A Comparison of "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "The Stranger"
Why are we here? Where are we going? What can we really change? These questions regarding our significance can be pieced together effectively using two existentialist narratives about life and death. In Slaughterhouse-Five, a science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut, we follow the life of a soldier, Billy Pilgrim. Unstuck in time, kidnapped by aliens, and caught in a massacre of war, Billy certainly lives an eventful life, but also witnesses a great deal of death. With these experiences in hand, Billy gains a unique perspective of his place in the world. Albert Camus’s philosophical narrative, The Stranger, provides a parallel to this. Here, we follow Meursault, who views life as devoid of any apparent value. However, when he is accused of murder, Meursault is forced to confront what death really means. With a guilty verdict impending, Meursault struggles to reconcile himself with his own worth. By searching for meaning in the human experience, these two stories help us to find where we fit into life’s puzzle.
Slaughterhouse-Five and The Stranger, written by Kurt Vonnegut and Albert Camus, respectively, contemplate many aspects of both life and death. However, these two works delve most extensively into the puzzling nature of man’s significance. From this discussion, it becomes clear that existentialism is a major theme in both novels. This is evident through the authors’ exploration of the concepts that absurdism is more valid than rationalism, apathy prevails over passion, and existence precedes essence.
Both authors explore existentialism in their narratives by arguing that absurdism represents the world more accurately than rationalism. In these accounts, traumatic events illustrate that the world is neither fair, nor ordered. Characters’ lives are dictated by events far beyond their understanding. Specifically, the bombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five and the guilty verdict at Meursault’s trial in The Stranger demonstrate a lack of innate justice in the world. In both situations, innocent people suffer an undeserved fate. Given the circumstances, when the city of Dresden, “like a Sunday school picture of Heaven,”1 treats the American prisoners of war as decently as is possible, it displays its humanity. Similarly, by characterizing the shooting of the Arab as “like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness,”2 Meursault demonstrates that his actions are purely unintentional. In each case people attempt to live justly, yet the universe is indifferent. Integrity does not guard them from mortality. Furthermore, a lack of order can also be seen in these two events. Expressing the idea that “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,”3 Billy introduces the notion that the bombing is not something that can be understood. Comparably, Meursault, who feels “the utter pointlessness of whatever [he] was doing there seize [him] by the throat,”4 shows that his trial is unconnected to his mistakes. The characters see that neither event is a culmination with any inherent meaning. In the end, these episodes are too complex to comprehend logically. They are chaotic. Both a lack of fairness and order show that any attempt to unravel events sensibly will prove meaningless. Conduct in life is not necessarily connected to one’s fate. This absence of consequence can facilitate apathy.
Another way in which both writers consider existentialism is the contrast between apathy and passion. Developing this disparity is the indifference demonstrated by both novels’ main characters, specifically in respect to scrutiny of their own flaws, and calamity in the world around them. They regard both as inconsequential. Primarily, Billy Pilgrim and Meursault are unconcerned with the negative image they present to the world. In his “silver boots”5 and “azure curtain, which he wore like a toga,”6 Billy is a farce of the traditional military image. This foolish appearance reveals his lack of motivation. Likewise, when Meursault smokes at his mothers funeral, admitting that “[his] physical needs often got in the way of [his] feelings,”7 he shows that for him circumstance and appearance are mere trivialities. Both characters completely lack externally inspired initiative. They feel that any change on their part is too negligible to warrant passion. They are defined by their apathy. Comparably, we can see the main characters are not distressed by the disorder they inhabit. From Billy’s constant refrain: “so it goes,”8 and Meursault’s persistent assertion that “nothing had really changed,”9 it is apparent that even the largest events resonate little importance with them. When they use these phrases, it shows their belief that external actions are inevitable. By accepting the conflict around them as inescapable, they remove any need for passion. We should not be concerned about what we cannot control. A sense of apathy about how we are viewed and the effect outside forces have shows that external influences only create the emotional impact that we allow them. Meaning cannot be imposed upon us. If outside forces lack power, then one of the few things remaining is existence.
Finally, existentialism can be seen in the idea that existence precedes essence. That is, merely being is more significant than any other factor in life. Firstly, after the bombing of Dresden and Meursault’s arrest, we can see how mere existence takes precedence over any physical context given to it. When, surrounded by destruction immediately following the bombing, Billy states, “…he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sundrenched snooze in the back of the wagon,”10 we see that just being alive overshadows the condition of life. Related to this is Meursault’s feeling that “...a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison,”11 a statement that suggests existence persists regardless of grievous circumstance. Both characters, despite the difficulties they endure, have hope. Being is independent of physical perspective. Additionally, the significance of existence can be seen in the moments of inner turmoil during Billy’s abduction and immediately preceding Meursault’s execution. Billy’s harrowing capture by aliens, specifically the mind-bending knowledge they bestow upon him, forces a change in his perspective of existence. Coming to the conclusion that “…one thing Earthlings might learn to do is ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones,”12 Billy discerns that the presence of good times justifies all bad times. On the same note, when Meursault hopes for “… a large crowd of spectators the day of [his] execution,”13 he conveys that, so long as he can exist as part of a group before the end, the circumstance of his death is irrelevant. Both characters take solace in the fact that, although the end result is unchanged, we can choose what parts of life to acknowledge. Context is irrelevant. As both external turmoil and internal turmoil inform our existence, we can see that our view of essence is flexible. How we interpret our existence is up to us.
Looking back, we can see that existentialism is a central piece of both novels. Built around this piece are the concepts of absurdism, apathy, and existence. Altogether they form a reference that can help us discover our significance in the puzzle that is life. The insight provided by Billy Pilgrim and Meursault’s pursuit of this endeavour gives us an idea of who we are, where we are going, and what we can change. By the end of both narratives, we may be able to accept that life does not have a predetermined meaning. Expressly, there are many answers when we question our significance. Like a difficult puzzle, life can seem nonsensical until it is given consequence. However, this importance does not come from without; it comes from within. We determine our own significance.