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The Slaughter House Five Essay Research Paper

The Slaughter House Five Essay, Research Paper THE NOVEL THE PLOT Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europe in the last year of World War II. If you come to know a combat veteran

The Slaughter House Five Essay, Research Paper

THE NOVEL

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THE PLOT

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Billy Pilgrim, like Kurt Vonnegut, was an American soldier in Europe

in the last year of World War II. If you come to know a combat veteran

well- a veteran of that war, of the Korean War, or of the war in

Vietnam- you will almost always find that his war experience was the

single most important event in his life. The sights and scars of war

remain with the soldier for the rest of his days, and his memories

of death and killing help to shape whatever future career he may make.

The same is true for Billy Pilgrim. What he saw and did during his

six months on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war have

dominated his life. Slaughterhouse-Five shows how Billy comes to terms

with the feelings of horror, guilt, and despair that are the result of

his war experiences.

Billy does this by putting the events of his life in perspective. He

reorganizes his life so that all of it occurs within the context of

his days in Europe during the war. Thus the novel relates Billy’s

prewar and postwar history (including his death in 1976, which was

many years in the future when Vonnegut was writing this book), but the

real story of the novel is the story of Billy’s wartime days. All

the other events in Billy’s life are merely incidental to his time

as a soldier and a prisoner of war. You see them as events that come

to his mind as he lives, or relives, the last months of the war in

Europe.

Billy reorganizes his life by using the device of “time-travel.”

Unlike everyone else, Billy Pilgrim doesn’t live his life one day

after another. He has become “unstuck in time,” and he jumps around

among the periods of his life like a flea from dog to dog.

When you meet him in Chapter 2, it is December 1944 and Billy and

three other American soldiers are lost in a forest far behind enemy

lines. Billy closes his eyes for a moment, drifts back to a day in his

past with his father at the YMCA, then suddenly opens his eyes in

the future: it’s 1965 and he is visiting his mother in a nursing home.

He blinks, the time changes to 1958, then 1961, and then he finds

himself back in the forest in December 1944.

Billy doesn’t have much time to wonder about what has just happened.

He’s captured almost immediately by German soldiers and put onto a

train bound for eastern Germany. Aboard the train Billy has a great

adventure in the future: on his daughter’s wedding night in 1967, he

is kidnapped by a flying saucer from the imaginary planet

Tralfamadore. The aliens take Billy to their home planet and put him

in a zoo.

Then, as always seems to happen, Billy wakes up back in the war. The

train arrives at a prison camp, and there a group of British

officers throw a banquet for the American POWs.

Before long he is traveling in time again, to a mental hospital in

1948, where he’s visited by his fiance, Valencia Merble. As soon as he

recovers from his nervous breakdown, Billy will be set up in

business as an optometrist by Valencia’s father. Billy is introduced

to science fiction by his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, whose

favorite author is Kilgore Trout. Trout’s writing is terrible, but

Billy comes to admire his ideas.

Billy travels in time again to Tralfamadore, where he is the most

popular exhibit in the zoo. His keepers love talking to Billy

because his ideas are so strange to them. He thinks, for example, that

wars could be prevented if people could see into the future as he can.

Next Billy wakes up on the first night of his honeymoon. After

making love, Valencia wants to talk about the war. Before Billy can

say much about it, he’s back there himself.

The American POWs are being moved to Dresden, which as an “open

city” (of no military value) has come through the war unscathed, while

almost every other German city has been heavily bombed. Billy knows

that Dresden will soon be totally destroyed, even though there’s

nothing worth bombing there- no troops, no weapons factories,

nothing but people and beautiful buildings. The Americans are housed

in building number five of the Dresden slaughterhouse.

Billy continues his time-travels. He survives a plane crash in 1968.

A few years before that, he meets Kilgore Trout. And on Tralfamadore

he tells his zoo-mate, Montana Wildhack, about the bombing of Dresden.

Billy Pilgrim and the other American POWs take shelter in a meat

locker beneath the slaughterhouse. When they go out the next day,

Dresden looks like the surface of the moon. Everything has been

reduced to ash and minerals, and everything is still hot. Nothing is

moving anywhere.

After months of digging corpses out of the ruins, Billy and the

others wake up one morning to discover that their guards have

disappeared. The war is over and they are free.

THE CHARACTERS

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One way to keep straight the many characters in

Slaughterhouse-Five is to group them according to when they appear

in Billy Pilgrim’s life.

There are the soldiers he meets during the war (Roland Weary, Paul

Lazzaro, Edgar Derby, and Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), the people from

his postwar years in Ilium, New York (his wife Valencia, his

daughter Barbara, Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, and Professor

Rumfoord), and the characters in his adventure in outer space (the

Tralfamadorians and Montana Wildhack).

A fourth group of characters might include the author himself and

actual persons in his life, such as Bernard and Mary O’Hare. Some of

the characters in this novel had already appeared in earlier novels by

Vonnegut: Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mr.

Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., in Mother Night, and the

Tralfamadorians in The Sirens of Titan. Except for the O’Hares, you

meet all of these characters only when they interact with Billy

Pilgrim.

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BILLY PILGRIM

Kurt Vonnegut has chosen the names of his characters with care. When

you first see a character’s name, you usually know something about

that character even before you read about what he or she has done.

Billy Pilgrim’s last name tells you that he is someone who travels

in foreign lands and that his journeys may have a religious or

spiritual aspect.

Otherwise Billy doesn’t appear very promising as the hero of a

novel. Physically, he’s a classic wimp. He’s tall, weak, and clumsy,

with “a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches” and the

overall appearance of “a filthy flamingo.”

He has a very passive personality as well. When Billy was a child

and his father threw him into a swimming pool, he just went to the

bottom and waited to drown. While he is trying to avoid capture by the

Germans, three other American soldiers offer him protection and

companionship, yet he keeps saying, “You guys go on without me.” After

the war, he allows himself to be pressured into marrying a stupid

and unattractive woman no one else will marry. And he lets his

daughter bully him constantly.

In the world of Slaughterhouse-Five Billy is a sheep among wolves.

Some readers regard him as a kind of Christ figure who sojourns in the

wilderness of his past and returns with a message of hope and peace

for humanity. They also see a parallel between Billy’s assassination

by Paul Lazzaro and Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross.

But none of the other characters see Billy this way. In the army his

“meek faith in a loving Jesus” makes everybody else sick. His

pacifism, together with his pathetic attempts to keep warm, make Billy

look like a clown in his blue toga and silver shoes.

Although many of the people he meets are thoughtless or cruel to

him, the thing that does the most damage to his already fragile

personality is the fire-bombing of Dresden. In what kind of world is

such a thing possible? Billy is tormented by this question to which he

has no answer.

