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Ale Benjamin

AP Lit4
January 12, 2015
Finding Purpose in Pain
Storytelling: an ancient art that dates back to primitive spoken tales and remains a vital
artistic function of contemporary society. Often, universally loved stories are most impactful not
just for their content, but because they are told in unique fashions, sometimes breaking rigid
structures of sequence, or even time. Take the fifty-year-old British television show, Doctor Who,
for example. The Doctor is a bizarre time traveler who wittily notes that people assume that
time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but [...] it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly,
time-y wime-y stuff (MacDonald, 2007), a philosophy with which Kurt Vonnegut, author of
Slaughterhouse-Five, might agree. Within his adventures of Billy Pilgrim, an aimless, awkward
misfit, Vonneguts use of nonlinear structure and an autobiographical character deliberately
deliver a critical lesson about war and life through his immortalization of the firebombing of
Dresden. In doing so, he presents the reader with three major components of conflict in an
individual: the desire to escape, the burden of regret, and the necessity of memory. Through this
illustration in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut emphasizes that the pain of these aspects of
conflict must be acknowledged by its victims in order for people to find purpose in life in spite of
its often seemingly pointless nature.
At first read, Slaughterhouse-Five as a text appears to serve as Vonneguts very own
escape attempt from his memories of World War II (WWII). Using both Billy Pilgrim and his
autobiographical character, Vonnegut-the-author piles separation between himself and his
harrowing experience, a procedure Billy continues through his time and space travels. Billy does
this by relocating in time when he feels overwhelmed, such as when he arrived at a prison camp

and zoomed back in time to his infancy (Vonnegut 107). In this moment, Billy seeks the
comforting dependency of a child because he cannot handle the present. Through his escape,
Billy minimizes the impact of reality by exchanging pain for pleasant memories. Although this
provides temporary relief, Billy is actually exacerbating the issues he neglects to solve in the
moment; a faulty strategy which is explored consistently throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.
To start, the novels first chapter emphasizes Vonneguts purpose as a character, as well as
the psychological impact of time, death, and uncertainty on Vonnegut and his characters (Harris
228). Harris sees Billy Pilgrim, as well as Vonneguts character in the novel as dual personas
that separate author Vonnegut from his emotions about Dresden, thus demonstrating Vonneguts
need to separate himself from lingering pain through communication (Harris 232). While
Vonnegut originally thought it would be easy for [him] to write about the destruction of Dresden
[...] not many words [...] came from [his] mind (Vonnegut 2-3). However, he eventually found
clarity in the writing of his book, which consolidated his feelings through a combination of
fiction and self-recognition. Billy, on the other hand, creates distance with time travel, in which
he acknowledges the existence of problematic events, but takes the temporal consequence out of
them (Coleman 685). While Billy's coping mechanism maintains his relative sanity at times, it
inhibits him from fostering progression, as he is ignorant of the meanings of his experiences,
that is, of how his experiences are related, (Coleman 688). This is exemplified when Billy is in
prison camp and suddenly wonders where had he come from and where should he go now but
quickly abandons the thought, unanswered (Vonnegut 158). This demonstrates his inability and
reluctance to recognize his direction and purpose within a shattered time frame.
Vonnegut also explores the crippling effects of regret that stem from personal failure and
often elongate the impact of trauma. Vonneguts experience in Dresden follows him years after

service, so much that it drives him to write Slaughterhouse-Five itself. However, describing his
sightings through Billy allows him to distance himself from personal regret. This is illustrated
when a man tries to tell post-war Vonnegut about candles made from human fat in WWII, and he
agitatedly insists, [he] know[s] three times, but does not extend on his feelings about the
matter (13). In Slaughterhouse-Five, however, when Billy passionately explains the horror of
Earthling war to the Tralfamadorians, he mentions the same candles with absolute disgust (148).
Through these differing reactions, Vonnegut admits his difficulty in acknowledging his emotions
by using Billy as a tool to distance himself from personal involvement. Like Vonnegut, in Doctor
Who the Doctor is laden with a hyperbolic embodiment of Vonneguts remorse. When the Doctor
battled in the Time War he was forced to end the suffering of millions by destroying his own
planet and people, and from then on is perpetually impacted by this violent act. Like Vonnegut,
he has trouble acknowledging this action. Instead, he [has] been running [his] whole life to
escape his past through time travel (Haynes, 2011). Though the severity of their acts differs, both
the Doctor and Vonnegut grapple with comprehending destruction of the innocent and
demonstrate their constant difficulty in dealing with traumatic after-effects.
Despite the pain of lingering regret and memories, Vonnegut stresses that another crucial
component of combating conflict is holding on to ones experiences, as forgetting them bears
dangerous consequences. Vonnegut, demonstrating this, records his agonizing memories in a
story because since mans destructive nature is always with us, events should never be forgotten
if we are ever to stand a chance of preventing them from recurring (Matheson 237). By
eternalizing the story of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut is both easing his guilt of
involvement and doing his small part to end human violence, as impossible a task that may seem.
Although, there would always be wars, [...] they were as easy to stop as glaciers (Vonnegut 4),

