by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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What is the moral or message of Slaughterhouse-Five?

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There are really two answers to the question of what is the moral or message to Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. One is obvious and one is less so. The obvious message is that war is incredibly destructive and inhumane. The other is that there is no message or moral, because in a universe in which such awful things happen, there is no chance of any overarching meaning.

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Kurt Vonnegut's World War II novel Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, is his most widely read, discussed, and taught book. It is a strange book, blending the genres of sci-fi, war novel, autobiography, and fable. Those looking for a clear moral in the novel will find it immediately: war is bad, war is violent, war is hell.

The book is subtitled "The Children's Crusade," and draws attention to a particularly savage historical period. This brings up a second major theme in the novel, that of innocence lost or destroyed. The hapless protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is bounced back and forth through time and space without any agency or understanding. He is an innocent character and so is constantly abused by those stronger than he is. Historical forces he can't understand also irrevocably alter his life. He represents humanity as a battered reed, and Vonnegut's point may be that given the horror of the modern world, passivity can function as some kind of nobility. "So it goes" is the book's refrain, after all.

Another way of looking at Vonnegut's "moral" is that there is no moral. As one character says: "Why you? Why anyone?" Vonnegut's novel is an example of postmodern literature: it blends forms and genres, mixes fact and fiction, and heavily uses irony and ambiguity. A hallmark of postmodernism, both in the arts and in philosophy, is the lack of transcendent truth and a rejection of objectivity. In some cases, human reason is rejected.

If we accept this, then Vonnegut is not offering up any message except that which we make. In other words, it is the stories we tell that can shape or understanding. This may be the only hope in a universe devoid of meaning.

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Slaughterhouse Five is a novel which defies categorization, yet its universal message is clear: war is destructive and dehumanizing, and it must be avoided at all costs. To begin, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is "unstuck in time." He is suffering from PTSD as a result of his experience in Dresden, Germany. His life goes on after the firebombing, but nothing is the same.

He is unable to be a good husband or father. He believes he travels to the planet of Tralfamadore where he learns about fate and our lack of free will, liberating him from the responsibility to take action. He goes back and forth in time, from the war, to his home town, to the war again and back, never knowing which moment he will experience or re-experience next. Within his science fiction adventures, both a war story and the idea that WW2 was waged by young men is conveyed—it was a "Children's Crusade," as is noted in the subtitle of the novel. We have the warning from Mrs. O'Brien that the book the author is writing should not glorify the war, and the promise that it won't. We have the ironic refrain from Vonnegut himself, "So it goes," which is repeated after every death. And of course, we have the brutality of the firebombing alluded to in the title of the novel, the fact that the war was nearly over and the Allies had little to gain from it, and the carnage it left in its wake.

While Vonnegut does not directly state that war is destructive and dehumanizing, he certainly shows it. We learn that "there is nothing intelligent to be said about a massacre," and we know the only sound heard after the bombing itself is a bird's chirp: "poo tee weet." 

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There are a number of messages that can be obtained from the novel Slaughterhouse Five. One moral message of the story is there is no point attempting to focus on the troubled moments of human history, instead people should concentrate on the happy events. This is because some of these negative experiences have to happen, and it is the choice of mankind to find a way to understand such situations that can’t be changed.

Billy’s knowledge from the Tralfamadorians informs him of true human nature. According to the Tralfamadorians all moments in life must exist and thus there is no point in focusing one's energy on sad situations such as death. They live, passing through the phases, they don’t bother themselves with death, and they basically only live freely within the moments they have.

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In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five, his main moral messages are connected to the death of individualism in the midst of the mass suffering and destruction of war.

First, Vonnegut says that war is inevitable.  Stopping a war, or writing an anti-war novel, is like stopping a glacier: it is an exercise in futility.  As a result, humans lose their free will and become victims in the machinery of war, casualties of political ends.

Second, Vonnegut says that soldiers are reduced to children when fighting a war, such is their lack of freedom and passivity.  The subtitle for the books is "The Children's Crusade," a reference to how children used to be sold into war by their leaders.

Third, Vonnegut says that the machinery of war (science and technology) reduce the individual to the role of victim, such is the widespread death and destruction it breeds.

Fourth, Vonnegut says that humans, caught up in the affairs of the state, only see time in a linear fashion, as a series of cause-effect relationships.  In short, they fail to see the big picture, namely the consequences of their actions.

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Is there a moral in Slaughterhouse-Five?

Concerning Slaughter-House Five, I'll answer your question by dealing with two fundamentals of your thinking.

First, this novel is not an Aesop's Fable--don't expect a one-line moral.  Most sophisticated fiction raises issues and reveals themes, rather than presenting nice, neat, easy one-liners that tell a reader how to live.  You raise the issue of the postmodern writer.  Most postmodern writers know better than to think they have all of the answers:  the world is a complex place and postmodern fiction reflects that.  Life can't be boiled down to one-liners.

Second, you mention that as a postmodernist writer Vonnegut isn't supposed to influence the reader's thoughts.  Your idea here needs to be refined.  Some postmodern writers stress that all sides of an issue should be fairly treated in a novel.   This again reflects the lack of absolutes in existence and the complexity of existence.  The writers know better than to think there's only one side to every story.  But this isn't the same as not influencing the reader's thoughts.  A writer that cannot in any way influence a reader probably wouldn't bother writing.  Postmodern writers seek to influence readers, they just don't do it didactically like a sermon, and they reflect the chaos or ambiguity (different interpretations) of the world.

The term, postmodern, however, covers a great deal of literary territory.  Vonnegut, for instance, is a satirist.  As such, postmodernist or not, he attacks targets in his writings.  Vonnegut often does not attempt to present all sides of an issue.  He attacks targets.  In this novel, war is dehumanizing and destructive; human beings are capable of great cruelty; human beings are shortsighted and don't understand consequences of their actions (that's what the time games played in the novel are about, not fate and free will), etc. 

By the way, as a side note, knowing what will happen doesn't take the meaning out of it--that's faulty logic.  The meaning remains whether Billy knows it's coming or not.  The knowing ahead of time plays into another device Vonnegut uses:  the detached narrator.  The detached narrator is not Vonnegut not knowing how to get his thoughts wrapped around the events.  The detached narrator is a literary device used to create an ironic tone and understatement.  The understatement forces the reader to create the horror in the events, rather than the writer having to do it, which is extremely difficult.

In other words, rather than the narrator trying to convince the reader how horrible an event is (which a reader may resist) understatement moves the reader to create the horror and the meaning.  The  reader discovers and creates the meaning, rather than having it shoved at him or her.  The narrator is a literary device, a sign of Vonnegut's ability as a writer and thinker, not his inability. 

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Is there a moral in Slaughterhouse-Five?

I would actually argue that the moral isn't necessarily about free will or the lack thereof.  When I read the book, I felt that Vonnegut addressed things with the uncaring attitude because some things are almost (if not completely) impossible to wrap our heads around.  Having witnessed the horrific carnage that was the result of the Allies fire-bombing Dresden and burning tens of thousands of civilians alive, how would Vonnegut come back and talk about the war in a country where they felt like they had "won" the war and saved the world?

In this way, the approach of the Tralfamadorians makes sense in a way, they know terrible things will happen, when someone dies it is simply the way it is, no sense in trying to avoid it or get emotional about it.

So I thought the moral was, in some sense, similar to that of Lord of the Flies or other books that have addressed the great capacity for evil within man, even men that consider themselves civilized.

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