Slaughter House V and The Things They Carried

Read the following exam question and the student's response. Apply the assessment criteria and discuss the marks that you would award the script before reading the examiner's marks and comments. How different were your marks and comments from the examiner's marks and comments? What improvements could be made to this student's response, in order to achieve better results?

Authors sometimes tell their stories in a non-linear fashion. Compare how and for what reasons the authors of at least two works that you have read have told their stories in a non-linear fashion.

Readers are often intrigued by war stories, because they want to know if people can persevere in adverse circumstances. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut both show how soldiers struggle to deal with war and its aftermath unsuccessfully. The authors both use a disjointed and non-linear narration to show readers how soldiers remember, experience and suffer from the horrors of war. 

Both novels are written by authors who remember their experiences of one war in the context of another war, using non-linear narrative structures. In 1990, during the Gulf War in Kuwait, Tim O’Brien wrote the novel The Things They Carried, which is about the Vietnam War of the 1960s. O’Brien, who is a Vietnam veteran, writes as a soldier who is traumatised by the violence that he experienced, mixing ‘truth-story’ with ‘happening-truth’ to create a work that is neither truth nor fiction, neither memoir nor novel. For example, one chapter, called ‘Love’, is about how O’Brien meets with another veteran, Jimmy Cross, years after the war to drink coffee and gin and remember the atrocities for which they could not forgive themselves. His friend tells O’Brien about a woman he loved, Martha. But his love was unrequited, because Martha was scared to be with a veteran who had experienced such violence, and this left him heartbroken. There seems to be an inescapable stigma surrounding Vietnam veterans. This story within a story shows the reader how war never stops damaging the lives of its veterans, long after it is over. 

Through a similar use of frame narration, Kurt Vonnegut shows how the effects of World War II have haunted its veterans even after it ended. The novel, which is semi-autobiographical, is written at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969. Vonnegut begins Slaughterhouse-Five with a dialogue between him and a fellow veteran O’Hare and his wife Mary. O’Hare’s wife is angry with Vonnegut for writing a novel about the war, because she assumes that he will glorify war. Vonnegut promises her, though, that his novel will discourage young men from fighting in wars. He explains that it will be short and jumbled because there is nothing intelligent one can say about a massacre. Furthermore, he dedicates the novel to her, which is a clear sign to readers that he aims to uphold his promise to Mary. In the context of 1967, when this work was written, the protest movement against the Vietnam War was growing. This use of frame narration shows the reader how Vonnegut finds war senseless. This extra layer of narration is very similar to O’Brien’s way of telling his stories in The Things They Carried, which the author uses for the same purpose of showing the adverse effects of war on its veterans and warning against the senselessness of the Gulf War. The non-linear, broken narration, which includes veterans remembering war, acts as a reminder to people how the atrocities of war live on. 

The disjointed and non-linear narrative is also used in both novels as a way of showing readers how soldiers experience and deal with extremely violent situations. In The Things They Carried, O’Brien remembers killing a young Vietnamese man, distancing himself from the violent action by describing the gruesome destruction of the young man’s body without emotions. The victim’s eye was shot through like a “star”, his body was “oatmeal” and parts of his face were “missing”. Instead of writing about his feelings of guilt and disgust, O’Brien uses imagery. Furthermore, he fantasizes about the young Vietnamese man’s youth, growing up at school, possibly being teased by others for his love of calculus. This flashback is contrasted with the description of a butterfly landing on the young man’s nose. O’Brien’s platoon mate rationalises that if O’Brien hadn’t killed the boy, someone else would have. This use of dialogue, imagery and non-linear structure allows O’Brien to retell this violent act without facing his pain or showing remorse for killing the young man. 

