Slaughterhouse-Five: Traditional Door

The novel Slaughterhouse-Five is a close biographical account of author Kurt Vonnegut’s past as an American soldier and the problems he faced post-war (Cox). He used various parallels between himself and the main character to represent his experience.

Slaughterhouse-Five revolves around the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, whose stationing in World War II prompted him to become “unstuck in time” and move freely between different moments of his life such as his daughter’s wedding day or the day he was abducted by the aliens of Tralfamador. This becomes the metaphor for Vonnegut’s feelings of confusion and insecurity following war and takes a typical anti-war novel to deeper place. Slaughterhouse-Five is an autobiographical science fiction novel portraying the author’s tales of tragedy throughout World War II and the pivotal, lifelong effects that resulted from it. The story begins through Vonnegut’s eyes. In the first chapter, the reader is shown his perspective on his past and who he has become. On the first page of Chapter One, Vonnegut explains how he himself was captured by Germans as a prisoner of war and witnessed the bombing of Dresden (Vonnegut 1).

We Will Write a Custom Case Study Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

Later on, Billy Pilgrim, the subject of Vonnegut’s novel within a novel, shares the same experience. Vonnegut’s prefacing story in Chapter One makes the story of Billy Pilgrim more believable to the reader, which is crucial. From the beginning of the story, Vonnegut expresses how authenticity is a key component in his Dresden book: “When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen” (Vonnegut 2). Vonnegut cites that it was difficult to capture the essence of the story because he has aged and only has his memories, possessing a changed attitude that would not fit his story of many years ago: “Not many words come now, either when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown” (Vonnegut 2). After years of writing hundreds of useless drafts, he decides to visit his old war buddies and plead them to help him remember the details of the war.

He eventually comes across his friend Bernard O’Hare, who was actually in the real Slaughterhouse-Five with Vonnegut during the bombing. He visits his house and adds this into the story to support himself, as the narrator, and his thought processes as a sort of sound-board. He asks Bernard before writing the book if the tale of their buddy, Edgar Derby who daringly confronted a Nazi convert who entered their factory (Vonnegut 162), should be included in his novel (Vonnegut 4). The convert was an American commander who was recruiting American soldiers to fight against the U.S.S.

R (Vonnegut 162). Derby called him a snake and stood up for his country while the rest of the men in the factory looked on apathetically (Vonnegut 164). Soon after, the air-raid began, and Derby survived the bombing with O’Hare and Vonnegut in the Slaughterhouse, but when he was instructed to look for any survivors in the rummage, he was arrested for taking a teapot and shot to death by a firing squad (Vonnegut 4). Derby was one of the only men who maintained his dignity and pride in his country throughout his service; Vonnegut says in his narration that the irony of the event was “so great” and wanted it to be the climax of his story (Vonnegut 4). When Vonnegut is introduced to Bernard O’Hare’s wife, Mary, in their home, she tells him she fears that the book will celebrate war and that this type of media is what encourages them to keep occurring (Vonnegut 14). He assures her, though, that it will not by any means be given any “Hollywood-effect” and that she doesn’t need to worry (Vonnegut 15).

He adds this experience from his life into the narration as foreword to the reader—that his upcoming novel won’t fulfill any expectations for a savage war book. Vonnegut is recognized as the main character throughout all of Chapter One until he shifts his attention to his novel’s internal novel. As he advances into the story of Billy Pilgrim, he shows how Billy’s told-story was limited only to what Billy saw. Billy only heard the bombing of Dresden and later saw the aftermath; because of this, Vonnegut doesn’t give the reader much gruesome detail about that day, and the bombing is not the real “climax” of the book. As to not understate the largest air-strike in European history, he informs the reader of its severity in his narration before launching into the story, explaining how many Americans knew close to nothing about the event or how much worse it had been than Hiroshima (Vonnegut 10). In a conversation with his publisher before the book’s release, he said, “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (Cox).

