.. rm of authority, and therefore it is capable of the same or greater evils. How many atrocities have been justified by the claim that God is on our side? – DEATH People are dying constantly in Slaughterhouse-Five, and of course the destruction of Dresden brought death on a massive scale. Vonnegut follows every mention of death with that familiar phrase, So it goes. In this way he attempts to find a saner attitude toward death by emphasizing that death is a common aspect of human existence. Billy Pilgrim finds consolation in the Tralfamadorian notion that people who are dead in the present remain alive in the times of their past.
Perhaps the author is saying that we too should be consoled: the dead still live in our memories. STYLE – On the second page of Chapter 5, a Tralfamadorian explains the nature of novels on that planet: – Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message- describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. 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. – When you come upon this passage in the novel, you may feel a shock of recognition.
It sounds a lot like the very book you’re reading, and you realize that the author is describing the effect he wants his novel to have. The most striking aspect of the style of Slaughterhouse-Five is the fact that the text is made up of clumps of paragraphs, each clump set off by extra space before and after it. A few of the clumps are only one sentence long. Some are as long as a page and a half. Each of them makes a simple statement or relates an incident or situation. Thus the novel is said to be written in an anecdotal style: the book is a collection of brief incidents, and the effect of each one depends on how the author tells it.
Vonnegut generally uses short, simple sentences that manage to say a great deal in a few words. Three inoffensive bangs came from far away. The report seems an innocent one until you find out that the scouts have just been shot. The contrast between the inoffensive sound and its deadly meaning provides a startling effect. There is irony too in that inoffensive, for what is inoffensive to one person’s ears is fatally offensive to another person’s life.
Irony is a form of humor that occurs when a seemingly straightforward statement or situation actually means its opposite. Irony occurs again and again in the incidents Vonnegut describes. It is ironic that, for all that the Bible represents as a statement of ethics, a soldier carries a bullet-proof Bible sheathed in steel. There is irony in a former hobo’s telling Billy- inside a boxcar prison that could be taking them to their death- I been in worse places than this. This ain’t so bad.
And because Dresden was an open city during most of the war, it was full of refugees who had fled there for safety. Almost all of them died in the bombing. That is ironic. Another kind of humor that the author relies on heavily is satire, a form of ridicule that uses mockery and exaggeration to expose the foolishness or evil of its subject. Professor Rumfoord is a satirical portrait of the all-American male ideal. And, almost every description of a Kilgore Trout novel satirizes modern life in some way. A killer robot becomes popular only after his bad breath is cleared up (advertising values), or a money tree is fertilized by the dead bodies of those who killed each other to get its fruit (material values).
Vonnegut has a powerful gift for tangy imagery. He describes Billy as a filthy flamingo and a broken kite, the Russian prisoner as a ragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial. Sometimes his images border on the tasteless: an antitank gun makes a ripping sound like the zipper on the fly of God Almighty. But Vonnegut also creates images of almost heart-breaking tenderness, as in the picture of Edgar Derby bursting into tears when Billy feeds him a spoonful of malt syrup. Vonnegut layers his storytelling with allusions (references) to historical events.
He evokes the Children’s Crusade in order to draw a parallel between the babies he and O’Hare were in World War II and the thirteenth-century religious expedition in which European children were sent off to conquer the Holy Land. He refers to works of literature: the novels of the French Nazi sympathizer Celine, the medieval heroic epic poem The Song of Roland, and the Bible. He paraphrases the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Genesis and mentions Jesus occasionally. These allusions deepen our understanding and appreciation of Billy’s story by suggesting historical and literary parallels to the personal events in his life. POINT OF VIEW – In Chapter 1 (and in portions of Chapter 10) the author speaks to you directly in the first person about the difficult time he had writing his book. The rest of the book is Billy Pilgrim’s story told by a third-person narrator.
