Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five


When one begins to analyze a military novel it is important
to first look at the historical context in which the book
was written. On the nights of February 13-14 in 1944 the
city of Dresden, Germany was subjected to one of the worst
air attacks in the history of man. By the end of the
bombing 135,000 to 250,000 people had been killed by the
combined forces of the United States and the United
Kingdom. Dresden was different then Berlin or many of the
other military targets which were attacked during World War
II because it was never fortified or used for strategic
purposes and, therefore, was not considered a military
target. Because of it's apparent safety, thousands of
refugees from all over Europe converged on Dresden for
protection (Klinkowitz 2-3). Dresden's neutrality was
broken and the resulting attacks laid waste, what Vonnegut
called, "the Florence of the Elbe." Kurt Vonnegut was a
witness to this event and because of fate, had been spared.
He wrote Slaughterhouse Five to answer the question that
resounded through his head long after the bombs could no
longer be heard. "Why me?"- a frequent question asked by
survivors of war. 

Vonnegut was tormented by this question and through Billy
Pilgrim, the protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five, he
attempts to reconcile the guilt which one feels when one is
randomly saved from death, while one's friends and loved
ones perish. Billy Pilgrim's own life was spared, but he
was never able to live with himself knowing that so many
others had died. The feelings of guilt which emerged from
his having survived the bombing of Dresden and from Billy's
fortunate escape from death under the shelter of the fifth
Slaughterhouse, haunted Billy through much of his life.
Billy Pilgrim did not consider his survival a blessing, but
a curse. A curse because he was forced to live with the
guilt of survival. Billy Pilgrim faced such tremendous
guilt, that he spent his entire life after Dresden trying
to alleviate himself of it. His guilt is in many ways
comparable to the guilt felt by the survivors of the
Holocaust. Many Holocaust survivors had to face their own
"Why me?" question. However, many Holocaust survivors were
able to reconcile their feelings of guilt or put it out of
their minds. This solution was never viable for Billy
Pilgrim. Billy's guilt made life so unbearable that he
could no longer live with himself and he rejected the life
that had been granted to him. There was no answer to
Billy's question because war is not logical, nor is it
just. Never could one give a justification for the
fortuitous slaughtering of the innocent, which claimed the
lives of Dresden's inhabitants. This idea is exemplified in
the secondary title Slaughterhouse Five by which it is

It is also compared to The Children's Crusade. The
Children's Crusade was one of the many Christian "Holy"
Wars which aimed on destroying the Muslim people. The
Children's Crusade was really a ploy by entrepreneurs to
sell Christian children into slavery. Thousands of children
were killed on ships en-route to the slave market and many
others were sold, never to be seen again. Vonnegut gives
the Children's "Crusade" as an example of the atrocities
and inhumane acts which transpire under the auspices of
War. That is why Billy Pilgrim invents a world where a
justification can be given, where life and death are
meaningless and feelings of guilt disappear. The only way
Billy Pilgrim can confront this guilt is to excuse his
survival and trivialize the gift of life and the cruelty of
death. He creates a new world where he can be free from his
guilt. That world is called Tralfamador. 

The Traflamadorian world provided Billy Pilgrim with the
escape that he needed from his guilt. The Traflamadorian
people are not locked in a three dimensional realm. They
are not locked in the frames of time to which the human
world is forced to live in. Traflamadorians can "shift"
through time as seamlessly as humans can walk towards a
point. This ability allows them to focus on the pleasant
moments in the history of the Universe and ignore the
aspects of time they dislike. Thus, the fire-bombing of
Dresden is just a tiny frame in the vast space time
continuum. The guilt of Billy's being saved is reconciled
by eliminating the existence of a past, present, and
future. Since any fraction of time is accessible in the
Tralfamadorian world death is just a tiny part of existence
that is ignored like the fire-bombing of Dresden. Billy
Pilgrim reinvents himself and his universe to gain purpose
in his guilt ridden life (Lundquist 82). 

The Tralfamadorians are real to Billy because without them
he cannot live with himself (Lundquist 82). Billy believes
that he was taken by a Tralfamdorian ship to be an exhibit
of a human being in a Tralfamdorian Zoo. On Tralfamador,
Billy is exposed to an entire new way of thinking which
neutralizes the "Why me?" question. In the Tralfamdorian
view of the Universe, guilt does not exist because in their
view one is not responsible for one's actions. Whatever
will, or has happened will always happen and did always
happen. There is no way to change the course of events.
Everything is predetermined. Billy is told by the
Tralfamadores (regarding Tralfamador) that: 

Today we do (have peace). On other days we have wars as
horrible as any you've ever seen or read about. There isn't
anything we can do about them, so we simply don't look at
them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant
moments (Vonnegut 101).
The Tralfamadorians even now question as to when and who
will destroy the Universe, yet they make no attempt to stop
it because in their eyes it cannot be stopped. Billy, by
accepting the Tralfamadorian view, frees himself from the
guilt which one feels when one is locked in time and
responsible for one's actions. Billy Pilgrim grasps the
Tralfamadorian philosophy and insists the Tralfamadorian
world exists because it eliminates the "Why me?" question.
Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some
offense, crime wrong; a feeling of culpability. For example
if one steals a hundred dollars, one would feel remorse
over that action and wish one had not done it. Under the
Tralfamadorian outlook Billy Pilgrim does not have to feel
remorse for being saved because that is how it was and
always will happen. He does not have to feel guilt or
remorse because there is no reason to. There is nothing
that can be done about war and death, "they are as easy to
stop as glaciers." (Vonnegut 3) The death of all those
innocent people could not be stopped, it was predetermined
by some unknown force just as the destruction of the
Universe, by a Tralfamadorian testing a new fuel, is also
predetermined and unstoppable. 

