Slaughterhouse Five


"Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was written as
a general statement against all wars. The novel can be
divided into several distinct stories, all combined to
convey one theme. The story focuses around the central
character Billy Pilgrim; before, during, and after the war.
Vonnegut himself plays a major role in the novel as
narrator and witness of World War II. The difficulties in
the writing of the actual novel itself are also examined in
the novel. All of these issues revolve around the main
theme of the novel-- the shock and outrage over 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 about them.
 Vonnegut had tremendous difficulty writing this novel. He
says, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the
destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would
be to report what I had seen (2). He did not count on his
emotions interfering with his attempts at a factual and
logical report of such atrocities. It took Vonnegut twenty
years to directly face his private demon of the firebombing
of Dresden in the form of this novel (Lundquist 48). He had
trouble recalling any memories of substance about his time
in Dresden. It could be said that he was blinded by the
fire-bombs of Dresden. It was not until Vonnegut returned
to the sight of the bombing twenty years later, along with
one of his war buddies, that he was able to recall the
humorous and horrific incidents in Dresden. The novel
served as a form of therapy for Vonnegut. It enabled him to
examine the 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 events surrounding
the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. As James Lundquist
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 that could be seen
more than two-hundred miles away. On February fourteenth,
the Americans carried out a second raid which completed the
destruction of the city. More that two-hundred thousand
people were killed outright, burned to death, or died
after. Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were herded with other
prisoners-of-war into the storage area of a slaughterhouse
and later emerged to find the once beautiful city looking
like the surface of the moon. (47)
As Vonnegut reexamines the bombing of Dresden, he relates
the event in a way that shows the reader his personal view
of the incident. He confronts the Dresden experience with
compassion and sorrow rather than anger, 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 by his 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 the bombing
with a day in the life format. He relays most of the
emotionally difficult facts through Billy, the innocent
babe thrust into violent and chaotic times. In this manner,
Vonnegut does not have to directly confront his own
emotions on these issues but can portray his own feelings
through the facade of Billy. Vonnegut describes Billy as
becoming unstuck in time (Vonnegut 23). Billy blurs fact
and fiction because he suspects that his vision of reality
is hardly reliable. He cannot accept that human nature
would allow such an occurrence as Dresden to take place and
therefore concludes that his perception of reality must be
totally wrong. He sees himself drifting from dream to
reality and back again. In this way, he is able to pass off
any bad experiences in his life, including Dresden, as a
terrible nightmare and not a part of reality. Billy refuses
to accept the traditional concept of time (Lundquist 19).
Vonnegut also has difficulty accepting the constraints of
time and often lives in the past, calling up old
girlfriends and remembering the " good ol days". Vonnegut
writes, . . . my wife asks me what time it is. She always
has to know the time. Sometimes I don t know, and I say,
Search me (Vonnegut 7). 

After witnessing the war and Dresden, both Billy and
Vonnegut try to rationalize and understand what they have
been through. Billy does this through his time-traveling
and visits to the planet Tralfamadore. Billy imagines the
planet Tralfamadore where he is whisked off to by aliens.
Billy is trying to make sense out of what he 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 philosophy states that all time
is all time. It does not change. It simply is. All moments
exist in time simultaneously and forever. 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. The Tralfamadorians do not understand Billy s concern
about finding a cure for the wars on Earth that result in
the bombing of Dresden. They know that it is all inevitable
and unchangeable. Free will is a uniquely human concept
(Schatt 82). The Tralfamadorians know that it does not
truly exist. Billy's trip to Tralfamadore allows him to
examine the human race as a whole from afar. The
Tralfamadorians see the futility in trying to overcome
human 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 rescue himself
and his personal sanity through the works of his own
imagination. His time-travels and trips to Tralfamadore
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 on them 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 which enables 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, like Billy,
is torn between the desire to forget Dresden and his
obsession with finding a way to reconcile the human
suffering he observed there (Schatt 86). In an introduction
to the novel, Vonnegut makes a comparison of the burning of
Dresden to the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
He describes a scene where he looks through a Gideon Bible
in his motel room for tales of great destruction and he
comes to the story of Sodom and 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 did look
back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So
she was turned into a pillar of salt . . . People aren' t
supposed to look back. I m certainly not going to do it
anymore . . . This [novel] is a failure, and had to be,
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 of
trying to account for what had happened. He, as a
participant, can never gain the cosmic view that would
enable him to understand (Lundquist 75). 

 Nonetheless, Vonnegut tries to find order and logic in
what he has experienced. On his revisiting of Dresden, a
cab driver who took him back to the slaughterhouse relays
holiday wishes to Vonnegut . . . to meet again in a world
of peace . . . if the accident will (Vonnegut 2). Vonnegut
would like to find rational and significance in what
happened in Dresden, but after all, it all comes down to a
series of accidents (Lundquist 49). Throughout the novel,
Vonnegut follows all accounts of tragic events with So it
goes. When Vonnegut writes about Dresden school girls
boiled alive in a water tower, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Vietnam War, all are followed by
the phrase So it goes (Vonnegut 210). In accordance with
Tralfamadorian philosophy, Vonnegut tries to gloss over
unpleasant times and concentrate on good ones. This is part
of the reason why he had so much difficulty recalling
events of significance that could be put into his novel. He
chose to forget the unpleasant events of the war and could
only remember humorous anecdotes. He explains his
experiences by making light of them.
The novel cannot help but draw the attention of the reader
to the underlying theme of man s cruelty. Vonnegut writes: 
"I think the climax of the book will be the execution of
poor old Edgar Derby...The irony is so great. A whole city
gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed. And
then this one American foot soldier is arrested in 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 by
unpunished 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 to be an
anti-war novel. The title " The Children' s Crusade" shows
how Vonnegut feels that all wars are fought by the young -
usually for causes that they are incapable of comprehending
(Schatt 82). Vonnegut commented on how most of the men
involved in the war were little more than children, foolish
virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood (14). He
writes this novel so that war does not look wonderful, and
so we do not have many more 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 that would
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 or not 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 dead
we 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 are nice. (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 on

Ultimately, Vonnegut does not agree that his and Billy' s
attempts to forget the terrible moments in their lives are
the correct way to face what they' ve been through. He
states, " I honestly believe, though, that we are wrong 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 disagreeable to 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 a friend that he is writing an
anti-war book. His friend asks, You know what I say to
people when I hear they' re writing 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 as glaciers. I believe that, too. And even if wars
didn' t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be
plain old death (3-4). Vonnegut toys with the idea that war
is inevitable, but he still leaves the possibility that
wars can be stopped. He still knows that death is

Vonnegut ultimately rejects the Tralfamadorian theory of
life that is so prevalent throughout the novel. He knows
that he will never understand man' s cruelty, but he does
know that it is not inevitable. He knows that it can be
stopped. He knows that one day the world will stop sending
its babies off to fight and that constant war is not the
fate of the universe. A prayer in the novel that is stated
both in Billy' s Tralfamadorian world, as well as in his
real world goes as follows:
 G-d grant me
 the serenity to accept
 the things I cannot change,
 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 of our lives and what we
want to make of them. We must learn to see what is beyond
our abilities to change and also what we must have the
strength and perseverance to alter. The fate of the
universe is in our hands.
Boyce, Daniel F. Slaughterhouse-Five.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederich Ungar
Publishing Co., 1977.
Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. University of Minnesota,
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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