Slaughterhouse-Five: Essay Q&A
1. Which characters transcend the emotional stasis that dominates much of the story?
Vonnegut admits that there aren't any real characters in his novel but he makes an exception for Edgar Derby when he responds to Howard Campbell and defends the American way of life. "One of the main effects of war," writes Vonnegut "is that people are discouraged from being characters. But old Derby was a character now." During the course of their imprisonment the Americans are so tired and sick that they are more concerned with their bodies than with ideals but Edgar Derby's speech addresses higher ideals that are otherwise absent from the novel. Similarly, the tears Billy Pilgrim sheds for the suffering horses reveal a degree of empathy and emotion that is otherwise lacking in the story. We are told that after the war Billy suffers from bouts of silent crying but that his emotions are never fully vented. During the war Billy is simply too disoriented and sick to respond emotionally to any of the horrors he witnesses but the realization that the horses are in pain causes his one and only emotional outpouring in the course of the story.
2. In the first chapter Vonnegut makes the observation that anti-war books are doomed to failure since wars will always occur. In what ways does Slaughterhouse Five fail as an anti-war novel and in what ways does it succeed?
The work fails as a traditional anti-war book because even the main character does not condemn the destruction and death he experiences in Dresden. Instead, Billy Pilgrim comes to view the event as something that happened and could not have been changed. He is so far convinced of this fact that he readily agrees when Rumfoord, the military historian, arrogantly insists that the destruction of Dresden, though unfortunate, was necessary. Furthermore, Billy agrees that he should pity the men who dropped the bombs and insists that things were not so bad on the ground. "Everything is all right," insists Billy, "everybody has to do exactly what he does." This sentiment, paradoxically, serves as a subtle critique of war in that it undermines the high-minded ideals and intentions of those who wage war in the name of ideology and culture. The view espoused in the novel is anti-war in the sense that it denies war importance and suggests that the less attention society gives to its bloody past the less likely the past is to assert itself in the future. By admonishing people to focus on the good times the novel rhetorically rejects war as worthy of consideration by those concerned with the act of living.
3. How does the story of Billy Pilgrim serve as a critique of mid-twentieth century America?
Following the war Billy achieves great success by the standards of his culture. His optometry practice flourishes, he drives luxury automobiles, owns a big house and has lucrative investments all over town. However, he suffers from fits of silent crying and fails to achieve any real happiness from his life. When he is kidnapped and taken to the zoo on Tralfamadore the aliens furnish his habitat from the Sears so that he exists in a bubble of catalog furnished safety while surrounded by a poisonous atmosphere. When the Tralfamadorians ask if he is happy Billy responds that he is as happy as he was on Earth. This response indicates that the perceived signs of success and comfort in mid-twentieth century America have failed to inspire true happiness and that the mores and social conformity of the age are merely masking a greater dissatisfaction and sorrow brought about by the war. Until the men and women who lived through the experience of the war let go of their feelings about the war the culture will come to increasingly rely upon artificial means of emotional compensation that will ultimately fail to produce happiness.
4. What other sources does Vonnegut use to explore the themes of his story?
In the first chapter Vonnegut references three sources that affected him during the composition of his novel. The first is a work concerning the first Children's Crusade in which thousands of children died or became slaves under the auspices of a noble plan to send them to the Holy Land. Some of these children, however, mistakenly went to Genoa for embarkation and, since the city knew nothing of the scheme, the children were fed and sent home. This story parallels that of the young American soldiers who went to war believing in a cause and were killed senselessly, as are all deaths in a war. The few who survived the massacres, like Billy and the other POWs in Dresden, are simply fed and sent home. The second source is a work about Celine in which the biographer describes the author's desire to make time stand still so people would stop disappearing. Celine's obsession with time provides the ideological foundation for Billy Pilgrim's time traveling adventures and the Tralfamadorian view that once an individual has existed he or she always exists. The third source is the story of Lot's wife who looked back upon the destruction Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned to a pillar of salt. This story mirrors Vonnegut's task in looking back upon the destruction of Dresden. Vonnegut asserts that it is a very human trait to look back regardless of the consequences and that is what he has attempted to do in his novel.
5. What similar role do Kilgore Trout's stories and the Tralfamadorians play in the novel?
Both Kilgore Tout's stories and the Tralfamadorians provide Billy with a philosophical view that allows him to assimilate his war experiences with his post-war life. Billy first encounters Trout's books while recuperating from a mental breakdown after the war. Like Eliot Rosewater who introduces the author to his fellow patient, Billy quickly perceives an affinity between the philosophy espoused in Trout's works and his own observations of the world inspired by the Tralfamadorian experience. A story like The Gospel from Outer Space in which Jesus was really just a bum who God adopted at the last minute resonates with Billy's own experiences in which the haphazard effects of war randomly spares some and destroys others. In some cases, as with the story The Big Board, in which earthlings are kidnapped and kept in a zoo on an alien planet, Trout's stories lead the reader to suspect that Tralfamadore is a figment of Billy's imagination cobbled together from various Kilgore Trout plots. Whether the reader is to assume that Tralfamadore is an actual place or an invention of the protagonists mind is never directly addressed and bears little importance in terms of the novel's overarching themes. What is important is that the Tralfamadorian view of the universe, in which all time is known and all events structured to occur in a certain manner, augment Billy's own world view in which humans are carried by events and should content themselves by dwelling only on the happy times.