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Darker Realities in Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse V Essay


I feel that both Heller and Vonnegut use their novels as a mouthpiece to portray how darker realities or truths often lurk beneath common perceptions of concepts in our lives; which reflects their own experiences as they lived through the harsh reality behind the often glorified Second World War. For me; the prose also signifies how the authors are led to raise deeper, more universal queries about life as a result of their experiences, which reflects the context of the sixties, when these novels were written, as the war itself, and the recovery after the war such as huge advancements in technology in this period altered the way in which people saw the world.

For instance, the narrative style used by Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse V perhaps implies to the reader that the author is portraying a sense of themselves through the characters-as if the characters are designed to shadow the authors own experiences: most of the people in it (the story) are so sick and so much the playthings of listless forces. Here, the use of the word playthings suggests that the characters are being toyed with, which holds connotations of lack of control of their own actions and consequences; as if they are pawns within a bigger plot. This could hold a huge relevance to the authors own experiences, as being involved as part of the war effort could make a person feel like a plaything in terms of their small part within the bigger picture. If so; the listless forces referred to could be a phrase relating to fate, and maybe this conveys the idea to the reader of the strong relationship of the symbolism between the narration of the characters in the prose, and Vonneguts own personal experiences in the second world war.

A similar theme of lack of control, which links to Vonneguts reference of being a plaything, is portrayed by the narrative style used by Heller in Catch 22: He was told he should not kill, and he did not kill, until he got into the army. The particular phrase: He was told he should notand he did not is blunt and creates a directory tone which echoes the theme of obedience. In this sense, Hellers blunt narrative style in places such as this differs from that of Vonnegut in that it perhaps creates a more obvious tone of cynicism. However, similarly, He was told he should not kill, and he did not kill, until he got into the army implies that the very idea of the army disables the character from following even fundamental ideas that he should not kill, and this in turn creates the idea that perhaps Heller is trying to use this character narration as a symbol of himself, to give a sense of the helplessness that comes with being involved in an event which demeans even basic principles of humanity.

Vonnegut could be perceived to derive a sense of mourning from the tone created by repetition of so it goes throughout the prose. Although the perspective jumps from different anecdotes throughout the text, in different times throughout the life of Billy Pilgrim which could disorientate the reader, the constant repetition of so it goes is present. This is interesting, as the use of present tense it goes despite the past tense description in parts suggests a sad tone of inevitability of the events, as though the author is trying to illustrate the point that regardless of the time the events are/were, they will always go the same-so it goes This maybe holds connotations of his own experiences of having witnessed the bombing of Dresden in the second world war: as if he is reflecting the memories and accepting that they are eternal: as long as they are real for him, they may as well be in the present, despite fast changing times. This also links to the idea of people as playthings, as so it goes emphasises how events unfold as they will, as people cannot change some things.

In contrast, Heller uses the repetition of Amen frequently in Catch 22, as well as more satirical use of religious references by use of dialogue: What are you talking about? You mean they still pray to the same God that we do? The use of Amen perhaps denotes a similar tone of mourning, as it is slightly solemn, as if Heller too is echoing a sad acceptance of something by the repetition of Amen. The tone in Catch 22 differs perhaps in that it is maybe not just mournful of accepting events, but of a loss of faith also. You mean they still pray to the same God we do? is maybe perceived by the reader as blasphemous, or even humorous, but it could also be taken to be the voice of a darkly disillusioned person who is grasping at the idea of God as something to be shared in a universal sense with others as a novelty, or rare occurrence. This could reflect Hellers desire for some conventionality in the mad world of war, where its easy to feel alone as a cog in the machine of a larger, more sinister picture.

Alternately, this could be reflective of how out of place one could feel, alone with their experiences of the war in the fast changing world of the sixties.

Imagery used by Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse V is symbolic and maybe reflects the bigger ideas that we are led to question in our lives as a result of our circumstances, or in his case, him having been trapped in the midst of the war e.g.: Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself: thats life. This could be taken as a metaphor of how bleak an outlook we as people have on life, as we only have our individual perception of the world around us; implied as narrow by comparison with the pipe. Also, he had no choice reflects perhaps how sometimes we cannot change how we hold our outlook on life, no matter how bleak, because thats life. This idea in the prose is maybe present as a result of the author, having been forced into a bleak predicament, being forced to question and try to alter the way in which he sees the world: this could be relevant and raise universal questions for the reader about how they perceive things in life, or what exactly does influence how we as people see the world around us; both in the modern world, or for peoples interpretations of the events in the world when the text was written.

In contrast, Heller uses dialogue in a similar fashion to convey a sense of questioning deeper ideas: Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if its to seem long. But in that event, who wants one? What else is there? This use of dialogue is perhaps dark, and reflects how the authors own experiences of unpleasant conditions i.e. the danger of serving as a bombardier in the Second World War led him to question the value of human life what else is there?

Perhaps most predominantly, the structure is significant on reflecting the social context of each author, as the ending of each holds a tone of resolution, or moral.

For example, in Catch 22: the message in his entrails. Man was matter. That was Snowdons secret is significant in my opinion, because its as if the author is conveying seeing something in perfect clarity as a result of his experiences. The phrase Man was matter holds a note of resolution and perhaps goes far beyond the context of the prose, as it is a universal revelation, which maybe reflects the authors reaction to his own experiences; as if he is summing up what he felt in that one moment, and the use of Man implies that this is a revelation applicable to everyone. This, along with the gory imagery of entrails is far darker in this final section of the prose in comparison to the beginning, and the way Heller uses the words message and secret implies a deeper significance to this description for the reader. One possible interpretation of this is that Heller is immortalising the ideas put forward for the reader, and suggesting their relevance in the changing world at the time, which could suggest to a modern reader that these ideas i.e. about questioning the way we view the world, are still relevant today, and maybe they always will be.

Slaughterhouse V also has a tone of reflection/revelation at the end; Everything is supposed to be quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds suggests a tone of conviction- it always is; and the use of the phrase Everything is supposed to be links to themes of confronting conformity, or in other words, how the world is supposed to be.

In conclusion, both authors use their narrative literary voice to convey deeper, more subtle messages to the reader, for instance by use of metaphors relating to science fiction in Slaughterhouse V (whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe )and satirical dialogue for instance used by Heller in Catch 22: these reflect the social context of the authors to the extent that they both use war put into a satirical context in the prose, to turn notions on their head e.g. about the way we perceive/conform to particular ideas about the value of life for instance, and this in turn reflects how war, and recovery in the sixties changed the world in peoples eyes at the time forever. A reader at the time these novels were first published may take from reading these prose that ideas/ concepts in life can be questioned and are not set on stone, which may be found as an equally important moral for a reader today or in the future.

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