Life seems to victimize Billy at every turn, yet he prefers to

turn the other cheek rather than put up a fight. This may be his

weakling attempt at “the imitation of Christ,” but to many readers

it looks a lot like a death wish. But Billy has two things that enable

him to survive: a powerful imagination and a belief that at heart

people are eager to behave decently. His own belief in goodness

never lets him despair, though he comes close to it. Ultimately it’s

his imagination that saves him.

Before Eliot Rosewater (another disillusioned man) introduces him to

science fiction, Billy’s fantasies are aimless and childish. Then,

in the writings of Kilgore Trout, Billy discovers a kindred spirit who

not only agrees that life is crazy but offers alternative versions

of reality. This gives Billy the idea of inventing a whole new fantasy

world.

In this created world, Billy sees himself as Adam and Montana

Wildhack as Eve. In order for this brave new world to work, Billy must

become “innocent” again, and to do this he has to discharge the

guilt and despair associated with his past. He does this by

reorganizing his life through time-travel, gradually putting

everything- but especially Dresden- in perspective. When this is

accomplished, his pilgrimage is over and Billy is free.

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ROLAND WEARY

A soldier in combat is always on duty, his life constantly at

risk, the tension sometimes unbearable. You know when you first see

his name that Billy’s fellow soldier Roland Weary is exhausted after

many months of fighting. What he needs is some rest.

Weary is a hard person to like: he’s stupid, fat, and mean, and he

smells bad. It’s no surprise that his companions want to “ditch” him

most of the time. So Weary has had to learn to deal with rejection,

and one way he does this is by fantasizing a glorious and exciting war

movie in which he is the hero. Because Weary fears that his

real-life companions, the army scouts, will abandon him, his war movie

concentrates on the deep, manly friendships he wishes he had in real

life.

Weary knows that the scouts will try to get rid off him sooner or

later. His “Three Musketeers” story is only a fantasy. He will want

revenge when he is ditched, and he usually gets his revenge by

ditching someone else. So he picks up a poor misfit who is even less

popular than himself, suckers him into a friendship, then ditches

him first. This time his would-be victim is Billy Pilgrim.

One nice thing happens to Roland Weary. He gets to die in the way he

would have wanted- in the arms of a true friend, Paul Lazzaro. Weary

has finally found a kindred spirit, and he can rest at last, knowing

that Lazzaro intends to carry out the last mission of Weary’s life, to

kill Billy Pilgrim.

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PAUL LAZZARO

The American POW Paul Lazzaro is the ugliest and meanest character

in the book. Not only is he disgusting to look at, he’s nasty to the

core, a real snake. In civilian life his friends are gangsters and

killers, and he may be a gangster himself. The sweetest thing in

life to him is getting revenge on people who have crossed him.

It’s not surprising that he and Roland Weary become buddies. Both of

them have regularly been snubbed by the more popular and attractive

people in their lives. Yet Lazzaro is more pure in his ugliness than

Weary. When Weary rambles on about different kinds of torture, he’s

speaking in the abstract, not talking about torturing anyone in

particular. But when Lazzaro dreams up ways of hurting people, each

torture is tailor-made for a specific victim.

Vonnegut’s description of Lazzaro is devastating: “If he had been

a dog in a city, a policeman would have shot him and sent his head

to a laboratory, to see if he had rabies.”

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EDGAR DERBY

At the time of World War II, men and boys everywhere still wore hats

whenever they went outdoors. But by then the derby, a hat with a

dome-shaped crown, had become a bit out of date and was usually seen

only on older men. Thus, you can tell by his name that Edgar Derby

is an older man than his fellow American POWs, and his values are

those he learned in an earlier era.

Because you know from the first that “poor old Edgar Derby” (as he

is usually called) is doomed, you watch his gentle acts of kindness

and generosity with a sinking heart. For Edgar Derby doesn’t deserve

to die. It is Derby who cradles the dying Weary’s head in his lap

(whatever Paul Lazzaro says), and it is Derby who volunteers to sit in

the prison hospital with a crazed and doped-up Billy Pilgrim while the

other Americans party with the Englishmen.

Derby believes that World War II is a just war. He had even pulled

strings to get into the fighting after the army told him he was too

old. And in Dresden, when the American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr.,

tries to talk the prisoners into going over to his side, Derby

stands up to him and makes a moving speech about the ideals of

America: “freedom and justice and opportunities and fair play for

all.” This takes courage, considering the position he’s in.

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VALENCIA MERBLE PILGRIM

Billy first checks into the mental hospital after hearing himself

propose marriage to this overweight, not very bright daughter of

Ilium’s richest optometrist. He sees her as “a symptom of his

disease,” his inability to deal with the alarming reality of the world

and his lack of interest in life. But he marries her anyway,

apparently for lack of a good reason not to. The marriage is hardly

a great romance, but Billy finds it “at least bearable all the way.”

His unhappiness seems to have less to do with her than with life

itself.

Considering that Vonnegut frequently prefers female over male

values, it’s difficult to find much to admire in Valencia. Not only is

she unattractive, she’s insensitive to the deep psychological damage

Billy underwent in the war, from which he continues to suffer.

But for all her faults, Valencia adores Billy and is helplessly

devoted to him. She is so terrified of losing him after he barely

survives a plane crash that she wrecks her car on the way to the

hospital, passes out, and dies from carbon monoxide fumes.

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BARBARA PILGRIM

Barbara Pilgrim, Billy’s put-upon daughter, has hardly had a

chance to get married and set up her own household when her father

almost dies in a plane crash. While he is in the hospital, her

mother inadvertently kills herself in an auto accident. Then, when

Billy comes home, he turns out to be prematurely senile from brain

damage and begins telling crazy stories about time-travel and aliens

kidnapping him in a flying saucer. Not only is she suddenly the head

of the family, but her father’s making a laughing stock of himself

(and her) in public.

No wonder Barbara’s a “bitchy flibbertigibbet.”

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BERTRAM COPELAND RUMFOORD

Billy meets Rumfoord while recuperating from the plane crash in

1968. Relentlessly virile and athletic, this seventy-year-old

Harvard professor and Air Force historian embodies every traditional

“masculine virtue” Billy finds so upsetting: blind patriotism,

sexism (his young fifth wife is just “one more public demonstration”

that he’s a “superman”), and a firm belief in the survival of the

fittest.

Vonnegut uses Rumfoord as the primary spokesman for what he calls

the “military manner” of thinking, which orders and then cravenly

justifies atrocities such as the bombing of Dresden.

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THE TRALFAMADORIANS

The Tralfamadorians are “two feet high, and green, and shaped like

plumber’s friends” topped by “a little hand with a green eye in its

palm.” They can see in four dimensions, and this enables them to

look at all time all at once, so death and the future hold no fear for

them. The Tralfamadorians, who live on a distant planet, are creatures

of science fiction.

