Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five

"So it Goes" - Kurt Vonnegut  / From Flickr.com
"So it Goes" - Kurt Vonnegut / From Flickr.com
All from Flickr.com
All from Flickr.com

Slaughterhouse-Five is perhaps the quintessential Kurt Vonnegut novel, containing all the characteristics of what has made him somewhat of a cultic icon. Anyone interested in science fiction will appreciate this novel, though that should not dissuade anyone who is not a fan of the genre from reading it, for it is so much more than a cookie-cutter Sci-Fi book. The novel is also hilarious, morbid, and offers searing insight into the folly of war. It is one of fourteen novels written by the prolific author, along with several short story and essay collections.

Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922 and died on April 12, 2007. He served in World War II, and like the protagonist of his book, was captured and taken to the German city of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war.

Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is an awkward, lanky optometrist. He is described as being “shaped like a bottle of Coca-cola”. If this does not already paint an absurd picture of him, read what Vonnegut gives him to wear. He has a wife, Valencia, who loves him dearly, yet Billy does not return the affection, he does not really love anything. He does not even enjoy living very much, so he faces every event in his life with uniform indifference. The principal conflict in the novel is that Billy becomes “unstuck in time”, that is, he begins to travel randomly to different points in his life, over and over again. It merely happens to him, the cause is unknown. Billy travels to the time when he was lost behind enemy lines, just before his capture. He repeatedly survives a plane crash that kills everyone but him and the co-pilot. For a moment he is in bed with his wife, and in the next he is in bed in a mental ward.

Given all his time-traveling, the focal point of the plot is set in Dresden, which was firebombed during WWII by the Allies, burning 130,000 civilians to death. Like the author himself, Billy witnesses this horrid fiasco. In 1967, aliens from a planet called Tralfamadore abduct Billy and teach him that time does not progress linearly, like human beings witness it, but alternatively, all moments happen simultaneously, and they are structured as so. The Tralfamadorians know how the universe will end, caused by one of their own astronauts, but they do not stop it. Only humans, they say, have a notion of free will. While deconstructing the notion of linear time, Vonnegut also conveys the despicable, and often absurd actions that people make with their free will.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a valuable work of fiction because it comments so incisively upon the human condition – why people act the way they do, why they think what they think, and what exactly is existence all about? A principal theme in this work is the indignity and absurdity of war. There are several sordid characters in this novel that reveal Vonnegut’s profound examination of the human condition. One of these contemptible characters is a soldier that Billy meets on a train ride to a POW camp named Paul Lazzaro. Lazzaro tells Billy about a time when a dog had bitten him. To exact revenge, the debased man sticks razor blades into a steak and feeds it to the dog, then looks on with sadistic joy as the dog writhes in pain, bleeding internally. Lazzaro says, “‘anybody asks you what the sweetest thing in life is…it’s revenge’” (177). His belief emphasizes the idea that people are capable of incredibly wicked deeds. Vonnegut shows his readers that even a soldier fighting against the abominable Nazi regime can have undignified qualities. He breaks the notion that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in war by showing that all humans have a capacity for evil.

In tune with this theme is also the firebombing of Dresden, which killed 130,000 civilians in a city that contained no military infrastructure whatsoever. This is absurdity at its greatest. Vonnegut raises the question – what was the point? But he also gives an answer, “the idea was to hasten the end of the war” (230), which conveys his assertion that war is undignified, that it strips men of their virtues, that any and all means are often, unrightfully so, justified by the result. And the results are horrible. Vonnegut describes the landscape in the aftermath like the landscape of the moon. Billy along with ninety-nine other POWs and four German guards survive by hiding in an underground meat cellar. In this scene, Vonnegut also shows humanity’s capacity for good. A blind innkeeper, who was fortunate not to have his inn destroyed by the bombing, welcomes all the men to stay in his stable overnight, “‘Good night, Americans,’ he said in German. ‘Sleep Well.’” (232). This hospitable innkeeper, being blind, was not able to witness the grotesque display of man-made destruction, yet he welcomes American soldiers into his inn, because he knows they have witnessed something terrible and he just wants to help. It is in beautiful scenes like this one that Vonnegut relays his conviction that people must treat each other well, if humankind is ever going to overcome such trying times.

