slaughterhouse-five; or the children’s crusade, a duty dance with death
Publisher, place and year of edition:
Dell Publishing, New York 1971
Author, short biography and bibliography, dedication:
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in 1922. He is an author of
numerous novels and short stories, two plays and several works of
non-fiction. Most of his books are affected by his war experience
(Hocus Pocus, Mother Night etc.), although in some novels it is
really hard to identify. In Slaughterhouse-Five, however, the war
experiences are obvious from the beginning.
All his books are strongly satirical and ironical (Vonnegut
often uses very dark humor), funny and extremely
wise. They mostly have a very poor plot (or none at all).
Kurt Vonnegut also very often uses science fiction and comic book
formulas (quick action, short dialogues etc.), which usually puts
his books onto bookstore shelves marked "sci-fi". Vonnegut,
however, doesn't take the sci-fi elements with the same
seriousness as the other sci-fi writers, and that probably
makes the difference between his works and science fiction.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, many characters from his previous
books show up (Mr. Rosewater, Kilgore Trout, the Tralfamadorians
etc.) The reader can also recognize some themes that appeared in
Vonnegut's earlier books (War vs. Love; Life vs. human
understanding etc). Some critiques described Slaughterhouse-Five
as a summary of his previous five novels.
''In Slaughterhouse Five, -- Or the Children's Crusade, Vonnegut finally delivers a complete treatise on the World War II bombing of Dresden. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a very young infantry scout who is captured in the Battle of the Bulge and quartered in a Dresden slaughterhouse where he and other prisoners are employed in the production of a vitamin supplement for pregnant women. During the February 13, 1945, firebombing by Allied aircraft, the prisoners take shelter in an underground meat locker. When they emerge, the city has been levelled and they are forced to dig corpses out of the rubble. The story of Billy Pilgrim is the story of Kurt Vonnegut who was captured and survived the firestorm in which 135,000 German civilians perished, more than the number of deaths in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Point of view:
The book has two narratives. One is personal and the other
is impersonal. The latter is the story of Billy Pilgrim who,
similarly to the author, fights in World War Two, is taken
prisoner by the Germans and witnesses the fire-storming of
The whole narration is written in the past tense, so that the
reader can not identify where the author's starting point is.
The personal narrative is Vonnegut's own story about
writing a book about the worst experience of his life. It appears
mostly in the first chapter, and describes his temptation to
write a book about Dresden and his efforts to finally produce it.
The personal view also appears in the tenth (and last) chapter.
This can assure the reader of particular identity of
the author with Billy.
The whole book is organized in the same way Billy moves
in time. It consists of numerous sections and paragraphs strung
together in no chronological order.
Vonnegut manages to tell the reader many things and it is
hard to decide, what exactly is the main theme. It is a novel
about war, about the cruelty and violence done in war, about
people and their nature, their selfishness, about love, humanity,
regeneration, motion, and death
The first theme of Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps the
most obvious, is the war and its contrast with love, beauty,
humanity, innocence etc. Slaughterhouse-Five, like Vonnegut's
previous books, manages to tell us that war is bad for us and
that it would be better for us to love eachother. To find the
war's contrast with love is quite difficult, because the book
doesn't talk about any couple that was cruelly torn apart by the
war (Billy didn't seem to love his wife very much, for example.)
Vonnegut expresses it very lightly, uses the word "love" very rarely
An interesting contrast in Vonnegut's books is the one
between men and women. Male characters are often engaging in
fights and wars, and females try to prevent them from it. The
woman characters are often mentally strong, have strong will, and
are very humane and loving. A good example is Vonnegut's dialogue
in the first chapter, when he talks with his old friend O'Hare in
front of O'Hare's wife:
Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she
was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking
to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much
larger conversation. 'You were just babies then!' she
'What?' I said.
'You were just babies in the war--like the ones
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish
virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
'But you're not going to write it that way, are
you.' This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.
'I - I don't know,' I said.
'Well, I know,' she said. 'You'll pretend you
were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the
movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those
other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will
look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them.
And they'll be fought by babies like the babies
So then I understood. It was war that made her so
angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's
babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly
encouraged by books and movies. (p. 14-15)
Another place where Vonnegut expresses the previously mentioned
qualities of women is the part where Billy becomes "slightly
unstuck in time" and watches the war movie backwards:
When the bombers got back to their base, the
steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped
back to the United States of America, where factories
were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders,
separating the dangerous contents into minerals.
Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. (
In reality, of course, the women were building the weapons
instead of dismantling them.
The most often expressed theme of the book, in my opinion,
is that we, people, are "bugs in amber." 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
'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
lady-bugs embedded in it.
'Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the
amber of this moment. There is no why.' (p.76-77).
As you noticed, the book has different messages; everybody
may see something else as its main meaning. I think that Vonnegut
wanted to tell us, the readers, that no matter what happens, we
should retain our humanity. We should not let anybody or anything
reign upon our personalities, be it a god, be it a politician or
anybody else. We should be ourselves - human and humane beings.
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 greaw upon the ground.
So it goes.
Those were vile people in both those cities, as
is well known. The world was better off without them.
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 to a pillar of salt. So it
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