Because of their alien perspective, the Tralfamadorians view human

behavior with an objectivity few Earthlings can have. In this way,

Vonnegut may be using the Tralfamadorians to tell you what he thinks

about human conduct. Whenever the Tralfamadorians speak, Vonnegut

may be revealing his own philosophy of life.

Some readers argue that the purpose of the Tralfamadorians is to

resolve the contradictions in life that have made Billy so upset. In

this interpretation, the aliens function in the same way as dreams and

mythology: they “explain” things through images and stories.

Others see the Tralfamadorians as the “gods” in Billy’s fantasy

universe: they guide and protect the creatures in their charge. This

makes them a big improvement over the “gods” Vonnegut sees as the

rulers of the modern world- technology, which dehumanizes people,

and authoritarian cruelty, which destroys people in the name of the

“survival of the fittest.”

The Tralfamadorians give Billy a philosophy through which he finds

peace of mind. They also give him Montana Wildhack to mate with, and

that brings him true happiness as well.

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MONTANA WILDHACK

Billy’s lover in this alien zoo is a curious combination of

ingredients. On the one hand, she is the compliant sex kitten that

bored, middle-aged males dream about in erotic fantasies. She is

beautiful (and naked), and makes the first sexual advances- though

shyly, of course.

On the other hand, Billy requires more from his dream woman than

mere sexuality. His entire Tralfamadore fantasy is his attempt to

reinvent the human race, with himself as the new Adam and Montana as

the new Eve. And so he makes her loving as well as sexy, understanding

as well as seductive, and a good mother to their child as well as a

good lover to him. In Billy’s ideal Creation, both must be able to

behave as decently as he believes Adam and Eve really wanted to

behave.

For all of her prodigious virtues, Montana Wildhack comes off as

rather bloodless compared to the real-life women in the book, such

as the annoying Valencia, the prickly Barbara, or the fiery Mary

O’Hare. But then Billy prefers fantasy to real life. It’s a lot safer.

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ELIOT ROSEWATER

One of the richest and smartest men in America, Eliot Rosewater is

also one of the most disillusioned. His faith in American

righteousness in World War II was shattered when he found that he

had killed a German fireman who was trying to put out a fire that

American bombers had started.

He tried drinking, but that just ruined his health without

alleviating what he saw as the alarming unfairness of the modern

world. So he committed himself to a mental hospital. There he meets

a kindred spirit in Billy Pilgrim, who comes to share with him the one

consolation Eliot has found in life: the peculiar wisdom in the

science fiction of Kilgore Trout.

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KILGORE TROUT

The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout has great ideas for novels.

(The Gutless Wonder is about a robot with bad breath; in The Gospel

from Outer Space Jesus is a nobody until God adopts him.) But his

prose style is frightful. After thirty years and more than

seventy-five novels, Trout has only two fans, Eliot Rosewater and

Billy Pilgrim, and even they are appalled by his writing.

Kilgore Trout is a manic version of Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote

science fiction and for years suffered from an indifferent public.

Vonnegut uses Trout’s books to make fun of many of the values

Americans hold dear. At the same time, he gets in a few good swipes at

the pretensions of his own profession.

In Slaughterhouse-Five (as in the two other Vonnegut novels in which

he appears) Kilgore Trout plays a small but important role. His

books offer Billy inspiration for therapeutic fantasies, and he

personally gives Billy the courage to face his Dresden experience.

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HOWARD W. CAMPBELL, JR.

Campbell is an American Nazi propagandist who writes a scornful

account of the behavior of American POWs in Germany and who shows up

at the slaughterhouse in Dresden to recruit candidates for his Free

American Corps. He tries to bribe the Americans by promising them a

terrific meal, but Edgar Derby puts Campbell in his place by calling

him “lower… than a blood-filled tick.” Campbell only smiles.

In an earlier book, Mother Night, Vonnegut told Campbell’s whole

story- he’s really an American spy who delivers coded messages to

the Allies through his racist radio broadcasts. But in

Slaughterhouse we see him only in his “official” role as the Nazi he

pretends to be.

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MARY O’HARE

Vonnegut dedicates this book to a real person, Mary O’Hare, the wife

of his old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare. He first meets her when he

tries to get Bernard to reminisce with him about their war

experiences, with the idea of generating material for his “famous book

about Dresden.” This makes Mary angry. She cares deeply about life-

she’s a nurse- and to her, all war does is kill people. She is

strong-minded and courageous enough to tell off an almost perfect

stranger when she thinks he’s wrong.

Vonnegut admires Mary O’Hare and wishes more people were like her.

He believes that if enough women like her told off enough “old

farts” like him, enough people might see the absurdity of war and we

wouldn’t have wars any more.

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BERNARD V. O’HARE

When Vonnegut visits Bernard O’Hare after the war, O’Hare appears to

be little more than a henpecked husband, and acts embarrassed when

Vonnegut tries to get him reminiscing about the war.

But O’Hare had refused to pick up souvenirs in Dresden, so even then

he must have hated the war and the “profit” some people made from it

(his buddies with their “trophies,” Vonnegut with his book). He’s a

gentle man who reproaches no one: when Vonnegut asks why Mary is

mad, O’Hare lies to spare Vonnegut’s feelings. And even though he

disapproves of Vonnegut’s project, he is kind enough to leave a book

about Dresden on the nightstand for him.

O’Hare is a great friend, and Vonnegut obviously likes him a lot.

He’s the only war buddy Vonnegut has kept in touch with, and

together they return to Dresden in 1967.

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KURT VONNEGUT

The author himself appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, mainly in the

first chapter, where he struggles vainly to get a handle on writing

his Dresden book. His breakthrough comes when Mary O’Hare reminds

him that it’s really babies who fight wars, not grown men. From that

moment on everything goes right for the author.

Vonnegut also pops up here and there in Billy Pilgrim’s POW story,

but he’s really just reminding you that what those American

prisoners of war saw and did really happened- and that he was there at

the time. In the last chapter he tells about his return to Dresden

as a tourist in 1967 with Bernard O’Hare.

OTHER ELEMENTS

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SETTING

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There are three main settings in Slaughterhouse-Five.

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1. War-ravaged Europe, through which Billy travels as a POW and ends

up in Dresden.

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2. Peacetime America, where Billy prospers as an optometrist and

pillar of society in Ilium, New York.

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3. The planet Tralfamadore, where Billy and his fantasy lover

Montana Wildhack are exhibited in a zoo.

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Each setting corresponds to a different period in Billy Pilgrim’s

life, and the story jumps from one setting to another as Billy travels

back and forth in time.

The physical contrast between the devastation of Europe and the

affluence of postwar America is tremendous. It’s ironic that Billy,

who suffered extreme privations as a prisoner of war, is made to

feel no better by the material wealth he later acquires as a

successful optometrist in Ilium, N.Y.