Another effective facet of Vonnegut’s novel is his incorporation of non-linear time, as a theme and also as a plot device. As mentioned earlier, the plot jumps from one scene to the next, 1967 suddenly changes to 1945 and so forth. However, the plot’s coherence never fails. Vonnegut is careful with his word choice and sentence structure to make it so that the meaning and plot/character development are never lost. He does not bog down his narrative with superfluous details. He only describes settings when doing so is pertinent to the plot, and he transitions from one scene to the next lucidly. This minimalist style never falters in poignancy and effectiveness. As a theme, the idea of non-linear time is explained to Billy by the aforementioned Tralfamadorians. Billy is relayed a metaphor for how the Tralfamadorians view the Earthlings’ conception of time. They say it is like being on a moving railcar, strapped to a chair, with a steel helmet engulfing the head and attached to a large metal tube. Human beings have no choice but to stare down the tube, from which they can only see one point in front of them, so that, “whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘that’s life’” (147). So the aliens teach Billy about non-linear time, they understand that he has been “unstuck”, and they advise him, “to concentrate on the happy moments of his life…to stare only at the pretty things as eternity failed to go by” (249). This advice about non-linear time is a metaphor for humankind’s faculty of memory. Granted, with a lot of effort, people can choose what to think about, and Vonnegut wants them to keep in mind the good times as they travel inevitably towards the end of the tracks.


Slaughterhouse-Five is a very quick read. Though it is 275 pages long, it reads more like a book of about one hundred pages. This is not to say that the book’s literary value is cheap. It is complex and insightful, but its minimalist, plain-English construction allows the reader less time spent reading and more time analyzing. There is so much in Slaughterhouse-Five that has not been discussed in this review. Its depth is amazing. The human condition, a frequent topic in Vonnegut’s work, is a theme that had contemporary significance in the sixties, has significance now, and, until the day when humankind becomes mechanized-biological hybrids (joking, though nothing is impossible), will always be relevant. Something new can be discovered with each subsequent reading. A discussion about the immorality of war is something that was present in the era of WWII and it is certainly relevant in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Slaughterhouse-Five is an engaging, powerful read that deserves to be studied and appreciated.

Vonnegut Grades His Novels

From flickr.com
From flickr.com

More by this Author


Comments 21 comments

BennyTheWriter profile image

BennyTheWriter 6 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

This is a really great analytical introduction to "Slaughter-House Five." It really piques my interest even more in the book; I have yet to read it, but certainly will soon.

What's fascinating to me is how Vonnegut conveys the notion of uncertainty and meaninglessness in the main character's apathy. It seems to approach nihilism almost, but then Vonnegut reminds us there are lessons to be learned in life; there are such things as expressions of good and evil, free will does exist, and we do have choices to make. It seems for now that the answer to the existential struggle is to focus on "the pretty things" and derive some sense of enjoyment.

Another thing that's really cool is the notion of time being non-linear. That's something I actually believe! My understanding of time's non-linear quality has changed my life in a number of important ways. It's fascinating to see how Vonnegut used it as a literary theme.


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Definitely read it once you have the time. This is one of my favorite books by my all time favorite author. Yes, Pilgrim is apathetic but at the same time he is very moral. Though he doesn't love his wife, he never treats her badly. The great thing about his incorporation of non-linear time is that even with the plot jumping everywhere the reader is never lost; Vonnegut was so good (esp his stuff from the 50s and 60s).

They published a few short-story collections of his recently, which are beautiful tales as well. There is also a lot of good literary criticism (sorry the authors' names escape me) on SH-5 which examines his themes of non-linear time and memory that makes some insightful comparisons between the two. Glad you enjoyed the review and thanks for your continued interest in my work!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa

A great review of what is one of the great novels of the 20th Century, in my humble opinion! Vonnegut is one of my favourite writers. Thanks for this insightful introduction to this great novel. I will have to re-read it now!

