A POSTMODERN APPROACH: THE CONCEPT OF ‘’ANTI-HERO’’ AND ‘’SUBJECTIVITY’’ IN VONNEGUT’S SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 AND GARDNER’S GRENDEL

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  • Author Zeynep Beyza Karataş
  • Published July 27, 2022
  • Word count 3,016

When we attempt to describe how the concept of the traditional hero is represented in literature, we should consider the terms masculinity, bravery, and courage. The traditional hero in fiction, glorifies war, fight, and, particularly death; since it has nothing to do with weakness or cowardice. The death after fighting makes him the ‘hero’ as he would be remembered and worshipped by others. However, the understanding of heroism has started changing due to the fact that the two world wars have human beings to become void and numb. Moreover, the loss of faith in universal values has triggered nihilistic ideologies. Therefore, in postmodern fiction, we do not expect any brave or fearless act because of the change in the concept of a conventional hero in fiction, yet, on the contrary, we are provided with the ‘anti-hero’ image that he is represented weak in terms of both mental and physical states. Thus, while we are given a certain pattern of the traditional hero, ‘anti-hero’ generally embodies a distorted and unfamiliar one.

In this paper, I will first discuss postmodern elements in both of the novels; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) and John Gardner’s Grendel (1971). And then, I will move on to explore how the notion of the traditional hero turns out to be an ‘anti-hero’, along with the issue of subjectivity in postmodern fiction. Both novels are eminent examples of historiographic meta-fiction which is one of the postmodernist elements in fiction.

Additionally, one of the prevailing elements of postmodern fiction is ontological uncertainty which refers to the perplexity of existence; if the events or the world are real or not. In this perspective, postmodernists suggest that history is also a story so it has nothing to do with a certain truth. By suggesting the idea that historical events are also stories, postmodern fiction deconstructs and makes fun of them. Furthermore, intertextuality is regarded as one of the characteristics of postmodern fiction which mocks the original work or an event. In doing so, we are given the idea that the author is dead, and has no authority over the work. In postmodern fiction, we also have a temporal disorder which means time sense is confusing and full of flashbacks.

Therefore, Slaughterhouse 5, as a paradigm of historiographic meta-fiction retells history from an opposite and subjective perspective by parodying the historical events that have taken place and also juxtaposing parallel universes in one literary work. Vonnegut creates a fictional author who is going to write a novel about his war experience is actually Vonnegut himself. Moreover, there is no sequence of events and we are provided with a non-linear retelling of the story through flashbacks. In other words, the structure of Slaughterhouse 5 is fragmented in which the narrator Billy Pilgrim tells about his experience in the Second World War and suddenly stops telling about it. Then, jumps into telling about his travels in time and, his absurd visits to a fictional planet Tralfamadore.

Further to that, the repetitions in the narration of the novel are also the dominant features of postmodern fiction which Billy repeatedly states when he talks about dead people; ‘’So it goes’’ which he has learned from Tralfamadorians. (Vonnegut 16). Additionally, Billy Pilgrim is the portrayal of a split personality who narrates three dimensions of his life that once; he is a soldier during the days of the massacre of Dresden in 1945, and after that, he is an optometrist in Chicago and he is also a traveler in time and lives a life with a woman there. Further to that, it can also be argued that the novel is a demonstration of hyperreality as reality and fiction come together in the narration which we cannot distinguish easily.

In addition, if we take John Gardner’s Grendel as an example of postmodern fiction, the novel also offers some of the eminent features of postmodernism. For instance, Grendel is a rewriting of the epic-poem Beowulf which tells about Scandinavians. Grendel is told from a monster’s point of view which is about the war between Grendel and King Hrothgar’s soldiers. In Beowulf, Grendel is an evil monster who wants to fight and destroy everything. However, as the novel is an example of rewriting an epic, history is again retold from a contrary angle which depicts the monster Grendel as an innocent and weak one. Therefore, just like Vonnegut does, Gardner also deconstructs the real historical event by parodying it. Apart from these, in

Grendel, there is an emphasis on language as Grendel cannot understand and speak the language of humans in the first chapter but later on, he starts to understand it. According to postmodernism, language gives importance to life because if there is no language then there is no meaning in life. It is also Grendel’s power to communicate with humans. Therefore, art is so powerful that it can even civilize a monster.