Ilium is the classical name for Troy, one of the richest cities in

the ancient world. In The Iliad, the Greek poet Homer (ninth century

B.C.) tells the story of the Trojan War, in which Troy was

eventually destroyed by the besieging Greeks. Some readers believe

that Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Iliad, for Troy was

reputedly as beautiful as Dresden was before it was bombed.

Billy begins to be happy about life only in an artificial but cozy

habitat on another planet. Tralfamadore is an invention of Billy’s

imagination, a paradise in which he, as Adam, and a new Eve (the

former pornographic movie star Montana Wildhack) can start the human

race over again. Within the dome that protects them from the poisonous

atmosphere of Tralfamadore, Billy and Montana are tended and watched

over by a new set of gods, the wise and kindly Tralfamadorians.

But notice that in each of the novel’s main settings Billy is

confined: first as a POW, then as a prisoner of the meaningless

contraptions of modern life, finally as an exhibit in an alien zoo.

And throughout the book Vonnegut portrays Billy as a prisoner of time.

Billy cannot change the past, the present, or the future, no matter

how much he moves around from one to the other. The persistent image

of a bug trapped in amber is Vonnegut’s clearest expression of this

idea.

THEMES

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Slaughterhouse-Five is first and foremost about war and how human

beings cope with it. In treating this subject, Vonnegut explores

several major themes, but no single one of them explains the whole

novel. You’ll find that some of the following statements ring more

true to you than others, yet you can find evidence in the book to

support all of them.

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WAR IS ABSURD

Vonnegut attacks the reasoning that leads people to commit

atrocities by drawing character portraits (Roland Weary and

Professor Rumfoord) and by quoting from official documents

(President Harry Truman’s explanation of the reasons for dropping

the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). And he gives you a look at the ruins of

Dresden so you can see the “ground zero” consequences of what he calls

the military manner of thinking- which rationalizes a massacre by

saying it will hasten the end of the war.

But more important than this generalized condemnation, Vonnegut

focuses on the enormity of war and its disastrous effect on human

lives, even long after it is over. Billy Pilgrim’s problems all stem

from what he experienced in the war. The hobo freezes to death in

the boxcar; Roland Weary dies from gangrene in his feet; Edgar Derby

is shot for stealing a teapot; the harmless city of Dresden is

bombed into the ground: it shouldn’t be possible for such things to

happen, Billy feels. And yet he was there and saw them happen with his

own eyes. His science fiction fantasies and time-traveling are his

attempt to cope with the psychological damage the war inflicted on

him. The fact that he succeeds (by going senile) is perhaps the most

absurd thing of all.

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AUTHORITY IS TO BLAME FOR ATROCITIES

To Vonnegut, both the boss and the underling escape guilt when an

atrocity is committed: the boss’s hands are clean because others did

the dirty work, and the underling was only following orders. He

maintains that this was just as true of the Allies as it was of the

Nazis in World War II. The Nazis built the death camps, and the Allies

bombed Hiroshima and Dresden.

Vonnegut believes that a great evil of authoritarianism is the

assumption of righteousness, the claim that “God is on our side.” In

other writings he expresses regret that the Nazis were so plainly evil

because that just made it easier for the Allied authorities to claim

that anything they did to defeat the Nazis was justified.

To Vonnegut this is the same kind of authoritarian arrogance that

led the Nazis into evil acts in the first place. There is no moral

justification for atrocities, Vonnegut says, even though some

defenders of the Dresden bombing maintain that it did accomplish its

goal: to end the war sooner by demoralizing the enemy.

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MODERN LIFE IS MEANINGLESS

Billy Pilgrim’s indifference to life comes as much from his

peacetime experiences as from anything that happened to him in the

war. During the war he could at least tell whether he was alive or

dead. But his postwar life is empty in spite of his material wealth

and the respect of his peers.

Vonnegut highlights this apparent contradiction by having Billy find

peace and happiness only through fantasy (or senility). Vonnegut seems

to say that in real life, life doesn’t work.

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ART VS. REALITY

Vonnegut spends a good deal of time in Slaughterhouse-Five talking

about fiction. In Chapter 1 he shows how a writer distorts reality

by forcing it to fit into the mold of a “good story.” In Chapter 5

he discusses the good and bad effects fiction has on our understanding

of life. In Chapter 9 he pokes fun at the pretensions of writers and

critics who take fiction too seriously. And the “fragmented style”

in which Slaughterhouse-Five is written may be an attempt to

reinvent the novel. As Eliot Rosewater says, fiction just “isn’t

enough any more.”

Part of the difficulty lies in the nature of art itself. Art selects

and orders its material, and the final product is a coherent whole.

But life is messy and redundant: it can’t be contained in the neat

formula of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the case

of such a horrifying event as the Dresden massacre, art has nothing

intelligent to say.

Some readers believe that Vonnegut overstates the problem in

Slaughterhouse-Five, that the book itself is the solution. just as

Billy Pilgrim reinvents his life so he can cope with it, Vonnegut

reinvents the novel so that it can cope with the absurd and often

monstrous events of the modern world.

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TECHNOLOGY DEHUMANIZES PEOPLE

Machine imagery abounds in Slaughterhouse-Five, and wherever it

turns up, it means bad news for human beings. Obviously, without

sophisticated technology, the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima

would not have been possible. But Vonnegut portrays even peacetime

technology as making people into robots whose lives revolve around

tending and improving machines. Billy’s father-in-law, Lionel

Merble, for example, is turned into a machine by the optometry

business.

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There are several additional themes that Vonnegut only touches on in

Slaughterhouse-Five, but which are given fuller treatment in his other

books.

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FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM

At first the heroes of almost all Vonnegut’s novels believe in

free will. (Free will is the idea that human beings make choices and

decide their own destinies, that their actions make a difference in

shaping their futures.) But inevitably Vonnegut’s heroes discover that

their choices were manipulated by outside forces, that their fates

were predetermined all along. Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut’s most passive

hero. He finds happiness and peace of mind only after adopting the

deterministic philosophy of his imaginary masters, the

Tralfamadorians.

-

DARWIN VS. JESUS

Vonnegut feels that Charles Darwin legitimized cruelty with his

theory of natural selection. Although Darwin limited his theorizing to

biology, other thinkers like the English philosopher Herbert Spencer

(1820-1903) applied this theory to social matters, and took Darwin’s

idea that the strong are favored in natural survival one step further,

implying that only the strong should survive. It is this version of

“social” Darwinism that Vonnegut disapproves of. In contrast, although

he has been an atheist all his life, Vonnegut has always admired the

Christian virtues of pacifism, tolerance, and love.

-

ORGANIZED RELIGION

Vonnegut doesn’t have much good will toward organized religion.

For him it is no different from any other form of authority, and

therefore it is capable of the same or greater evils. How many

atrocities have been justified by the claim that “God is on our side”?

