Underlying Themes Unveiled In Slaughterhouse-Five Essay, Research Paper
Underlying Themes Unveiled in Slaughterhouse-Five
Born in 1922, a contemporary novelist named Kurt Vonnegut has achieved great success as a writer in modern society. He got his start in writing during 1948 by contributing his time and efforts to the Shortridge High School student newspaper, the Daily Echo. While attending Cornell University in 1940, Kurt worked on the school?s Daily Sun. He joined the U.S. Army two years later. In 1947, Vonnegut worked for the General Electric Corporation as a research laboratory publicist. This job was obviously not what he wanted to do forever, so he decided to leave and devote his full time to writing in 1950. He published Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969.
Slaughterhouse-Five, also known as The Children?s Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death, deceivingly appears to be a simplistic story after reading the opening chapter. It is a personal novel about the author, Kurt Vonnegut, and his struggles and experiences during World War II and how they impacted his life. Upon reading into the latter chapters of the novel, you can see that the first impression of the book?s content is defunct because cleverly intermittent themes, contrasts, and morals can be identified. Through a simple man named Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut disguises a lecture against war and an acceptance of death.
The story begins with a warning that the novel was hard for Vonnegut to create. ?This one is a failure?, he writes, ?since it was written by a pillar of salt? (Vonnegut 22). In the story, we find that Billy idolizes an unpopular science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout. Trout?s unpopularity parallels with Vonnegut?s own humble perception of his abilities. Just as Trout does, Vonnegut keeps writing his works even though he feels as though they are failures. Due to his humble nature, he tells the reader from the beginning how the story opens and concludes. This allows the reader to decide whether or not to read the book. Vonnegut also teaches his own religious moral beliefs through his humbleness.
One night a spaceship captures Billy and takes him back to their planet Tralfamadore. While Billy is there, they teach him and the reader that war and death are inevitable and should be accepted. They serve as a surrogate God proclaiming that fate is real, and it cannot be changed. Billy learns from them that when a person dies, they only look as though they are dead, but they are still very much alive in the past. The Tralfamadorians also teach that we should not be proud, a sin associated with the Christian belief. They tell Billy that Earth is just a minute part of the large universe and we should not take ourselves too seriously. He reminds the readers not to think too highly of ourselves as he does through continually humbling his work. Vonnegut teaches that war is stupid and we should just accept that it happens and go on with our lives. His personal views on war issues come out through the Tralfamadorians. The subtitle of the book, The Children?s Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death, accuses soldiers of war being innocent children that have an obligation, or duty, to go to war, the ?dance of death?. He mentions that the soldiers in Dresden were baby-faced and he rarely ever had to shave.
Vonnegut uses Billy Pilgrim to mask himself in order to get his messages across without turning readers away with unentertaining lectures. He attempts to get his readers to accept the fact that death is inevitable and we must not fear the end, for this is the life lesson that he has come to realize for himself. Vonnegut invites readers to open their minds and to view new ways to perceive our own lives through his wit and humor; however, he does not force his own beliefs and ideas. One of the various echoes throughout Slaughterhouse-Five is the prayer ?God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change?? (Vonnegut 60, 209). Readers are invited to reconcile themselves with death through the religious themes that are presented in this book. Vonnegut offers many new ideas to explore through fantasy, religion, science, and human experience. The mere concept of time is yet another theme that is mentioned to capture the audience?s curiosity.
One of the main themes of the novel is the ?bugs in the amber? which refers to the existence of the past, present, and future all intertwined together at once. Billy Pilgrim moves backward and forward through time as if time itself were a photo album. The reader is told abruptly that Billy ?has come unstuck in time? (Vonnegut 23). He might be in the middle of the war in Dresden or the planet Tralfamadore and then he may be found once again in his childhood years. It begins to be questionable as to whether or not Billy is sane or if his experiences are reality. Are we humans really the ?bugs in amber? that the book refers to? The phrase first appears when Billy is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorian flying saucer:
?Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,? said the loudspeaker. ?Any questions??
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: ?Why me??
?That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber??