According to critics Fawcett and Jones, Grendel is both ‘skeptical’ and tempted by belief’ (634), and therefore, he ‘’is less monster than bewildered child seeking enlightenment, knowledge’’ (639). Thus, Grendel stands as an existentialist character who pursues a meaning of his existence while he is suspicious if there is a meaning or not. His intelligence makes him more human than humans so we can easily identify with him as readers.

Unlike Grendel’s skeptical existentialism, the dragon’s nihilism denies the existence of God as well as he thinks that there is no purpose and meaning in life as Robert Merrill argues, the dragon is ‘’certain of one basic truth: that ultimately nothing matters’’ (167). In addition to this, the dragon believes that the whole universe is coincidental and nothing makes sense. Through the Shaper who is a blind poet, history is reshaped by his words. He is ‘’celebrating all heroic ideals’’ (Fawcett and Jones 642). So, we may suggest that the Shaper and the dragon may represent Grendel’s ambiguous existential affairs. What Gardner also suggests in Grendel is that art is salvation and offers meaning in life. Besides, he also argues that through art, morality can be achieved in society.

When we analyze the subject of anti-heroism in both novels, firstly in Vonnegut’s autobiographical work, the protagonist Billy is created as an exact representation of the anti-hero in Slaughterhouse 5. In relation to Kunze’s suggestion, Vonnegut ‘’is reconstructing his past, creating the narrative, much in the same way history, and popular culture work to create explanatory narratives about the past’’ (44). His war experience is told through his traumatic memories which are quite difficult to recall and tell because ‘’ ...there is nothing intelligent to

say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again’’ (Vonnegut 13). Moreover, Billy and his friends are described as ‘infantry scouts’ who even do not know what to do with fighting in a war which the colonel calls ‘infantry regiment’ (33). For Mary, who is the wife of Bernard, one of his war buddies of Billy, they were ‘just babies’ and their attendance in war resembles ‘the Children’s Crusade’ which is, in fact, a real event in history. When a group of children was taken from Europe in the name of Christianity to conquer Palestine, they were betrayed and enslaved or disappeared in the end. As O’Hare reads in the novel:

‘’Crusaders were but ignorant and savage men, that their motives were those of bigotry unmitigated, and that their pathway was one of blood and wars… Now what was the grand result of all these struggles? Europe expended millions of her treasures, and the blood of two million of her people; and a handful of quarrelsome knights retained possession of Palestine for about one hundred years!’’ (Vonnegut 11).

According to Kunze’s argument, Vonnegut’s work refers to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience which uses the binary opposition of innocence and experience, while the previous one is related to children, the latter is concerned about maturity and masculinity (42). Thus, Billy and other young soldiers are unaware of the seriousness of the war that they were taken into. Billy’s personality is unfitting in war as ‘’he was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends’’(Vonnegut 17). He wants to be left alone so he continuously states that; ‘. 'You guys go on without me.' He feels very much disturbed by what he witnessed during the war that he wanted to stay out of it and also ‘’he wouldn’t do anything to save himself’’’ (19). Along with his mental weakness, Billy is described as physically weak too and even his physical condition is unfit for the war. Besides, he is so ignorant and childish that he comes ‘’…bleakly ready for death. Billy was Preposterous-six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no

weapon and no boots… He didn't look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo’’ (18). Therefore, ‘’war does not make boys into men; it devastates, corrupts, destroys and (obviously) kills’’ and the Three Musketeers ‘’were sent off on quixotic ideological quests and are unfortunately ill-fated’’ (Kunze 43, 46).

