MCAT CARS Unmasks the Comedy in Slaughterhouse-Five

CARS 67: MCAT CARS Unmasks the Comedy in Slaughterhouse-Five

Session 67

Finding hope through horror, this author dissects Slaughterhouse-Five. What can we learn about his stances on life, death, and comedy in this CARS passage?

As always, we’re joined by Jack Westin, the premier MCAT CARS tutor online. Check out their online course. They also give free weekly trials. Sign up through medicalschoolhq.net/jackwestin and save 100% off.  Or text MCATCARS to 44222 so you can be given a link to the code.

For more MCAT prep and medical school application resources, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

Link to article:

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-kurt-vonneguts-slaughterhouse-five-tells-us-now?utm_source=pocket-newtab

I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1972, three years after it was published and three years before I published my own first novel. I was twenty-five years old. 1972 was the year of inching slowly toward the Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to end the war in Vietnam, though the final, ignominious American withdrawal—the helicopters airlifting people from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon—would not take place until three years later, at which point, by way of a small footnote to history, I had become a published writer.

I mention Vietnam because, although “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success. Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. “Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war. In those days, I was living in Britain, which did not send soldiers to fight in Indochina but whose government did support the American war effort, and so, when I was at university, and afterward, I, too, was involved with thinking about and protesting against that war. I did not read “Catch-22” in 1961, because I was only fourteen years old. As a matter of fact, I read both “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22” in the same year, a decade later, and the two books together had a great effect on my young mind.

It hadn’t occurred to me until I read them that antiwar novels could be funny as well as serious. “Catch-22” is crazy funny, slapstick funny. It sees war as insane and the desire to escape combat as the only sane position. Its tone of voice is deadpan farce. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is different. There is much comedy in it, as there was in everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote, but it does not see war as farcical. It sees war as a tragedy so great that perhaps only the mask of comedy allows one to look it in the eye. Vonnegut is a sad-faced comedian. If Heller was Charlie Chaplin, then Vonnegut was Buster Keaton. His predominant tone of voice is melancholy, the tone of voice of a man who has been present for a great horror and lived to tell the tale. The two books do, however, have this in common: they are both portraits of a world that has lost its mind, in which children are sent out to do men’s work and die.

As a prisoner of war, age twenty-two, which is to say three years younger than I was when I read his story, Vonnegut was in the famously beautiful city of Dresden, locked up with other Americans in Schlachthof-Fünf, where pigs had been slaughtered before the war, and was therefore an accidental witness to one of the greatest slaughters of human beings in history, the firebombing of Dresden, in February of 1945, which flattened the whole city and killed almost everyone in it.

So it goes.

I had not remembered, until I reread “Slaughterhouse-Five,” that that famous phrase “So it goes” is used only and always as a comment on death. Sometimes a phrase from a novel or a play or a film can catch the imagination so powerfully—even when misquoted—that it lifts off from the page and acquires an independent life of its own. “Come up and see me sometime” and “Play it again, Sam” are misquotations of this type. Something of this sort has also happened to the phrase “So it goes.” The trouble is that when this kind of liftoff happens to a phrase its original context is lost. I suspect that many people who have not read Vonnegut are familiar with the phrase, but they, and also, I suspect, many people who have read Vonnegut, think of it as a kind of resigned commentary on life. Life rarely turns out in the way the living hope for, and “So it goes” has become one of the ways in which we verbally shrug our shoulders and accept what life gives us. But that is not its purpose in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” “So it goes” is not a way of accepting life but, rather, of facing death. It occurs in the text almost every single time someone dies, and only when death is evoked.

[02:45] Trends to Look For

The test changes every year. The MCAT doesn’t change in terms of the format which happens every ten years. But they always change it towards critical thinking. It’s become a more critical thinking, reasoning, logical based exam. It’s the same for the science sections as well. It’s always becoming more CARS-like. 

This is a standardized test so they implement new questions every year. They test out how they do for that year and then add it to the next year’s pool of questions.

There’s constant editing of the questions. There is either an addition or removal of questions based on the data they receive from students who take their test.

Jack’s advice to students is to just focus on what you’re reading. Use the information you have to answer questions. Other than that, don’t worry about how the test changes. It shouldn’t make you nervous or anxious.