Vonnegut uses irony by having Billy Pilgrim being an
Optometrist, whose job it is to help others see the world
more clearly with greater acuity and sensitivity. Billy
believes it his job to "prescribe corrective lenses for
Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and
wretched, Billy believed, because they could not see as
well as his little green friends on Tralfamdore." (Vonnegut
25) This is in essence what the Tralfamadorians teach him
that the Human view of time is erroneous (Tanner 198). The
Tralfamdorians give Billy an analogy of how humans perceive
Human vision is something so narrow and restricted...to
convey to themselves what it must be like they have to
imagine a creature with a metal sphere around his head who
looks down a long, thin pipe seeing only a tiny speck at
the end. He cannot turn his head around and he is strapped
to a flatcar on rails which goes in one direction

Billy, by accepting the Tralfamadorian view of the world
frees himself from the metal sphere and from his guilt.
Much of Billy's guilt rested on his view of time and
nature. Before he was introduced to the Tralfamadorian
viewpoint he believed in crusading against war and the
death of the innocent and felt guilty and upset when
another human's life was blindly taken. After coming to
newly understand the limits of human vision and the naiveté
of humankind, namely that one can change what will happen
and guide one's actions Billy felt no sympathy for death
and made no attempt to right injustice and stop the
atrocities of war. 

Although Billy finds peace in the many positive aspects of
the Tralfamadorian mind-set, there also exist many
negatives to his new vision. The many aspects of Billy's
life which his new vision touch are clearly outlined in
Slaughterhouse-Five. For example, whenever there is a
tragic death or an entire city is destroyed Billy says what
all Tralfamdorians say "so it goes." Billy does not feel
remorse or anger when he hears of the war in Vietnam
because it is just a frame in time, which has, is and
always will happen. Just as the universe will be destroyed
by the Tralfamdorians but no attempt is made to stop it. At
one point in the novel Billy sees a war movie in reverse,
he describes it as follows: 

The formation flew over a German city that was in flames.
The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a
miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them
into cylindrical steel containers and lifted the containers
into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored
neatly in racks. When the bombers got back to their base,
the steel cylinders were shipped to factories where
operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders,
separating the dangerous contents...so they would never
hurt anybody again. (Vonnegut 64)
Vonnegut uses this imagery to dramatize effectively the
cruelty of bombing. Billy's Tralfamadorian view of this war
film is an obvious improvement over the forward version.
However, with the Tralfamdorian view also comes a heavy
price. The cost of this new vision is the human conscience
and the concern for life (Tanner 198). The Tralfamdorian
view extracts the human conscience, which separates humans
from the rest of the animal world. The price for a "guilt
free" life is the most precious part of human life,
emotions. (Tanner 198) 

With the Tralfamdorian view comes another steep price, free
will. Billy is told by the Tralfamadorians that free will
is a uniquely human belief. (Schatt 82) He is told that
war, disease, and even the end of the universe is all
predetermined, and that nothing he does can change what
will happen. The notion of free will is what gives human
life meaning. Part of the "spice" of life is the feeling of
accomplishment one has when he succeeds or the feeling of
sorrow when he fails. These feelings cannot exist when
one's actions are not of one's own choice but
predetermined. When all that happens, is decided by an
unknown force, failure, triumph and sorrow cannot exist
because one is not responsible any longer for bringing
about those emotions. This can easily explain why Billy's
life is so dreary and depressing. His acceptance of the
Tralfamdorian world has freed him from his guilt, but it
has also freed him from "living.". On his tombstone it is
written "everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."
Although this message on the surface would seem perfect, it
in reality points to the shortcomings of Billy's life. One
cannot enjoy life and happiness, if he has no feelings and
lacks all remorse. In the end of his life Billy is
"unenthusiastic about living, while stoically enduring it,
which may be a sign of the accidie which settles on a man
with an atrophied conscience." (Tanner 199) Billy pilgrim
has full knowledge, of who, when and where he will be
murdered, yet he does nothing about it. While this could be
looked at as an acceptance of the Tralfamdorian way of
life, it also points to the fact that Billy does not want
to stop it because life offers him nothing. The price of
for Billy's release from guilt, was Billy's release from

Slaughterhouse-Five clearly expresses Vonengut's terrible
outrage at the catastrophic fire-bombing of Dresden. But it
does more than that. It's underlying theme is not just
against the atrocities of Dresden but against all War.
Vonnegut's unorthodox stylistic approach which lacks any
sequential path, draws the reader deeper into the
Tralfamadorian world. Although Vonnegut's character was
able to reconcile his life to some extent, Vonnegut was
not. Vonnegut was never able to answer his own "Why me?"
but in truth a broader question exists "Why any of us?" 

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five Reforming the Novel
and the World. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederick Ungar
Publishing Co., 1977. 

Tanner, Tony. City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970.
New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971.
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell
Publishing Co. Inc., 1969. 

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