Because an outside narrator is telling Billy’s story, you learn not only what Billy is doing and thinking at any time but what the other characters are up to and what’s on their minds. Because Vonnegut explains, in his first-person appearances as the writer-narrator, that his own experiences in Dresden were the inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five, many readers assume that both the third-person narrator and Billy Pilgrim represent the author. In this view, the author is looking at the events of his own life- past, present, and future- and trying to make some sense out of them the same way that Billy is trying to order the events of his own life. On several occasions the author actually reminds you directly that, while he’s telling Billy’s story, he- Kurt Vonnegut- was there, too. You’re reading about events that are based on the author’s experience as a POW in Dresden. These interruptions also warn you that you’re being told a story by a much older man, someone with a quite different outlook on life from that of the baby who went to Dresden.
The flexible perspective of the narration allows Vonnegut to comment frequently on the action, on life, and on writing itself. FORM AND STRUCTURE – As explained in Chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorians read the clumps of symbols, or messages, that make up their books all at once. But human beings must read the clumps of paragraphs that make up Slaughterhouse-Five one by one, and the order in which the author has set them out for you provides the structure of the novel. Vonnegut starts with a chapter of introduction or prologue in which he tells his own story of writing his famous book about Dresden. The rest of the book, Chapters 2 through 10, tells Billy Pilgrim’s story.
Vonnegut begins this narrative with a short, factual history of Billy’s life to the present in 1968. You soon discover why he does this: in the pages that follow, Billy’s adventures are not related entirely in chronological order, and that little outline history in the early pages of Chapter 2 lets you read on without having to puzzle over the proper sequence of events. The portion of Billy Pilgrim’s history that is presented chronologically is the six months from December 1944 to May 1945, when Billy was a soldier and then a POW in Europe. This period is by far the most important in Billy’s life, and the novel is about how Billy comes to terms with what he saw and heard and did in those six months. When Billy finally works it all out in his mind, he is free, the author has finished his Dresden book, and the novel has ended. Therefore the basic structure of Slaughterhouse-Five is determined by the sequence of events Billy experienced in the final months of World War II.
Into this sequence Billy fits all the other happenings of his life. He even believes that he first came unstuck in time in the Luxembourg forest in 1944, though the narrator seems to suggest that this weird phenomenon was actually the result of the brain damage Billy sustained in the plane crash in 1968. Because Billy is reinventing his life by reorganizing his memories and adding his fantasies, it’s important that you keep your bearings as you follow Billy’s own rearrangement of his history. For this you may find helpful the following chronological sequence of the important events in Billy’s life. – 1922 Billy born in Ilium, New York.
– 1941 America enters World War II. – 1944 Billy, now a soldier, captured by Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. He spends Christmas on a POW train headed for Czechoslovakia. – 1945 Billy arrives in Dresden, is put to work in a factory, is January housed in Slaughterhouse-Five. – 1945 Dresden fire-bombed by the Allies.
POWs and guards survive February in an underground locker and begin to dig bodies out of the rubble the next day. – 1945 War ends in Europe and POWs are released. Billy goes home May to Ilium. – 1948 Billy recovers from a nervous breakdown, marries Valencia Merble, fathers Robert and Barbara. The optometry business in Ilium prospers.
– 1967 Barbara marries. Billy kidnapped the same night and taken to Tralfamadore, where he is exhibited in a zoo and mated with Montana Wildhack. – 1968 Billy survives plane crash in Vermont. Valencia dies while Billy is recovering. Billy goes to New York City to tell about the Tralfamadorians. – 1976 Billy assassinated in Chicago after speaking on flying saucers and time. THE STORY – Vonnegut’s method of storytelling sometimes makes it difficult to follow him or to see his point in a welter of apparently unrelated anecdotes.
To help you along, the discussion of each chapter in this section begins with a brief overview of the chapter’s structure. CHAPTER 1 – STRUCTURE: The string of anecdotes that lead up to Vonnegut’s visit with the O’Hares all describe problems related to writing his famous book about Dresden. After his visit to the O’Hares, things start going well for him, and he is able to write the book. In the last part of the chapter Vonnegut finds solutions to (or at least ways around) his writing problems. Let’s look at some of those problems the author complains about.