The author had also only heard the bombing and didn’t know every detail about it, which gives the story a morelife-like feeling than a contrived, dramatic war tale of men and blood. Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the author should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly, I think they should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change”. His political motive to prompt social protest and dispute over his writing is seen in Slaughterhouse-Five. Unlike many of his other novels which show Vonnegut’s direct and obvious opposition to practices of capitalism, the way “machines deball and dehumanize men,” according to literary critic Leslie Fielder, and so on, Slaughterhouse-Five takes a step back and forces readers to decide for themselves—Does Slaughterhouse-Five encourage people to ignore the atrocities of war and accept their inevitability, or does it condemn us for failing to recognize them? Vonnegut’s understatement of the war was intended to cause these remarks and cause readers to look within themselves and ask, “So it goes?” Seeing his own country’s acts of war first-hand and seeing it go so largely unnoticed triggered him to question his audience.

It can be inferred that the title, which is also the name of the building Vonnegut was in during the bombing, represents the way he was isolated from the effects of the bomb and was both physically and emotionally shielded from them, much like the American public. Since the public does not see usually see the effects of war on their home-front and is thousands of miles from where their men are fighting for them, they are sheltered and unaware of what is happening. Along with dramatic movies and novels portraying our military’s strength and superior tactics, the U.S government has been known to skew the reality of the war to appease Americans and protect its own interests. This is the building—this is the Slaughterhouse-Five. The public’s reaction to the book was mixed; some believed Vonnegut intended to remark on America’s apathy towards war and death and how humans are becoming resistant to feelings of sympathy and compassion for each other, while others argued that he was encouraging a “quietist” attitude that turns its head from mass-murder, because this is how his characters responded to death (Merrill & Scholl).

Vonnegut felt his real opinion was supported by the fact that the American-led bombing of Dresden was the biggest massacre of World War II and that it was later deemed strategically unnecessary in the war (Merrill and Scholl). Vonnegut’s response to the war is reflected in Billy Pilgrim’s ability to travel through time. Billy begins to time travel when he’s held captive in Germany, this representing his shock and desire to escape imprisonment and from witnessing awful acts of war (Cox). After a while of being unstuck in time, the story takes off with its message. Billy is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamador and told that time, free will, and death are all myths (Vonnegut 27).

They tell Billy that time is a constant condition rather than a linear path. Billy explains, “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, and all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of moments. Now, when I myself hear somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes'” (Vonnegut 27). Their philosophy resonates with Billy because it explains what has been happening within his life since he became imprisoned, and it also allows him and the reader to question the inevitability of war—because destiny cannot be changed, war cannot be prevented. This shift in Billy’s beliefs changes his attitude from naive and scared to dismissive and indifferent about war and death. Vonnegut could be implying that his own response to the war was toughening up, but more likely, that war and death cannot be so simply overlooked.

Kurt Vonnegut’s use of science fiction in his novel is widely debated—some see it as nonsense which downplays the absurdities of war, and others see it as a highlight to them, but certainly, it functions as a critical device to the reader that points out how severely war disrupted Billy’s reality—his existence—and how war disrupts society. After he was sent home from war as a young man, Kurt Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago to study anthropology and later became a public relations man at General Electric in Schenectady, New York (Reed). He began writing about his experience in Dresden since he left the war along with some other small projects and quit his job in 1951 to devote his life to writing, moving to a small town outside of Cape Cod (Reed). When he attended a certain seminar, The Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, he found the voice for his novel about Dresden (Nitta). In 1967 he was funded by the Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Dresden and research for the novel (Nitta). By 1969, the casualties in the Vietnam War had risen to over 500,000 and Vonnegut became frustrated with and disappointed in his country for yet again involving itself in war at the expense of countless people (Nitta), and his novel came at the right time for America.