he tries anyway, and in doing so puts meaning to meaningless violence by forbidding himself to
ignore it. The Doctor battles with a similar outlook. As he ages, he regenerates into different
physical people, and while one regeneration recalls that 2.47 billion Gallifreyan children died in
the Time War, an older one has forgotten, enraging his past self (Hurran, 2013). Although it
happened hundreds of years ago, the Doctor views forgetting about the destruction of his own
people as a waste of lives lost, which puts him in a dark, heartless place. For both the Doctor and
Vonnegut, forgetting isnt moving on: it simply avoids unpleasant feelings that fester into
bitterness. Though they can never change their actions, as long as they remember what happened
they are fostering the will to prevent repetitions of violence, thus giving purpose to their pain.
The personal struggles explored in Slaughterhouse-Five are so penetrating that they often
seem to completely deflate characters and strip their worlds of worth, but in exposing these
hardships, Vonnegut instructs readers to embrace and transform their troubles. Indeed,
Vonneguts memoir style and Billys eventual grasp on time travel within his storys nonlinear
progression reveal how to live meaningfully and honestly in a radically contingent universe
(Coleman 682). Vonneguts nonlinear structure stimulates Billys erratic displacements in time
and space, both of which attempt to overcome problems of change and ambiguity by denial of
reality. Essentially, Vonnegut is admitting to the frightening chaos of life, but in admitting this,
he is stressing the potential for the troubled to live within lifes tumultuous flurry in order to
pursue a purposeful existence.
In one case, Billy fulfills this ideal as he takes on a less immature outlook of his escape
tactic by not just time traveling sporadically, but also relocating to the planet of Tralfamadore,
where he learns ways to manage his pain. Through these visits Billy learns the Tralfamadorian
idea that although time is unchangeable, its implications are relative to perception. Although the

Tralfamadorians have engaged wars as terrible as any on Earth, there isnt anything [they] can
do about them, so [they] simply ignore them (Vonnegut 150). Adopting this tenet, Billy is able
to move past his haunting memories of war and unstoppable fear of death by accepting their
permanence in time and realizing that he can concentrate on better parts of life to feel at peace.
While originally, he was letting his suffering overwhelm him to the point where he fled it, once
he accepted the idea of inevitability he found a way to both live with pain and put it to good use.
He does this by impressing the Tralfamadorian ideals upon others, citing his knowledge of his
own imminent death and saying that if [people] think that death is a terrible thing, then [they]
have not understood a word [I have] said (Vonnegut 181). Here, Vonnegut shows Billy as
demonstrating one possible method of solving issues through communication. However, Billys
way is not the only way as, Vonneguts novel is a road map. He declares no doctrine; he invites
the reader to glean what insights he or she can from the immediate experience of the work
(Coleman 693). In essence, Vonneguts portrayal of Billys views, as well as his own, both show
a use of personal storytelling as a way to help others live purposefully without repressing grief.
The Doctor, like Billy, also finds course to overcome his self-loathing and apply his
experiential knowledge to the benefit of others. As the last of the Time Lords, he saves countless
lives, fueled by his memories and the philosophy, because [he] got it wrong, [he is] going to
make [others] get it right (Hurran, 2013). This phrase shows how the Doctors guilt compels
him to make good use of his past regrets in order to give value to the lives he could not save, just
as Vonneguts novel strives to do. The Doctor is propelled by his distaste for war and remorse at
his compliance with it, but rather than wallow in guilt, he molds his feelings into a condemnation
against future destruction, just as Vonnegut does when he tells his children that they are not
under any circumstances to take part in massacres, as he himself did (24). The memory of

unnecessary demolition keeps the Doctor traveling and saving lives, just as Vonneguts forced
memory of war drives him to denounce its practice.
Vonneguts lax use of time is not only a notable factor in his eternalized experiences, but
his novels erratic sequence and minimal emphasis on its beginning and end also prevents readers
from enjoying a war novel in the usual, romanticized sense (Matheson 238-239). Vonneguts
novels incoherent structure mimics his ideal that remembering the order of events is not nearly
as relevant as remembering their content, just as the Tralfamadorians believe. This similarity
becomes evident when Billy is shown a Tralfamadorian book written in brief clumps of symbols
separated by stars with each clump representing a brief, urgent message describing a
situation, a scene (Vonnegut 111-112). This style is incredibly similar to that of SlaughterhouseFive. In keeping his novel in the same structure as a Tralfamadorian one, Vonnegut demonstrates
his strife to favor significant life moments over adherence to strict temporal sequence.
Furthermore,this style diverges from the typical dramatics of a war story, which gives readers a
blunt warning about human destruction without the distraction of captivating action scenes. It
prevents the reader from searching for the end to critical conflicts and pushes them to
remember an events content long past its occurrence. Vonnegut even reveals the death of Billy
Pilgrim nearly one hundred pages before his novels conclusion to show the minimal implication
of death compared to the life that preceded it. While normally, a dead character ceases to appear
in a story, Vonnegut imitates the Tralfamadorian ideal that a person can be dead or alive at any
time, and only the events they choose to focus on become significant. Essentially, Billys death
does not define his life, making its sequential placement irrelevant.
The combination of memory and regret are both emphasized throughout SlaughterhouseFive and Doctor Who as suffocating after-effects of a past ordeal that must be managed properly