The absurdity of war is demonstrated through some strange events that took place in the novel. As an example of one of them is that one of the soldiers steals a tea-pot and is condemned to death in the end. Thus, Vonnegut once again attacks the foolishness of the war. He believes that war has nothing to with any moral value and reason. As he rewrites history, which is a grand narrative, he does not glorify war but he implicitly criticizes it. In other words, Vonnegut deconstructs the understanding of conventional truth in history. In order to deconstruct the norm of the notion of universal truth, Vonnegut creates the utopic planet Tralfamadore where no time sense, no beginning or no end, no death, no war, no pain exists. Moreover, Billy suddenly ceases to tell about his traumatic war experience while he is traveling to the fictional planet. Thus, his mind unconsciously escapes his painful memories. In fact, he is stuck in time and in war memories as he is unable to escape them. When Billy is captivated by Tralfmadorians, he asks them ‘’' Why me?'’’ and they respond to his question which they find absurd ‘’ Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?' ‘’ (37). Thus, the emphasis on the meaninglessness of life and nihilistic idea is given through the Tralfamadorians in the novel. They believe that there is no truth and nothing matters. Hence, the Earthling Billy tries to figure out the meaning of what is happening in these absurd events. His existential quest for meaning turns into the question that if a planet can live in peace or not (55).

In contrast to the utopic planet, there is war and it is so painful and harsh that it makes humans lose their senses in the end as Billy states while a patient is given morphine to be treated in war, ‘’ 'How nice-to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive' ‘’ (50). So, we can

argue that this is one of the major functions of war to kill emotions in humans even though they are physically alive.

Similar to Billy Pilgrim, in Gardner’s Grendel, anti-heroism is obviously demonstrated through the monster’s point of view, Grendel. ‘’Here it is obvious that Gardner's intention was to examine one main idea (heroic ideal, value) in each chapter with an astrological sign serving as a focus for the contents of that chapter’’ (Fawcett and Jones 635). Accordingly, each chapter of Grendel is assigned to a different zodiacal sign yet, the common subject is heroism and constructed realities. So, Grendel attempts to destroy the concept of the traditional hero by his skeptical existence. According to critics Livingston and Sutton’s suggestion, ‘’His Grendel is also a deeply introspective character, one who struggles to find his place in a world he does not understand’’ (3). In relation to the argument, there is one more point which is; ‘’Though one part of Grendel sees heroic ideals as traps set to catch his individual consciousness, another part of him is stirred by the imaginative vision of the self as connected with something other and larger than the self’’ (Fawcett and Jones 642).

So, Grendel is stuck with his uncertain ideas about existentialism and nihilism. Furthermore, ‘’Gardner humanizes Grendel, transforming him from an animalistic creature into a sentient being with human emotions’’ (3). Thus, we can easily identify with the monstrous animal as he acts with some humanly instincts and innocently calls out his mama when he feels in danger or when something threatening comes. ‘’ ’I am going to die! Poor Grendel! Poor old Mama!’ ’’(Gardner 18) cries out Grendel. For he is regarded as an anti-hero, he seems defenseless and needs his mother’s help all the time. In addition to this humanly features of Grendel, when he bumps into humans for the first time, he does not recognize their language so he states; ‘’Talking, talking, spinning a spell, pale skin of words that closes me in like a coffin’’ (Gardner 15). However, later on, he also starts to understand the language of human beings even though

he cannot speak. Obviously, this is another human feature Grendel is inherited as he understands what they speak.

Later on, in the novel, as Grendel fights with Unferth, who is one of the soldiers of Hrothgar, Grendel does not murder him since he finds death and sacrification meaningless in the name of heroism. For Grendel, heroism brings nothing good or anything valuable. However, Unferth and Hrothgar’s soldiers celebrate death for heroism, ‘’cremating their dead, the victims of Grendel's war, are celebrants of the cycle’’(Fawcett and Jones 636-7). Therefore, unlike Hrothgar’s people’s pursuit of honor and dignity in terms of staying immortal as heroes, we can argue that Grendel’s anti-heroism is proved once again. In addition to that, the Shaper curses Grendel which makes him immortal. He thinks that he cannot die. In fact, he does not want to be immortal which is meaningless for Grendel.

