Essays and Criticism
Vonnegut’s Anti-War Theme
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...
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Time, Uncertainly, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: A Reading of Slaughterhouse-Five
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...
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Pilgrim's Dilemma: Slaughterhouse-Five
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 mind—Tralfamadorianism and Christianity—may lead us to the fundamental cause of Billy's breakdown. Clearly, Billy is no ‘‘first-rate intelligence,’’ and he hardly can be said to ‘‘function’’; he simply cracks under the strain of his dilemma. For some critics, however, Vonnegut's method of juxtaposing two explanatory systems, seemingly without affirming one or the other, becomes a major flaw in the novel.… I would argue that, on the contrary, Vonnegut's position is clear; he rejects both Tralfamadorianism and divinely oriented Christianity, while unambiguously affirming a humanly centered Christianity in which Jesus is a ‘‘nobody,’’ a ‘‘bum,’’ a man.
In the autobiographical first chapter, Vonnegut introduces...
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