Satire In Slaughterhouse Five
What are some examples of satire and social criticism in the book Slaughterhouse Five?
In Slaughterhouse V, Vonnegut critiques the idea that war is heroic and that one side in a conflict is all "good." The Americans, in firebombing Dresden and killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians, committed war crimes in World War II, just as the Nazis did. War, Vonnegut contends, has its own "logic" that can make such atrocities seem justifiable. Vonnegut, who himself witnessed the Dresden firebombing as prisoner of war, feels this is wrong.
The novel also critiques and satirizes the vacant and complacent materialist culture of the post-war United States. Billy Pilgrim comes home from his shattering experiences in the war to become an optometrist and settle into an ordinary middle-class life of money-making and ease, an almost absurd transition from a war zone. While optometry symbolizes Billy's insight, it is also an almost comically ordinary profession. Is this post-war world what so many people died for, the novel asks?
In chapter 3, we learn that Pilgrim has a quote on his office wall:
A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
The novel satirizes or makes fun of the banal response ordinary clients, who have not been through what Pilgrim has, have to this serenity prayer. It also satirizes the idea in the prayer itself that humans have the free will to change anything: Pilgrim knows from his travels to Tralfamadore that what he "could not change were the past, the present, and the future," which means basically that to him the prayer is a joke or a mocking reminder than humans really can change nothing.
There are many examples of satire and social criticism in Slaughterhouse Five. The first, and most obvious, topic that Vonnegut satirizes is war. While Billy is trying to come to grips with his war experiences, Vonnegut makes the statements that soldiers are merely babies when they go to war, that soldiers are ill-equipped to handle war (like Billy Pilgrim) and even if they are equipped, it doesn't help (Roland Weary). Sending these boys off to war is like sending them to the slaughterhouse--to certain death. And if these men do survive, they are significantly altered (like Billy).
Vonnegut also comments on the advancement of technology in warfare--the Tralfamadorians blow up the world experimenting with new fuels. Rumfoord receives a message indicating that we can now completely and totally eradicate the Japanese much more quickly than we used to be able to.
Vonnegut does his best to make war seem unglamorous by describing the conditions in the box car and at the war camps. The men become so passive, just allowing things to happen to them rather than being the gung-ho war heroes portrayed in most movies and books.
Vonnegut also makes commentary on religion, materialism, revenge (Paul Lazzaro) and death.