Slaughterhouse-Five; or the Children’s Crusade, a Duty Dance with Death is a personal novel that was written by Kurt Vonnegut explaining his experiences during the Second World War. Being an advance scout in the 106th infantry division, Kurt Vonnegut was a first hand witness to the Dresden bombing in February of 1945. It is estimated that this attack left 136,000 people dead-now considered as the greatest as massacre ever to been caused by man. The novel is about war, the cruelty that war brings with it and violence envisaged in war situations. Furthermore, it is about love, selfishness, regeneration and also death. While we discuss the minor themes and their influence on the foregoing, we have to realize that these themes also played a great role in developing the flow of the Slaughterhouse-Five.
Time is one of the minor themes of this novel. There is a lot of fiction in the slaughterhouse five. Billy experiences what we may regard as events out of order. He comes to experience the world of Trafalmadore in events that occur simultaneously, and the experience of this actually tells us that nobody in the novel comes to die, furthermore meaning that one faces brutal acts of life for a spell running into eternity. This discussion involves the idea that time travel has been used a lot in the fiction aspect of the novel. We can therefore accept that all occurrences in Billy’s life rotate around aspect of time travel. These events can best be taken as events happening in his mind during carrier as a soldier and at the time as a prisoner of war. For example in chapter two when him and some other American soldiers are lost in the forest (late 1944), he flashbacks his mind to the days they were with his father at YMCA, and then we meet him in 1965 while attending to his mother in a hospital. These events are followed by others in 1958 and 1961 before he comes back to us in 1944.
It is at this time that they are caught up by German soldiers, put into a train bound for East German, and in this train he experiences a vision like experience with men, the Trafalmadore, from imaginary planet. It is an event that any soldier would like not envisage during war time. For a soldier he will rather die than be captured by his enemies. Through the theme of time, Trafalmadorian philosophy is unveiled.
‘Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,’ said the Loudspeaker. ‘Any questions?’
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, and inquired at last: ‘Why me?’
‘That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?’
‘Yes.’ Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three Lady-bugs embedded in it.
‘Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.'(ibid p.76-77).
Readers’ understanding of war is enhanced through this theme in the sense that one comes to understand that any war actually involves capture of soldiers by enemies, like what the Germans did to Billy and his friends.
The more like spiritual beings, the Trafalmadorians, are introduced by Vonnegut, with the possibility of bringing into play the theme idea of the relationship between the people and the supernatural. As we have seen these beings are encountered by Billy on his way to East German after capture. To Billy these beings are so strange with their philosophy about time in which occurrences are like fated and with little possibility of happening. This relationship includes what men do on earth and what the spiritual beings think about it. On page 117 Billy and the Tralfamadorians are discussing about war on earth and to the astonishment of Billy wars on earth, according to the philosophy of the Tralfamadorians, are bound to continue and that there is no way wars on earth can be prevented because doing so is just but stupid. To these beings, everything on earth is designed to be the way it is and cannot therefore be prevented. For people who are struggling to establish peace on earth is naivety of lacking to understand the nature of mankind. So in this theme is the understanding of human nature, and no wonder since 1945 when the united nations was formed with the mandate of preventing war ‘again’, it has never achieved this because massacre occurred in Rwanda in the eyes of the UN, Serbians have been fighting and no solution has been offered yet, and Somalia since 1991 has never known what to be governed under a central government is like. Let us concur with Vonnegut, or rather the Tralfamadorians, it is our human nature to fight and go to war.
‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes,’ (ibid p.27).
Another theme falls in the category of technology. That technology dehumanizes human beings is very much evident in the Slaughterhouse-Five. The use of sophisticated machines in war destroyed a lot of life in the World War II. When the town of Dresden was attacked, Billy and the rest had to hide to hide in the lower chambers of the slaughter house. These chambers had the sole purpose of preserving meat, but they saved the life of Billy and the other soldiers as the only survivors of the Dresden attack. Lionel Marble who was Billy’s father in law is made into more like a machine because of the business he does. Without the use of these weapons in World War II we would definitely be having our beautiful Hiroshima and Nagasaki stuck in their place Therefore use of these weapons affects human dignity.
‘When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work’ (ibid p.74-75).
Modernity has continued to dance in our mind, but quite unfortunately for us it comes with turns out to be so destructive to our life. This can be exemplified by things like nuclear energy which is easily into nuclear weapons.
These themes are applicable to the modern life and as the world relives what Kurt Vonnegut penned down in this novel, we’ve got to realize that it is our nature to be the way we are.
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.; Slaughterhouse-Five; or Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death
New York: 1971; Dell Publishing.