Teacher’s Corner: Slaughterhouse-Five

**Originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/05/book-get-lit-on-lit-slaughterhouse-five.html

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Back again with another edition of Getting Lit on Lit, otherwise known as the Teacher’s Corner. This week, I thought we could dissect parts of an amazing novel, one of my favorites, for all those who may have loved the work but never really understood the end of the novel. This week we look at Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five.

This novel is full of Vonnegut’s trademark wit and contains incredible lines of dialogue. I will share some throughout but what I really want to focus on today is the author’s use of the distorted and disorganized timeline. If you have ever read this novel, you know that events take place completely out of order and we are sort of thrust into each scene never truly knowing where we are at. Luckily Vonnegut does provide us with a topic sentence to explain what year the jump takes us to and what our hero, Billy Pilgrim, is doing at this particular time.

First, let’s start by prefacing this whole article with a giant SPOILER ALERT! I will be talking about different parts of this novel and I don’t want to ruin what is an incredible literary work for someone who wants to engage it at their own pace and on their own terms.

For a little bit of background, Kurt Vonnegut was a soldier in World War II, was captured and became a POW, and was being held prisoner in Dresden, Germany when the entire city was destroyed by Allied Fighters in what many consider to be one of the greatest military atrocities outside of the Atomic Bombs. Dresden was a non-military city full of classic architecture and an almost completely civilian population and between February 13th and 15th of 1945, there were four raids which firebombed and leveled 1600 acres of the city center. There were two more raids on later dates that destroyed what was listed as the strategic target, a major railway station, and in the end casualties have been listed as anywhere from 22,000 to over 100,000. They were not able to extricate many of the bodies from buildings and so those were simply burned to ash. I won’t comment on whether or not the firebombing was justified as this isn’t the appropriate theater for such a conversation but suffice it to say the event shaped Vonnegut as a person and a writer. Slaughterhouse-Five is, at its core, a very anti-war book.

Throughout the novel there are incredible lines that detail Vonnegut’s emotions regarding the war.

“I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.”

Or

“The nicest veterans…the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.”

Or

“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

Vonnegut understood that the war, while necessary, was incredibly brutal and destroyed the humanity in people, especially in those young men who were forced to fight while still basically children. This is one reason for the subtitle of the book: Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death. In fact, the first chapter of the book is all about Vonnegut struggling to write the novel in question. There is a portion where the wife of an old friend yells at him, telling him not to glorify the war and declaring, “You were just babies.” The book itself doesn’t really begin until Chapter 2.

Over the course of the book, we see different moments in Billy Pilgrim’s life. He is taken prisoner, spurned by everyone who was supposed to be on his side in the war. We are treated to the senseless death of a man who, having survived so many terrible events during the war, was executed for stealing a teapot. We get to see Pilgrim meet and marry his wife, have a child, become obsessed with Aliens who have abducted him, see his wife die while he is in the hospital after surviving a plane crash, and more. His life is full of events which do not seem to phase him.

The Tralfamadorians, the aliens who abduct Billy, teach him that life is not linear. It is a series of moments: “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects…All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They help to explain some of the feelings we see and don’t see throughout Billy’s life. In fact, there is an amazing exchange between himself and the aliens which really hits home their view of life and helps us to determine some things about the novel:

-“Why me?”
-“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
-“Yes.”
-“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

This goes a long way to explaining why, throughout all of these events, Billy stays relatively the same and doesn’t really seem to lose himself to any emotion. That will all come back to play a vital role later on. But, as we jump from place to place in Billy’s timeline, the burning question that remains is why construct a narrative in this fashion. What could possibly be achieved through this?

Well, simply stated, the timeline is there to represent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or at least that is how I have always interpreted this function. People suffering from PTSD will often have flashbacks, lose track of where they are, and then come right back. The use of flashing forward and backward in time is simply a manifestation of where the damaged soldier’s mind is as he attempts to survive in a world that left him behind. Once again, we will deal with this and the overall meaning of the work in just a moment.

We can tell that Vonnegut is not whole anymore after his experiences in the war but that he needs to complete the writing of this book to survive and to finally be okay with himself. He references Lot’s Wife, the biblical character, discussing why she turned and how that caused her to become a pillar of salt. He says he thought her turning was the most human thing of all and then shortly after, he says, in regards to this book, “This one is a failure and had to be because it was written by a pillar of salt.” He understands that the book can’t be a great success because of the tragedy of the event, although a great success is really what it became. There is an amazingly introspective moment in the novel when he writes: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” We can tell that he needs to move on and this book is giving him the power to do so.

