The Comedy of War

Kurt Vonnegut uses a potent mix of dark humor and clear-eyed compassion to expose the realities of war.
Author:
Publish date:

When it comes to writing fiction, popular wisdom is wrong: People really do like a smart aleck. This is especially true if you're tackling difficult topics such as violence, injustice or the various brands of human cruelty. A wry or sarcastic voice can engage readers who otherwise might flee the scene. Of course, you must have a legitimate beef—a good reason for presenting a voice of dissent—and your jokes must be funny.

Kurt Vonnegut, author of such bestselling novels as Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Hocus Pocus, can claim rights to both. A survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in World War II, Vonnegut experienced war's carnage firsthand, and he understands humor's usefulness in expressing the difficult truths that emerge from such tragic events.

Using techniques that range from bathroom humor to sarcasm, Vonnegut's assessments of humanity are just as hilarious as they are scathing. But underneath his casual tone and off-the-wall humor is an earnest commitment to humanity and a deep disdain for the cruel absurdities of war.

GROSS BUT PROFOUND

Vonnegut's not a joke snob. In Slaughterhouse-Five, he uses humor's lowest common denominator, the gross-out joke, in a scene where a group of soldiers has become ill from a recent meal:

An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, "There they go, there they go." He meant his brains.

That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.

What starts as a simple joke about the soldiers' poor living conditions ends as a genuine moment of reckoning. The narrator (who's a fictional version of Vonnegut) chooses to make himself a character within the scene he's describing. In doing so, he's reminding the reader that he was also present at the event (and the other, far more terrible events) he describes—that he wasn't spared any of the pain that the others experienced.

By naming himself directly, the narrator closes the gap between the reader and the text. It's as if Vonnegut is reaching out of the book, grabbing the reader's lapels, and saying, "Don't forget—this really happened."

GET SARCASTIC

Vonnegut's easy, conversational style is a perfect foil for some of the shocking information he conveys. Here, the narrator of Hocus Pocus matter-of-factly describes the death of his brother-in-law in Vietnam:

Jack Patton was killed by a sniper in Hué-pronounced "whay." He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Combat Engineers. I wasn't there, but they say he got it right between the eyes. Talk about marksmanship! Whoever shot him was a real winner.

The style here is so casual as to seem almost flippant. But Vonnegut's not being disrespectful. Black humor is a classic method for dealing with situations that are, in normal circumstances, impossible to deal with.

This is a realistic depiction of how many soldiers, numbed to the horrors around them, cope with loss by diminishing its significance. Still, Vonnegut makes the real point of this story clear when he describes what happened next:

The sniper didn't stay a winner very long, though, I heard. ... I heard he couldn't have been more than 15 years old. He was a boy, not a man, but if he was going to play men's games he was going to have to pay men's penalties.

By making momentary light of a tragic loss, then turning around to show its full ramifications, Vonnegut effectively conveys a powerful message.

Instead of forcing his readers to face unceasing negativity, Vonnegut expresses his deeply held passions with a crooked smile. A character in Slaughterhouse-Five asks the narrator, who's planning to write an antiwar book, "Why don't you write an antiglacier book instead?" (The point being that wars are no easier to stop than glaciers.) That line pretty well sums up Vonnegut's attitude toward war—and his odd approach to storytelling.

What Is a Plotter in Writing?

What Is a Plotter in Writing?

The world of storytelling can be broken into many categories and sub-categories, but one division is between plotter and pantser. Learn what a plotter means in writing and how they differ from pantsers here.

Waist vs. Waste (Grammar Rules)

Waist vs. Waste (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of waist vs. waste on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Bridget Foley: On Writing Psychologically Potent Metaphors

Bridget Foley: On Writing Psychologically Potent Metaphors

Novelist Bridget Foley explains the seed that grew into her latest book Just Get Home and how she stayed hopeful in the face of rejection.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 12

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a six words poem.

What Is a Pantser in Writing?

What Is a Pantser in Writing?

The world of storytelling can be broken into many categories and sub-categories, but one division is between pantser and plotter. Learn what a pantser means in writing and how they differ from plotters here.

Too Seen: The Intimacy of Copy Editing

Too Seen: The Intimacy of Copy Editing

Novelist A.E. Osworth discusses their experience working with a copyeditor for their novel We Are Watching Eliza Bright and how the experience made them feel Witnessed.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: From Our Readers Announcement, Upcoming Webinars, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce a call for From Our Readers submissions, a webinar on crafting expert query letters, and more!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 11

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a prime number poem.

Stephanie Dray: On Writing Women's Legacies

Stephanie Dray: On Writing Women's Legacies

Bestselling and award-winning author Stephanie Dray shares how she selects the historical figures that she features in her novels and how she came to see the whole of her character's legacies.