-

DEATH

People are dying constantly in Slaughterhouse-Five, and of course

the destruction of Dresden brought death on a massive scale.

Vonnegut follows every mention of death with that familiar phrase, “So

it goes.” In this way he attempts to find a saner attitude toward

death by emphasizing that death is a common aspect of human existence.

Billy Pilgrim finds consolation in the Tralfamadorian notion that

people who are dead in the present remain alive in the times of

their past. Perhaps the author is saying that we too should be

consoled: the dead still live in our memories.

STYLE

-

On the second page of Chapter 5, a Tralfamadorian explains the

nature of novels on that planet:

-

“Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message- describing a

situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not

one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between

all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so

that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is

beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle,

no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love

in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at

one time.”

-

When you come upon this passage in the novel, you may feel a shock

of recognition. It sounds a lot like the very book you’re reading, and

you realize that the author is describing the effect he wants his

novel to have.

The most striking aspect of the style of Slaughterhouse-Five is

the fact that the text is made up of clumps of paragraphs, each

clump set off by extra space before and after it. A few of the

clumps are only one sentence long. Some are as long as a page and a

half. Each of them makes a simple statement or relates an incident

or situation. Thus the novel is said to be written in an anecdotal

style: the book is a collection of brief incidents, and the effect

of each one depends on how the author tells it.

Vonnegut generally uses short, simple sentences that manage to say a

great deal in a few words. “Three inoffensive bangs came from far

away.” The report seems an innocent one until you find out that the

scouts have just been shot. The contrast between the “inoffensive”

sound and its deadly meaning provides a startling effect.

There is irony too in that “inoffensive,” for what is inoffensive to

one person’s ears is fatally offensive to another person’s life. Irony

is a form of humor that occurs when a seemingly straightforward

statement or situation actually means its opposite. Irony occurs again

and again in the incidents Vonnegut describes. It is ironic that,

for all that the Bible represents as a statement of ethics, a

soldier carries a bullet-proof Bible sheathed in steel. There is irony

in a former hobo’s telling Billy- inside a boxcar prison that could be

taking them to their death- “I been in worse places than this. This

ain’t so bad.” And because Dresden was an “open city” during most of

the war, it was full of refugees who had fled there for safety. Almost

all of them died in the bombing. That is ironic.

Another kind of humor that the author relies on heavily is satire, a

form of ridicule that uses mockery and exaggeration to expose the

foolishness or evil of its subject. Professor Rumfoord is a

satirical portrait of the all-American male ideal. And, almost every

description of a Kilgore Trout novel satirizes modern life in some

way. A killer robot becomes popular only after his bad breath is

cleared up (advertising values), or a money tree is fertilized by

the dead bodies of those who killed each other to get its “fruit”

(material values).

Vonnegut has a powerful gift for tangy imagery. He describes Billy

as a filthy flamingo and a broken kite, the Russian prisoner as “a

ragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial.”

Sometimes his images border on the tasteless: an antitank gun

makes “a ripping sound like the zipper on the fly of God Almighty.”

But Vonnegut also creates images of almost heart-breaking

tenderness, as in the picture of Edgar Derby bursting into tears

when Billy feeds him a spoonful of malt syrup.

Vonnegut layers his storytelling with allusions (references) to

historical events. He evokes the Children’s Crusade in order to draw a

parallel between the “babies” he and O’Hare were in World War II and

the thirteenth-century religious expedition in which European children

were sent off to conquer the Holy Land. He refers to works of

literature: the novels of the French Nazi sympathizer Celine, the

medieval heroic epic poem The Song of Roland, and the Bible. He

paraphrases the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Genesis and mentions

Jesus occasionally. These allusions deepen our understanding and

appreciation of Billy’s story by suggesting historical and literary

parallels to the personal events in his life.

POINT OF VIEW

-

In Chapter 1 (and in portions of Chapter 10) the author speaks to

you directly in the first person about the difficult time he had

writing his book. The rest of the book is Billy Pilgrim’s story told

by a third-person narrator.

Because an outside narrator is telling Billy’s story, you learn

not only what Billy is doing and thinking at any time but what the

other characters are up to and what’s on their minds. Because Vonnegut

explains, in his first-person appearances as the writer-narrator, that

his own experiences in Dresden were the inspiration for

Slaughterhouse-Five, many readers assume that both the third-person

narrator and Billy Pilgrim represent the author. In this view, the

author is looking at the events of his own life- past, present, and

future- and trying to make some sense out of them the same way that

Billy is trying to order the events of his own life.

On several occasions the author actually reminds you directly

that, while he’s telling Billy’s story, he- Kurt Vonnegut- was

there, too. You’re reading about events that are based on the author’s

experience as a POW in Dresden. These interruptions also warn you that

you’re being told a story by a much older man, someone with a quite

different outlook on life from that of the “baby” who went to Dresden.

The flexible perspective of the narration allows Vonnegut to comment

frequently on the action, on life, and on writing itself.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

-

As explained in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorians

read the clumps of symbols, or messages, that make up their books

all at once. But human beings must read the clumps of paragraphs

that make up Slaughterhouse-Five one by one, and the order in which the author has set them out for you provides the structure of the

novel.

Vonnegut starts with a chapter of introduction or prologue in

which he tells his own story of writing his “famous book about

Dresden.”

The rest of the book, Chapters 2 through 10, tells Billy Pilgrim’s

story. Vonnegut begins this narrative with a short, factual history of

Billy’s life to the present in 1968. You soon discover why he does

this: in the pages that follow, Billy’s adventures are not related

entirely in chronological order, and that little outline history in

the early pages of Chapter 2 lets you read on without having to puzzle

over the proper sequence of events.

The portion of Billy Pilgrim’s history that is presented

chronologically is the six months from December 1944 to May 1945, when Billy was a soldier and then a POW in Europe. This period is by far

the most important in Billy’s life, and the novel is about how Billy

comes to terms with what he saw and heard and did in those six months.

When Billy finally works it all out in his mind, he is free, the

author has finished his Dresden book, and the novel has ended.

Therefore the basic structure of Slaughterhouse-Five is determined

by the sequence of events Billy experienced in the final months of

World War II. Into this sequence Billy fits all the other happenings

of his life. He even believes that he first “came unstuck in time”

in the Luxembourg forest in 1944, though the narrator seems to suggest

that this weird phenomenon was actually the result of the brain damage

Billy sustained in the plane crash in 1968.

Because Billy is reinventing his life by reorganizing his memories

and adding his fantasies, it’s important that you keep your bearings

as you follow Billy’s own rearrangement of his history. For this you

may find helpful the following chronological sequence of the important

events in Billy’s life.

-

1922 Billy born in Ilium, New York.

-

1941 America enters World War II.

-

1944 Billy, now a soldier, captured by Germans in the Battle

of the Bulge. He spends Christmas on a POW train headed

for Czechoslovakia.