THE WORDS JUST WON’T COME. Although he thought it would be easy to write about Dresden- all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen- he just can’t seem to get started. Vonnegut may be afraid that he has used up his talent, or somehow ruined it (the off-color limerick suggests this idea), perhaps by writing so much science fiction instead of saving himself for his great book about Dresden. EVERY TIME HE STARTS THE BOOK, HE ENDS UP GOING IN CIRCLES. The Yon Yonson poem illustrates this dilemma.
Once you start it, you go around and around forever. ANOTHER ANTIWAR BOOK WOULD BE POINTLESS. This problem is clearly stated in the conversation Vonnegut has with the movie director. Books don’t stop wars because wars are as unstoppable as glaciers are. WRITING ISN’T THE NOBLE PROFESSION EVERYONE THINKS IT IS. Vonnegut calls himself a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations.
He goes on to describe a diagram he made that reduces every human being to a line of color and makes the destruction of Dresden nothing but a brilliant stripe of orange. What was once an atrocity has now become something abstract and pretty. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: PARALLEL IMAGES This chapter is full of images that resurface in altered form later in the book. In Chapter 4, for example, the Tralfamadorians use the metaphor of bugs trapped in amber to describe human beings caught in time. This image parallels the idea of characters trapped in a diagram for a story. The idiotic Englishman with his absurd souvenir turns up again in the guise of Roland Weary displaying his weapons to Billy (Chapter 2) and later (Chapter 6) as Billy himself, showing his treasures to the Dresden surgeon.
In a way the Englishman is also like Vonnegut trying to interest O’Hare in his Dresden story. Vonnegut is not only struggling with writing problems here, he is generating material that he will rework into Billy’s story. ————————————————– ————— – WRITING WON’T HELP VONNEGUT FIND MEANING IN HIS LIFE. Vonnegut isn’t very happy with himself. He’s getting old, he’s killing himself with alcohol and cigarettes, he and his wife don’t communicate any more. Maybe life itself is a rut he fell into: before he knew it he’s an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls. WRITING DEHUMANIZES THE WRITER.
The gruesome story of the veteran’s being killed by an elevator points up this problem. Nancy does to the veteran the same thing that Vonnegut wants to do with Edgar Derby- she dehumanizes him by making him a character in a story. This in turn dehumanizes her, making her unable to feel anything for the suffering of others. Vonnegut fears that even if he does finish his Dresden book, the very act of constructing a good story will turn him into a callous creep. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: MACHINE IMAGERY One of Vonnegut’s favorite themes is the uneasy relationship between man and machines, and this anecdote is shot through with machine imagery. it’s even possible to see the News Bureau as being run by its machines.
And it’s ironic that the veteran is killed by getting his hand caught in an iron gate that is imitating life forms- iron ivy, iron twigs, iron lovebirds. Keep an eye out for other instances of such imagery. ————————————————– ————— – WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MASSACRE? The cocktail party anecdote, where Vonnegut hears about the death camps, illustrates another problem. How do you respond when someone tells you these ghastly stories? Oh, my God doesn’t say very much, does it? That’s Vonnegut’s point. These problems frustrated Vonnegut for twenty-three years, until he visited the O’Hares. You should look at this anecdote in some detail. He begins by describing the trip from Cape Cod as seen through the eyes of two little girls, his daughter and her friend. To them the world is full of strange sights, including rivers and waterfalls to stop and wonder at.