'Your job will not change from one exam to the next. You just have to do what you're responsible for, which is understanding the ideas the authors present.'Click To Tweet

[05:38] Jack’s Recommendations for Materials to Use

Jack explains the materials you purchase actually depends on who you are. 

For college freshmen, or if you’re a year or two out of taking the test, just read everyday. Looking at text everyday can alter your brain. It changes the way you perceive other people, society, and how you understand ideas.

If you’re close to taking the exam, use the CARS passages from the AAMC and really dissect them. Analyze them because they will show you how the test really works. You don’t have the luxury of doing hundreds of passages up until your test day. Because this is something you should be doing over the course of a year or two.

You can’t build it quickly within a couple of months. You just have to be more specific in the resources you use to really capture its essence.

'If you start early, start early because CARS is really a habitual, natural inclination that you build over time.'Click To Tweet

For science-oriented students that don’t like reading, just accept the test. Don’t avoid it, just accept the fact that you have to do it. It’s not like you have to study for it everyday. Instead, it’s a mental shift. Get around the fact that you have to read these passages.

For ESL students, this is more of a confidence issue that seeps into how you read and answer questions. So address the confidence issue. Look at vocabulary words. Because if you’re not comfortable with certain words and if you see a word you don’t like, it’s going to throw you off. It’s going to mess up with the way you read and answer questions. You’re going to doubt yourself throughout the whole thing.

Jack promises you that this is not a vocab test. This is a test universally applicable to anyone. We all have the same language. If you can connect with the author and not worry about the exact words the author uses, you’ll get over this test fairly easily.

[11:08] Paragraph 1, Sentence 1

I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1972, three years after it was published and three years before I published my own first novel.

Jack says:

There’s a mention of time here. As long as you know 1972, you’re going to be okay.

[11:56] Paragraph 1, Sentence 2

I was twenty-five years old.

Jack says:

This is anchored with the age of the author.

[12:02] Paragraph 1, Sentence 2

1972 was the year of inching slowly toward the Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to end the war in Vietnam, though the final, ignominious American withdrawal—the helicopters airlifting people from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon—would not take place until three years later, at which point, by way of a small footnote to history, I had become a published writer.

Jack says:

Again, there is a reference of time here. It helps you understand the author’s point of view and perspective to know what is going around him or her at that time.

ESL students will read this and focus on what “ignominious” means but you don’t need to know what the exact word is. But for reference, it means humiliating or embarrassing.

[14:21] Paragraph 2, Sentence 1

I mention Vietnam because, although “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success.

Jack says:

The author is saying the book is a huge success partly because of the Vietnam War. The book is about World War II but the feelings we had during Vietnam played a role in its success. People felt the war and maybe they resonated with the book because they were experiencing a war themselves at that time.

[15:22] Paragraph 2, Sentence 2

Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.

Jack says:

More people, more books mentioned here. Keep in mind that the author is also dicussing 1961.

[15:55] Paragraph 2, Sentence 3

“Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war.

Jack says:

It’s another book about the war and people are interested in it because of what was going on in Vietnam.

[16:15] Paragraph 2, Sentence 4

In those days, I was living in Britain, which did not send soldiers to fight in Indochina but whose government did support the American war effort, and so, when I was at university, and afterward, I, too, was involved with thinking about and protesting against that war.

Jack says:

Now, the author is talking about Indochina which is more or less the same thing. It’s in Asia.

'It's tough because you might be thinking you have to know these different ways of understanding things. But you just have to go with it.'Click To Tweet

Be sharp when you see these kinds of changes. You’re not going to mess up if you think it’s Indochina, not Vietnam. If you see them as two distinct things that’s fine. It’s not going to affect you that much right now unless the argument revolves around this.

That being said, the author is giving us a little bit of perspective about who they are and where they were at that time, being in Britain. The country was not super involved in the war but they’re supporting the war. And the author was a university student protesting against the war.

[18:15] Paragraph 2, Sentence 5

I did not read “Catch-22” in 1961, because I was only fourteen years old.

Jack says:

More timeline stuff here as the author talks about being 14 years old when the book came out in 1961.