Therefore, art is one of the emphasis of Gardner which is depicted by the blind poet and magician, the Shaper. Additionally, the Shaper can be the representation of institutionalized realities as well as he is the embodiment of constructed truths as he sings, ‘’the glorious deeds of the dead man, praising war’’ (Gardner 54) which Grendel ‘’is to qualify or undermine these efforts to establish objective values in a meaningless world’’ (Merrill 165). In other words, what Grendel wants to discover is a meaning in the universe and as a portrayal of anti-hero he is opposing whatever the Shaper refers to. Unlike Grendel’s existential pursue, the dragon is described as a nihilist character who believes everything in the universe is a coincidence and ‘God does not exist’ (Gardner 65) and nothing bears a meaning. In the end, unable to find a meaning throughout his life. When he falls down, Grendel utters; ‘Poor Grendel’s had an accident’ (174). According to an argument, ‘’In his lack and anguish what man longs for most is to experience himself as both conscious flow of existence and non-conscious fullness of being’’ (Fawcett and Jones 641). Thus, what Grendel experiences is his ambiguous existence

and self. His quest for existence is a burden that he cannot get rid of throughout his twelve-year war.

In Robert Merrill’s suggestion, the inhabitants of the fictional planet, Tralfamadorians in The Slaughterhouse 5 and the dragon in Grendel both carry a similar state of mind as they do not lean on any truth or meaning in the universe that they both believe in ‘’there is no logic-no why-to anything in life. In all its ugliness, life simply is’’ (178). Hence, the acceptance of randomness in the universe makes them feel insignificant to the events. In regard to this statement, dragon utters; ‘’ ‘It’s damned hard, you understand, confining myself to concepts familiar to a creature of the Dark Ages’’ (Gardner 67). Moreover, the subjectivity in postmodern fiction; is handled through the creation of multiple worlds in which Billy Pilgrim travels in The Slaughterhouse 5 while in Grendel, Gardner creates the nihilistic dragon whom ‘’Grendel should have done this to "prove" that the dragon was right-everything is arbitrary, all values are fictional, nothing matter’’ (Merrill 168). In other words, the truth is subjective since there is no certainty in anything and there is not any constitutional value or meaning in events. For example, in the first chapter of Grendel, we are told the idea of ‘’individual self and its potential’’ (Fawcett and Jones 636). The individuality of Grendel can be implied through his anger towards everything around him such as sky or creatures. In both of the postmodern novels, we are provided with the idea of meaninglessness and limitless coincidences in the universe.

For Billy, as he is Vonnegut himself, there is no value left to hold on to but we are able to change this. In relation to that, for Kunze’s suggestion Vonnegut’s work can be regarded as’’ ‘grey comedy’ a blend of absurdist black humor with guarded sense of hope. A light exists at the end of tunnel—or, at least, a belief in it exists’’ (42). After the war ends, Billy hears a bird signing ‘Poo-tee-weet?’ (Vonnegut 97) which does not make any sense for Billy just like what he had witnessed in the war.

In conclusion, it can be implied that both of the postmodern authors criticize the vainness and absurdity of war and heroism. Thus, as a reaction to that, both of the writers rewrite historical events from an anti-heroic point of view. As Vonnegut writes out of his own war experience, Gardner rewrites the oldest epic poem in English, Beowulf. Because history is also a social construct therefore it is also subjective. What Vonnegut and Gardner try to indicate is the purpose of heroism is void and makes humans victimized by ill-fate since heroism leads nowhere and brings no meaning to human’s desire for meaning

Currently, I am an MA student in the department of American Culture and Literature at Baskent University. I am a passionate and curious researcher in literature studies. I am highly interested in reading literature and being productive.

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Greg
Greg · 1 day ago
Lovely article

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