The peaceful scene contrasts sharply with the purpose of the trip, which is to reminisce about the war- as if that time of destruction and death were the good old days. O’Hare is embarrassed about reminiscing, and his wife Mary seems intent on keeping him that way. She bangs ice trays, moves furniture, and mutters to herself. When she finally tells Vonnegut off he too is embarrassed because he realizes he’s been thinking and acting like a fool about his famous book on Dresden. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: EMBARRASSMENT Doesn’t every anecdote in this chapter deal with embarrassment? Vonnegut has consistently portrayed himself as a fool: a grown man playing with crayons, an idiotic Englishman with his stupid souvenir, an old fart who talks to his dog, a green reporter trying to act tough.
The point is that he doesn’t realize how embarrassing his actions have been until he encounters Mary O’Hare. Perhaps Vonnegut is saying that embarrassment, not horror, is the proper way to feel about atrocities committed in war. It is those people who are not embarrassed who are dangerous. They are the ones who come up with the kind of thinking that says, We have to bomb Dresden so we can end the war sooner. ————————————————– ————— – Vonnegut also has a tangible breakthrough while visiting the O’Hares: he conceives the idea of calling his book The Children’s Crusade. Coming up with a title may help a writer to crystallize his thinking on a subject or get him going in the right direction. This seems to happen to Vonnegut.
– ————————————————– ————— NOTE: THE CRUSADES There were approximately seven Crusades between the years 1095 and 1271. The Christian powers of Europe sent these military expeditions to Palestine in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to regain possession of the Holy Land from the Moslems. The name crusade comes from the Latin word crux, meaning cross. Vonnegut’s description of the Children’s Crusade is pretty accurate. Note how Vonnegut puts together two ideas that ought to be totally contradictory: holy and war.
The book is full of such ironic juxtapositions, so keep an eye out for them. ————————————————– ————— – The senselessness of the historical Children’s Crusade provides Vonnegut with a parallel to the destruction of Dresden. And he learns that Dresden had been bombed before, just as pointlessly. The quote from the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) conveys Vonnegut’s view. The caretaker of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is showing the undamaged dome to his young visitor. This is what our great architect did, he tells Goethe. Then he gestures at the bombed-out ruins around the church and says, that is what the enemy did! Vonnegut’s visit to the O’Hares has been fruitful, and on the way home he finds additional material.
At the New York World’s Fair he and the girls see official versions of the past and future that make him wonder about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep. This suggests one of the major subjects of the book, the nature of time and how it works. Suddenly Vonnegut is asked to teach in one of the most prestigious writing programs in the country. And he gets a three-book contract. Nothing had worked before, but everything is working now. He finishes the book. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: VONNEGUT’S SELF-DEPRECATION Vonnegut often mocks himself and his writing.
Some readers see this as false modesty, others believe he’s sincere. Slaughterhouse-Five has a loot of intelligent things to say about the destruction of Dresden- about the thinking that caused it, about the effect it had on the people who survived it, about what he sees as the right way and the wrong way to remember it. The book is not a failure, for it made Vonnegut’s reputation and is generally considered his masterpiece. And Slaughterhouse-Five informed the public that Dresden- at least in terms of number of people killed- was the worst single bombing attack of the war. ————————————————– ————— – Before concluding his account of the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut takes us back to Dresden in 1967. (You remember he mentioned this trip at the beginning of the chapter.) Underneath the rebuilt Dresden, where Vonnegut and O’Hare are having so much fun, there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground. Bone meal is a fertilizer made from grinding up the bones of slaughterhouse animals.
The present Dresden sprang up like a flower from the sterile ground of the moon (what Dresden looked like after it was bombed), aided by the fertilizer of crushed human bones. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: RESONANCE This image, like so many others in Slaughterhouse-Five, has an extraordinary resonance. In music, resonance is the enrichment of sound by means of echoes. If you’ve ever been in a large church when the choir is singing, you know how rich that sound can be: the voices bounce off the walls and increase the vibration in the air. In literature, an image is resonant when it reminds us of other images and enriches our understanding by connecting things that didn’t seem related before. ————————————————– ————— – The final anecdote in Chapter 1, Vonnegut’s non-night in Boston, shows him locking in on the main ideas that Slaughterhouse-Five will embody.
