Slaughter house Five Critical Analysis
Kurt Vonnegut uses Slaughterhouse-Five as a way to cope with his experience in the Dresden massacre. By taking the narrator’s voice, and by employing the themes of time and fate, Kurt Vonnegut seeks to reach out to the world, exposing to humanity the horrific aftermath of war.
During World War II, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and sent to the Dresden, “an open city with no significant targets,” to be held as a prisoner of war. On February 13, 1945, the Allied forces dropped incendiary bombs on the city, which created a “firestorm” that killed an estimated 135,000 people, and destroyed the city (Cox). When asked his purpose for writing, Vonnegut stated that he “agrees with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society,” however he disagreed with how they serve, saying, “they should be- and biologically have to be- agents of change” (Merril).
In witnessing the massacre, Vonnegut felt as though it was his duty as a writer who had witnessed it first hand to write about this horrific massacre. Remaining the single heaviest air strike in military history, Dresden is relatively ignored in histories eyes (Cox). Kurt Vonnegut takes an anti-war stance in order to enlighten the world of the unnecessary strike and to emphasize, as someone who witnessed it first hand, the horrors of war. The book uses the massacre as a foundation of the main conflicts in the novel, with every other event, simply as fleeting as a passage of time.
In most novels, the author speaks through his characters, using the characters to represent the author’s overall message. However, by directly addressing the readers, Kurt Vonnegut conveys a much deeper personal significance behind his experience in Dresden. Twenty-three years after the massacre, Vonnegut finds himself “outlining the Dresden story many times” resulting, finally, in the writing of this book (Vonnegut 5). After so many years, this book represents his attempt to “come to terms with the horror of Dresden” (Vanderwerken).
Yet, in the twenty-three years, he has not figured out what to say about it, as he expresses his struggles, “I have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away” (Vonnegut 15). Ironically, Vonnegut compares the Dresden firebombing to a bird’s song, “Poo-tee-weet” (Vonnegut 19). He believes that “everything is supposed to be quiet after a massacre…except for the birds,” who say, “all there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet” (Vonnegut 19). In this, Kurt Vonnegut emphasizes that nothing intelligent can be said about a massacre, only gibberish.
Gibberish, in which even the birds cannot comprehend, let alone the men that fought in the war. Throughout his entire introduction, Kurt Vonnegut does not go into detail of the massacre, instead he emphasizes its aftermath. By focusing on the response (or lack of their of) and the affects of the massacre, he enhances overall power of his message. Vonnegut has played down the immediate impact of the war in order to make a “powerful little statement about the kinds of social attitudes responsible for war and its atrocities” (Merril).
The solid, personal foundation of the book, which is the Dresden airstrike, builds a strong framework for the rest of the book and the moral statement it’s trying to show. Although this soon becomes covered up by the fantasy of the rest of the book, it is still very much there. Just as the individual impacts of war gets quickly covered up by the overall picture of war, they are still very much there, haunting the soldiers, even twenty-three years later. Kurt Vonnegut ends his introduction by introducing the beginning and end of the book:
It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet? (Vonnegut 22) He tells us the beginning and the end, forgetting what is in the middle, jumping through time in order to introduce our main character, Billy Pilgrim. His writing shifts from the recollection of memories into short, fragmented flashbacks and flash-forwards. He explains this structure to his publisher, saying, “It’s so short and jumbled and jangles, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (Cox).
We are then emersed in the world of time travel as we become unstuck in time and travel with Billy throughout his memories Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. Traveling back and forth throughout his life, Vonnegut introduces the theme of time in order to better explain the aftermath war. Reinforcing the concept of time itself, Billy is abducted by aliens known as the Tralfamadorians. Here, on the planet of Tralfamadore, time is not linear and does not take place in a sequential timeline of events.
Instead, everything is simultaneous, occurring at the same time everywhere, “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, and always will exist” (Vonnegut 27). The Tralfamadorians are able to look at all moments like “looking at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains” (Vonnegut 27). They can choose to look at the entire landscape, or rather, the big picture, or they can focus in on one specific piece. This creates an important contrast with how humans view their lives, and how the Tralfamadorians view theirs.
Humans are too focused on the minute details of the day-to-day things, instead, they need to step back and look at the big picture, or focus on the happy moments. The Tralfamadorians believe, in fact, that the way humans look at time is an “allusion” and that “like beads on a string, once a moment is gone, it is gone forever” (Vonnegut 27). On Tralfamadore, nothing is ever gone forever, which brings into consideration the concept and the importance of death. On Earth, humans believe that death is the most permanent thing, yet, on Tralfamadore, it is as insignificant as a blade of grass in the mountain landscape.
