Post-War Insanity

Post-war Insanity
“This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of
tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from.” Insanity is
a major theme in Kurt Vonnegut’s life and in turn his novels tend to be a release
for his thoughts of mental illness. Vonnegut’s characters tend to embody him
or at least characteristics of himself. His characters generally suffer from mild
insanity and therefore hints that Vonnegut himself is possibly mildly insane. In
each of his novels there are characters that are highly related to Vonnegut such
as Kilgore Trout, Billy Pilgrim, and Eliot Rosewater. Each of these characters
appear in different novels to help develop the plot and continue the relative
theme. The theme of insanity is what dominates the novel Slaughterhouse-Five,
and is what ties all aspects of the tale together.


In the novel Slaughterhouse-Five there is a character that is identical to
Vonnegut. His name is Billy Pilgrim. Both were in the American army and
became prisoners of war. Also, they both witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden,
Germany. “Dresden was destroyed on the night of February 13, 1945,’ Billy
Pilgrim began. We came out of our shelter the next day.” (Slaughterhouse-Five
179) Billy is a thin frail boy who joined the Army so he would become a man, like
the author. “World War II attracted them both because they realized that it was
an important time in history. With the horrors of war Pilgrim went into quasi-
insane state he’s described as “bearded in a blue toga and silver shoes,
with his hands in a muff (Slaughterhouse-Five 149).” This description is after they
got off of a POW train on a “balmy” Dresden day. Vonnegut also has this
character become “unstuck in time” or on a more realistic level, he has
flashbacks, even though Pilgrims flashbacks flash him to the future as well as the
past. His future is to Tralfamadorian Zoo; Tralfamadorians are little green men,
the Tralfamadorians, as a sort of appeasement to his capture, gave Pilgrim a
beautiful wife. This flash-forward was most likely just a science fiction writer’s
fantasy. His real future is as a Ilium, New York optometrist. His unsticking in time
is just a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It appears in both Pilgrim
and Vonnegut, and later in Rosewater. Which lead to the ever-present flashbacks
and trips to a future space zoo.
Pilgrim also has problems distinguishing the past, present, and future. On
top of that he doubts his own judgement. “He had fallen asleep at work. It had
been funny at first. Now Billy was starting to get worried about it, about his mind
in general. He tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t. He tried to remember
what year it was. He couldn’t remember that either.” (Slaughterhouse-Five 56)
These flashbacks are told later in better detail, “for he was simultaneously on
foot in Germany in 1944 and riding his Cadillac in 1967. Germany dropped away,
and 1967 became bright and clear.” (Slaughterhouse-Five His flashbacks
happened at any time, even while driving, indicating a severe case of Post-
Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Apathy is also a major problem with the traumas of
war. This apathy could be related to the apathy experienced after war or its
following flashbacks. Many things do not concern Billy Pilgrim as he has
disassociated himself from the world. He no longer lives in what we refer to as
reality. “both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in
the war.” (Slaughterhouse-Five 101) Common day life has become too difficult to
deal with, hence the lack of emotion Billy has. In dealing with this post-war
trauma, Billy becomes “unstuck in time.” He mentally travels through time to a
place where he more is more comfortable being. He avoids all touch with reality.


Eliot Rosewater is another Vonnegut alter ego. His vague description is
that of a lonely, drunken, World War II veteran, who comes from an affluent
family. In Slaughterhouse-Five he objects to the annihilation of Dresden by
speaking through a British POW who is telling the American POW’s who are
going to Dresden, “You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an
open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop
concentrations of any Importance.” (Slaughterhouse-Five146)
Rosewater and Vonnegut both suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress
Syndrome but only Rosewater was hospitalized for it. He later becomes a drunk
after the war but he also finds enlightenment through the writings of Kilgore Trout
and the company of Billy Pilgrim. Billy and Eliot Rosewater become good
acquaintances during their time together in the mental hospital. As Eliot sits in
the hospital he tries to become friendly with Pilgrim’s mother, even though she
thinks he’s a hideous man. Rosewater also turns Pilgrim onto Kilgore Trout and
that in turn opened up a whole new realm of understanding for Pilgrim. “It was
Rosewater who introduced Billy to science fiction, and in particular the writings of
Kilgore Trout.” (Slaughterhouse-Five 100)
The best Vonnegut alter ego is Kilgore Trout. He is the ne’er-done-well,
loser of many Vonnegut books. He is a very significant part of the writing
process. He embodies much about what Vonnegut has to say about himself and
how he thinks he is perceived. He perceives himself, most likely in the beginning
of his career, as a hack science fiction writer, who will never make it’ as a
serious writer and will only be published as pornography filler. It is Trout’s books
themselves that enlighten Billy. He feels as if he is not the only one to get
“unstuck” in time. This enlightenment enables Billy to feel more at ease with how
he sees his life will fold out.
A major recurrence in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five is the repetition of
the phrase “So it goes.” If you notice, this comes after every death there is in the
novel. On page 210, the first five paragraphs emphasize just how often this quote
is replayed. Also, this quote is showing the removal of Billy from the situation.
Many people would find these occurrences extremely traumatising, but for Billy
he just withdraws from the entire scenario. This enables him to continue life
without dealing with everyday pain and suffering.


Kurt Vonnegut through his three main literary self-portraits vents his
mental illness. Not only does he do that, but also he gives us insightful tid-bits of
knowledge and advice that will help us later in life. His honesty and
straightforward manner help the relieving process for Vonnegut or any author
who uses writing as a catharsis. His need to rejuvenate himself from all his post-
war trauma is a perfect example of a form of insanity. Kurt Vonnegut uses all of
his novels to express all the emotions built up from years of suppression. He
uses the theme of insanity in all of his pieces of works to convey to the public
how he identifies himself. Insanity is the ruling force in Slaughterhouse-Five
and the passage on page 210 is the decisive force in portraying

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