-

1945 Billy arrives in Dresden, is put to work in a factory, is

January housed in Slaughterhouse-Five.

-

1945 Dresden fire-bombed by the Allies. POWs and guards survive

February in an underground locker and begin to dig bodies out of

the rubble the next day.

-

1945 War ends in Europe and POWs are released. Billy goes home

May to Ilium.

-

1948 Billy recovers from a nervous breakdown, marries Valencia

Merble, fathers Robert and Barbara. The optometry

business in Ilium prospers.

-

1967 Barbara marries. Billy kidnapped the same night and taken

to Tralfamadore, where he is exhibited in a zoo and

mated with Montana Wildhack.

-

1968 Billy survives plane crash in Vermont. Valencia dies while

Billy is recovering. Billy goes to New York City to tell

about the Tralfamadorians.

-

1976 Billy assassinated in Chicago after speaking on flying

saucers and time.

THE STORY

-

Vonnegut’s method of storytelling sometimes makes it difficult to

follow him or to see his point in a welter of apparently unrelated

anecdotes. To help you along, the discussion of each chapter in this

section begins with a brief overview of the chapter’s structure.

CHAPTER 1

-

STRUCTURE: The string of anecdotes that lead up to Vonnegut’s

visit with the O’Hares all describe problems related to writing his

“famous book about Dresden.” After his visit to the O’Hares, things

start going well for him, and he is able to write the book. In the

last part of the chapter Vonnegut finds solutions to (or at least ways

around) his writing problems.

Let’s look at some of those problems the author complains about.

THE WORDS JUST WON’T COME. Although he thought it would be easy to

write about Dresden- “all I would have to do would be to report what I

had seen”- he just can’t seem to get started. Vonnegut may be afraid

that he has used up his talent, or somehow ruined it (the off-color

limerick suggests this idea), perhaps by writing so much science

fiction instead of “saving himself” for his “great book about

Dresden.”

EVERY TIME HE STARTS THE BOOK, HE ENDS UP GOING IN CIRCLES. The

Yon Yonson poem illustrates this dilemma. Once you start it, you go

around and around forever.

ANOTHER ANTIWAR BOOK WOULD BE POINTLESS. This problem is clearly

stated in the conversation Vonnegut has with the movie director. Books

don’t stop wars because wars are as unstoppable as glaciers are.

WRITING ISN’T THE NOBLE PROFESSION EVERYONE THINKS IT IS. Vonnegut

calls himself a “trafficker in climaxes and thrills and

characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and

confrontations.” He goes on to describe a diagram he made that reduces

every human being to a line of color and makes the destruction of

Dresden nothing but a brilliant stripe of orange. What was once an

atrocity has now become something abstract and “pretty.”

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: PARALLEL IMAGES This chapter is full of images that resurface

in altered form later in the book. In Chapter 4, for example, the

Tralfamadorians use the metaphor of bugs trapped in amber to

describe human beings caught in time. This image parallels the idea of

characters “trapped” in a diagram for a story. The “idiotic

Englishman” with his absurd souvenir turns up again in the guise of

Roland Weary displaying his weapons to Billy (Chapter 2) and later

(Chapter 6) as Billy himself, showing his “treasures” to the Dresden

surgeon. In a way the Englishman is also like Vonnegut trying to

interest O’Hare in his Dresden story. Vonnegut is not only

struggling with writing problems here, he is generating material

that he will rework into Billy’s story.

—————————————————————–

-

WRITING WON’T HELP VONNEGUT FIND MEANING IN HIS LIFE. Vonnegut isn’t

very happy with himself. He’s getting old, he’s killing himself with

alcohol and cigarettes, he and his wife don’t communicate any more.

Maybe life itself is a rut he fell into: before he knew it he’s “an

old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls.”

WRITING DEHUMANIZES THE WRITER. The gruesome story of the

veteran’s being killed by an elevator points up this problem. Nancy

does to the veteran the same thing that Vonnegut wants to do with

Edgar Derby- she dehumanizes him by making him a character in a story.

This in turn dehumanizes her, making her unable to feel anything for

the suffering of others. Vonnegut fears that even if he does finish

his Dresden book, the very act of constructing a good story will

turn him into a callous creep.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: MACHINE IMAGERY One of Vonnegut’s favorite themes is the

uneasy relationship between man and machines, and this anecdote is

shot through with machine imagery. it’s even possible to see the

News Bureau as being run by its machines. And it’s ironic that the

veteran is killed by getting his hand caught in an iron gate that is

imitating life forms- iron ivy, iron twigs, iron lovebirds. Keep an

eye out for other instances of such imagery.

—————————————————————–

-

WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MASSACRE? The cocktail party anecdote,

where Vonnegut hears about the death camps, illustrates another

problem. How do you respond when someone tells you these ghastly

stories? “Oh, my God” doesn’t say very much, does it? That’s

Vonnegut’s point.

These problems frustrated Vonnegut for twenty-three years, until

he visited the O’Hares. You should look at this anecdote in some

detail. He begins by describing the trip from Cape Cod as seen through

the eyes of two little girls, his daughter and her friend. To them the

world is full of strange sights, including rivers and waterfalls to

stop and wonder at. The peaceful scene contrasts sharply with the

purpose of the trip, which is to reminisce about the war- as if that

time of destruction and death were “the good old days.”

O’Hare is embarrassed about reminiscing, and his wife Mary seems

intent on keeping him that way. She bangs ice trays, moves

furniture, and mutters to herself. When she finally tells Vonnegut off

he too is embarrassed because he realizes he’s been thinking and

acting like a fool about his “famous book on Dresden.”

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: EMBARRASSMENT Doesn’t every anecdote in this chapter deal

with embarrassment? Vonnegut has consistently portrayed himself as a

fool: a grown man playing with crayons, an “idiotic Englishman” with

his stupid souvenir, an “old fart” who talks to his dog, a green

reporter trying to act tough. The point is that he doesn’t realize how

embarrassing his actions have been until he encounters Mary O’Hare.

Perhaps Vonnegut is saying that embarrassment, not horror, is the

proper way to feel about atrocities committed in war. It is those

people who are not embarrassed who are dangerous. They are the ones

who come up with the kind of thinking that says, “We have to bomb

Dresden so we can end the war sooner.”

—————————————————————–

-

Vonnegut also has a tangible breakthrough while visiting the

O’Hares: he conceives the idea of calling his book “The Children’s

Crusade.” Coming up with a title may help a writer to crystallize

his thinking on a subject or get him going in the right direction.

This seems to happen to Vonnegut.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: THE CRUSADES There were approximately seven Crusades

between the years 1095 and 1271. The Christian powers of Europe sent

these military expeditions to Palestine in a mostly unsuccessful

attempt to regain possession of the Holy Land from the Moslems. The

name crusade comes from the Latin word crux, meaning cross. Vonnegut’s description of the Children’s Crusade is pretty accurate.

