Kurt Vonnegut

Start Your Free Trial

Download Kurt Vonnegut Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922–

American novelist, short story writer, and playwright.

Vonnegut satirizes American contemporary life through the use of fantasy, black humor, and the absurd. Although many of his books have been best sellers, Vonnegut is probably best known for Slaughterhouse-Five.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 12, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II; Vol. 8: Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers.)

Thomas L. Hartshorne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] comparison between Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse V offers interesting insights into the shift in attitudes, the change in political culture, and the transition in the general cultural atmosphere [during the decade of the sixties]. The two books are particularly suited for comparison because there are many points of similarity between them. To mention only the most obvious, both deal with World War II, both assert a strongly antiwar position, both are highly critical of other features of modern life, both present the individual protagonist as a victim, both are written in a narrative style which violates normal time sequence, both are cited as examples of black humor, and both are also cited as examples of the literature of the absurd. With all these similarities, the differences between them become especially revealing and instructive. (pp. 19-20)

In Catch-22 the central problem is how the individual may survive in a hostile system, find methods of beating it or changing it. Vonnegut's central concern, not only in Slaughterhouse V, but in most of the rest of his novels, is the relationship between man and his own nature or between man and God. He is trying to come to terms with the dichotomy between man and whatever it is that is responsible for the universe being organized the way it is.

However, if one does read Slaughterhouse V as a political fable, the moral is clear: the individual is a pawn of forces he cannot control, and all he can hope to do is to learn to accept, be kind, and to love. Billy Pilgrim is mired in his fate. Even his ability to travel in time does him no good; it does not contribute to his freedom or his happiness; it affords him no way of escaping from or controlling the absurdity, injustice, or brutality of the world; it simply places him in the midst of a system of recurring cyclical patterns which confirm the lesson he learns during his captivity on Tralfamadore: everything that is now, always was, and always will be. In other words, everything is unchangeable. Knowing this, Billy's one major effort to have an effect on his world is to become a crusader for the Tralfamadorian message that it is futile to struggle against one's fate, trying to teach others what he has learned for himself, that the only wise course is to learn to accept things as they are.

Note that the subtitle of the book is "The Children's Crusade." Overtly, this subtitle is intended to reinforce the book's antiwar theme, but it does more than that. It indicates Vonnegut's belief that all crusades are children's crusades. Indeed all crusades are childish, first because they are futile gestures, mere playacting having no consequences except for the possible release of the aggressive fantasies of those who participate in them, not a wholly desirable occurrence, second because all men are childish, dependent, at the mercy of forces beyond their control. One cannot control one's fate, so one should simply allow things to happen; one will probably be better off in the long run; this is the way to make life reasonably tolerable.

This overt message is reinforced by the tone of the book. Both Heller and Vonnegut have been called black humorists, and Catch-22, whatever else it may be, is a very funny book. Slaughterhouse V , on the other hand, does not provoke laughter. The dominant mood is, rather, sadness, resigned sadness, and compassion for most of the characters in the book. In addition, while there are more laughs...

(The entire section is 8,982 words.)