Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was written as a general statement against all wars. The novel canbe divided into several distinct stories all combined to convey one theme. The major theme focuses around thecentral character of Billy Pilgrim before, during, and after the war. Vonnegut himself plays a major role in thenovel as narrator and witness of World War II. The difficulties in the writing of the actual novel itself are alsoexamined in the novel. All of these issues revolve around the main theme of the novel– the shock and outrageover the havoc and destruction man is capable of wreaking in the name of what he labels a worthy cause (Schatt 84).
The novel also deals with learning to understand and accept these horrors and one s feelings aboutthem.
Vonnegut had tremendous difficulty writing this novel. He says, I thought it would be easy for me to writeabout the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen (2).
He didnot count on his emotions interfering with his attempts at a factual and logical report of such atrocities. It tookVonnegut twenty years to directly face his private demon of the firebombing of Dresden in the form of thisnovel (Lundquist 48). He had trouble recalling any memories of substance about his time in Dresden. It couldbe said that he was blinded by the fire-bombs of Dresden. It was not until Vonnegut returned to the sight ofthe bombing twenty years later, along with one of his war buddies, that he was able to recall the humorous andhorrific incidents in Dresden. The novel served as a form of therapy for Vonnegut. It enabled him to examinethe events of the past that impacted on his life and to come to terms with them. Slaughterhouse-Five takes place during World War II. Vonnegut chooses to focus the novel on eventssurrounding the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. As James Lundquist explains:The bombing of Dresden was a surprise raid. It wasn t expected because the city was militarily unimportant.
The population of the city had been doubled by prisoners-of-war and refugees. On February thirteenth, 1944,American bombers dropped high-explosive bombs followed by incendiaries which caused a firestorm thatcould be seen more than two-hundred miles away. On February fourteenth, the Americans carried out asecond raid which completed the destruction of the city. More that two-hundred thousand people were killedoutright, burned to death, or died after. Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were herded with other prisoners-of-warinto the storage area of a slaughterhouse and later emerged to find the once beautiful city looking like thesurface of the moon. (47)As Vonnegut reexamines the bombing of Dresden, he relates the event in a way that shows the reader hispersonal view of the incident. He confronts the Dresden experience with compassion and sorrow rather thananger, bitterness or pain. He sees the madness and cruelty of the world epitomized in the blasting of the city(Reed 503). Vonnegut feels special anguish over the bombing because of his situation of being under attack byhis own forces and sharing the sufferings of his enemies (Reed 494).
Billy Pilgrim s character is also greatly affected by the war and by Dresden. Vonnegut tells the story of thebombing with a day in the life format. He relays most of the emotionally difficult facts through Billy, theinnocent babe thrust into violent and chaotic times. In this manner, Vonnegut does not have to directly confronthis own emotions on these issues but can portray his own feelings through the facade of Billy. Vonnegutdescribes Billy as becoming unstuck in time (Vonnegut 23). Billy blurs fact and fiction because he suspects thathis vision of reality is hardly reliable. He cannot accept that human nature would allow such an occurrence asDresden to take place and therefore concludes that his perception of reality must be totally wrong. He seeshimself drifting from dream to reality and back again. In this way, he is able to pass off any bad experiences inhis life, including Dresden, as a terrible nightmare and not a part of reality. Billy refuses to accept the traditionalconcept of time (Lundquist 19). Vonnegut also has difficulty accepting the constraints of time and often lives inthe past, calling up old girlfriends and remembering the good ol days. Vonnegut writes, . . . my wife asks mewhat time it is. She always has to know the time. Sometimes I don t know, and I say, Search me (Vonnegut7). After witnessing to the war and Dresden, both Billy and Vonnegut try to rationalize and understand what theyhave been through. Billy does this through his time-traveling and visits to the planet Tralfamadore. Billyimagines the planet Tralfamadore where he is whisked off to by aliens. Billy is trying to make sense out of whathe has witnessed at Dresden and give order to the disorder of the universe. He wants life to make sense(Lundquist 17). On Tralfamadore, he is exposed to the Tralfamadorian philosophy on life. Their philosophystates that all time is all time. It does not change. It simply is. All moments exist in time simultaneously andforever. One cannot change the past or the future because they already and always exist. (Lundquist 51-52)Billy learns that the best philosophy is to enjoy the good moments and ignore the bad ones. TheTralfamadorians do not understand Billy s concern about finding a cure for the wars on Earth that result in thebombing of Dresden. They know that it is all inevitable and unchangeable. Free will is a uniquely humanconcept (Schatt 82). The Tralfamadorians know that it does not truly exist. Billy’s trip to Tralfamadore allowshim to examine the human race as a whole from afar. The Tralfamadorians see the futility in trying to overcomehuman depravity because it is the only constant available in this chaotic universe (Boyce 7018). Billy comes to adopt Tralfamadorian philosophy. He continues on his time-travels and manages to rescuehimself and his personal sanity through the works of his own imagination. His time-travels and trips toTralfamadore serve as a rationalizing fantasy. He reinvents himself and his universe so that he can go on living.
