a United States Senator, decides to abandon a life of luxury to begin a journey across America to help the poor. Billy, on the other hand, when he predicts the falling of an airplane over Vermont, does nothing to prevent the death of all the passengers (apart from himself).

Rosewater is also the character that introduces Kilgore Trout to Pilgrim, who, after his stay in the psychiatric hospital, becomes an avid reader of science-fiction. Trout's stories often involve events similar to those happening to Pilgrim and because of this it could be argued that Billy is indeed a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, imagining the aliens and time-travel he has read so much about. Vonnegut, an atheist and humanist, uses Trout to indirectly ridicule Christian beliefs. An example is a book by Trout mentioned in Chapter Nine that tells the story of a man who built a time machine to go and visit Jesus:
 
It worked, and he saw Jesus when Jesus was only twelve years old. Jesus was learning the carpentry trade from his father.
Two roman soldiers came into the shop with a mechanical drawing on papyrus of a device they wanted built by sunrise the next morning. It was a cross to be used in the execution of a rabble-rouser.
Jesus and his father built it. They were glad to have the work. And the rabble-rouser was executed on it.
So it goes.
 
In passages such as the above Vonnegut attacks not only the humans that kill other humans in the name of religion, but also the paradox which is the business of death, where those who produce weapons are able to thrive thanks to the killing of others.

Slaughterhouse-Five ends with the famous "Poo-tee-weet?", sang by a bird overlooking the corpses of Dresden in representation of the pointlessness of war. A nod to reason is addressed more in-depth few pages earlier at the beginning of the last chapter of the novel: at the conclusion of a story so rich in biblical symbolism the wise Trafalmadorians admit to Pilgrim that the most interesting human figure is not Jesus Christ, but Charles Darwin. "Those who die are meant to die, [...] corpses are improvements" thought the Trafalmadorians, as if blind faith has no power to improve life compared to the true understanding of human nature.
 
Works cited:

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death. Dial Press, 2015.
Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Prometheus Books, 2001.
Hayman, David, et al. “Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64.” The Paris Review, 12 June 2017, www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3605/kurt-vonnegut-the-art-of-fiction-no-64-kurt-vonnegut.
Elias, Amy. “Historiographic Metafiction.” In The Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature, McHale, Brian, and Len Platt, editors, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Vonnegut, Kurt. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls before Swine. Dial Press, 2006.
Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. Paw Prints, 2010.