A History of English Literature from the Present to 1789
Communicate clearly an understanding of how one or more literary texts relate to their period and to the developing history of English literature
Write about how two couples are portrayed in two texts.
In this essay, I am going to look at two texts Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Walker Brothers Cowboy by Alice Munro. Within these texts I will present a summary of each story and reflect on ideas about two couples, Billy Pilgrim and his wife Valencia Merble from the text Slaughterhouse Five and Ben Jordan and his wife, whose name we never learn, from Walker Brothers Cowboy. I will then look in depth at each of the couples as well as the timeline they are set in and finally bringing all the findings together in my conclusion.
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Slaughterhouse Five is an extraordinary novel. The author Kurt Vonnegut was also present at the Dresden bombings and has some small parts in the story. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim and a World War II veteran has become ‘unstuck in time’ and time travel between periods of his life to which he has no control over. The narrative is not linear or chronological, and it is structured in small sections all centred around his witnessing and surviving the Dresden bombing along with other snapshots in his life and an encounter when aliens abducted him. His fragmented periods in time and experiences makes the novel work in quick short episodic vignettes and works around the mental state he is in and the suffering he has encountered.
Billy saw Valencia as a means to an end. Her family was affluent and owned the Ilium School of Optometry thus he acquired a good trade from her family business. They were very wealthy, but she had no control over her life and was quite a large lady due to her constant eating. She loved Billy so much that she had vowed to lose weight on their wedding day. Billy but he felt he had been quite mad when he had proposed to her by giving her a costly ring from the booty of war, again he obtained it for free; one has to ask would he have given her a ring or even proposed if had been made to purchase a ring. He also didn’t even find her attractive but saw her as a symptom of his disease (PTSD). They did, however, have two children together. When they talked it was just small talk together.
On their wedding night, he had been out of the veterans hospital for six months and doing well by graduating from the school of optometry. The reader becomes aware that they won’t make love often and it is seen as a sense of duty rather than love. Valencia herself was a time traveller also, in her mind only as she would imagine that she was Queen Elizabeth I and Billy was Christopher Columbus while they make love; she was not sure what to feel about Billy deep down, so she had to pretend he was someone else. He showed no affection towards his wife and was very much a means to an end for him. Valencia married him so she wouldn’t be left on the shelf; however, she still didn’t find him attractive ‘Valencia questioned her funny looking husband about war’ (Vonnegut, 2000, p.99)
She also asks him about the war ‘I look at you sometimes’ said Valencia ‘and I get a funny feeling that you are full of secrets’ (Vonnegut, 2000, p.99)
She was, however, proud he was a soldier but when she tries to talk to him about it, he does not reciprocate the conversation. He has disclosed more to her father than to her, ‘I heard you tell Father one time about a German firing squad’ (Vonnegut, 2000, p.101) she was referring to the execution of poor old Edgar Digby’, but as she pressed him for more information, he left to go to the bathroom and time travelled again. But maybe this was a way to escape the questions he did not want to talk about with her. He ended up in a scene where the conditions and made the soldiers very ill and in a conversation with the author. The next moments he was back in bed again when a funny thing is said. Valencia says:
‘I missed you’ said Valencia.
I missed you’ said Billy Pilgrim’ (Vonnegut, 2002, p.103).
Before falling asleep again.
Therefore, did he travel in time or was she referring to his ‘wandering in thoughts’.
His relationship on the planet Tralfamadore with Montana was quite the opposite. She was his safe place, and through love and comfort and acceptance with her in
the zoo Billy comes to the realisation of his fate and finds a reason to live. He could talk to her but not his wife.
He used the marriage to move his station in society upwards ‘as his mother said: “The Pilgrims are coming up in the world” (Vonnegut, 2000, p.97).
Valencia died in tragic circumstances of carbon monoxide poisoning as she was rushing to the hospital after hearing the plane Billy, who she adored, and her father was on had crashed. Billy could not attend her funeral due to his mental state and it is unclear as to if he missed her once she was dead.
Walker Brothers Cowboy by Alice Munro is originally from her Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) collection and is narrated in the first person by the couple’s daughter. The backdrop to the story is the depression where the family has fallen onto hard times, losing their family business and home and having to move to a cheaper neighbourhood. The depression was a tough time to live in. Unemployment was high and there was very little about in the way of money and jobs. Many lived in shanty towns called ‘Hoovervilles’ (Konkel, 2018) when they were down to nothing. But it did create a new movement of people who were ‘less indulgent and had stronger family values with an era of homemakers and thrift gardens’ (Konkel, 2018). Ben and his wife were quite lucky, they had lost their home and business, but they have a home,
albeit humble, and Ben had a job, they were more fortunate than some in this time in history.