Note how Vonnegut puts together two ideas that ought to be totally

contradictory: holy and war. The book is full of such ironic

juxtapositions, so keep an eye out for them.

—————————————————————–

-

The senselessness of the historical Children’s Crusade provides

Vonnegut with a parallel to the destruction of Dresden. And he

learns that Dresden had been bombed before, just as pointlessly. The

quote from the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(1749-1832) conveys Vonnegut’s view. The caretaker of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is showing the undamaged dome to his young visitor. This is what our great architect did, he tells Goethe. Then

he gestures at the bombed-out ruins around the church and says, that

is what the enemy did!

Vonnegut’s visit to the O’Hares has been fruitful, and on the way

home he finds additional material. At the New York World’s Fair he and

the girls see “official versions” of the past and future that make him

wonder about the present: “how wide it was, how deep it was, how

much was mine to keep.” This suggests one of the major subjects of the

book, the nature of time and how it works.

Suddenly Vonnegut is asked to teach in one of the most prestigious

writing programs in the country. And he gets a three-book contract.

Nothing had worked before, but everything is working now. He

finishes the book.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: VONNEGUT’S SELF-DEPRECATION Vonnegut often mocks himself

and his writing. Some readers see this as false modesty, others

believe he’s sincere. Slaughterhouse-Five has a loot of intelligent

things to say about the destruction of Dresden- about the thinking

that caused it, about the effect it had on the people who survived it,

about what he sees as the right way and the wrong way to remember

it. The book is not a failure, for it made Vonnegut’s reputation and

is generally considered his masterpiece. And Slaughterhouse-Five

informed the public that Dresden- at least in terms of number of

people killed- was the worst single bombing attack of the war.

—————————————————————–

-

Before concluding his account of the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five,

Vonnegut takes us back to Dresden in 1967. (You remember he

mentioned this trip at the beginning of the chapter.) Underneath the

rebuilt Dresden, where Vonnegut and O’Hare are having so much fun,

“there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.” Bone meal is

a fertilizer made from grinding up the bones of slaughterhouse

animals. The present Dresden sprang up like a flower from the

sterile ground of “the moon” (what Dresden looked like after it was

bombed), aided by the fertilizer of crushed human bones.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: RESONANCE This image, like so many others in

Slaughterhouse-Five, has an extraordinary resonance. In music,

resonance is the enrichment of sound by means of echoes. If you’ve

ever been in a large church when the choir is singing, you know how

rich that sound can be: the voices bounce off the walls and increase

the vibration in the air. In literature, an image is resonant when

it reminds us of other images and enriches our understanding by

connecting things that didn’t seem related before.

—————————————————————–

-

The final anecdote in Chapter 1, Vonnegut’s “non-night” in Boston,

shows him “locking in” on the main ideas that Slaughterhouse-Five will

embody. The first idea he presents has to do with the difference

between time as we think of it and time as we experience it.

Remember the scene where Vonnegut and the two girls stood looking at

the Hudson River? This is our image of external time: it flows at a

steady rate in one direction, from the past through the present toward

the future. But in our minds we can jump from the past (memory) to the

future (fantasy or planning) without having to go through the “time”

in between. We can also go backward as well as forward in time. And

not only can it feel as though it takes a year for a second to pass,

but a lifetime can seem as though it’s over in a second. Vonnegut

may be suggesting that this internal time is more real to us than

the external time of clocks and calendars.

Vonnegut explores this idea in the quotations from the French writer

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which say that the passage of time leads

inevitably to death, and if time could be stopped, no one would die.

We know that the flow of external time cannot be stopped. But internal

time is a different matter. Don’t we do exactly what Celine wants to

do- stop people from disappearing- in our memories? And isn’t that

what Vonnegut does with Dresden in writing Slaughterhouse-Five?

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) had a

reputation in France equal to that of Ernest Hemingway in America. But

in the late 1930s Celine declared himself to be an antisemite and a

Nazi sympathizer, and after World War II was tried and imprisoned as a

war criminal. It seems amazing, but Vonnegut claims that Celine had

a great influence on him. In an essay published in 1974, he explains

what Celine meant to him and why he admires him so much. He is willing

to forgive what he calls Celine’s “racism and cracked politics”

because he was a great and inspiring writer: “…in my opinion, Celine

gave us in his novels the finest history we have of the total collapse

of Western civilization in two world wars, as witnessed by hideously

vulnerable common women and men.”

—————————————————————–

-

Another idea that Vonnegut is fond of can be found in the American

poet Theodore Roethke’s poem, which implies that we are not masters of

our destinies, as we like to imagine, but that we get the hang of life

by doing what circumstances force us to do.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: MAN VICTIM/AGENT Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi

whom we will meet later, is a perfect example of this theme. In Mother

Night he’s an American spy whose radio broadcasts contain coded

messages about Nazi troop movements and battle plans. After the war he

is tried as a war criminal because of the obvious damage he did as a

Nazi propagandist. Whether he was a real Nazi or just pretending to be

one makes no difference.

—————————————————————–

-

Another idea presented in this anecdote comes from the biblical

Sodom and Gomorrah story, an example of the kind of “good story”

Vonnegut doesn’t want his Dresden book to be. Sodom and Gomorrah are

destroyed because they are evil. Lot and his family are spared because

they are good. But there’s a wrinkle in this otherwise typical “tale

of great destruction”: Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a

pillar of salt.

This is a particularly rich image. In the first place, she might

never have thought of looking back until she was told not to. (You

know the feeling of wanting something only after you’ve been told

you can’t have it.) But Vonnegut hints at another reason she might

have had: “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 she was so human.”

Does this remind you of Mary O’Hare? Vonnegut often gives the values

he admires most to the women characters in his books, implying that

women are more humane than men. Some see Vonnegut’s preference for

women’s values as a subtle form of male chauvinism. According to

this interpretation, the tough reporter Nancy lost her humanity by

taking a man’s job, while Mary O’Hare retained hers by staying home

with the babies. Vonnegut seems to support this argument when he says,

“The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who’d gone to war.” On the other hand, the war made it necessary for women to leave home and go to work- and men started

the war.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: LYSISTRATA In the literature of ancient Greece a very funny

play by Aristophanes, Lysistrata, offers an ingenious solution to

the problem of war. In the play, Athens and Sparta have been at war

for twenty years, and the women are fed up. So they go on a “sex

strike,” demanding that the men sign a peace treaty. After a while the

men become so desperate they have to agree. (In real life the war

dragged on for seven more years and ended only when Athens was

destroyed.)

—————————————————————–

-

Even if you think that Vonnegut is a “closet male chauvinist,”

others say that his main point is not that a woman’s place is in the

home but that a human being’s place is not in a war.