He is so unhinged by what happens to him in the war. He invents the Tralfamadorians to blame his madness onthem and make his time-travels agree with their version of reality. At least it is some version of reality(Lundquist 53-54). In this way, Billy rationalizes his strange mind games and forms this timelessness whichenables him to look upon time as a whole and criticize the universe in one timeless moment (Boyce 7017). Vonnegut also tries to rationalize and come to terms with the horrors that he has been a witness to. He, likeBilly, is torn between the desire to forget Dresden and his obsession with finding a way to reconcile the humansuffering he observed there (Schatt 86). In an introduction to the novel, Vonnegut makes a comparison of theburning of Dresden to the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He describes a scene where he looksthrough a Gideon Bible in his motel room for tales of great destruction and he comes to the story of Sodomand Gomorrah. G-d rained fire and brimstone on the two cities:Lot s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she didlook back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt . . . Peoplearen t supposed to look back. I m certainly not going to do it anymore . . . This novel is a failure, and had tobe, since it was written by a pillar of salt. (Vonnegut 21-22)Vonnegut claims that he too was turned into a pillar of salt looking back at Dresden, because of his mistake oftrying to account for what had happened. He, as a participant, can never gain the cosmic view that wouldenable him to understand (Lundquist 75). Nonetheless, Vonnegut tries to find order and logic in what he has experienced. On his revisiting of Dresden, acab driver who took him back to the slaughterhouse relays holiday wishes to Vonnegut . . . to meet again in aworld of peace . . . if the accident will (Vonnegut 2). Vonnegut would like to find rational and significance inwhat happened in Dresden, but after all, it all comes down to a series of accidents (Lundquist 49). Throughoutthe novel, Vonnegut follows all accounts of tragic events with So it goes. When Vonnegut writes aboutDresden school girls boiled alive in a water tower, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the VietnamWar, all are followed by the phrase So it goes (Vonnegut 210). In accordance with Tralfamadorianphilosophy, Vonnegut tries to gloss over unpleasant times and concentrate on good ones. This is part of thereason why he had so much difficulty recalling events of significance that could be put into his novel. He choseto forget the unpleasant events of the war and could only remember humorous anecdotes. He explains hisexperiences by making light of them.
The novel cannot help but draw the attention of the reader to the underlying theme of man s cruelty. Vonnegutwrites:I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby…The irony is so great. A wholecity gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrestedin the ruins for taking a teapot. And he s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad. (4-5)Vonnegut finds it very difficult to understand how a world can exist where a massacre of human life can go byunpunished while the same world will find a man guilty and deserving of death for plundering a mere teapot. The second title of the novel indicates Vonnegut s purpose for his writing. He intended Slaughterhouse-Five tobe an anti-war novel. The title The Children s Crusade shows how Vonnegut feels that all wars are fought bythe young – usually for causes that they are incapable of comprehending (Schatt 82). Vonnegut commented onhow most of the men involved in the war were little more than children, foolish virgins in the war, right at theend of childhood (14). He writes this novel so that war does not look wonderful, and so we do not have manymore of them, and they will not be fought by babies such as they were back in Dresden (Vonnegut 15).
Throughout the course of the novel, Vonnegut attempts to adopt the Tralfamadorian philosophy of life thatwould makes it painless for him to describe the fire-bombing of Dresden and Billy s suffering in a cold,detached, objective manner ( Schatt 85). In the final chapter of the novel, Vonnegut speculates on whether ornot he can accept such a view of life. Vonnegut comments:If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how deadwe may sometimes seem to be, that events in time exist simultaneously and forever, I am not overjoyed. Still-if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I m grateful that so many of those moments arenice. (211)Vonnegut is being totally sarcastic as he has just completed writing about one of the worst events in his life -the bombing of Dresden (Lundquist 51-52). If we live forever, so too will the fire-bombing of Dresden go onforever. Ultimately, Vonnegut does not agree that his and Billy s attempts to forget the terrible moments in their livesare the correct way to face what they ve been through. He states, I honestly believe, though, that we arewrong to think that moments go away never to be seen again. This moment and every moment lasts forever(Lundquist 53). Vonnegut knows that he cannot avoid events in his life simply because they are disagreeableto him, yet he still does not say whether or not people can control life or if as the Tralfamadorians believe,there is no such thing as free will. Vonnegut debates this concept from the outset of the novel when he tells afriend that he is writing an anti-war book. His friend asks, You know what I say to people when I hear they rewriting anti-war books? . . . I say, Why don t you write an anti-glacier book instead? Vonnegut responds,What he meant, of course, was to say that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop asglaciers. I believe that, too. And even if wars didn t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain olddeath (3-4). Vonnegut toys with the idea that war is inevitable, but he still leaves the possibility that wars canbe stopped. He still knows that death is unavoidable. Vonnegut ultimately rejects the Tralfamadorian theory of life that is so prevalent throughout the novel. Heknows that he will never understand man s cruelty, but he does know that it is not inevitable. He knows that itcan be stopped. He knows that one day the world will stop sending its babies off to fight and that constantwar is not the fate of the universe. A prayer in the novel that is stated both in Billy s Tralfamadorian world, aswell as in his real world goes as follows:G-d grant methe serenity to accept the things I cannot change,courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference. (60, 209)This prayer epitomizes Vonnegut s message to his readers. Parts of life are inevitable and must be accepted,but many parts of life can and must be changed. As human beings, we do have free will. We have control ofour lives and what we want to make of them. We must learn to see what is beyond our abilities to change andalso what we must have the strength and perseverance to alter. The fate of the universe is in our hands.
BibliographyBoyce, Daniel F. Slaughterhouse-Five.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederich Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. University of Minnesota, 1977.
Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1976.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968.
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