Love and peace

Tony


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Thank you tonymac04. He's amazing isn't he? I'm happy to have re-sparked your interest.


BennyTheWriter profile image

BennyTheWriter 6 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

Sure thing my friend, it's always cool to check out your work. Thanks for your support as well.

I love short stories so I'll be sure to check out Vonnegut's. I'm also trying to search for that literary criticism article through my college library.


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Anytime friend. I found the articles at my college's library database as well, what I'm discovering more and more as a very valuable research tool. I'll almost be sad to lose it when I graduate.


retrobandit profile image

retrobandit 6 years ago from Texas

Excellent review. SH5 has been my favorite novel since I first found a tattered copy in the "dispose of" book closet at my high school. Have you ever seen the George Roy Hill directed film adaptation?


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Thanks retrobandit. It's one of my favorites as well. Haha, Vonnegut would be rolling around on Heaven's floor if he knew you found his book in the trash.

Yes, I have seen the film. The first time I saw it I was just appalled by how corny it was but I appreciated it more on the second view.


retrobandit profile image

retrobandit 6 years ago from Texas

Actually, most of my initial Vonnegut collection came from similar sources. Some of them had to be taped back together. Now, after working at a bookstore for a while, I have a clean collection of his entire works.

Yes, the film is corny, but it is nowhere near as corny a Vonnegut adaptation as "Slapstick of Another Kind". That movie missed the mark by miles.


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Awesome, it must be cool to have those earlier editions, though, I too enjoy having the new ones. Oh boy, haven't seen the "Slapstick" film. Then again, it wasn't one of my favorite books by him either. Bruce Willis was hilarious in "Breakfast of Champions", I thought they did a decent job with that one.


kathryn1000 profile image

kathryn1000 6 years ago from London

Really fascinating.Have you read"Dresden Green" by Nicholas Freeling? It's worth a view.


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

No I haven't. I'll check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.


cdub77 profile image

cdub77 6 years ago from Portland Or

Jambo: Great Vonnegut Hub! I have a couple up on him myself. Is it okay with you if I link to it from my Vonnegut Hubs?


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Thank you! By all means, go ahead. I'll do the same.


cdub77 profile image

cdub77 6 years ago from Portland Or

Awesome! I added a link to it about half way through the article. You can see it here:

https://letterpile.com/books/kvbluebeard


cdub77 profile image

cdub77 5 years ago from Portland Or

Jambo, I added another link to your hub from another one of my profile's hubs. I hesitate to post it here cause it feels like spamming you with links, but I don't know how to send it to you in a normal email/message thing! Feel free to delete this comment after checking out the link!

http://hubpages.com/games-hobbies/cltandlit001

(I run a few profiles on here, The Trivia Guy is my Trivia Host profile)


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 5 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Oh, I don't mind at all. I always enjoy your hubs.


McHamlet profile image

McHamlet 5 years ago

I've been interested in this book for so long, it's perverse I haven't read it. You've given a great taste of it here and have me itching to run out to the bookstore to buy it (pity it's 1am in the morning!) Cheers')


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 5 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

That really is perverse!

I hope I didn't drop too many spoilers. It's a great read. I find something more each time I read it.


ytsenoh profile image

ytsenoh 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

Have you ever read "The Jailbirds?" Good hub. Vonnegut really was a very good writer on more than one level. Your perception of his writing is appreciated, I'm sure. Thanks.


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 4 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Vonnegut's "Jailbird"? Yes. Honestly it didn't thrill me but it was still enjoyable. Its one of his novels that is heavy on character development, which I don't like as much as his novels that have more outrageous plots like SH5, Sirens of Titan and Cats Cradle. I think his low point was the eighties but nevertheless its still Vonnegut and I still love it. Thanks for reading and commenting on this hub, and spurring my reminiscence of Jailbird.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working