There is no longer any sense of finality in their concept of death, and once they see a corpse, “ all [they] think is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty other moments” (Vonnegut 27). On Tralfamadore, they have managed to render death almost entirely unimportant, something that on Earth is considered almost impossible, that is, with the exception of war. In war, the individual solders no longer matter, deaths can occur by the thousands and a battle can still be considered “won. In Dresden, the mindless slaughtering of thousands of innocent people has somehow, in the eyes of war, been considered “necessary” for the greater good. Billy Pilgrim’s life literally began to flash before his eyes, as he was forced to relive his most traumatic memories. One of the first few times he became unstuck in time, Billy “began to swing grandly through the full arc of his life, passing into death, which was violet light. There wasn’t anybody else there, or anything. There was just violet light- and a hum” (Vonnegut 43).
Experiencing the sudden, finality of death as calmly as any other step in life’s process is reserved for those of whom who were exposed to the horrors of massacres or wars. While stuck traveling through time Billy, “has no control of where he is going next…He is in a constant stage of fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act out next” (Vonnegut 23). Billy keeps being torn from his life, as he loses a sense of something that everything is innately given: reality. He has lost his sense of self and begins to feel the need to “act out” his life.
Billy’s loss of identity and loss of control connects to the life of a soldier after war. After experiencing truly horrific situations over and over again, many solders begin to question who they are and the purpose of their life, leaving an empty hole of uncertainty where it used to be. If all of time was spontaneous with everything already mapped out, and death, therefore rendered insignificant, what then, is the purpose of action? If one could not change his destiny, would he have anything to fight for anymore? The last theme of free will questions action and inaction and its affects on life.
As Billy begins to adjust to his life on Tralfamadore, he begins to question one of the greatest meanings of life, asking, “why me” (Vonnegut 76). The Tralfamadorians reply, “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?… Well here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why” (Vonnegut 77). In essence, we have no control of our destiny; we are left to watch as our lives play out before us, immobilized to change anything. According to Cox, “such a philosophy can, of ourse, lead to being passive and resigned rather than trying to oppose evil and make the world better. ” For Billy, this realization resulted in living a life of inaction, for, “among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (Vonnegut 60). In fact, almost every character in Slaughterhouse-five has resolved themselves to inaction and slothfulness, even when their lives are on the line. Wandering across enemy lines, suddenly, Billy, Weary, and some others find themselves being shot at by German snipers.
Seeing that the shot intended for him missed, “Billy stood there politely, giving the marksman another chance,” after all, “it was his addled understanding of the rules of warfare that the marksman should be given another chance (Vonnegut 33). Billy Pilgrim essentially looked death in the eye, and simply shrugged his shoulders in indifference. His entire time in war, Roland Weary had been trying to keep Billy alive, “he had been saving Billy’s life for days…it was absolutely necessary that cruelty be used, because Billy wouldn’t do anything to save himself” (Vonnegut 34).
Instead of being fueled by the pursuit of freedom and the survival of their country, these soldiers seem beaten down, so much to the point of resolved hopelessness and acceptance of death as a consequence of their inaction. The idea of war, fighting for a common cause, for the survival of the country, and for the future generations has been crushed in this book. Nothing about war is beneficial, and it is reflected in Vonnegut’s characters.
When asked about their moral inaction, Vonnegut responded, saying, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces” (Cox). The author’s commentary once again confirms the deflating, and dehumanizing aspect of war. There are no characters in this story, simply because there are no true humans in war. No man can retain his self-identity after witnessing and experiencing the horrific aspects associated with war a massacre.
Kurt Vonnegut employs the theme of free will to emphasize the lack of humanity regarding war. In this, we see a personal struggle of his surface. Like every other person who has been in war, Kurt Vonnegut came back a different man, a man who no longer recognized himself. Yet, he finds a certain resolved acceptance that this pain, the pain of war and the pain of suffering, is engrained into our nature. In his introduction, he met with a man named Harrison Star who asked him if his book is “an anti-war book,” when Vonnegut confirmed, he replied, “you know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing an anti-war book?…
I say why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead,” Vonnegut replied, “I believe that, too” (Vonnegut 3). There will always be suffering, murder, massacres and wars; its part of our human nature. To revert back to a world where there is no longer suffering, one must trace their roots all the way back to “two perfect people named Adam and Eve” (Vonnegut 74). As a somewhat comforting sentiment, Vonnegut begins to cope with his war experiences simply by understanding that many people have been in his place before him, and there will be many after him.
After witnessing so much tragedy in war, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five as a way to cope with what he lived through during the war and as a way to reach out to humanity and induce understanding of the after affects of war. Witnessing firsthand the mindless slaughter of thousands of innocent lives in the Dresden massacre, Vonnegut felt as though it was his duty as a writer to write about it, and hopefully, bring awareness to the horrors of war. Published during the height of the Vietnam War, Slaughterhouse-Five did just that. Cox)
At this time, anti-war protests were beginning to circle the country and, as a result, “struck such a chord with the reading public and [it] made its author a cultural icon” (Cox). Slaughterhouse-Five no doubt played a role in the public realization of the “horrors of war (and American responsibility for some of those horrors)” Slaughterhouse-Five’s enormous impact and powerful moral statement will continue to stand the test of time, remaining a “masterly novel…of compassion,” as fate would have it (Cox).