In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., had already published five novels and two short story collections, but he was not especially well-known or commercially successful. The publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in that year was an artistic and commercial breakthrough for Vonnegut. According to the critic Jerome Klinkowitz, one of the leading authorities on Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut’s ‘‘first bestseller. [It] catapulted him to sudden national fame, and brought his writing into serious intellectual esteem.’’ Other critics have noted the novel as a summation of many of the themes of Vonnegut’s work: the dangers of unchecked technology, the limitations of human action in a seemingly random and meaningless universe, and the need for people, adrift in an indifferent world, to treat one another with kindness and decency. Almost thirty years later, Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut’s most discussed and widely admired novel.
Many critics and scholars have suggested that Vonnegut’s breakthrough in Slaughterhouse-Five occurred because here, for the first time, he addressed directly the pivotal event of his own life. While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and, while a prisoner of war, witnessed the firebombing of the German city of Dresden—an ‘‘open city’’ with no significant military targets. On the night of February 13, 1945, Allied bombers dropped incendiary bombs on Dresden, creating a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed an estimated 135,000 people, almost all of them civilians. This was nearly twice the number of people killed by the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Dresden bombing remains the single heaviest air strike in military history.
Vonnegut’s effort to come to terms with such an overwhelming—and, in the view of many historians, unnecessary—catastrophe took the form of a novel with a highly unusual structure. Rather than employing a conventional third-person ‘‘narrative voice,’’ Slaughterhouse-Five is narrated by the author himself. The first chapter consists of Vonnegut discussing the difficulties he had in writing the novel, and Vonnegut himself appears onstage as a character several times later in the book. In a sentence directed to his publisher, Vonnegut said of the novel, ‘‘It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.’’
The novel’s ‘‘short and jumbled and jangled’’ structure reflects the condition of its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Like Vonnegut, Billy is taken prisoner by the Germans and witnesses the Dresden firebombing. Billy’s response, however, is not to write a novel but to become ‘‘unstuck in time.’’ Beginning during this captivity behind German lines, Pilgrim finds himself liable at any time, suddenly and without warning, to travel to any given moment in his own past or future. Although the novel follows Billy’s war experiences in more or less chronological order, a scene of Billy in a German prison camp may be followed immediately by a scene of his wedding night, or a time when his father taught him to swim as a child.
Billy’s condition is, on one level, a symbol of the shock, confusion, dislocation, and desire for escape that result from the horrible experiences of war. His time travels could, perhaps, be interpreted as the delusions of an emotionally unstable man. It is important to remember, however, that several of Vonnegut’s earlier novels, such as Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle, were science fiction novels. Billy’s time travel may be symbolic, but it may also be interpreted as an actual event, an example of science fiction’s ability to make metaphors concrete.
The most overtly science-fictional element in...
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Carefully read, Chapter One [of Slaughterhouse-Five] emerges as a functional and illuminating part of the novel as a whole. For the chapter contains passages that suggest three important facts crucial to a proper understanding of Vonnegut's novel: (1) the novel is less about Dresden than about the psychological impact of time, death, and uncertainty on its main character; (2) the novel's main character is not Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut; and (3) the novel is not a conventional anti-war novel at all, but an experimental novel of considerable complexity.
Billy Pilgrim, the putative protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, does not even appear in this chapter. Instead, the focus is on Vonnegut, the author-as-character. Emerging is a portrait of the artist as an aging man, ‘‘an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown.’’ He is a man of nostalgia who makes late-night drunken phone calls to almost-forgotten acquaintances, calls that seldom make connection. He reminisces about his days as a university student and police reporter in Chicago, as a public relations man in Schenectady, and as a soldier in Germany. The wartime memories, particularly as they concern the mass deaths at Dresden, especially haunt his reveries and of course form the basis of plot for the subsequent nine chapters.
Yet for one so apparently obsessed with the fleeting nature of time—he even quotes Horace to that effect—Vonnegut seems at times curiously vague and indefinite about time. He cannot remember the exact year he visited O'Hare and, upon returning to bed after a night of drinking and telephoning, cannot tell his wife, who ‘‘always has to know the time,’’ what time it is. ‘‘Search me,’’ he answers. His forgetfulness seems a shield, a defense against a medium that oppresses him.
The Vonnegut of Chapter One appears simultaneously obsessed with and oppressed by time, the past, and death—particularly death. His preoccupation with death is reflected in the various figures he employs in Chapter One and throughout the novel. Among the most prominent of these is the flowing-frozen water metaphor. Vonnegut has used this motif before, especially in Cat's Cradle, when ice-nine, dropped accidentally into the ocean, ossifies everything liquid. But it recurs in a subtler though perhaps more pervasive way in Slaughterhouse-Five. Early in the novel, Vonnegut, on his way to visit Bernard V. O'Hare in Philadelphia, crosses the Delaware, then appropriates the river as a metaphor in his reflections upon the nature of time. ‘‘And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much of it was mine to keep.’’ Even before this association of time and the river, however, Vonnegut associates death with ice, frozen water. ‘‘Even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers,’’ he writes, ‘‘there would still be plain old death.’’ Extending this metaphor throughout the novel, Vonnegut repeatedly portrays living humanity as water flowing, dead humanity as water frozen. ‘‘They were moving like water,’’ he describes a procession of Allied POW's, ‘‘ … and they flowed at last to a main highway on a valley's floor. Through the valley flowed a Mississippi of humiliated Americans.’’ One of the POW's, a hobo, is dead, therefore ‘‘could not flow, could not plop. He wasn't liquid anymore.’’ Later, Billy Pilgrim sees the dead hobo ‘‘frozen stiff in the weeds beside the track,’’ his bare feet ‘‘blue and ivory,’’ the color of ice. The phrase ‘‘blue and ivory’’ occurs seven times in Slaughterhouse-Five, twice to describe the frozen feet of corpses, five times to describe the feet of Billy Pilgrim, who, though still in the land of the flowing, is marked as mortal.
A similar figure applies to Vonnegut himself. Twice in Chapter One he refers to his breath as smelling of ‘‘mustard gas and roses.’’ The phrase appears again in Chapter Four when Billy Pilgrim receives a misdialed phone call from a drunk whose breath, like the drunken ‘‘telephoner’’ of...
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The reader's central problem in comprehending Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five lies in correctly understanding the source of Billy Pilgrim's madness. Vonnegut continually undercuts our willing suspension of disbelief in Billy's time travel by offering multiple choices for the origin of Billy's imbalance: childhood traumas, brain damage from his plane crash, dreams, his shattering war experiences, and plain old fantasy. Yet if, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, only a ‘‘first-rate intelligence’’ has the ‘‘ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’’ an inquiry into the two opposed philosophical systems that Pilgrim holds in his...
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