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Poetics of Postmodernism in Kurt Vonnegut

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Literature Review

Postmodernism is dominant philosophical approach that questions and rejects the fundamental totality of human thought and homogeneous way of perceiving the outer reality of the world. , which is the main focus of present study with reference and application to Kurt Vonnegut’s The Slaughterhouse Five.

Like literature itself, postmodernism is difficult to be defined. Clearly, then, the time has come to theorize the term [postmodernism], if not to define it, before it fades from awkward neologism to derelict cliché without ever attaining to the dignity of a cultural concept. Ihab Hassan (The Poetics of postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon, p, 3). But for the sake of better understanding of the term/theory ‘postmodernism’, it should be defined in terms of time span, characteristics and with comparison to its predecessor ‘modernism.

Oxford dictionary defines postmodernism as “A late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories (oxforddictionaries.com/definition/postmodernism). While in Merriam Webster it is defined as “of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature).

On the other hand Encyclopedia Britannica defines it in these words that “Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power”.

“Few words are more used and abused in discussions of contemporary culture than the word ‘postmodernism.’ As a result, any attempt to define the word will necessarily and simultaneously have both positive and negative dimensions. It will aim to say what postmodernism is but at the same time it will have to say what it is not. Perhaps this is an appropriate condition, for postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political” (The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon, p, 1).

Postmodernism is product of extreme skepticism and rejection of all those values which characterize order, harmony, stability and fragmentation. It is rejection of modernism and continuation of modernism as well. This makes it ambiguous. The importance of postmodernism lies in its seeking our attention “to the changes, the major transformations, taking place in contemporary society and culture” (Sarup, 1993).

Postmodernism isn’t a word that’s easily defined, and its origins aren’t easily traced. It is used to discuss architecture, art, technology, and literature among other fields; either stemming from modernism or opposed to it. In the start of this discussion, it is notified that postmodernism can be better understood in terms of certain characteristics. Characteristically, postmodernism is better understood and defined. Postmodernists are the people who are not comfortable with the modernist’s inability to make inroads in achieving peace and progress in society. Therefore, they challenge the traditional way of thinking and practice of this thinking. Postmodernism is rejection as well continuation of modernism. As a renowned critic David Harvey says that “there is more continuity than difference in the movement from modernism to postmodernism” (Hawthorn, 1992)

“There are no impartial truths. They have been defined by people and groups who use them to obtain power. One individual’s perception of reality doesn’t always match another individual’s perception of reality. For instance, even though you may view an individual of the opposite sex as in a relationship based on their apparently conventional practices that suggest that they’re taken, they may not see themselves as in a relationship”( www.scribd.com/document/229309515/10-Key-Characteristics-of-Postmodernism). This means time is relative. There is no fixity in this regard. Postmodernism contends that facts and factuality is innocent dream which is not possible in the world which is constantly changing and it is defined by the advent of multiculturalism and globalization. There is no objectivity in the world of postmodernism. Subjectivity is a new hallmark of this world. Morality started to lose its credibility in modernism, it breathed its last in postmodernism. With the advent of so many theories like feminism, deconstruction, new historicism, archetypal and gender theories etc, postmodernism emerged as the representative of equality, freedom of expression and metafictional narratives. The old traditions and metanarratives of modernism were outdated in rapidly changing social world, technologically advanced social life. In 1967 John Barth wrote “The Literature of Exhaustion” which is rejection of modern literature. In general terms postmodernism of self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining theory. Meta-fiction is its main concern in a narration of postmodern fiction.

Other characteristics of postmodernism are fragmentation in society, search for truth, fragmentation of culture and structure, consumerism, parody, self-rejection.

Poetics is the theory of literary forms and literary discourse. It may refer specifically to the theory of poetry, although some speakers use the term so broadly as to denote the concept of “theory” itself. Poetics focuses not on the meaning of a text, but rather its understanding of how a text’s different elements come together and produce certain effects on the reader.

Poetics of postmodernism means understanding postmodernism with certain characteristics. The focus of this study is on poetics of postmodernism in The Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is an American writer. The writer who is famous for his satirical novels who frequently used postmodern techniques as well as elements of fantasy and science fiction to highlight the horrors and ironies of 20th-century civilization and post war generation

Many critics have praised Vonnegut’s contributions in postmodern novel. Bill Gholson describes his art in following words, Kurt Vonnegut is a self-professed agnostic firmly grounded in the tradition of his German freethinking relatives. As such, his morality comes without metaphysical props. Instead, his moral thinking and writing reflect a rhetorical orientation–one for which the self is never disembodied from the community, the history, and the discourses of which it is a part. For Vonnegut, understanding the narrative self is an inescapable feature of identity and morality, both central concerns of his work.

(At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut edited by Kevin Alexander Boon, p,135).