Now, for the final scene of the novel. In the beginning of the work, Vonnegut tells us that the book ends with “Poo-tee-wet.” This is true. We flash back to the war, right after the bombing of Dresden, when Billy was free. Below is the text:

There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.

So it goes.

 The Maori Billy had worked with died of the dry heaves, after having been ordered to go down in that stink and work. He tore himself to pieces, throwing up and throwing up.

So it goes.

So a new technique was devised. Bodies weren’t brought up any more. They were cremated by soldiers with flamethrowers right where they were. The soldiers. stood outside the shelters, simply sent the fire in.

Somewhere in there the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot.

So it goes.          

And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. The Second World War in Europe was over.

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped. Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’

Now over the course of the novel, the phrase “So it goes” appears after every single mention of death, showing the almost apathetic feeling that Vonnegut has towards death. That being said, the emotions in the work are anything but apathy. “So it goes” simply shows that so much death has happened and will continue to happen and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. The world will go on, even if we feel like we can’t. That raises questions about the bird and its simple question. Vonnegut tells us that there is nothing that can be said about a massacre. It simply is and so asking a nonsensical question like this makes as much sense as the massacre did.

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Why does he end the book in this fashion, flashing back to the description of the bodies and the death that was witnessed? Think about what we know of the novel and its timeline. He suffered great emotional distress from is experiences in the war and it unhinged his mind forever. The reason Vonnegut ends the novel in this flashback is because this-this is when Billy truly dies. He may live on but this is the moment that his sanity and his innocence and really all that made him human and alive died. This event destroyed what was left of his humanity and so, after the massacre and the death and the senselessness, the only thing we can end with is the nonsensical utterings of a bird. To Billy, and possibly even to Vonnegut, that was what made him the man he was. That event destroyed his life and so it seems most appropriate to end on—war is hell and it destroys and corrupts and disrupts life. To end this article and really drive home the point of the work, I think we should let Vonnegut shine some light:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’

‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’

‘No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?’

‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”‘

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

If you haven’t ever read this before, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It is incredible in its scope and power.

 

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Teacher’s Corner: The Raven

**originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/03/book-get-lit-on-lit-raven.html

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There are few pieces of American fiction more recognizable than Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal classic “The Raven.” It is taught at numerous ages and grades and is remembered and recounted at yearly Halloween specials. It is one of the most alluded to works in pop culture, appearing in episodes of The Simpsons (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLiXjaPqSyY) – I use this every year because it cracks me up, Garfield and Friends, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Addams Family, Gilmore Girls, and countless others. This famous work, while beautiful and rhythmic harbors a dark, depressing secret, but then, if you have ever read it, you probably already know that.

In analyzing poetry, establishing an understanding of the context behind each work becomes as, if not more, important than doing so with novels. Poets usually pour their lives into their work and so at least a passing knowledge of the artist is usually needed to fully grasp the work as a whole. If any of you have ever studied Poe before, you know that his life was a terrible mess. Every woman in his life died tragically of tuberculosis, the last of which, his wife Virginia, seemed to spiral Poe out of control. Also, he suffered from depression, alcoholism, and failure in his work. While “The Raven” is easily his most recognizable work, Poe only received a total of $9 for publishing the work and miniscule proceeds, if anything at all, after.

Almost all of Poe’s poetry deals with death, especially the death of a beautiful woman. Most of these works, namely Poe’s other incredibly famous Poem “Annabel Lee,” deal with the loss of his wife. It is so commonplace in his work that an old student of mine titled her Thesis over his work: “Poe Cries Over Dead Ladies,” a title that made me laugh out loud. With all of this knowledge, we can now begin to look at the beautiful work which made Poe a household name.

The first thing to really notice about “The Raven” is Poe’s amazing ability to craft a rhythm. His constant use of internal rhyme (Words in the middle and at the end of a single line which rhyme) and alliteration (repetition of initial consonant sounds), propel the work forward and create a wonderful, dream-like sound, almost musical. Take for instance the following lines:

“Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary

That internal rhyme is repeated multiple times throughout the poem, giving not only the song-like structure but also the musical quality and a nice parallelism between the stanzas. As for the alliteration, there are numerous instances of that as well:

“And the Silken, Sad, unCertain rustling of each purple curtain”

Doubting, Dreaming Dreams no mortal ever Dared to Dream before”

These lines and the others in similar fashion push the tempo and rhythm and create not only an ethereal sound but also a very memorable one.