The main character of Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim, uses similar though different devices for coping with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Billy Pilgrim, a fictional character, is, like Vonnegut himself, a WWII veteran, Prisoner of War (POW) and survivor of the bombing of Dresden. The novel ends with the protagonist climbing out of a mountain of dead bodies. The imagery is very gruesome and graphic. Every time Billy puts one dead body behind him, another appears on the horizon. In a sense, this is an analogy of war itself, as Vonnegut suggests that once one war finishes another one begins. “And so it goes,” the narrator states throughout the novel after someone is killed, which is frequently. This passive phrase suggests that death and destruction are inevitable. The language makes the reader feel as helpless as the protagonist but willing to accept the atrocities for what they are. In a similar way O’Brien adopts a helpless tone throughout The Things They Carried by using phrases such as “this is true” to suggest that the horrible events should be accepted for what they are. Just as O’Brien’s mind wanders and scenes flash forward or backward every time there is a violent situation, so too does Billy’s. Billy believes that he was abducted by aliens, the Tralfamadorians, who taught him to time travel, using “the fourth dimension.” This allows him to look back at the horrors of war as just one time in his life and also to flash forward to other, better times. This device for coping with posttraumatic stress disorder is more extreme than O’Brien’s use of imagination and “truth-story,” though it serves the same function. The non-linear storylines of both works show their readers how veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Finally, both works use non-linear structures to show readers how wars inflict mental damage to veterans. In The Things They Carried, several characters are depicted as mentally instable. One story is about Mitchell Sanders, who went on patrol and eventually went crazy after hearing strange noises, like talking monkeys, cocktail parties and chanting. Even after he ordered for the whole region to be burned down by air strikes, he still heard the noises. Eventually Sanders admits to O’Brien that he had embellished parts of his story, which makes the reader question Sander’s sanity and reliability as a narrator. 

In a similar way, Billy Pilgrim is insane and Vonnegut’s story is nothing but fantasy. While Kurt Vonnegut claims that “most” of his story about Billy is true, it would be impossible for anyone to have such knowledge of another man’s thoughts and actions. What’s more, Vonnegut’s story about Billy’s encounters with the Tralfamadorians, his sexual contact with a movie star and his time travelling must be fantasy, despite Vonnegut’s very matter-of-fact tone. There are hints that Billy is perceived as crazy by other characters, such as his optometry clients and his daughter, who finds him freezing in a house with a broken boiler. The reader, however, suspends all disbelief in Vonnegut’s story, because it is based on the premise that nothing could be more absurd than surviving the firebombing of Dresden, which killed over 135,000 people in one night. In fact Vonnegut himself survived the bombing as is described in this fictional tale, as a prisoner in a meat locker. Vonnegut and O’Brien both earn a certain right to tell fantastical, non-linear stories that comment critically on war, because they both survived the horrors of the war. 

To conclude, both novels use a non-linear, disjointed narration to show the reader how veterans remember, experience and suffer from war. The novels are written in the context of one war about another war as a warning that war will always be horrific. Both Vonnegut and O’Brien mix fact and fiction as a means of making the senselessness of war sensible to readers. 

Criterion A: Knowledge, understanding, interpretation and comparison – 8 out of 10

The student is very knowledgeable about the two novels and shows a high degree of understanding. There are many references to the contexts in which the works were written, including biographical information on the authors. Interpretations of the novels are very insightful, as the student explores the authors’ common purpose of commenting on the senseless violence of war. For the most part, these interpretations are relevant to the essay question, about the non-linear storylines. While the novels are compared throughout the essay, the student struggles, at times, to compare them in relation to the question.

Criterion B: Analysis and evaluation – 9 out of 10

The essay question lends itself well to analysis and evaluation, as it asks for an exploration of non-linear, narrative techniques. What’s more, the literary works are very appropriate for this question, as they are written in a non-linear fashion. The student includes quite a few references to the works, commenting on a broad range of stylistic features, such as imagery, unreliable narrator, flash backs, fantasy, tone, while maintaining focus on the non-linear nature of both texts and the effects of these on the reader. 

Criterion C: Coherence, balance, focus and organisation - 5 out of 5

This essay takes a very balanced approach, alternating its focus on each work and comparing them in passing. The essay has a strong sense of structure, which is due to the connective phrases and linking words.

Criterion D: Language - 5 out of 5

The student’s use of English is very academic and articulate. Very complex ideas are articulated effectively through the student’s use of vocabulary and syntax.  Literary terms are used accurately throughout the essay.

Last modified: Wednesday, 29 January 2020, 9:04 AM