Themes In Slaughterhouse-Five Essay, Research Paper
Picture this: Bombshells exploding all around, destruction everywhere, civilians running for their lives… total devastation. This is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut encountered in the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War Two. Vonnegut bases his novel, Slaughterhouse-five on this event in his life. Several themes can be seen throughout the novel: The theme of war and its contrast with beauty, love and innocence, the theme that people are merely “bugs in amber”, the theme that death is inevitable and that no matter who dies, life goes on, and finally, the theme that no matter what happens, one must retain his humanity.
The first and perhaps most obvious theme is the idea of war and its contrast with beauty, love, and innocence. Vonnegut uses Slaughterhouse-five to show his readers a simple concept: that war is bad and love is good. But, the subject of love is not often brought up in the book. There are no broken romances because of the war, and none of the characters really talk about love. For example, Billy did not even seem to love his wife very much.
However, Vonnegut sees love and beauty in things other people might not see. When Billy was captured by the Germans, he did not see them as a horrible enemy, but as innocent people. “Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy. The boy was as beautiful as Eve.” (Vonnegut 53) Vonnegut finely explains the contrast between war and love, beauty and innocence.
The second theme is very different from the first one, but it is perhaps the most often stated. Vonnegut tells his readers that people are all “bugs in amber”. This phrase is seen when Billy is captured by the Tralfamadorians. The idea can also be interpreted as man being physically stuck in this world and having no choice as to what he can or cannot do. Man can think about everything, but he does not have the power to change anything or create anything.
This idea is seen when Billy finds himself proposing to Valencia. “Billy didn’t want to marry ugly Valencia. She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her, when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his companion for life.” (Vonnegut 107) Billy didn’t want to marry Valencia, but he was “stuck in amber”, so he did.
The main thing Vonnegut likely wanted to show with this theme has to do with war. When Billy discusses the problems on earth with the Tralfamadorians, they tell him that there is no way to prevent war. They tell him that to try to prevent war would be “stupid”, because there would always be wars and that mankind was “designed” that way. People may work for peace, but they are wrong and do not understand human nature. Mankind cannot stop war because we are “stuck in amber”. So man should just keep on living life as it comes. Vonnegut clearly explains this point in the novel.
Another distinct theme is that death is inevitable and that no matter who dies, life still goes on. The phrase “So it goes” appears every time someone dies, which is one hundred and three times. It enables the narration to keep going and probably helped the author see death as the Tralfamadorians do. “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is `So it goes’”. (Vonnegut 27) The theme that death is inevitable is thoroughly expressed and plainly seen in the novel.
Slaughterhouse-five has many different themes, but perhaps the main thing that Vonnegut wanted to express to his readers is that no matter what happens, people must retain their humanity. In other words, man should not let himself be ruled by anyone or anything, be it a god, money, power… We should be ourselves. “I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction. The sun was risen upon the Earth when Lot entered into Zo-ar, I read. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Lord out of Heaven; and He overthrew those cities, and all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. So it goes… And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.” (Vonnegut 21-22) Vonnegut wanted to show his readers the importance of retaining humanity, even in the most difficult situations.
It is fair to say that Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five holds many important messages for its readers. One can see the theme of war in contrast with beauty, love and innocence, the theme that people are merely “bugs in amber”, the theme that death is inevitable and that no matter who dies, life always goes on and perhaps most importantly, the theme that no matter what happens in life, one must retain his humanity. All of these are obviously meaningful to the author, and he undoubtedly meant for his readers to appreciate their meaning as he did.
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. “Slaughterhouse-five; or a Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death”, Dell Publishing, New York 1969.