Slaughterhouse Five: Book Review

By: Jacilia Lin,11th Grader I 10/19/18

 
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Stockpiles of ash and minerals gleamed under the star-filled night as the only remnants of Dresden,  a bustling town that had been incinerated in a firestorm minutes ago. The world lay in silence, as a pair of bluejays chirped, “Poo-tee-weet.” Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, ingeniously paints the realities of war and its implications in society by qualifying patterns in human nature that drive common societal misunderstandings of war and discussing the post-traumatic issues that plague veterans upon leaving the battlefield. Vonnegut strategically uses dark humor and a light-hearted tone to touch upon serious issues otherwise incomprehensible to regular audiences. In crafting a plot that indirectly showcases the elements of his post-traumatic experiences and explains the absurdity behind core human values that drive the need for war, Vonnegut encourages readers to consider the meaning of freewill and responsibility in the context of death. As tensions boiled over the Vietnam war and the debate for weapons of mass destruction intensified, Vonnegut leveraged his experiences in World War II and his eyewitness account of Dresden to convey a powerful anti-war sentiment and weigh the humanity of war against its conceived necessity.

Vonnegut went to Cornell University to study chemical engineering in 1940 before enlisting in the U.S. Army. During his service in Europe, Vonnegut was captured in the Battle of the Bulge as a prisoner of war. Having suffered from numerous beatings and witnessing the deaths of other soldiers, Vonnegut reached the climax of experiences in war when he describes the firestorms in Dresden. As tens of thousands of civilians were incinerated by American bombs, Vonnegut and other prisoners hid safely in underground meat lockers. Following his return from war, Vonnegut took to several jobs before his writing career lifted off. Before investing fully into writing, Vonnegut worked as a journalist, newspaper writer, public relations officer, and as a teacher. Known for using satire to discuss important issues, Vonnegut quickly attracted the attention of widespread audiences. In his first novel, Player Piano, he analyzed the human values that underlie corporate culture and exposed their absurdity. Vonnegut remained a fervent anti-war supporter throughout the entirety of his life.

Kurt Vonnegut became a notable social figure in the protest against war in Vietnam. As a core theme in his most famous works including Slaughterhouse Five and The Cat’s Cradle, the nonsensical violence and wastefulness in war were showcased in ways that undermined their popularity and romanticism. Vonnegut’s credible accounts encouraged the public to reevaluate its views, largely manipulated by “the malarkey that artists have created to glorify war” [1]. In a 1989 NPR interview, Vonnegut spoke passionately about his underlying goals and experiences. He emphasized that although he never fully understood the severity of the Dresden firestorms until 20 years later, the incident was his “first experience with really fantastic waste” [1]. To burn down a city with over 100,000 people reached the full thrall of “the terrible wastefulness, the meaninglessness of war” [1]. Vonnegut continued to write prolifically about social issues in the form of satire and science-fiction until his death in 2007.

Slaughterhouse Five is written in multiple, separate timelines. Billy Pilgrim, the main character and protagonist, begins trying to recall the memories from the war and his past. While he shares the general timeline of events, Pilgrim begins to experience each of them firsthand once more by traveling back in time and learning from an alien race that abducts him. Shortly after enlisting into the army, Pilgrim is captured behind enemy lines and sent across Germany as a prisoner of war. In witnessing the deaths of fellow prisoners, the kindness of others, and beatings by the Germans, Pilgrim adopts a more complacent, accepting view of his life. After several months, his group is transported in Dresden to perform labor in an abandoned underground slaughterhouse shortly before American bombs incinerate the surrounding, populated city. After returning home, Pilgrim struggles to live regularly, having experienced the realities of war and its implications. Although he eventually finds success as a wealthy optometrist, he is driven to insanity in his later years, and grasps the full severity of his devastation after a barbershop quartet triggers him to relive the incineration of Dresden. In his later years, Pilgrim is transported to the planet of Tralfamadore, where he learns about the truths surrounding determinism and the destructiveness inherent of human nature. This newfound perspective allows him to live in resolve. Having uncovered the truths surrounding war, wastefulness, and nondeterminism, Pilgrim spreads his message to the world in a radio podcast.

Vonnegut uses unique literary symbols to allow readers to see situations more objectively and imaginatively. By using alternating timelines, Vonnegut is able to quickly and effectively transition from scenes of action in war to periods of reflection and introspection. For example, the reference to Tralfamadorians is symbolic of an out-of-world perspective, necessary to consider controversial issues such as war. Billy Pilgrim fails to recognize the true severity of his experiences until several years later; however, it is only after reaching Tralfamadore when he is able to peacefully achieve resolve and unearth the truth of determinism. By centering Pilgrim’s realizations on Tralfamadore, Vonnegut implies that the continuous influence of governments and powerful corporations on daily life make it difficult for people to rationally examine the events around them. With glorifications of war by popular figures including “Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men” (Vonnegut, 27) there is little that individuals can do to sway public opinion, even if they are credible sources. Many veterans, at the time, were aware of the conflict between pictures of war portrayed in the media and those in real life. Tralfamadore, therefore was a literary means to bridge that gap and illustrate its existence. The use of a consistently alternating timeline that allows for Pilgrim’s introspection creates an ingenious literary strategy for both symbolism and connection. Furthermore, Vonnegut uses many references to connect Pilgrim’s experiences outside of earth to his ones on the battlefield to create powerful emotional appeals. For example, when transitioning from timelines of Pilgrim’s experiences as a prisoner-of-war to his day-to-day post-war experiences, Vonnegut emphasizes Pilgrim’s progressive mental insanity. This ranges from an inability to perform basic tasks to hallucinating while visiting optometrist appointments. Not only does this create a pathetic appeal to unveil the unresolvable mental void that veterans must live with post-war, but also conveys personal insight to what it feels like to deal with a family member with PTSD. Pilgrim’s daughter is driven to a point of frustration and hatred as her father cannot perform nor conceive basic tasks and instructions. In drawing familial connections to Pilgrim’s post-war struggles, audiences recognize the broader impacts that stretch across veterans affected by war and PTSD. In Tralfamadore, Pilgrim experiences many similarities to his life as a prisoner-of-war. For example, the non deterministic attitude of the Tralfamadorians is reflected almost word-for-word by Pilgrim’s captors, who question “‘Why you? Why anything for that matter’” (Vonnegut, 89). Furthermore, Billy’s stripping in Tralfamadore is symbolic of his stripping before entering his prisoner-of-war camp. By embedding literary cues to past events in the book, Vonnegut guides readers to emotionally empathize with Pilgrim’s attempt to cope with his devastating experiences and also see alternative views to war and its purpose.