The first idea he presents has to do with the difference between time as we think of it and time as we experience it. Remember the scene where Vonnegut and the two girls stood looking at the Hudson River? This is our image of external time: it flows at a steady rate in one direction, from the past through the present toward the future. But in our minds we can jump from the past (memory) to the future (fantasy or planning) without having to go through the time in between. We can also go backward as well as forward in time. And not only can it feel as though it takes a year for a second to pass, but a lifetime can seem as though it’s over in a second. Vonnegut may be suggesting that this internal time is more real to us than the external time of clocks and calendars. Vonnegut explores this idea in the quotations from the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which say that the passage of time leads inevitably to death, and if time could be stopped, no one would die.
We know that the flow of external time cannot be stopped. But internal time is a different matter. Don’t we do exactly what Celine wants to do- stop people from disappearing- in our memories? And isn’t that what Vonnegut does with Dresden in writing Slaughterhouse-Five? – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) had a reputation in France equal to that of Ernest Hemingway in America. But in the late 1930s Celine declared himself to be an antisemite and a Nazi sympathizer, and after World War II was tried and imprisoned as a war criminal. It seems amazing, but Vonnegut claims that Celine had a great influence on him. In an essay published in 1974, he explains what Celine meant to him and why he admires him so much.
He is willing to forgive what he calls Celine’s racism and cracked politics because he was a great and inspiring writer: ..in my opinion, Celine gave us in his novels the finest history we have of the total collapse of Western civilization in two world wars, as witnessed by hideously vulnerable common women and men. ————————————————– ————— – Another idea that Vonnegut is fond of can be found in the American poet Theodore Roethke’s poem, which implies that we are not masters of our destinies, as we like to imagine, but that we get the hang of life by doing what circumstances force us to do. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: MAN VICTIM/AGENT Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the American Nazi whom we will meet later, is a perfect example of this theme. In Mother Night he’s an American spy whose radio broadcasts contain coded messages about Nazi troop movements and battle plans. After the war he is tried as a war criminal because of the obvious damage he did as a Nazi propagandist. Whether he was a real Nazi or just pretending to be one makes no difference. ————————————————– ————— – Another idea presented in this anecdote comes from the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah story, an example of the kind of good story Vonnegut doesn’t want his Dresden book to be.
Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed because they are evil. Lot and his family are spared because they are good. But there’s a wrinkle in this otherwise typical tale of great destruction: Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. This is a particularly rich image. In the first place, she might never have thought of looking back until she was told not to.
(You know the feeling of wanting something only after you’ve been told you can’t have it.) But Vonnegut hints at another reason she might have had: 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 she was so human. Does this remind you of Mary O’Hare? Vonnegut often gives the values he admires most to the women characters in his books, implying that women are more humane than men. Some see Vonnegut’s preference for women’s values as a subtle form of male chauvinism. According to this interpretation, the tough reporter Nancy lost her humanity by taking a man’s job, while Mary O’Hare retained hers by staying home with the babies. Vonnegut seems to support this argument when he says, The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who’d gone to war.
On the other hand, the war made it necessary for women to leave home and go to work- and men started the war. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: LYSISTRATA In the literature of ancient Greece a very funny play by Aristophanes, Lysistrata, offers an ingenious solution to the problem of war. In the play, Athens and Sparta have been at war for twenty years, and the women are fed up. So they go on a sex strike, demanding that the men sign a peace treaty. After a while the men become so desperate they have to agree.
(In real life the war dragged on for seven more years and ended only when Athens was destroyed.) ————————————————– ————— – Even if you think that Vonnegut is a closet male chauvinist, others say that his main point is not that a woman’s place is in the home but that a human being’s place is not in a war. CHAPTER 2 – STRUCTURE: In this chapter you meet Billy Pilgrim and get a taste of his peculiar experience of time. Vonnegut summarizes Billy’s life from his birth (1922) to the present (1968). Then he opens up two important plot lines. The first involves Billy’s attempt to tell his story to the world in 1968. The second is the beginning of Billy’s adventures in the war.