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut about the World War II experiences and journeys through time of Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier and chaplain’s assistant, to postwar and early years. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work. Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five is considered by many critics to be Vonnegut’s greatest work and masterpiece.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a story of Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of the novel. He is a former American soldier in WW2 and went to prison as war broke in, in Dresden, Germany. Billy bears a lot of difficulties in his duty in Dresden which was devastated by the bombing during the Second World War. He was arrested many times by the Germans troops. A number of times he escaped from the prison but was again recaptured. Finally, his luck made him favour and he was evacuated by the American army and he was set to New York, America. After arriving in his homeland, he marries and has the chance to meet different people, one of them is the novelist Kilgore Trout. At the end of the novel, we see that Billy and his wife escape from a plane crash. So he is taken to hospital. During his stay at the hospital he falls asleep and time shifts to Dresden. The story of Billy is told in retrospect through ten different episodes. The narrative technique of the novel is typical as we see in a postmodern fiction. This is because incidents are told through author’s omniscient narrator who tells Billy’s story, and Billy’s own account of story during his stay at Dresden.

The narrative category in which Slaughterhouse-Five is put conforms the tradition of postmodernism. Postmodern fiction highlights a number of human experiences after the Second World War. The most brilliant evidence of human experience in the novel is the metafictional essence of the novel which makes it “a postmodern novel relying on metafiction, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five is a writer’s preface about how he came to write his novel” (Chellamuthu, 2005, p.2). the relative reality of postmodernism is described in the whole novel and throughout we see that , “the factual method, whenever it becomes diagrammatical in this book, sketches long stretches of time in the life of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim” (Hoffman, 2005, p.549). At number of times and in so many different textual representations, Slaughterhouse-Five shows very important and live examples of different human hardships, the desire for freedom and constructive yearning for peace in an apparently agitated world of chaos and fragmentation. In the most outlandish claim, postmodernity comes as harbinger of the absence of truth and reality which is reflected by the broad textual structures as “projects of political transformation” (Kellner, 1989, p.84). The knowable, but at the same time the conscious, repudiation of reality in postmodern texts is related to the radically grounded and novice way of representation of the world from an ordinary humane perspective and thinking. Hence we see that the Second World War, left its cruel causality imprint on society of the Continent, but also spanning all over the world.

The horrible consequences of the war encouraged many thinkers and philosophers to yield the history of the post war world in avant-gardist terminology that is the characteristics of postmodernity. As a result, human expression in art, especially literature, took a different and radical stance. Before the arrival of postmodernity, literature was regularly glorified in a combined way and had certain labels, e.g. modern literature which was characterized by a stable and expressive poetics of meta-naaratives. However, postmodern literature has been termed by critics as giving an impactful name to the “new era”. Resultantly, Vonnegut is providing us an “anti-traditional narrative point of view involving the author hints in the text” (Atchison, 2008, p.27).

Yet, it is argued that postmodern literature was a philosophical revival and continuation of modern literature in the second half of 20th century. So a historical body of postmodern literature has been trying to making a “narrative that purport[s] to recount universal history (parentheses mine)” (Vanhoozer, 2003, p. 11). Consequently the poetics of postmodernity is a reactive and contradictory narrative convention to the previous stable “narrative” conventions, seeking to give its distinctive and characteristically affirmative literary features. Hence Slaughterhouse-Five has a “crucial concern with the novel’s narrative point of view” (Pholer, 1997, p.103). Generally, the novel has been studied intensively in the fields of science fiction and metatifction. However it can also be analyzed in terms of narrative perspective. Three narrative concepts can be incorporated into the study this novel, namely, Patricia Waugh’s self-reflexivity, Mikhail Bakhtin’s dilogism and Gérard Genette’s focalization. The study of such narrative concepts are depended on a postmodern celebration of the essential attributions of the text. That is, postmodern fictional textuality stops the inherent and basic component the text of a novel. In short, postmodern fiction shows the construction of a text by its narratology and formal devices, such as narrator, setting and characters, to provide a certain appropriate depiction of outer realities as well as inner realities.

As a novel ‘The Slaughterhouse Five” is fundamentally showing a remarkable tendency of postmodernist relative notion of reality. Consequently it shows one aspect of postmodernism, that is literary experimentation. We see that Vonnegut is clearly experimenting with the narrator, setting and characters of the novel to give a comprehensive fictional critique of the literary exhaustion which taking over in modern literary modes of art. Experimentation came as a remedial replenishment for such exhaustion and tiresome art of storytelling through authorial metafictional addition into the text. Unique metafictional style is apparent in the novel but at the same time the novel also depicts the American individual’s suffering after the Second World War. For this purpose, the self-justifying and self-contradictory style in the novel accentuates author’s critical voice. Such voice is stemmed from the main narrative point of view in the text.

The main strategy which was favoured by postmodernists is literary experimentation. Vonnegut is true to the spirit of postmodernism in this regard, uses fixed and lucid experimental techniques which make him a writer of the zeitgeist. In Slaughterhouse Five, he utilizes literary experimentation on the inherent techniques of the novel. This experimentation is proved by the change how the novel reflects with the narrative point of view, setting and characters. These basic narrative techniques are slavishly imitated in modern literature. However, when they come in the hands of Vonnegut, they are manipulated in postmodern fictional text. This type of manipulation proliferates within a postmodern relative vision of time and essence of reality. Vonnegut exploits metafictional devices to introduce his readers with his critical notion with the help of narrator in the course of the plot as a fictional interplay between the author’s abstract vision and everyday reality. By doing so, he provides us a basis for understanding the American individual’s suffering and meaninglessness of human existence after the Second World War.

The poetics of postmodernism is evidently reflected in the novel of Vonnegut. All the powerful themes and motifs of postmodernity are present in The Slaughterhouse Five.

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