Besides the craft and structure, the poem also presents a tragically beautiful analogy. As before, we have discussed that figurative language and symbols help to build extended metaphors and allegories. There are multiple allusions and symbols present in the poem which help to develop the overall story of a man haunted by the loss of his lover.

The Raven, classically a bird of death (not because of the color but because of the fact that it is a carrion bird), is the most overt symbol in the entire work. It appears out of the world and stays to haunt the narrator, only ever uttering the phrase “Nevermore.” When it enters the room, it immediately goes and posts itself “upon a bust of Pallas” above the door of the room. Pallas refers to Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the embodiment of the perfect woman.

The room itself seems to hold a larger meaning as well. We never see the outside world. Instead, when the narrator throws open his study door, there is simply nothing. The same is shown when he opens his window and lets the bird in. We are never given any indication of the description or even existence of the outside world as a whole and, in keeping with other works of Poe’s (“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Haunted Palace”), that leads me to believe that the study in which the man sits is representative of his own mind. There is nothing outside because, in his state of sadness and grief, the outside world is nonexistent or at least inconsequential.

There are also multiple allusions presented. Poe first references Seraphim, a choir of angels, who come and perfume the room with incense. He also references nepenthe, a drug of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. When denied, he asks if there is balm in Gilead, a direct reference to Jeremiah and his curative medicine, and when that doesn’t work, he asks about a place named Aidenn (another name for Eden, referencing the Biblical paradise). All of these allusions deal with the speaker struggling valiantly to escape his sadness. We will come back to this later.

Now that we have looked at all of the elements of the poem separately, lets piece them together and discover what the work is truly about. Our narrator is sitting one night, in December, reading old books (volumes of forgotten lore) and struggling to escape the memory of his lost love, Lenore. We know that she is dead and not just gone by his diction – “the lost Lenore” and “nameless here for evermore.” All of a sudden the narrator is stirred form his pondering by a tapping sound at his door. He opens the door but to his surprise, there is nothing there. When he hears the same sound from his window, he goes to the sill, opens the window and in flies a Raven.

He startles as the bird perches atop the bust of Pallas Athena and stares at him. The narrator addresses the Raven, asking what its name is, and is given the response of “Nevermore.” The narrator spends multiple stanzas wondering and convincing himself that the bird had learned this phrase from an old master, but we are given another glimpse into the heart of our narrator when he says, “Other friends have flown before–/On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.” Our narrator feels abandoned and is convinced that like everyone else in his life, this bird—his new companion—will also desert him. Luckily, or unluckily as we soon find out, the bird says “Nevermore,” indicating that he will never leave the speaker.

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Next we are given multiple stanzas that show the speaker’s incredible sadness at the loss of his love. Remember those allusions from before? Here is where they will come into play. The speaker believes that angels have sent the bird and asks if it has brought him divine respite and nepenthe from the lost Lenore. He wishes above all else just to forget his sadness. Unfortunately, this is not the case and the bird says nevermore. Next the speaker asks if there is balm in Gilead, hoping that maybe the bird has brought him medicine to help heal his broken heart, but again, the bird says nevermore. Lastly, and at his wits end, the narrator asks the bird if in the afterlife, Lenore is in heaven. Once again, and frustratingly so, the bird answers again, “Nevermore.” No matter what the man wants—to forget, to heal, or to know about the afterlife, the bird simply will not oblige.

The narrator curses the bird, wishing him to leave the room and the bust of Pallas and go back to the hell from whence he came but the bird refuses, saying “Nevermore” once again. The poem ends with the bird sitting forever on the bust, looking down and casting his shadow over the man who will never escape.

So what does it all mean? The bird of death perching on the bust of Pallas is symbolic of not only the death of the narrator’s wisdom but also the death of the ideal woman. The speaker has lost the love of his life and because of this, he has lost the will to think logically. The speaker wants to escape his sadness and depression (the Raven as well) but the bird never leaves and never will leave, symbolizing that the narrator will never be able to escape his depression. The final lines of the poem are incredibly moving, showing us that no matter what happens, the man will never be able to escape the personal hell in which he is engulfed:

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!”

This poem is a true testament to the sadness and depression which can completely overtake a person when the one they love most has been taken too soon.