?Yes.? Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office, which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
? Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why?? (Vonnegut 76-77)
This extraterrestrial opinion can be interpreted as our being physically stuck in this world, that we don?t have any choice over what we, mankind as a whole, do and how we progress. We may be able to think about everything, but there is nothing that we can do to change. This idea comes out when Billy is proposing to Valencia and wondering why in the world he is doing it. He doesn?t want to marry the ugly Valencia, but he begged for her hand in marriage. This demonstrates that he doesn?t love her and he actually does not want to be with her, but he is ?stuck in amber?. Billy cannot change the fate of their marriage to one another. Another way that he is ?stuck? is the fact that he knows the exact timing of his own death, yet he does nothing to try to prevent it. Billy knows that if he struggles to get away it will do him no good. He could not have changed it. Pilgrim discusses wars on Earth with the Tralfamadorians. They claim that our notions to try to prevent wars on Earth are ridiculous. There will always be wars and people are ?designed? that way. We know that wars are bad and we would like to stop them, but we are ?stuck in amber?.
Billy Pilgrim?s lapses in time give the reader a cyclical feeling. He needs to go back and forth throughout his lifetime not only to understand himself, but also to endure himself, to become his history (Lundquist 79). Cycles of death and renewal of life continue throughout the story. ?So it goes?, a line found often in the book, helps to aid in the continuation of the novel. Billy learned this line from the Tralfamadorians. The term is used to ?control the tone and the reader?s response? (Klinkowitz 67). Each time a death occurs, the line ?so it goes? is there to help us accept the death, the fact that we can do nothing about it, and move onto renewal and re-entry into the living world. Billy learned this from the Tralfamadorians. They saw the world as a portrait that has been laid out and finished with all experiences present all at once. ? All time is all time. It does not change,? they tell him (Vonnegut 211). They believed that death is predestined and one cannot avoid the outcome. Billy learned to accept his life experiences from the Tralfamadorians just as Vonnegut has come to see death in a whole new light. ?I, Billy Pilgrim?will die, have died, and will always die on February 13th, 1976? (Vonnegut 141). Pilgrim dies and renews his life many times, enforcing the cyclical nature of the book.
Vonnegut keeps this series of cycles going through the use of excessive repetition. ?Um? is uttered often by Billy, as is the description of smelling like ?mustard gas and roses?. He uses this repetition to stress underlying messages that he wants to convey. The ?poo-tee-weet? of the birds at the beginning and end of the book represent Vonnegut?s own ?so it goes?. Readers are told that there is only the sound of birds at the end of massacres and all that they can say is ?poo-tee-weet? (Vonnegut 19). Pilgrim is accused of having echolaia, a mental disease that makes people repeat things that people around them say. The audience could also accuse the author of having this disease. This is just one of the connections that can be made between the author and the main character.
Billy gets caged by the Tralfamadorians in order for them to study human behavior and our thought processes. This is very similar to Vonnegut?s own caging as a prisoner of war. The mere idea of being caged seems mortifying, but both Billy and Vonnegut can escape the reality of being imprisoned by revisiting the past. The important thing for us to learn is that although we may not be able to physically escape a horrible situation, we can mentally get away, and that is where we find our inner peace. No matter what happens to us, we should retain our humanity and never let anything influence our personalities.
The lesson of keeping our humanity is expressed through the biblical story of Lot?s wife. Although she was warned not to look back at the destruction of the town and its? people, she did anyway out of human instinct. Vonnegut claims to ?love her for that because it was so human? (Vonnegut 21-22). Most humans would do the same thing out of curiosity. Even though she turned into a pillar of salt for doing this, Vonnegut feels as though it was the right thing to do just because it was human and possibly her fate. The reason that we cannot change is because God himself put us in this amber.
The lesson learned from this book is to open your mind to new ideas. Maybe everything is not the way that we have always envisioned it. Death is not as horrible as it may seem because your life will be remembered by others; therefore, we are immortal in the hearts and minds of others.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Contemporary Writers-Kurt Vonnegut. London: Methuen, Inc., 1982.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederick Ungar
Publishing Co., 1977.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell
Publishing Co., 1969.