for victims of conflict to thrive without being consumed by their pasts. One such crippling
consumption Vonnegut notes is that, one of the main effects of war [...] is that people are
discouraged from being characters (208-209). He means that even beyond its occurrence, an
inhumane experience shakes peoples foundations and strips them of their beliefs and
personalities. However, by acknowledging these traumas, one can overcome them. The Doctor of
the Time War, for instance, asks his future generations [s]o this is who I become? The man who
regrets and the man who forgets? (Hurran, 2013). Describing his two future selves in this way
perfectly echoes two immeasurably dismembering effects of conflict. Here, in removing the
normal allure and heroic nature of war, both Vonnegut and the Doctor emphasize its
dehumanizing effects. Even the Doctor, a notably quirky, upbeat man, can be reduced to a
brooding, being defined by a tendency to regret or forget by the mention of war. It is only
once the Doctor points out these malignant failings that his future regenerations learn to put their
actions in perspective and strive to correct them by looking forward instead of living in the past,
as Vonnegut notes many characters in his story struggle to do.
Indeed, the methodology of how to turn ones escape from a form of suffering into
acceptance in order to find direction in life often involves looking towards the future. This is
embodied quite literally in both Slaughterhouse-Five and Doctor Who. The Doctor, firstly, is able
to overcome his bitterness by actually re-doing his actions. He goes back to the moment of his
destruction of Gallifrey and figures out how to preserve the planet in a frozen moment in time
(Hurran, 2013). While many will never receive such a chance, the Doctors literal motions are
not as important as his ability to find strength to take action and make peace with his past. As the
Doctor notes, he is able to do this because he was shown exactly the future [he] needed to see:
the regret-consumed mess he becomes after the war (Hurran, 2013). By considering future

repercussions, the Doctor is able to both resolve his past feelings and note their adaptability in
time. His one act does not come to define who he is, as he once allowed it to. Similarly, Billy
also takes solace in seeing his future, unsettling as it may be. Billy, as a time traveler, has seen
his death many times (Vonnegut 180). However, this never frightens Billy, and when the
expected day arrives, he says only that it is time for [him] to be dead for a little while and then
live again (Vonnegut 183). Billy learns to see death as only a small part of a fluid life cycle, just
as the Doctor sees his past mistakes as only a point in time that can be redeemed. Though Billy
and the Doctor both resolve their issues through impossible actions, they reveal a beneficial
outlook for resolving any pain of conflict. Looking at ones fears, problems, and regrets as only a
singular, non-definitive part of life and focusing on what can be improved in the future, rather
than what remains stagnant in the past, keeps people from being consumed by lingering conflict.
Struggles are inevitable, but there is so much knowledge to be found in the memories of
hardship that can both help one overcome personal dilemmas and benefit others. Truly,
Vonneguts most defining message is that "meaning is made as [people] communicate [their]
experiences" (Coleman 692). Through the examples of Vonnegut and Billy, Slaughterhouse-Five
makes the plea to live with pains existence without allowing it to overwhelm a victims will to
thrive. Vonnegut recognizes the despair in the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians, but
turns that harsh truth into meaningful literature that eases his conscience and guides readers.
Even if readers have not incurred the same experiences that he has, his insistence to not let the
past consume ones life and tackle painful issues head-on is a universally beneficial lesson. In
describing the indescribable, Vonnegut comes to accept the inescapable pains of life without
letting them defeat him, and carves a promising path for others to do the same.

Works Cited
Blink. Dir. Hettie Macdonald. By Steven Moffat. Episode #38. Doctor Who. BBC. 9
June 2007. Television.
Coleman, Martin. The Meaninglessness of Coming Unstuck in Time. Transactions of
the Charles S. Peirce Society 44.4 (2008): 681-89. JSTOR. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.
The Day of the Doctor. Dir. Nick Hurran. By Steven Moffat. Episode #119. Doctor
Who. BBC. 23 Nov. 2013. Television.
Harris, Charles B. Time, Uncertainty, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: A Reading of
Slaughterhouse-Five. The Centennial Review 20.3 (1976): 228-43. JSTOR. Web. 8
Nov. 2014.
The Impossible Astronaut. Dir. Toby Haynes. By Steven Moffat. Episode #70. Doctor
Who. BBC. 23 Apr. 2011. Television.

Matheson, T. J. This Lousy Little Book: The Genesis and Development of

Slaughterhouse-Five as Revealed in Chapter One. Studies in the Novel 16.2 (1984): 22840. JSTOR. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dial, 2009. Print.