Teacher’s Corner: No Country for Old Men

**Originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/05/book-get-lit-on-lit-no-country-for-old.html

It has been a while since I have had a chance to talk about literature so I wanted to cover something that I think is widely misinterpreted. Cormac McCarthy, the greatest American writer of the past fifty years, has blessed the world with multiple novels of immense power. He is known for Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, Outer Dark, Sutree, and All the Pretty Horses. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for his unflinching and transcendent novel The Road in 2006. The novel I am going to talk about today is his famous 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, made even more famous by the amazing adaptation of the Cohen Brothers in 2007 (which was the recipient of four Academy Awards). I don’t want to ruin the novel for anyone because it is an experience. It was reviewed by our own Nate Mackenzie for The DreamCage so if you want a full review, check that out. This will be more about the final scene in the book/movie.

When I went to see the film in the theater, I was blown away by how accurately the directors had recreated the novel. Of course the incredible acting by Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones truly helped but it was nailed home by the portrayal of the novel’s villain Anton Chigurh by Javier Bardem (he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his work). Chigurh is easily my favorite book and film villain for multiple reasons but one in particular: he is strangely realistic for being such a murderous and systematic killer.

The entire novel focuses on the idea that the world is growing more and more violent as the years pass and that there is no room left for the men who came before. The world has surpassed them in darkness and very little the old world can accomplish could make a difference in a world that is increasingly violent and scary. The novel is punctuated by little frames of narrative from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell who gives commentary on what is/has happened. He is the ageing lawman who feels as though he no longer can compete with the modern world and he may truly be right. He tells the reader about his past, his shortcomings in the military, and his undeserved accolades in war which have led him to become the insecure, scared old man we see. Also, throughout the story we learn that his father was a fearless lawman who was unafraid to confront the world, even as it ended up killing him.

When the film cut to black, I heard multiple audience members scoff and complain about how the ending was worthless, didn’t make sense, was stupid, etc. All of the common complaints when something incredibly philosophical goes over the heads of people who either didn’t or refused to grasp the concept. THAT is what we are going to discuss here today.

The very last scene in the novel is Bell sitting at his table with his wife, days after he has retired from the force. He was never able to capture Chigurh who has disappeared into the ether as he does so well. Bell retired and now feels like he has no purpose. He talks about his father and the two dreams about his old man he has recently had. At the end of his second description the novel ends. It is a questionable ending and has caused a lot of confusion but I want to discuss the utter power of the last few lines.

Here are the dreams as McCarthy writes it:

I had two dreams about him after he died. I dont remember the first one all that well but it was about meetin him in town somewheres and he give me some money and I think I lost it. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.

First we should analyze the symbols presented by the author. One prevailing symbol that McCarthy uses in multiple novels (namely The Road) is the fire. To McCarthy it seems it represent the goodness inherent in human existence. That fire is so important to maintaining humanity in a dark world. Another symbol present is the horn in which the fire is carried. As Bell states, the horn was used to carry fire in the long forgotten past. That will be important later in the analysis. For now, just note that the horn is representative of times gone passed.

Now, as we have discussed, Bell feels somewhat lost since he has retired. His purpose as a lawman is now over and although he survived, the entire novel just went to prove how out of his depth he was in the modern world. It was wholly a loss on his part and because of that, he feels even more lost than before.

The dream serves as a sort of message to Bell that he has truly lost his purpose and that the world is for him no longer. Look at what he describes: He sees his father ride by on a horse carrying fire out into darkness and cold and he was preparing to build a fire and that if Bell went along, his father would be waiting for him. That is a simple summary of the dream. Now, if we look at the whole thing as a metaphor representing Bell’s veritable impotence in his job and his spirit later in life, the dream seems to mean so much more.

His father was a lawman without fear who ended up taking on crime without fear and although it cost him his life, he was a true hero. Bell however was a coward who was treated as a hero and never got over that fact. His father rides by on a horse, looking younger than Bell because he died as a young man. He is carrying the fire, human kindness, strength, and justice, in a horn representing the strength and courage of the old lawmen. He rides by and Bell watches him go. He says that he knows his father is “fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark.” His father was never afraid of the world and regardless of how scary or violent the world became, his father fought with everything he had to maintain that goodness. He was out there waiting in the world and Bell knows that if he just followed in his father’s footsteps, he could find that fire and live like his old man. Sadly, Bell wakes up before he can because he has retired from the force and he will never be able to go out into that darkness to help maintain the goodness and strength his father represented. Instead he ran the other direction and now, with his retirement, the chance to live up to his father’s legacy, to become one of the true good guys, to fight the darkness of a modern world has slipped through his fingers. He is an old man and the new world is too dark and violent a place for him. It truly is No Country for Old Men.

In essence, the last dream really exemplifies the meaning of the work as a whole. The last dream is a powerful image portraying the failure Bell feels as a retired Sheriff in a world that has passed him by.

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