Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five
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
Reviews of K.V.'s Posthumous Releases
- Armageddon in Retrospect - So It Goes, Mr. Vonnegut
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