[18:32] Paragraph 2, Sentence 6

As a matter of fact, I read both “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22” in the same year, a decade later, and the two books together had a great effect on my young mind.

Jack says:

The author is saying they’ve read the books in the same year.

After reading these first two paragraphs, the author is saying there are two wars that were influential to him/her. And the Vietnam war had something to do with the success of these books.

[19:55] Paragraph 3, Sentence 1

It hadn’t occurred to me until I read them that antiwar novels could be funny as well as serious.

Jack says:

The author mentioned anti-war so now you know these books are against the war.

[20:28] Paragraph 3, Sentence 2

“Catch-22” is crazy funny, slapstick funny.

Jack says:

The author is describing the book.

[20:40] Paragraph 3, Sentence 3

It sees war as insane and the desire to escape combat as the only sane position.

Jack says:

The author is giving more description.

[20:50] Paragraph 3, Sentence 4

Its tone of voice is deadpan farce.

Jack says:

Don’t be scared if you don’t know the meaning of “deadpan.” But the author already mentioned crazy funny in the previous sentence so at least you have an idea of what this sentence probably implies as well.

[21:58] Paragraph 3, Sentence 5

“Slaughterhouse-Five” is different.

Jack says:

The author is contrasting the two books.

[22:04] Paragraph 3, Sentence 6

There is much comedy in it, as there was in everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote, but it does not see war as farcical.

Jack says:

The author previously describes Catch-22 as a deadpan farce and then in this sentence, the author is saying that Slaughterhouse-Five is not a farce. So it’s a big difference there.

[22:35] Paragraph 3, Sentence 7

It sees war as a tragedy so great that perhaps only the mask of comedy allows one to look it in the eye.

Jack says:

It’s a different view from the author.

[22:50] Paragraph 3, Sentence 8

Vonnegut is a sad-faced comedian.

Jack says:

It mentions sad and we’ve been talking about Slaughterhouse-Five in this tragic kind of way. So you can start understanding this in a more depressing mood compared to Catch-22.

It’s not saying that it’s not funny. There’s still a funny tie to it but it’s a different kind of funny.

[23:25] Paragraph 3, Sentence 9

If Heller was Charlie Chaplin, then Vonnegut was Buster Keaton.

Jack says:

Chaplin is the definition of slapstick. But for a student who may not know these names. You can probably assume that Charlie Chaplin is crazy funny and Buster Keaton is probably a sad-faced comedian.

So don’t worry about not knowing the history behind it.

[24:34] Paragraph 3, Sentence 10

His predominant tone of voice is melancholy, the tone of voice of a man who has been present for a great horror and lived to tell the tale.

Jack says:

A lot of students may not understand what melancholy means but the author explains it afterward. So you can picture what someone may look like in that setting.

'Visualize. Try to picture the scenery. See who the person who wrote it is and how they felt as they wrote it.' Click To Tweet

[25:23] Paragraph 3, Sentence 11

The two books do, however, have this in common: they are both portraits of a world that has lost its mind, in which children are sent out to do men’s work and die.

Jack says:

The whole paragraph has been contrasting the two books but this very last sentence is comparing them saying they’re similar in how they’re portraying this crazy world. They’re painting this picture of kids going out and dying in the war.

So try to see both books in terms of comedy and seriousness. There is a serious element to it.

'That's why a lot of students enjoy CARS because you don't need background knowledge on any of those stuff in order to do well.' Click To Tweet

Regardless of what you read, as long as you can picture things, you’re going to be fine when you get to the questions. You don’t need any background knowledge in order to do well in CARS.

Sure, you should know the historical timeline or that WWII came before the Vietnam War. Just understand the general history of civilization. But aside from that, you don’t have to have read these books. You don’t have to know any of these authors or characters they’re referring to. 

It’s just in the text. As long as you don’t bring in your bias or stick to exactly what’s being said, you’re going to be fine when you get to the questions. 

[27:06] Paragraph 4, Sentence 1

As a prisoner of war, age twenty-two, which is to say three years younger than I was when I read his story, Vonnegut was in the famously beautiful city of Dresden, locked up with other Americans in Schlachthof-Fünf, where pigs had been slaughtered before the war, and was therefore an accidental witness to one of the greatest slaughters of human beings in history, the firebombing of Dresden, in February of 1945, which flattened the whole city and killed almost everyone in it.

