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The Themes of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

Marek Vit
"Be kind. Don't hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway,
and it is better to be Lot's wife looking back through salty
eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities of the plain
in order to save them."
- Robert Scholes

Introduction
Slaughterhouse-Five; or The Children's Crusade, A Duty
Dance With Death is surely the best achievement of Kurt Vonnegut
and even one of the most acclaimed works in modern American
literature. It is a very personal novel which draws upon
Vonnegut's own experience in World War Two. He was an advance
scout with the 106th Infantry Division, a prisoner of war and
a witness to the fire-bombing of Dresden on 13th February 1945.
135,000 people died in the ruins of Dresden, which means that it
was the greatest man-caused massacre of all times (71,379 people
were killed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.)
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.
I will try to explore the novel in a greater depth and try
to say which of the themes mentioned characterizes the book to
the greatest extent.

Kurt Vonnegut and his writing


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, compassionate and extremely

wise. They mostly have a very poor plot (or none at all) and the
emphasis is put onto the rather comic and pathetic characters.
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 sam
e 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.

Structure of Slaughterhouse-Five
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
Dresden. 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 p ersonal view also appears in the tenth (and last) chapter
and surfaces twice in the Billy Pilgrim's story ("That was I.
That was me. That was the author of this book." - Vonnegut 1969
p.125, 148). This can assure the reader of particular identity of
the author with Billy.
Billy Pilgrim has a unique ability to become "unstuck in
time", which means that he can uncontrollably drift from one part
of his life to another "and the trips aren't necessarily fun,"
(ibid p.23). 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, seemingly at random.
The whole narration is written in the past tense, so that the
reader cannot identify where the author's starting point is. This
aspect of the book is identical with the Tralfamadorian type of
books:
'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.' (ibid p.88).
I think that this describes Slaughterhouse-Five quite fully.
After having read about Billy being an optometrist, another
explanation of why the book has no frame occurs. The last
sentence of the paragraph about optometry reads: "Frames are
where the money is," (ibid p.24). Wayne McGinnis has pointed out
that historical events, like the destruction of Dresden, are
usually "read" in a framework of moral and historical
interpretation and that is where this book differs from other
books of its kind (Bryfonski 1978 p.529).
In my opinion, however, the narration is linear. One period
of Billy's life is told in a line - Billy's story from the war.
I admit that the line of narration is broken by many other
events, but every time a war story begins, it takes up the
narrative at the moment when the previous war story ended. It
seems that Vonnegut, who had wanted to write a war novel, now
wanted to avoid writing about it. The war seems to have been
a great tempting magnet for him, and Vonnegut was trying to
escape its power. He managed to do so, to some extent, but every
now and then the story falls back into World War Two.

The Themes of Slaughterhouse-Five


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 one another. 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.)
V onnegut expresses it very lightly, uses the word "love" very
rarely, yet effectively. He tries to look for love and beauty in
things that seemingly are neither lovely nor beautiful. For
example, when Billy was captured by the group of Germans, he
didn't see them as a cruel enemy, but as normal, innocent people.
"Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the
face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy. The boy was as
beautiful as Eve." (Vonnegut 1969 p.53).
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
said.
'What?' I said.
'You were just babies in the war--like the ones
upstairs!'
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
upstairs.'
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. (ibid 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. (ibid
p.74-75).
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 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
lady-bugs embedded in it.
'Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the
amber of this moment. There is no why.' (ibid p.76-77).
This rather 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 what we head for.
The only thing we can do is think about everything, but we won't
affect anything. This idea appears many times throughout the
novel. This is one of the examples, when Billy proposes marriage
to Valencia:
Billy didn't want to mary ugly Valencia. She was
one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going
crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her,
when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his
companion for life, (ibid p.107).
This excerpt directly shows that Billy didn't like Valencia very
much and that he actually didn't want to marry her. However, he
was "stuck in amber". Or, for example, Billy knew the exact time
when he would be killed, yet didn't try to do anything about it.
Anyway, he couldn't have changed it. The death bears comparison
with mankind's fate. The main thing Vonnegut probably wanted
people to think about has something to do with wars on Earth.
Vonnegut says so in the part where Billy discusses the pro blems
about wars with the Tralfamadorians (p.117). They tell him that
everything is structured the way it is and that trying to prevent
war on Earth is stupid. This means that there always will be wars
on Earth, that we, people, are "designed" that way. There might
be people striving for eternal peace, but those people must be
very naive and probably don't know humankind's nature. We know
that wars are bad and we would like to stop them, but we are
"stuck in amber."
This point of view also might explain why there are no

villains or heroes in Vonnegut's books. According to Ernest W.


