Postmodernism in Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five embraces an ideology formally termed in the 1960s as postmodernism. The philosophy repudiates continuity to embrace fragmentation, debunks free will to espouse predestination, and deconstructs the individual only to place him in a web of chaos where he lacks a sense of self. Under the tenets of postmodernism, linearity is obsolete, causal relationships hardly exist, and the human experience is morphed into a maelstrom of events over which the individual possesses no authority. More specifically, postmodern literature is composed of destabilized novels rife with metafiction, paradoxes, and fragmentation. In adhering to the prescripts of the postmodern genre, Vonnegut amplifies his anti-war messages.
Perhaps the most striking element of postmodernism in the novel is its negation of chronological progression. The narration follows protagonist Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier in World War Two, as he experiences isolated events in his life. Vonnegut writes, “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 the events in between” (Vonnegut 37). This discontinuity represents the disarray that has plagued Billy’s life after war. Because Billy’s story lacks linear events and does not amount to a rational ending, it appears nonsensical and incomprehensible. Vonnegut is able to present several arguments about war by utilizing non-linearity. For example, he claims involvement in war engenders a cycle of disorientation, helplessness, and chaos, as Billy constantly shifts from one state to another without the luxury of choice. Additionally, Vonnegut explains how war experiences create a difference in perspective between civilians and veterans. Early in the novel, he writes, “Sooner or later I go to bed, and my wife asks me what time it is. She always has to know the time” (Vonnegut 6). In this excerpt, Vonnegut implies that Billy has no interest in the time the way his wife does. The two think about the world in different terms: she in terms of time, and he in terms of isolated events. This illustrates how war can distort human perception, and lead to vast differences between people. Ultimately, Vonnegut’s convoluted timeline allows him to demonstrate the consequences of war.
Postmodernism also undermines free will and individualism. Throughout the novel, Billy emits a listless, indifferent attitude. Despite career success as an optometrist, Billy seems to lack intrinsic drive and zeal. His accomplishments are professional rather than personal, his relationships are opportunities for success rather for than love, and his life is just something to endure rather than something to enjoy. A reason for this apathy might be that “he is in a constant state of fright . . . because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (Vonnegut 17). The vast uncertainty in Billy’s life robs him of the privilege of passion. He fails to become invested in himself because of the tumultuous state of both his mind and life. Here, Vonnegut calls attention to the defeat and indifference many veterans feel upon returning home from war. Nothing piques their interest after experiencing such atrocities, and they are overcome by the trauma they endured. The Tralfamadorians also discuss Billy’s lack of free will and individuality. One says to Billy, “Why you? Why us for that matter? Whyanything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? […] Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why” (Vonnegut 63). This suggests that Billy does not have control over what becomes of his life; he is but one of many people at the mercy of external occurrences. This dearth of autonomy is reminiscent of that a soldier experiences while deployed. The troops are subject to the decrees of their commanders, and above them, the government. They, like Billy, are bugs trapped in amber. With this metaphor, Vonnegut calls into question the authority of those issuing military commands, as well as the post-war hindrances imposed upon those who serve.
Sometimes subtly and sometimes not, Vonnegut employs metafiction to insert himself and his own experiences into the novel. Metafiction, a device in which a novel calls attention to its own artificiality and status as a novel, is a key element of postmodern literature in that it destabilizes the plot and calls the narrator’s identity into question. In doing this, Vonnegut puts a face to the atrocities he is describing, thus augmenting their effect on the reader. Vonnegut’s occurrences in the novel depict the suffering he endured. For instance, Billy speaks on the phone with Vonnegut, whose breath smells of “mustard gas and roses” (Vonnegut 60). This strange pairing, of something horrific and something endearing, illuminates the complexity of life after war. No matter what fortunate developments took place in Vonnegut’s life after war, a part of him was forever marked by the traumatizing and formative things he experienced. Roses, no matter how beautiful, romantic, or promising, were always mixed with traces of mustard gas. A lurid image is painted when Vonnegut appears again as Billy witnesses a man in the latrine. He describes an American man who, “wailed that he has excreted everything but his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (Vonnegut 103). This presents a raw picture of life at war: a life not decorated with medals of valor and cheers from civilians, but a life of loneliness and pain. By conforming to the postmodern genre, Vonnegut embedded metafiction in his novel to communicate his messages about war.
