In my first year of Film and literary studies, I had to read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Why? Well, because it was for a course on writing papers, and it’s really easy to write a paper about this book. There’s a huge amount of scholars that wrote about it, the novel has several important themes you can focus on, and it’s been made into a movie so you could also do things with adaption theory.
To me, the most interesting thing about this book was the little phrase “So it goes”, which appears in the novel 106 times (and 45 times in my paper about it. We’ll see how far I’ll get with this article). “So it goes” is uttered every time anything dies in Slaughterhouse-Five. And for a novel on war, that’s kind of significant. Slaughterhouse-Five is historical metafiction (which means it’s about history, but it’s not all about history. In this case, it’s also about aliens), and it tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survived the bombing of Dresden and a camp for prisoners of war.
But what’s the use of that small phrase that plays such a big role? There are several theories about it. Some, like Alberto Cacicedo and Donald Greiner, think it is used to create distance. By repeating those three words over and over again, the significance of the event it is linked to becomes smaller. Others say it shows Billy’s passive stance (Martin Coleman) or his fatalistic views (Willis McNelly).
Some people also tried to use the phrase to give Billy a psychological diagnosis, like Arnold Edenstein, or Susanne Vees-Gulani. According to Vees-Gulani, the repetition of the phrases shows Billy’s “passive and emotionless reaction to tragedy and death” (179).
My personal favourite interpretation is the one by Peter Reed. He thinks “So it goes” becomes more and more powerful throughout the book: “The repeated phrase becomes something like an incremental refrain, building meaning with each restatement. At first it seems funny in an ironic way, then it begins to sound irritating, almost irrelevant. Gradually we realize that our irritation is right, that the punctuating refrain is forcing us to look at another then another death, and we are won over to the device, our resentment now directed to the fact which it emphasizes, that too many people are killed” (17). So according to him, “So it goes” becomes some kind of beacon, constantly catching our attention and screaming to us: “Look! Something died over here! And you’ve seen this phrase way too many times.” It makes sure we don’t get as accustomed to death as we normally do in a book about war.
So next time you wonder what it is literary scholars do: we all write huge papers about three words.
Feeling scholarly? These are the sources I used for my original paper. You can find everyone I mention/cite in the article above in here, and more!
Cacicedo, Alberto, ““You must remember this”: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 46:4 (2005): 357-368.
Coleman, Martin, “The Meaninglessness of Coming Unstuck in Time.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy 44:4 (2008): 681-698.
Edelstein, Arnold, “Slaughterhouse-Five: Time out of Joint.” College Literature 1:2 (1974): 128-139.
Greiner, Donald J., “Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the Fiction of Atrocity.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 14:3 (1973): 38-51.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
McNelly, Willis E., “Science Fiction: The Modern Mythology.” America 123:5 (1979): 125-127.
Parshall, Peter F., “Meditations on the Philosophy of Tralfamadore: Kurt Vonnegut and George Roy Hill.” Literature/Film Quarterly 15:1 (1987): 49-59.
Reed, Peter. The End of the Road: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade. 25 april 2012. 16 december 2013 <http://blogs.ausd.net/users/thearchofthesky2012/uploads/thearchofthesky2012/TheEndoftheRoad.pdf>.
Vees-Gulani, Susanne, “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44:2 (2003): 175- 184.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969.