Jack says:

This sentence is expanding on the Slaughterhouse-Five. The author seems to be emphasizing one book over the other at this point.

[28:12] Paragraph 5, Sentence 1

So it goes.

Jack says:

Short paragraph here.

[28:16] Paragraph 6, Sentence 1

I had not remembered, until I reread “Slaughterhouse-Five,” that that famous phrase “So it goes” is used only and always as a comment on death.

Jack says:

The author is apparently pointing out the phrase to a very specific part of the book, which comments on death.

[28:45] Paragraph 6, Sentence 2

Sometimes a phrase from a novel or a play or a film can catch the imagination so powerfully—even when misquoted—that it lifts off from the page and acquires an independent life of its own.

Jack says:

People maybe using the phrase “so it goes” in a different context or cultural uses of it. It even says, “when misquoted” so it doesn’t have to be in reference to what Vonnegut wrote.

[29:30] Paragraph 6, Sentence 3

“Come up and see me sometime” and “Play it again, Sam” are misquotations of this type.

Jack says:

The author is giving examples of other misquotes.

[29:57] Paragraph 6, Sentence 4

Something of this sort has also happened to the phrase “So it goes.”

Jack says:

The focus is still on this phrase and what happened to it.

[30:05] Paragraph 6, Sentence 5

The trouble is that when this kind of liftoff happens to a phrase its original context is lost.

Jack says:

The author is saying that people don’t understand the original context of where it came from.

[30:35] Paragraph 6, Sentence 6

I suspect that many people who have not read Vonnegut are familiar with the phrase, but they, and also, I suspect, many people who have read Vonnegut, think of it as a kind of resigned commentary on life.

Jack says:

“Resigned commentary on life” – try to visualize this. If you resign from a position, you’re basically giving up. You’ve decided you don’t want to do this anymore. So when you resign on life, you’ve basically given up on life. You just go with the flow.

[31:38] Paragraph 6, Sentence 7

Life rarely turns out in the way the living hope for, and “So it goes” has become one of the ways in which we verbally shrug our shoulders and accept what life gives us.

Jack says:

The author is painting a good picture of how we use this phrase in our culture now which is different than how it was originally used. And it’s probably not how Vonnegut expected you to understand the phrase.

[32:13] Paragraph 6, Sentence 8

But that is not its purpose in “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Jack says:

The author now stated what was mentioned in the previous sentence.

[32:20] Paragraph 6, Sentence 9

“So it goes” is not a way of accepting life but, rather, of facing death.

Jack says:

Vonnegut wanted us to face death with this phrase.

[32:37] Paragraph 6, Sentence 10

It occurs in the text almost every single time someone dies, and only when death is evoked.

Jack says:

It’s all about how it was used in the book and how it’s used in popular culture.

[33:03] The Main Idea

Look at the CARS as a fruit basket. You can’t just paint one picture for the entire passage. There are different levels to a passage and the only way you’re going to capture all those different fruits or levels is just be reading every paragraph.

You’re not going to understand a passage by just reading a couple of paragraphs or sentences. You can only do that if you read the whole thing.

'Before you get to any questions for CARS, read the passage first. Don't read the questions until you've read the passage.' Click To Tweet

Jack highly advises reading the entire passage first before reading any of the questions. Otherwise, you’re going to end up rereading the questions. And you’re not going to have a good understanding of the questions anyway if you read them first. You won’t understand what they’re referring to.

Ultimately, just understand that the book is more sad than crazy. And that it’s about death. Slaughterhouse-Five is about death. So if you know these different layers before you get to the questions, you’re going to get every question right. 

Remember it’s not just one thing you’re looking for but multiple things. And ultimately, those things add up to be the main idea. It’s all about Slaughterhouse-Five and how it’s both sad and a comedy and it faces death.

Links:

Meded Media

Jack Westin (Text MCATCARS to 44222 so you can be given a link to the code.)

CARS passages from the AAMC

Link to article:

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-kurt-vonneguts-slaughterhouse-five-tells-us-now?utm_source=pocket-newtab

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