Although Vonnegut certainly deviates from the conventions of many genres, such as science fiction and autobiography, he stays very true to postmodernism. The genre, through its emphasis on non-linearity, predestination, and metafiction, enables Vonnegut to express his ideas about war and the atrocities that accompany it.
By Jenna Moldaver
Regardless of the medium by which it is expressed, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest conveys the gripping exploits, inspiring triumphs, and mournful defeats of patients in a mental institution. Within seconds of the film, viewers may regretfully observe that the viewpoint is omniscient; the story is no longer told from the perspective of Bromden, the oldest patient on the ward. With Bromden’s narration in the novel, we journey through spine-chilling machinery, witness middle-of-the-night torment, and view the world through a nebulous, deceiving fog. We aren’t always told an honest tale. Chief Bromden prefaces scenes by warning us that maybe, just maybe, he hallucinated a little. Maybe we can’t totally trust what he is about to say because he didn’t taken his little red pill. Maybe he is embellishing his accounts of Nurse Ratched’s reign of terror, or exaggerating the eruption of chaos in Group Meetings. But the uncertainty of Bromden’s perspective is half the story itself. Bromden’s unsound, shaky accounts immerse readers in the minds of the novel’s characters. With them, we feel unsettling paranoia, unexpressed resentment, and poignant longing.
Yet, in the film, we lose this insight. We are no longer one of the characters; we become spectators. Our underdog, the speciously mute but remarkably insightful Bromden, becomes one of many faces among a throng of men. Perhaps what infuriated the author of this story, Ken Kesey, was the loss of this essential vantage point. Perhaps Kesey thought director Milos Forman excluded Bromden’s perspective because he lacked an appreciation for the character. Perhaps he thought Bromden lost his significance in the film.
Yes, we first meet Bromden in the movie the way we meet all the other characters: he flashes before us while on a line to receive medication. He appears to be one of many, neither a popular leader nor a pariah, neither a focal point nor a scant detail. But as the film progresses, Forman draws attention to Bromden through more subtle exchanges and scenes. McMurphy, the outspoken Christ-figure of both the book and the film, calls upon Bromden to sway the vote in the World Series debacle. Here, Forman underscores Bromden’s importance; in the vote, he can either make it or break it for his peers. As a result of his vote in support of McMurphy, Bromden is delicately branded a hero.
So we take notice of Bromden, ascribing him the title of McMurphy’s taciturn sidekick. The two share a stick of gum as Bromden valiantly speaks his first word in decades, and play basketball buoyantly at the heart of a painfully dismal setting. Sure, Bromden is left behind in many scenes where he could have been included, such as the men’s rebellious fishing trip escapade. Yet, at the end of the film, Forman makes a pivotal decision that highlights Bromden nearly as much as Kesey did.
In the book, most of the patients opt to leave the ward after McMurphy injures Nurse Ratched. McMurphy’s rebellion has a wide-scale influence, and he diminishes the power of the Nurse. However, in the film, the patients mostly remain in the hospital, and Bromden escapes on
his own. This illustrates a more personal, intimate connection between Bromden and McMurphy. McMurphy’s movement may not have inspired the entire ward to leave, but it inspired Bromden. The Chief is the one who makes it out in the end, the only one to tangibly recognize and evade the horrors of the ward. In the film, Bromden’s escape is the culmination of the efforts of the men. Bromden is the single embodiment of triumph over the depraved tyranny of the ward.
The film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest demonstrates that filmmakers need not follow authors’ precise methodologies to convey the messages presented in books. Kesey accentuates Bromden’s significance by providing readers with his narrations, while Forman accomplishes the same feat through the plot’s development and resolution. So when you hear from critics that “the movie isn’t from Bromden’s perspective,” remember that you need not be wary. Mediums of expression, whether literature, film, or music, are most beautiful when they are based on creativity, not imitation.