He felt that the optimism of his prewar nation had disappeared after World War II and that the American Dream had a dark side—one of loneliness and underestimated disjunction. In much of his writing, he questioned the value of life—if the way the world had been going, his world, the one where war seemed virtually endless, was a world worth living in (Harris). He alluded many times, and in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, that community was the only hope for humanity, yet he accepted its hopelessness: “There would always be wars,” he writes. “They were as easy to stop as glaciers..

. And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death” (Vonnegut 4). His post-war attitude was bleak and disillusioned. He desired changed and wanted to possess hope for the fate of humanity, but fell back passively, accepting it. Thus, the post-war time-travels of Billy Pilgrim were not ones of fighting back at the evils he saw, of which he knew horrid effects; they were tales of woe. When Billy returns from the war, he’s shown as indifferent and emotionless towards the people in his life, or towards anything for the matter.

He marries a rich woman whom he doesn’t love and opens an optometry practice. When Billy commits himself to a veteran’s hospital, he meets a man named Eliot Rosewater who is also a war survivor—a former infantry captain (Vonnegut 100). The author describes how Rosewater and Pilgrim’s problems are not too different from each others, nor are they too different from his own: “They both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden.

So it goes” (Vonnegut 101). He goes on to tell that Rosewater has an infatuation with science fiction and introduces Billy to some of his favorite novels, mainly ones by unsung author, Kilgore Trout. In 1950, Kurt Vonnegut met an author named Theodore W. Sturgeon—whose creative and innovative science fiction captivated him. Although Sturgeon was one of the most inventive sci-fi writers of the time, his writing was mediocre overall and didn’t gather much acclaim. When he met his fan, Vonnegut, he appeared to be socially maladjusted and wacky.

This experience stuck with Vonnegut and left a permanent scar and inspired him to model a character based off of Sturgeon. He once said, “Kilgore Trout is the lonesome and unappreciated author I thought I might become.” Kilgore Trout represents Vonnegut’s alter-ego, which was created out of pure fear. Billy Pilgrim’s metaphoric life of science fiction and his proceeding obsession with the genre shows the amount of separation and distance Billy Pilgrim keeps after war, while simultaneously reading the author’s own science fiction literature shows the reader that he shares the feeling, leaving him vulnerable to his audience. The philosophy and morals of the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, are laid out through the story of Billy Pilgrim.

Billy is not a war hero, and Vonnegut wanted to make that very clear; Billy Pilgrim is an anti-hero—an antagonist. Kurt Vonnegut believed that the ongoing prevalence of war in modern literature and media desensitized Americans to what they were doing; war stories dating back hundreds of years—back to ancient civilizations where murder had fewer consequences and glamorous myths of strong men and incredible feats fed this behavior. Kurt Vonnegut wanted to flip the idea of what war was. He exposed its harsh, yet unavoidable reality through fiction; his passive attitude following the war puts his story up for grabs. The tale of Billy Pilgrim, the dejected former soldier, is able to portray what Kurt Vonnegut wanted the world to see: human compassion and accountability for the actions of our country and ourselves is the only thing that keeps us from destroying everything.

Works Cited Cox, F. Brett.”An overview of Slaughterhouse-Five.”Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2014.

Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 May 2014. Harris, Charles B. “Time, Uncertainty, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

: A Reading of Slaughterhouse-Five.” Centennial Review (Summer 1976): 228-243. Rpt. in Novels for Students. Ed.

Diane Telgen and Kevin Hile. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center.

Web. 3 May 2014. Merrill, Robert, and Peter A. Scholl. “Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’: The Requirements of Chaos.

” Studies in American Fiction 6.1 (Spring 1978): 65-76. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed.

Roger Matuz and Cathy Falk. Vol. 60. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. Literature Resource Center.Web.

4 May 2014. Nitta, Reiko. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Psychological Strategies in Slaughterhouse-Five.” A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts (2009): 1. Olson, Ray.

“And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut” Booklist 108.5 (2011): 9. Reed, Peter J. “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” American Novelists Since World War II: First Series. Ed.

Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 2.Literature Resource Center.Web.

5 May 2014. Kurt, Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969.