To magnify his anti-war sentiment, Vonnegut eliminates all sources of blame to emphasize that humans are solely responsible for their actions. In example, while examining the events of Dresden on Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim contemplates about the role of weapons in the entire process. Was it accurate to assume that the destruction caused by these events was merely too overwhelming to be grasped by human minds, and therefore, a disillusion or mistake in use? As Pilgrim looked deeper into this question, he realized that even if this were true, weapons “had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to people on the ground” (Vonnegut, 212). Weapons of these capabilities had been designed, tested, and manufactured for their intended purposes, and Pilgrim reached the conclusion that it simply wasn’t enough to use an ethical conundrum to justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Those explicitly and indirectly involved in war are responsible for their actions and the ones that follow. Vonnegut breaks down seemingly credible arguments into simple phrases that reveal their absurdity. Pilgrim’s witness to the “fire-storm... the one flame [that] ate everything organic, everything that would burn” (Vonnegut, 215) that incinerated Dresden reaches its full emotional appeal once Vonnegut clarified its causes. Only through this does astonishment from his audiences turn to frustration and understanding, the beginnings of action.

In addition to qualifying his arguments and eliminating ethical arguments, Vonnegut seeks to prove that all humans are bound together in nature, and it would therefore be painful and wasteful to fight and kill one another. For example, in Billy Pilgrim’s experiences as a prisoner-of-war, his interactions with those of different nationalities, even the enemy, came out of goodwill and understanding. After the firestorm in Dresden, hundreds of American prisoners traveled with German guards to nearby cities, where innkeepers offered them shelter, food, and water. The massacre was a striking blow to humanity in Pilgrim’s mind; however, the shared understanding between all races emphasized that humans of all nationalities were willing to set aside their political agendas for the temporary wellbeings of each other. Pilgrim voiced, “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre...Everything is supposed to be quiet” (Vonnegut, 56). There were no celebrations from either side, as this was the pinnacle of the failure of the human race. Pilgrim was devastated by this thought for his entire life, because he could not justify why the deaths of thousands, let alone one, were sacrificed to end the war.

Along with protesting war, Vonnegut emphasizes the existence of freewill and determinism in society, urging people to take action, by painting a bleak picture of existence in the Tralfamadorian world of the 4th dimension. When Billy Pilgrim is transported to Tralfamadore, he learns that they can easily travel to events of the past and future, similar to how to humans scale mountains and sail through oceans. The realm of time simply exists in its spectrum, without any present, past, or future. Pilgrim initially finds this hard to believe. With events predetermined, Tralfamadorians have no freewill nor way to change the events of time. When Pilgrim learns that the Tralfamadorians have complete knowledge of the end of the universe and its cause, he finds it ridiculous that there is no alterable course of events. When “the Tralfamadorian test pilot presses the button and the whole Universe disappears,” the moment simple “is, was, and will always be” (Vonnegut, 187). Pilgrim eventually uses this mindset to focus on the gems of his memories, while filtering out memories of war, in which he dies peacefully. In this scene, Vonnegut exposes the humor behind a nondeterministic society. Had everyone feared change like the Tralfamadorians, there would be no purpose nor reason to exist. Events would be predetermined and humans would have no tangible reason to improve and invest in brighter futures. By exaggerating this in a comedic example of the inability to save the universe by preventing the push of a button, Vonnegut emphasizes that determinism is not to be taken for granted. In issues such as mass destruction and war, it is necessary to take action and influence change in however one’s ability will permit. Even after isolating the causes of war and explaining its wastefulness and absurdity, Vonnegut exemplifies that it is not enough to simply understand. Again, Billy Pilgrim’s trauma is examined once again, as he finds himself unable to live peacefully nor find resolve without justification of his past by a nondeterministic philosophy.

Slaughterhouse Five provides a rich, personal insight on war that reveals its wastefulness in nature along with its reflections on humanity as a race. Vonnegut shines light from the powerful firestorms of Dresden to unveil a powerful anti-war message, effectively pointing to war’s causes and effects. By embedding a discussion of serious issues in an elaborate omniscient narrative, he gives credibility and understanding to all sides of conflicts, while still encouraging readers to discover his true message. Even in circumstances when the world lays in silence, Vonnegut creates a comfortable, even humorous, discussion of the psychological consequences of war. He ultimately weighs its degradation of humanity against its conceived necessity and persuades his audiences to understand and act.




Works Cited:

[1]: Inskeep, Steve, et al. “A Look Back at the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut.” NPR, NPR, 12 Apr. 2007, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9547464.


[2]: “Kurt Vonnegut.” NPR, NPR, 10 Sept. 2003, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1426772.


[3] Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut (275 Pages; Chelsea House Publishers Inc., Philadelphia; 2001; $8.99; ISBN: 978-0-385-33384-9)