Vonnegut begins with the premise that Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, that he lives his life out of sequence, paying random visits to all the events of his life, in no apparent order, and often more than once. But notice the two words he says. Vonnegut uses them three times in this section, and they warn you that what Billy says may not always be fact. Billy’s official biography condenses Billy’s life into the space of a couple of pages. It resembles the diagram Vonnegut drew for his Dresden story, which reduced Dresden to a few colored lines on the back of a length of wallpaper.
And the biography serves the same purpose as the diagram: it allows you to see the whole story at a glance. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: AUTOBIOGRAPHY There are parallels here to Vonnegut’s own life. He too was born in 1922, married and went to college after the war, and worked in Schenectady, an upstate New York city much like Ilium. We already know that he was captured by the Germans in World War II and lived through the bombing of Dresden. He is also over six feet tall. ————————————————– ————— – The thumbnail sketch of Billy’s life provides a framework into which you can fit the out-of-sequence events of the novel.
Clearly Slaughterhouse-Five is not going to be just another good story. For Vonnegut there is more than one aspect to any event: there is the event itself, how it is experienced, how it is remembered afterward, and, perhaps most important, how it is told. – ————————————————– ——————- NOTE: MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVE It can be maddening to have to be aware of all these levels at once. But Vonnegut’s point is that you can’t fully understand the story until you realize that all these levels exist simultaneously in any story. In effect you are being encouraged to look at Slaughterhouse-Five in the way a Tralfamadorian would- from every point of view, all at the same time. ————————————————– ————— – Billy’s biography ends in 1968, the present, and Billy is writing to his local newspaper about the aliens who kidnapped him the year before.
Are the Tralfamadorians real? Vonnegut speaks of them as though Billy’s account is to be taken seriously. But he’s already cast doubt on Billy’s credibility with those repeated he says. Notice, too, that Billy never mentions the Tralfamadorians until after the plane crash. This makes it possible, even likely, that he imagined them in his delirium. The trauma to his brain, as often happens, has released vivid memories as well as hallucinations. This could mean that Billy’s coming unstuck in time didn’t happen in 1944, as it seems to him, but in 1968, when his skull was cracked.
Certainly this is his daughter’s interpretation of her father’s stories. And not only has he gone soft in the head, he’s determined to disgrace both himself and her by proclaiming his lunacy to the world! In the middle of their argument Vonnegut stops the action to provide exposition- background information to help you understand what’s going on- and to remind his readers that this is a story, not real life. Every chapter is studded with similar moments in which Vonnegut holds up the development of the story to indicate what he’s doing as a writer. – ————————————————– ————— NOTE: EXPOSITION In a conventional story the author tries to weave the exposition into the action. Usually this is done by making what happens in the scene so engrossing that you’re not aware you’re being given bits of necessary information. But Vonnegut believes that a writer can’t separate his telling of the story from the story itself.
In Chapter 1 he went to a lot of trouble to demonstrate this problem. And one way to deal with the problem is to acknowledge it. Vonnegut is saying, We need exposition here, so here’s the exposition. ————————————————– ————— – The second plot line opens in the Luxembourg forest, where Billy and his companions- two infantry scouts and the antitank gunner Roland Weary- are lost behind enemy lines. It is here that Billy will first come unstuck in time. It’s hard to imagine anyone more different from Billy Pilgrim than Roland Weary. In different circumstances these two might remind you of an incongruous comedy team.
To the scouts, who are clever, graceful, quiet (perfectly adapted to their predicament), they aren’t funny, they’re dangerous: Weary because he makes so much noise, Billy because he just stands there when somebody shoots at him. If this were an ordinary war story, the scouts- who are expert soldiers- would probably be the main character.