Ranly, all the characters are "Comic, pathetic pieces, juggled
about by some inexplicable faith, like puppets," (Riley 1974
p.454). If there is no-one to take the blame for the bad
happenings in the book, it can only mean that the villain is God
Himself ("or Herself or Itself or Whatever" - from Vonnegut's
Hocus Pocus, 1990). God Almighty had to be the one who put us
into the amber, who had created us the way we are.
There are almost no characters in this story, and
almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the
people in it are so sick and so much the listless
playthings of enormous forces, (Vonnegut 1969 p.164).
Another theme of the novel is that there is no such thing
as a soldier. There is only a man, but never a soldier. A soldier
is not a human being any more. Vonnegut expresses this most
obviously in this extract from the time when Billy was imprisoned
in Dresden:
When the three fools found the communal kitchen,
whose main job was to make lunch for workers in the
slaughterhouse, everybody had gone home but one woman
who had been waiting for them impatiently. She was a war
widow. So it goes. She had her hat and coat on. She
wanted to go home, too, even though there wasn't anybody
there. Her white gloves were laid out side by side on
the zinc counter top.
She had two big cans of soup for the Americans.
It was simmering over low fires on the gas range. She
had stacks of loaves of black bread, too.
She asked Gluck if he wasn't awfully young to be
in the army. He admitted that he was.
She asked Edgar Derby if he wasn't awfully old to
be in the army. He said he was.
She asked Billy Pilgrim what he was supposed to
be. Billy said he didn't know. He was just trying to
keep warm.
'All the real soldiers are dead,' she said. It
was true. So it goes, (Vonnegut 1969 p.159).
Stanley Schatt said: "Vonnegut opposes any institution, be it
scientific, religious, or political, that dehumanizes man and
considers him a mere number and not a human being," (Riley 1973
p.348) and I think that this attitude shows up in many other
books by Kurt Vonnegut (Player Piano, Hocus Pocus etc.)

Another obvious theme of the book is that death is


inevitable and that no matter who dies, life still goes on. The
phrase "So it goes" recurs one hundred and six times: it appears
everytime anybody dies in the novel, and sustains the circular
quality of the book. It enables the book, and thus Vonnegut's
narration, to go on. It must have been hard writing a book about
such an experience and it probably helped the author to look upon
death through the eyes of Tralfamadorians:
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he
thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in
the particular moment, but that the same person is just
fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear
that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the
Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it
goes,' (ibid p.27).

The Main Message of the novel


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
goes, (Vonnegut 1969 p.21-22).

References:
Brifonski and Mendelson (Editors); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.8
Detroit: 1978; Gale Research Co
Riley, Carolyn (Editor); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.1
Detroit: 1973; Gale Research Co
Riley, Carolyn and Barbara Harte (Editors); Contemporary Literary Criticism vol.2
Detroit: 1974; Gale Research Co
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.; Slaughterhouse-Five; or Children's Crusade, A Duty Dance with
Death
New York: 1971; Dell Publishing

How political readers manipulate to dgo to cruceid to die for an ideal.


Es uno de los messages of the cruceid (mujer)
Timing:
Think about unthinkable thinks
Silence
See Bernard
Cjildren el tenia 23
Pilgrim methaphre
Naives (hombre)
El book es dedicado to her..
Black humor billy

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/slaughter/section1.html
http://www.vonnegutweb.com/sh5/index.html
http://www.bookrags.com/notes/sl5/
http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/holocaust/spiegelman.html
http://www.geocities.com/athens/Atlantis/2671/#articles
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maus_(comics)
http://www.wamu.org/programs/dr/readers_review/