Ben’s wife is finding the situation hard to deal with and is not handling it well at all, especially towards Ben himself. She shuts him out of her feelings and herself away from life around her. She is, however, trying to maintain her dignity and does try to cut corners by making their clothes and only occasional treats for the family. But she remains aloof and is unable to rid herself or forget about the past and let go. This happened to many families in this time and couples were ripped apart due to circumstance. It also begin an era of abandonment as couples could not afford to divorce.
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In contrast her husband Ben and her children seem to be moving forward in the family’s new situation, where the wife has a disconnection almost from her family. There is an important change of mood within Ben when he visits an old flame, Nora. The narrator thinks that Nora dresses better than her mother and this reflects on Ben as his wife’s attitude and outlook on life have been very negative so when he sees Nora he is regretful on his marriage as she represents what could have been for him. Full of fun regardless of the economic situation.
The couple both seems to cling onto the past in different ways, the wife on material things and status lost and Ben on the emotional loss of lost love in Nora. The story
gives you a feeling that the relationship is strained between Ben and his wife and is probably breaking down but also that because of the young family they have, they are letting time wash on and just accepting that this is the best it will be for them.
The relationship may have been strained or not such a truthful one for some time and the narrator finds out when Ben drinks whiskey ‘One thing my mother has told me in our talks together is that my father never drinks whiskey. But I see he does. He drinks whiskey and he talks of people whose names I have never heard of before’ (Munro, 2018, p993). This shows that Ben has secrets from his wife.
To understand the working of both novels we need to understand the operations of the authors. Kurt Vonnegut was reviewed by Michael Crichton who described him as ‘He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilt’s, our fiercest hatreds and loves. Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches.’ (Crichton, 2013).
The life of a soldier was tough, and Kurt Vonnegut is Billy Pilgrim for the most part, and he is retelling his own story and the horrors of war which is why it took him so long to write. He was probably suffering from Combat Stress Reaction (CSR) in that period, very common with the soldiers and what they had to deal with on a day to day period due to the horrors of war. Today we know it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This
helps us understand a little more why Billy could not talk to Valencia but he could to his mistress. We can see this in a part of Slaughterhouse Five where Billy returns to the hospital in bed in the prison camp, where he finds the latrine where all the American soldiers are violently sick, one of them is Kurt Vonnegut which could be a representation of how hard the story was for him to write and this is his way of mentally dealing with the situation.
In comparison, Alice Munro draws on her experiences from living in Canada and is often set in her native country of Huron in south-west Ontario, winning Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, it is a style that never ages due to the depth of the writing and she revolutionised the short story market with the complex relationships and stories she cultivated. Here she did just that in Walker Brothers Cowboy with a setting she was comfortable with and drawing on local knowledge to make the story and characters come to life.
In conclusion both stories were true to the times they were set in. Although Slaughterhouse 5 jumped timelines many times, the actual historical setting was primarily accurate. I feel they both made you feel emotions and were very thought provoking, both in the story and in the historical context behind the story. Both stories have a ‘couple’ context but also the hidden extra person, in this case both female roles with Nora and Montana, which add a twist to the context of the story. Billy Pilgrim was normalised in his behaviour in his time as it was not recognised as much that the War had caused mental health issues, so he coped as well as he could and used escapism
with Montana and the aliens to cope. Historically, both stories give us insight into living and working in their chosen points of time. An example of this is in Slaughterhouse 5, ‘Dresden was like the moon now nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighbourhood was dead’ (Vonnegut, 2000, p.146) and in Walker Brothers Cowboy ‘Many people could say the same thing, these days, but my mother has no time for the National calamity, only ours’ (Munro, 2018, p.987). Ben and his wife were portrayed beautifully in Munro’s writing and paints a historical picture of what it was like and then dealing with complex human emotions during problematic periods in time and of change within their families.
- Michael Crichton. (2013). Read Michael Crichton’s 1969 Review of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. Available: https://newrepublic.com/article/114833/michael-crichton-sci-fi-and-vonnegut. Last accessed 23/10/2018.
- Kinsey Konkel. (2018). Life for the Average Family during the Great Depression. Available: https://www.history.com/news/life-for-the-average-family-during-the-great-depression. Last accessed 23/10/2018.
- Alice Munro. (2018). Walker Brothers Cowboy. In: Julia Reidhead and Marian Johnson The Norton Anthology, The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. New York: W.N. Norton & Company. 984-995
- Kurt Vonnegut (2000). Slaughterhouse 5. London: Random House.
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