CHAPTER 2

-

STRUCTURE: In this chapter you meet Billy Pilgrim and get a taste of

his peculiar experience of time. Vonnegut summarizes Billy’s life from

his birth (1922) to the present (1968). Then he opens up two important

plot lines. The first involves Billy’s attempt to tell his story to

the world in 1968. The second is the beginning of Billy’s adventures

in the war.

Vonnegut begins with the premise that Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in

time,” that he lives his life out of sequence, paying random visits to

all the events of his life, in no apparent order, and often more

than once. But notice the two words “he says.” Vonnegut uses them

three times in this section, and they warn you that what Billy says

may not always be fact.

Billy’s “official biography” condenses Billy’s life into the space

of a couple of pages. It resembles the diagram Vonnegut drew for his

Dresden story, which reduced Dresden to a few colored lines on the

back of a length of wallpaper. And the biography serves the same

purpose as the diagram: it allows you to see the whole story at a

glance.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: AUTOBIOGRAPHY There are parallels here to Vonnegut’s own

life. He too was born in 1922, married and went to college after the

war, and worked in Schenectady, an upstate New York city much like

Ilium. We already know that he was captured by the Germans in World

War II and lived through the bombing of Dresden. He is also over six

feet tall.

—————————————————————–

-

The thumbnail sketch of Billy’s life provides a framework into which

you can fit the out-of-sequence events of the novel. Clearly

Slaughterhouse-Five is not going to be just another “good story.”

For Vonnegut there is more than one aspect to any event: there is

the event itself, how it is experienced, how it is remembered

afterward, and, perhaps most important, how it is told.

-

———————————————————————

NOTE: MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVE It can be maddening to have to be

aware of all these levels at once. But Vonnegut’s point is that you

can’t fully understand the story until you realize that all these

levels exist simultaneously in any story. In effect you are being

encouraged to look at Slaughterhouse-Five in the way a

Tralfamadorian would- from every point of view, all at the same time.

—————————————————————–

-

Billy’s biography ends in 1968, the “present,” and Billy is

writing to his local newspaper about the aliens who kidnapped him

the year before.

Are the Tralfamadorians “real”? Vonnegut speaks of them as though

Billy’s account is to be taken seriously. But he’s already cast

doubt on Billy’s credibility with those repeated “he says.” Notice,

too, that Billy never mentions the Tralfamadorians until after the

plane crash. This makes it possible, even likely, that he imagined

them in his delirium. The trauma to his brain, as often happens, has

released vivid memories as well as hallucinations. This could mean

that Billy’s “coming unstuck in time” didn’t happen in 1944, as it

seems to him, but in 1968, when his skull was cracked. Certainly

this is his daughter’s interpretation of her father’s stories. And not

only has he gone soft in the head, he’s determined to disgrace both

himself and her by proclaiming his lunacy to the world!

In the middle of their argument Vonnegut stops the action to provide

exposition- background information to help you understand what’s going

on- and to remind his readers that this is a story, not real life.

Every chapter is studded with similar moments in which Vonnegut

holds up the development of the story to indicate what he’s doing as a

writer.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: EXPOSITION In a conventional story the author tries to

weave the exposition into the action. Usually this is done by making

what happens in the scene so engrossing that you’re not aware you’re

being given bits of necessary information. But Vonnegut believes

that a writer can’t separate his telling of the story from the story

itself. In Chapter 1 he went to a lot of trouble to demonstrate this

problem. And one way to deal with the problem is to acknowledge it.

Vonnegut is saying, We need exposition here, so here’s the exposition.

—————————————————————–

-

The second plot line opens in the Luxembourg forest, where Billy and

his companions- two infantry scouts and the antitank gunner Roland

Weary- are lost behind enemy lines. It is here that Billy will first

“come unstuck in time.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone more different from Billy Pilgrim than

Roland Weary. In different circumstances these two might remind you of

an incongruous comedy team. To the scouts, who are “clever,

graceful, quiet” (perfectly adapted to their predicament), they aren’t

funny, they’re dangerous: Weary because he makes so much noise,

Billy because he just stands there when somebody shoots at him. If

this were an ordinary war story, the scouts- who are expert

soldiers- would probably be the main characters, Billy and Weary the

comic relief. But Vonnegut is more interested in the clowns than in

the good soldiers, perhaps because to him the clowns behave more

like real people would. He is also preparing us for the irony in the

next chapter, when the good soldiers will be killed and the clowns

spared.

-

—————————————————————–

NOTE: ALLUSIONS AND PARODIES In this scene Vonnegut makes some

complex literary allusions or indirect references to other works.

The name “Billy” recalls the innocent victim/hero of Herman Melville’s

Billy Budd. “Pilgrim” suggests John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century

moralistic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the hero, called

Christian, encounters many adventures and setbacks on his journey from

the world of sin to the foot of the cross, where he finds salvation.

All of Billy’s story might be seen as a parody (take-off) of Pilgrim’s

Progress: Billy passes through absurd scenes of modern life to find

happiness among aliens from outer space.

The scene in the Luxembourg forest also parodies the conclusion of

the medieval French epic poem The Song of Roland. (Vonnegut even

tips you off to the allusion in Roland Weary’s name.) In that war tale

the protagonist and his best friend die heroically defending Western

(i.e. Christian) civilization against attack by Muslim Saracens. The

parody is quite detailed. The medieval Roland has a horn that he

refuses to blow until he’s really in trouble, while Weary has a

whistle he won’t blow until he is promoted to corporal. Roland is a

true Christian fighting the infidel (non-believing) Saracen. Weary,

a smelly footsoldier who doesn’t know what he’s fighting for, is up

against the Nazis, the modern-day infidels.

—————————————————————–

-

Vonnegut makes it clear that Roland Weary can’t help being an

obnoxious jerk any more than Billy Pilgrim can help looking like a

filthy flamingo. Weary’s life has been a disaster because people are

always “ditching” him, so he compensates by fantasizing an adventure

in which he is a hero. Some readers see in this a parallel to

Billy’s fantasy of the Tralfamadorians, who choose him to represent

the human race in their zoo. But it’s also just common psychology. How

many times have you felt “left out” and dreamed of doing something

extraordinary that would “show” the people who snubbed you?

Notice the difference between Weary’s “Three Musketeers movie” which

is full of violence, triumph, and manly camaraderie, and Billy’s

gentle, noncompetitive fantasies. Billy wins friends by sock skating

and influences people by taking a public-speaking course.

Left to himself, Billy would have frozen to death days ago. So it

may be stress that brings on his first slip in time. Many people who

have come back from the brink of death have described the experience

of having their whole life flash before their eyes. This comes

pretty close to Vonnegut’s description of Billy’s “coming unstuck.”

Billy passes into death, moves backward to pre-birth, reverses

d

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